By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Maine Centennial Commemorative half dollar, a coin that was issued in 1920 to honor the 100th anniversary of Maine’s admission to the Union in 1820. As a pre-1930 issue, the Maine Centennial is among the earlier group of Classic United States Commemoratives, struck from 1892 through 1954.
From an original mintage of 50,028 pieces, about 27,500 examples survive across all grades. Of those, 19,000 are in Uncirculated condition and 5,900 grade at MS65 or better. Still, the 1920 half dollar is well worth a second look. It’s in 2020, when the coin honoring the Pine Tree State is turning 100, that collectors who either forgot about this special coin or perhaps never even knew it existed can appreciate the coin’s story and all that this charming numismatic relic has to offer.
Welcoming the New Kid on the Block
When most of us think of New England, we tend to conjure up images of early American Colonists and great sailing ships bringing hundreds – even thousands – of settlers at a time from places like England, Ireland, and the Netherlands. French settlers touched the shores of Maine in 1604, landing on Saint Croix Island, with English settlers first making their way there in 1607 – the same year other emigres from England founded the first permanent English settlement in Virginia.
New England was a hotbed of European exploration and settlement in the 17th century, with the Pilgrims sailing across the Atlantic on the iconic Mayflower in 1620 and reaching Cape Cod late that year. The region saw booming growth over the next century. And while Delaware, generally the southernmost of the “Northeastern” states, was the first to adopt the United States Constitution on December 7, 1787, subsequently becoming the first state admitted to the Union, the states of New England weren’t far behind.
On January 9, 1788, Connecticut became the fifth state to ratify the Constitution, followed by neighboring Massachusetts less than a month later. New Hampshire joined the Union as its ninth state later that same year, and Rhode Island came aboard as the 13th state in 1790. Vermont gained statehood in 1791.
But Maine, rounding out the six states of New England, didn’t assume statehood until March 15, 1820, when it became the 23rd state to join the Union.
Why was Maine so “late” to the game? Though physically separate from modern-day Massachusetts, Maine was technically part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when the Bay State joined the Union in 1788. Sociopolitical and economic divisions gave residents of that northern stretch of Massachusetts, originally settled as the Province of Maine and incorporated into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1650s, reasons to secede. Calls for secession from Massachusetts proper came to a head during the War of 1812, when pro-British merchants in Massachusetts left Maine to fight for herself from British invaders. In 1819, Massachusetts lawmakers agreed to let Maine secede, an act that was formalized on March 15, 1820, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise.
Maine Centennial Half Dollar Draws Criticism
The Maine Commemorative half dollar was pitched by Governor Carl Milliken and the Council of Maine, a seven-member political body established in 1820 with the state constitution but dissolved in 1975. The concept for the half dollar was that it would be a circulating coin to help advertise statewide centennial celebrations. However, the coin eventually took the form of a commemorative piece sold at a price above face value. Members on the state’s centennial commission later determined it best to sell the coin for a small surcharge, with the half dollar selling for $1 apiece.
The obverse of the Maine half dollar roughly depicts Maine’s state seal, with a central shield device featuring a moose laying under a pine tree. Flanking the shield design are two young men, with the man on the left holding a scythe and representing agriculture, and the figure on the right standing aside a large anchor and symbolizing commerce. Above these elements are a five-pointed star and a banner declaring “DIRIGO”, Latin for “I Direct”. The reverse carries a wreath made from pine needles and cones encircling the words “MAINE CENTENNIAL 1820-1920”.
Maine artist Harry Cochrane sketched the design, which was interpreted and engraved by Anthony de Francisci, who in 1921 would cement his place in the numismatic canon by designing the iconic Peace Dollar. The sculptor, then in his early 30s, was tapped for the coin by his former instructor, James Earle Fraser, who, along with Commission of Fine Arts Chairman Charles Moore, disliked the design provided by the early sketches.
