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Classic US Coins – Is the Vintage Commemorative Coin Market Sunk?

Vintage Commemorative Coin

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #380

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Vintage silver commemorative coins were minted from 1892 to 1955. Except for the Isabella quarter (1893) and the Lafayette silver dollar (1900), all are half dollars. Prices for these have never come close to peak levels reached in late May or early June 1989, and are now much lower than recent peak levels in 2006. Indeed, commemorative half dollars are often available now for less than one-third as much as past values for the exact same coins.

Importantly, the ratio of prices for commemoratives to prices for most classic U.S. coins has decreased as well. Vintage commemoratives have become less popular over time. Will they recover their former status?

For commemorative coins minted from 1892 to 1954, ‘vintage’ is a more appropriate term than classic. Primary PCGS founder David Hall and author Scott Travers employ the term ‘vintage’ to describe these commemoratives, though their respective reasons may be different from mine.

The Meaning of Commemoratives

There is more than one category of classic U.S. coin, including rare coins and generics. Commemoratives do not fit into either category – they aren’t scarce enough to be rare and they aren’t common enough to be generic. Instead they occupy a liminal space that is neither in-between, nor either-or.

Many Liberty Seated coins are rare. No silver commemoratives are rare.

Walking Liberty half dollars from 1941 to 1947 and 1881-S Morgan silver dollars are major examples of generics. Generally, vintage commemoratives are much scarcer than generics.

Conceptually, vintage commemoratives are much different from regular issue U.S. coins. Furthermore, commemoratives seem to be in their own category. They typically were sold by the United States Mint for large premiums over face value (with the idea that some kind of cause is being supported) and they were promoted upon issuance by the U.S. Treasury Department or by designated agents.

Vintage commemoratives are much closer to traditional concepts of coins than modern commemoratives are, the bullion values of which tend to far exceed respective face values. In contrast, vintage commemoratives did circulate often. My grandmother collected commemorative halves out of change, and obtained representatives of more than 15 different design types at face value. In contrast, commemorative half dollars minted since 1982 have not circulated, except in freakish instances.

Vintage Commemorative: Columbian Half DollarStandard price guides list values for Extremely Fine to AU grade vintage commemoratives, and these are often inexpensive. I have seen quite a few that grade less than EF-40, especially 1893 Columbian halves, Booker T. Washington issues from the 1940s and Washington-Carver coins from the 1950s. Dealers typically pay junk silver prices for these. They are good values for interested collectors who can buy them at slightly over junk silver levels, which are dealer-buy prices for common and worn pre-1965 U.S. silver coins. Circulated commemoratives often serve as complements to circulated sets of Franklin half dollars or Walking Liberty half dollars.

General designs, not necessarily subtypes, of regular issue U.S. coins tend to be employed for at least 25 years. The Liberty Seated half dollars of 1891 are not dramatically different from the Liberty Seated half dollars of 1839.

Each design type of a commemorative U.S. half dollar is usually very much different from other types. In another words, they do not seem to resemble each other. They are artistically distinctive.

A commemorative refers to an event, location or individual with historical significance. Most commemorative coins were issued during just one year, though a few design types lasted for several years. Daniel Boone and Texas commemoratives were minted from 1934 to 1938. Arkansas commemoratives were minted from 1935 to 1939.

Several commemorative types were minted only in Philadelphia. Quite a few were struck at all three mints of the time period: in Philadelphia without a mintmark, in Denver with a ‘D’ mintmark and in San Francisco with an ‘S’ mintmark. The Bay Bridge commemorative was minted only in San Francisco, and there is just one date, 1936-S. A complete set of Booker T. Washington commemoratives, 1946 to 1951, would require 18 coins.

Booker T. Washington commemoratives were minted at all three mints for six consecutive years. In contrast, the mintage of Oregon Trail half dollars followed an odd pattern. These are dated: 1926, 1926-S, 1928, 1933-D, 1934-D, 1936, 1936-S, 1937-D, 1938, 1938-D, 1938-S, 1939, 1939-D, and 1939-S.

John Albanese, founder and president of Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC), declares: “If I were to collect a set of one type of commems, I would collect Oregons. Some of the better dates have come down a great deal in price, and the mintages are low. Also, the design is attractive and the series is always popular.”

Collectors assembling type sets need just one Oregon. A standard type set of commemorative half dollars, plus an Isabella quarter and a Lafayette dollar, requires 50 coins to complete. A set of silver commemoratives ‘by date’ requires 144 coins.

It would be a good idea to buy a few commemoratives before committing to a plan. In my experience, very few collectors seek to complete 144 piece sets. I categorize vintage commemoratives as early dates (1892-1928), middle dates (1933-39) and late dates (1946-55).

1932 Washington Quarter with ToningThe late dates are very common and type coins are easy to find in grades from EF-40 to MS-66. There are no commemoratives dated from 1929 to 1932. Some researchers theorize, however, that the first year of Washington quarters was a commemorative type and the regular series did not start until 1934. I find Washington quarters to be regular issues.

