By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
Historically, 1936 was not a great year for most Americans. The United States was deep into the Great Depression. There was an unemployment rate of 16.9%, banks remained unstable, and the Dust Bowl continued to devastate the plains states. But with the U. S. economy floundering, a pastime known as “the hobby of kings” was flourishing. Coin collecting in the 1930s was heated by a willing United States Mint, fueled by the interest in the classic commemorative series, and railroaded by a new breed of numismatist – the marketers.
These promoters took full advantage of the new urbanization of America. There was an increasing ease, functionality, and reliability of the U.S. Postal Service combined with improved printing and advertising mediums. Uncertain times had opened the public’s eyes to alternative investments, and these early dealers took full advantage. Commissions were established and pushed for approval from Congress for the production of commemorative halves. The commission would purchase quantities from the U.S. Mint to resell at a profit, presumably using the proceeds to further the objectives of their respective commission. The scruples of many of these organizations came into question early on.
Mintages for particular issues were purposely lowered to add sale points to push prices for the particular issue. Some committees, honorable in their goals and intentions, gave in to dealers wishing to purchase the entire mintage up front for the privilege to handle distribution. These dealers fabricated stories of sell-outs, and “resold” issues at higher aftermarket prices.
The story of the classic commemoratives begins in the late 19th century, but the series didn’t start picking up steam until the 1920s. The early issues had shown collectors fabulous returns. And by the mid–’30s speculators and collectors alike were clambering for the new issues. The promoters and their commissions were willing to oblige. In February 1936, as Lee Hewitt of Numismatic Scrapbook pointed out, “Commemoratives continue to advance in price along the whole front. This advance has been in progress for several months and at this writing is still going strong.”
The demand had grown to such proportions that famed numismatist B. Max Mehl produced a short book, The Commemorative Coins of the United States. In it, he professes to the bourgeoning series’ place in the landscape of American numismatics stating:
The fact remains that the coins, or at least a majority of them, are of historical interest, and to a great extent represent and are of much numismatic and historical value. In fact of greater numismatic value than the majority of our regular issues.
Ironically, in the same tome, Mehl admits guilt to his part in the formulating schemes by which instant rarities were made by reducing the mintage figures.
It was this practice and more that soon turned the commemorative scene ugly. Numismatic organizations were complaining about corruption. Congress was investigating. And by the fall of 1936, collectors began to tire of the shenanigans that accompanied many of the issues. Just keeping up with the rush of new designs was difficult for some collectors financially, especially when forced to pay the exorbitant after-market prices. In 1939, Congress stopped the production of previously approved issues and the party was over (or at least paused).
In 1936, at the crest of the wave, despite being only a few years after ceasing gold coin production, the Mint employees were not bored. In addition to the production of newly authorized Proof sets for the general public, the nation’s Mints produced 21 different commemorative half designs – nearly half the classic commemorative type set.
This bubble for classic commems was formed from the perfect numismatic storm – a new marketer-style dealer pushing designs through a willing Congress to sell to an ever-growing number of collectors and speculators. The demand pushed prices to unprecedented levels. Unlike other numismatic market frenzies, the classic commemorative boom was not from an economic necessity for specie, or an unbalanced precious metal value. It was the immediate commercial collector and investor demand that facilitated the creation of these designs. And regardless of the early tainted objectives, the leg work and marketing done by these enterprising coin dealers created one of modern numismatics most prized series. The fruit of their labor gives us a palette of designs in which to enjoy. Each one carries its own unique story, albeit some more colorful than others.
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Bowers, Q. David. Commemorative Coins of the United States – A Complete Encyclopedia. Wolfeboro, NH. Bowers and Morena Galleries, Inc. 1991
Bowers, Q. David, ed. An Inside View of the Coin Hobby in the 1930s: The Walter P. Nichols File. Wolfeboro, NH. Bowers and Morena Galleries, Inc. 1984
Hewitt, Lee F. “About Commemoratives”, Numismatic Scrapbook. Volume II, No.1. February 1936
Mehl, B. Max. The Commemorative Coins of the United States. Fort Worth, TX. B. Max Mehl, January 1937
Swiatek, Anthony and Walter Breen. The Encyclopedia of United States Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins 1892–1989. New York, FCI Press, 1981. Wolfeboro, NH. Bowers and Morena Galleries, Inc. 1990