According to numismatic researcher Don Taxay, Moore so disapproved of the Maine Centennial design that he went so far as to say that, “Our new silver coinage has reached a high degree of perfection because it was designed by competent men. It should not return to the low standards which have formerly prevailed.” He urged Maine’s official to reconsider the design, but they didn’t budge.
Plaster models for the coin were created by de Francisci and either Chief Engraver George T. Morgan or his assistant, John R. Sinnock. Improvements to the design were made to convert the moose and pine tree from being in relief to being incuse in order to aid in the coin’s appearance after striking. Still, some Maine Centennial half dollars do not exhibit full detail in part due to its multiple design elements.
Taxay derided the figures on the obverse of the coin as “[t]oo small to retain their beauty after reduction” and believed the wreath on the reverse “[i]s eminently uninspired.” Meanwhile, Boston’s late Museum of Fine Arts Curator of Classical Art Cornelius Vermeule III mocked the half dollar, saying “It looks just like a prize medal for a county fair or school athletic day,” and said of de Francisci that the “Maine Centennial was not his shining moment.”
Delays stemming from early design controversies before de Francisci was tapped for engraving the coin caused Maine Congressman John A. Peters, who introduced to the House floor the successful bill authorizing the coin, to sarcastically write that “We might as well wait for the next Centennial [in 2020]” to release the coin, for “I judge it would be more convenient and in accordance with the speed at which we are going.”
Of course, the 1920 Maine Centennial was eventually released later that year, though many weeks after a grand centennial bash was held on July 4 in the state’s largest city of Portland. The coins were available through the Office of the State Treasurer, with about 30,000 pieces sold immediately–though remaining coins languished until at least 1929. Most were sold to people outside the numismatic community, and many of these coins were spent in circulation as regular money.
Collecting the Maine Half Dollar
The Maine half dollar isn’t a difficult coin to find, with many examples making the rounds in the secondary marketplace at any given time. There’s something for just about every income level, too. Circulated specimens in the AU50 range trade for around $90, making this one of the more affordable classic commemoratives for collectors on a budget. For about $100 more, one can obtain a nice, representative MS64 specimen (the Maine centennial half is usually encountered in the MS63-MS65 range).
When buying a Maine Centennial half dollar, take extra care to avoid buying pieces that are heavily bag marked. The Philadelphia Mint, which produced all 1920 Maine Centennial half dollars, struck these coins without taking special care in their handling. Therefore, pieces grading MS65 or higher are noticeably scarcer, a phenomenon reflected in pricing for Gem-level specimens. While an MS65 will set the average collector back $350, an MS66 costs closer to $500.
The coin is especially rare in grades of MS67 or higher, where prices begin at around the $3,000 level.
Regardless of grade, however, many examples exhibit nice to excellent white color and frosty luster.
As is the situation with most Classic Commemorative half dollars, the prices for the Maine Centennial are down significantly from the market highs of the late 1980s. In some cases, one can buy a nice Maine Centennial for much less than half the price one would have paid in 1989, when heavy market speculation from Wall Street traders helped lift the coin market. This means collectors who want decent examples of the Maine Centennial today have a better chance of getting one for a good price than they would have many years ago.
The Maine Centennial, like virtually all other Classic Commemoratives, boasts a relatively low mintage and small populations. Those who have an interest in building a set of Classic Commemorative coins in 2020 may find that it is a great opportunity to do so, as they can pick the nicest pieces with little competition. The Maine Centennial is a necessary addition to any complete collection of Classic Commemorative halves, and perhaps there is no better time than during its centennial to add this beautiful coin to the cabinet.
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Bowers, Q. David. Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. Wolfeboro: Bowers & Merena Galleries, Inc. (1992)
Swiatek, Anthony. Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States. Chicago: KWS Publishers. (2012)
Swiatek, Anthony & Walter Breen. The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, 1892-1954. New York: Arco Publishing. (1981)
Taxay, Don. An Illustrated History of U.S. Commemorative Coinage. New York: Arco Publishing. (1967)