For years, Maurice Rosen has recommended several of the early date commems. John Albanese suggests that collectors “have very little downside risk with 1934 to ’39 issues. MS-66 is the sweet spot for these. The MS-65 graded coins tend to be baggy. For 5% to 10% more than an MS-65 coin, you can buy a CAC MS-66” representative of each respective type of the middle dates.

Albanese recommends the 1936 Wisconsin and 1937 Roanoke issues. These are both one-year only, Philadelphia Mint commemorative half dollars. According to the PCGS price guide, the value of a Roanoke in MS-66 grade reached $475 in April 2006 and stayed at that level until September 2009. The PCGS guide value is now “$250”.

On January 17, 2017, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded MS-66 Roanoke, with a CAC sticker, for $223.25. In February, Stack’s-Bowers sold one without a CAC sticker for $188.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded MS-66 Wisconsin for $176.25. The PCGS CoinFacts site provides an estimate that 12,000 survive in MS-65 and higher grades.

Albanese also figures that 1936 Albany commemoratives are good values. The CDN ‘greysheet’ dealer-bid prices for these are $200 for MS-63 grade coins, $210 for MS-64 grade coins, $240 for MS-65 and $340 for MS-66. Albanese favors CAC-approved, MS-65 and -66 grade Albany halves.

In February 2017, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded MS-65 Albany for $264.38. In April 2017, another PCGS-graded MS-65 coin, this one with a CAC sticker, went for $329.

Some other gem quality middle dates are in the same price range. On April 16, 2017, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded MS-65 1934 Texas half dollar, with a CAC sticker, for $198. This same firm sold a PCGS-graded MS-65 1935-D Arkansas half for $132 in January and a PCGS-graded MS-65 1936-D Arkansas, with a CAC sticker, for $234.30 in December 2016.

Price Trends

According to the “Silver and Gold Commemorative Index” on the PCGS web site, values for gold and silver commemoratives reached an all-time high on May 31, 1989 and are now “84.82%” lower. This same index suggests that current levels for commems are slightly above a “12-month low” that was reached in January 2017 and are around 25% less than the “12-month high”, which was about 12 months ago.

The focus here is on silver commemoratives. One Dollar Gold commemoratives were the topic of a previous article. Most surviving vintage commemoratives are silver, and these appeal to a much broader audience than vintage gold commemoratives, which often attract the attention of non-collecting investors.

Not all areas of coin markets move in the same ways during the same time periods. More importantly, all data are ambiguous and flawed. No one really knows precise market values for coins that are even somewhat scarce. Tracking generics, like common-date early 20th-century gold, is an inexact science as well, partly because of grade-inflation and coin doctoring.

According to this PCGS index, current prices for commemoratives are around the same as prices that prevailed in 1983, three years before PCGS was founded. John Albanese agrees. John was then one of the leading wholesalers of gem quality coins in the nation, and he often purchased commemoratives.

Vintage Commemoratives in Gold“Some commemoratives are definitely lower now than they were in 1983. I remember paying 600 or 700 bucks each for New Rochelle halves in 1984 and 1985. Most would grade 66 now,” Albanese recounts.

In February 2017, both Heritage and Stack’s-Bowers auctioned PCGS-graded MS-66 New Rochelle commemorative half dollars, for $376 and $329 respectively. The $376 result was for a coin that had a green sticker from CAC.

All these are dated 1938 and commemorative the 250th anniversary of a city in Westchester County, New York, on the Long Island sound. New Rochelle commemoratives are relatively popular.

“Commemorative halves are also much lower than they were in 2006. They have collapsed, I can you tell that,” Albanese asserts. “There is no wholesale leadership now. Bobby Hughes used to buy lots of commems at major shows. From 1984 to 1987, David Hall was the leading buyer for commems. He was the driving force,” John adds.

During the 1970s and ’80s, vintage commems were very actively traded at coin shows, large and small. Mass marketing firms frequently promoted them.

During the 1980s, my doctor knew I was interested in coins, as he asked his patients about sports and hobbies. He brought my attention to brochures and advertisements about coins that he received in the mail. A substantial number, perhaps more than a third, of these mailings involved vintage commemoratives.

During the 1990s, there were still dealers who actively traded commemorative half dollars. Several devoted much of their time to being market-makers.

“Now, no one buys tons of commems,” Albanese reveals. “They have gotten so cheap that dealers in classic U.S. coins tend not to bother with them or do not put a lot of time into selling them. Vintage commemorative half dollars, however, are still very popular with collectors,” Albanese declares.


For several vintage commemorative types, fewer than 15,000 coins survive. Indeed, the original mintage for the 1925 Fort Vancouver Centennial is less than 15,000 and just around 10,000 Hudson New York halves were minted, only in 1935.

