By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The year 2020 represents a very special duo of commemoratives for numismatists who appreciate Colonial history. Among America’s earliest chapters is the landing of the famous Mayflower, an English ship that carried more than 100 Puritans, collectively known as The Pilgrims, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. Prior to disembarking the ship and stepping into the New World, The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact establishing a democratic community known as Plymouth Colony.
This historic moment in time, which in 2020 will be marking its quadricentennial (or 400th anniversary), was commemorated in 1920 on the United States Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar, honoring what was then the 300th anniversary of this culturally iconic occasion. Now, Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollars are themselves turning 100, and coin collectors are turning their attentions to these beautiful commemorative halves. Struck in 1920 and 1921, the Pilgrim half dollar has long been among the most popular of the classic United States commemorative half dollars struck from 1892 through 1954.
The Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar was authorized by Congress on May 12, 1920. Soon after congressional approval, the coin was designed by Boston sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin, an acclaimed sculpture whose legacy includes several notable Native American-inspired sculptures like The Medicine Man in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909) in Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. On the Pilgrim half dollar, Dallin’s initial, “D”, resides on the obverse below the elbow of Governor William Bradford, an English Puritan who was among the adventurous revolutionaries aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
The reverse of the Pilgrim half dollar features a striking portrait of the ship sailing upon the high seas. Styled as a Dutch cargo fluyt (or “flute”), Mayflower is believed to have measured around 100 feet long and perhaps 25 feet wide – providing relatively tight quarters for the 102 passengers and 30 to 40 crew who spent 66 days on the rough Atlantic waters. The ship initially anchored in Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. After exploring the rugged lands along Cape Cod’s shoreline, the newly arrived English settled in nearby Plymouth five weeks later on December 16. Interestingly, the 252-foot-tall Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts prominently features a large bas-relief by Cyrus E. Dallin depicting the signing of the Mayflower Compact.
As for Dallin’s Pilgrim Tercentenary commemorative half dollar, it became one of the highest-mintage pre-1930 United States commemoratives by type. The 1920 was struck to the tune of 152,112 pieces, while the 1921 issue, showing the date “1921” in the left obverse field, saw 20,053 examples struck. While one of the more common classic commemoratives in the absolute sense, it’s much tougher to find in Gem Uncirculated grades, as not many were saved in pristine condition; many were eventually spent as regular money. Therefore, budget-minded collectors can find circulated specimens with light to moderate wear for a decent price. According to PCGS CoinFacts®, 1920 specimens in XF40 trade for $65, while the scarcer 1921 strikes realize around $130 in the same grade.
The difficulty of finding nice higher-grading specimens is evident in market prices for the uncirculated coins. The 1920 specimens sell for $100 in MS63, $185 in MS65, and $1,900 in MS67, with the all-time price record for this issue (claimed by an MS66 graded by PCGS) taking $10,350 in 2008. Meanwhile, the 1921 lists for $175 in MS63, $260 in MS65, and a whopping $2,000 in MS67; the price record for this year goes to a PCGS-certified MS67+ specimen that commanded $9,987.50 in 2017.
While these are still respectable results, the prices of Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollars and most other classic United States commemorative coins are down from the staggering highs seen in the late 1980s. The question now is when will prices start edging back up? Nobody knows for sure. Nevertheless, the 100th anniversary of the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar seems like a great time to give thanks for the opportunity to build a wonderful set of scarce, classic commemorative halves at delectable prices.