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The 1936 Delaware Tercentenary Commemorative Half Dollar

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
When it comes to commemorative coins, 1936 was one of the busiest years in United States Mint history. Some 21 distinct issues were minted that year, not even accounting for the numerous mintmark variations and some of the rare Proof and special presentation strikes that were also made that year representing the various commemoratives. Among the various 1936-dated commemoratives is one particular half dollar with an intriguing story that honors one of the nation’s smallest states – and the first state admitted to the Union.

A “Nyckel” Sails on This Half Dollar

The 1936-dated Delaware Tercentenary Half Dollar celebrates the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden by the Swedes and Finns who arrived in 1638 to establish a trading post and colony at Fort Christina where the modern-day Delaware city of Wilmington is now located. While the Dutch established a colony at nearby New Castle in 1651 and four years later defeated New Sweden, subsequently annexing the land to the New Netherland Colony. In 1664, the English bested the Dutch and the land was eventually bestowed to William Penn, who wanted to extend his Pennsylvania Province to the Atlantic Ocean.

1938 Delaware Tercentenary Half Dollar. Image: PCGS.
1938 Delaware Tercentenary Half Dollar. Image: PCGS.

All the while, Swedes continued thriving on the upper Delmarva Peninsula and eventually established Holy Trinity Church over the course of 1698 and 1699. The church, built to serve the many Swedish Lutherans in the region, has long since been dubbed “Old Swedes Church”. A depiction of the church, standing today in downtown Wilmington as the oldest Protestant church in the United States still actively used for worship purposes, anchors the obverse of the 1936 Delaware Tercentenary Half Dollar.

The reverse of the coin depicts the Kalmar Nyckel, the ship that landed near the later site of Holy Trinity Church and brought the original Swedish settlers from the Old World to the shores of modern-day Delaware; three diamonds incorporated within the “1638-1938” dual-dating feature on the reverse symbolize Delaware’s popular moniker as “The Diamond State” and also the state’s three counties – New Castle, Kent, and Sussex, from north to south. Interestingly, the coin – dated 1936, was minted in 1937 and yet commemorates an event that happened in 1938.

The Delaware Half Dollar was designed by Carl L. Schmitz, whose artwork for the coin was selected in a special design contest moderated and judged by United States Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock and R. Tait McKenzie.Born in Canada, McKenzie gained fame as a physician who revolutionized physical fitness programs in Canada during World War I yet still managed to create some 200 notable works of art, including a magnificent sculpture of Benjamin Franklin for the University of Pennsylvania, where McKenzie taught.

Sweden 2 Kronor, Delaware Anniversary. Images: Heritage Auctions
Sweden 2 Kronor, Delaware Anniversary. Images: Heritage Auctions

In an intriguing side note, Sweden also marked the 300th anniversary of Delaware’s founding with a special 2 Kronor minted in 1938. The circulating .800-fine silver 2 Kroner, weighing 15 grams and measuring 31 millimeters in diameter, depicts then-reigning King Gustav V on the obverse and the Kalmar Nyckel on the reverse. This 1938 2 Kronor is decidedly affordable, with many uncirculated examples selling for less than $20 a piece.

A Scarce Collectible

The Delaware Tercentenary Commemorative Half Dollar was authorized on May 15, 1936, by Public Law 74-91 – the same legislation that also approved the Bridgeport and Wisconsin Commemorative Half Dollars. A total of 25,015 Delaware Half Dollars were struck by the Philadelphia Mint in March 1937, including the 15 coins struck for assay purposes. The Delaware Commemorative Half Dollar was offered to the public by the Delaware Swedish Tercentenary Commission at an issue price of $1.75 via the Equitable Trust Company of Wilmington.

All told, 20,978 coins were distributed, with 4,022 unsold coins going back to the United States Mint for eventual melting. Some numismatic experts, including Commemorative Coin authority Anthony Swiatek, believe that a few Proofs may exist and, if they do, they would be found in Matte Proof finish. However, all reported Delaware Half Dollars known as of this writing are business strikes, of which PCGS estimates there are 17,000 survivors. The vast majority of these exist in uncirculated grades, and among those, examples grading MS60 to MS64 are more common.

The broad, flat surfaces on the Delaware Half Dollar introduce many challenges for Gem-level contenders. The large roof of Holy Trinity Church as seen on the obverse is a mark magnet, while the sails of the Kalmar Nyckel usually bear scratches and dings. However, many Delaware Commemorative Half Dollars are well struck and possess gorgeous semi-Proof-like surfaces – though these pieces generally exhibit soft luster. Meanwhile, erratic or unsightly toning often present problems for eye appeal, with many Delaware Half Dollars sporting spotty, blotchy, uneven, or otherwise unattractive color.

Grade-wise, there are bevies of PCGS MS64 and even PCGS MS65 examples in the marketplace, and these can be obtained for less than $300. Pieces grading PCGS MS66 mark the threshold whereby availability begins dropping off for this coin. The coin is scarce in MS67, where it regularly trades around $700 and becomes rare at any grade point above that. There are just 43 specimens graded PCGS MS67+, only five graded PCGS MS68, and just one graded PCGS MS68+, the finest grade awarded to this coin to date.

The record price for a 1936 Delaware Commemorative Half Dollar was hammered in 2012, when a PCGS MS67 accompanied by a Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) sticker crossed the block for a stunning $18,400.

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