For Arkansas commems, several dates are relatively scarce and are semi-keys to a 144 piece set. For the the later Arkansas dates, just 1,500 to 3,000 of each survive. Regarding all dates in total, more than 50,000 Arkansas half dollars survive.

Of the original reported mintage of around 10,000 Spanish Trail half dollars, more than 6,000 survive. PCGS and NGC together have probably certified 3,650 to 4,250 different coins, depending on the return of labels from crackouts to the grading services.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-65 1935 Spanish Trail commemorative for $940 and a PCGS-graded MS-66 coin for $1,116.25. Most survivors grade at least MS-63.

Certified MS-63 grade pieces are not much less expensive. In January 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-63 Spanish Trail half for $881.25. The management of a telemarketing or other mass-marketing firm cannot count upon being able to stock up on MS-63 Spanish Trail commemoratives. If a mass marketing firm sells Spanish Trail commemoratives, MS-64 or higher-grade pieces would be likely choices and they would likely be offered for more than $1,000 each.

Supplanted by Moderns?

One reason for the decline in marketing of vintage commemoratives might be the relative availability of modern commemoratives, those dating from 1982 to the present. NGC reports grading 272,154 silver commemoratives dating from 1892 to 1954 and 27,773 gold commemoratives dating from 1903 to 1926, for a total of less than 300,000. In contrast, NGC has graded 856,889 modern commemoratives, and there are literally millions of available modern commemoratives that have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC. For most ‘late date’ vintage commemoratives (1946-54) and modern commemoratives (1982 to the present), the cost of certification is too large a percentage of the value of the respective coin for a grading submission to be worthwhile, from a dealer’s perspective. Most modern commemoratives will probably never be submitted to PCGS or NGC.

Modern Commemorative CoinsAlmost all types of of modern commemorative half dollars and silver dollars may be purchased in quantity for less than $100 each – often for less than $40! It is unsurprising that mass marketing firms might find these easier to sell than vintage commemoratives, which vary tremendously in scarcity, quality, grade and price. For example, it would be very difficult to buy a dozen 1928 Hawaiian halves, a one-year type, for less than $1,000 each, even terribly cleaned coins.

For 1995-S Civil War half dollars, however, more than 115,000 business strikes and 330,000 Proofs were minted. Although some have been melted, a large percentage of the mintage survives. Both Proofs and business strikes could be purchased in vast quantities for less than $35 each, and are suitable for a promotional campaign. Most U.S. citizens are at least somewhat familiar with the U.S. Civil War.

Yes, there are a few modern silver commemoratives that are relatively scarce, and cost more than typical modern issues. Even so, these are priced at fractions of the costs of relatively scarce vintage commemoratives.

Raw modern coins can be easily acquired and sold. There is thus no need for salespeople to explain coin grading to prospective buyers.

Grades, Color & Values

An additional reason as to why commems have fallen so much in value may be that a significant number of rare coin collectors are uncomfortable with the ways in which vintage commemoratives are graded. I maintain that non-collecting investors, more so than collectors, were buying commemoratives during the 1980s, though it is impossible to know for certain.

As Albanese indicated, middle-date commems with many noticeable contact marks are often graded MS-65. John adds that ‘mint state’, certified 1922 Grant commemoratives “often come with friction that experts miss” and “they tend to be dull or chalky. I would definitely recommend a Grant half dollar if you can find one with nice luster,” Albanese states.

In my view, dipped or oddly dull commemorative halves have often received high grade assignments. Barber half dollars or Walkers with the same physical characteristics would not be graded as highly by the same services. Circumstantial evidence for my view here may be found in the premiums that are paid for colorful commemoratives, which have become rarer as more and more have been dipped.

“It is very difficult to pinpoint values of vintage commems because the color can add 50% to 1,000% to the value, like with Morgan dollars. Classic U.S. type coins with color, such as Barbers, do not bring the same kinds of multiples,” John Albanese emphasizes.

Colorful Morgan dollars that bring multiples usually exhibit a recognized, bizarre variety of “bag toning” that relates only to Morgan dollars. The commems that bring multiples of the values of others with the same certified grades tend to have colors that are associated with original packaging or coin albums of types that were often used during the 20th century. Do the often incredible premiums paid for colorful commemoratives demonstrate a dissatisfaction with many of the other commems?

It is true that there are hundreds of vintage commems with at least some noticeable toning, not necessarily too colorful. These don’t tend to bring much of a premium, if any.

The Future

The 50 different design types relate to various aspects of U.S. history and numerous locations around the nation. Commemoratives are excellent conversation pieces. They can arouse the curiosity of friends or guests who would not otherwise be interested in coins.

So it’s possible that a mass-marketing firm will heavily promote vintage commems in the future.

Besides, who can precisely predict collecting trends? To everything there is a season.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. “they aren’t scarce enough to be rare and they aren’t common enough to be generic. Instead they occupy a liminal space that is neither in-between, nor either-or.”

    That’s deep, bro.


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