By Bullion Shark LLC ……
Former presidents have played a major role in our circulating coinage for over one hundred years, appearing on the obverses of most of those coins. This even includes series like the Presidential dollar, which started out as circulating coinage in 2007 but became collector coins in 2012. Because of this extreme prominence, commemoratives dedicated to presidents have been fewer and farther between than one might expect based on the typically patriotic tenor of our commemorative coin programs.
1900 Lafayette Dollar
But before 1900, no American president had ever appeared on any United States coin. The reason is that when George Washington was president, he said he did not want our coinage to follow the British and European tradition of depicting monarchs on their coinage. That’s why we began using images of Lady Liberty instead.
The very first American presidential commemorative coin was the 1900 Lafayette Memorial dollar, which features a double obverse portrait of French General Lafayette and President George Washington, who became the first U.S. president to appear on a coin after all.
Those coins were all minted on December 14, 1899, which was the 100th anniversary of Washington’s death. Fifty thousand pieces were made, with 12,000 sent to Paris to be sold through the Lafayette Memorial Commission. These didn’t sell well, however, and 10,000 coins from the Parisian allotment were returned. Thirty-six thousand pieces were sold in the U.S., and the remaining 14,000 were returned to the United States Mint to be melted.
The purpose of the coin was to raise funds to have a statue of Lafayette created as a gift from the United States to France to honor the personal and financial sacrifice of the French general, who in 1777 arrived in the U.S. with his troops to aid in the War of Revolution against Great Britain.
Today this is a popular classic commemorative coin that is most often seen in AU condition worth about $600, slightly more or $750 in MS-60, $1,650 in MS-63, and over $78,000 in the top grade of MS-67.
1918 Illinois Half Dollar
In 1918, a commemorative silver half dollar was issued for the centennial of Illinois’ admission to the Union, becoming the first of what would be dozens of such coins issued for other states. In this case, the coin also became one of the very few commemorative coins of the classic period that featured past presidents. And not just any president, but Abraham Lincoln, who has long been considered our most popular president, ranked almost always ahead of the next most popular ones like Washington and FDR.
The obverse portrait of a youthful Lincoln was created by former Mint Chief Engraver George T. Morgan based on a statue created for Illinois’ centennial that was unveiled the same year the coin was issued. The reverse featured an image of Illinois’s official seal by future Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, who would later design the Franklin half dollar. One hundred thousand half dollars were struck, and by 1936 all were sold.
This coin is worth about $200 in MS-62, $250 in MS-63, and $385 in MS-65. The price jumps to $700 in MS-66 and reaches all the way to $21,500 in MS-68. Since the majority of surviving examples are lower Mint State coins, and fewer than 10,000 of the estimated 55,000 surviving coins grade MS-65 or better, it is recommended to obtain one that grades at least MS-65.
1997 FDR $5 Gold
Only three modern gold commemorative coins honor past presidents, and of those one is for James Madison and the Bill of Rights, a key part of the Constitution but not a president who is especially popular.
Then there is the 1997 $5 gold coin for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (popularly known as “FDR”), the only president elected to more than two terms and the person who was instrumental in guiding the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II – two of the most important events in American history.
The choice of FDR for a gold commemorative coin was an interesting one, especially as it was not issued with either an accompanying silver dollar or a clad half dollar. FDR is the president who took the U.S. off the gold standard, ending the use of gold coins for circulation, making him an ironic choice for one of the few gold presidential commemoratives. In addition, the year 1997 is not an anniversary connected to the 32nd president.
Although as many as 100,000 of these coins were authorized, sales were poor, which is why the total mintages were 11,805 in Uncirculated condition and 29,233 in Proof, making the Mint State pieces one of the lowest of the modern commemorative series.
The coin’s obverse is based on a photograph of FDR from his war service, while the reverse is based on the Presidential Seal in 1932 when he was first inaugurated.
Prices fluctuate with current gold values and are currently just under $700 for MS-70 and PF-70, with lower-graded pieces worth about $100 over their melt value.
1999 Washington $5 Gold
Issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death, $10 from the sale of each of these coins went to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which preserves Washinton’s plantation of Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.
The coin is especially notable not just as one of the very few modern gold commemoratives issued for a past president but also for its stunning and widely acclaimed design. The obverse is the famous right-facing bust of Washington by Laura Gardin Fraser based on a sculpture by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The design had been recommended for the obverse of the then-new Washington quarter in 1932 but was vetoed by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in favor of the design by John Flanagan that many numismatists do not consider to be artistically as good.
The reverse features a very impressive spread-winged eagle perched on several arrows with 13 stars above for the 13 original colonies that has a great sculptural relief to it.
With a maximum authorized mintage of 100,00 coins, the issue sold 22,511 in Mint State and another 41,693 in Proof. The commemorative failed to sell out likely due to the large number of commemorative programs the U.S. Mint was releasing at the time, and collectors’ budgets were getting strained.
Current values for this issue fluctuate with gold prices. MS-70 coins run $775, while Proof 70 goes for $700 due to the difference in mintages. Lower-graded coins run around $550, or about $100 above their melt value.
2009 Lincoln Silver Dollar
Of the very few modern commemorative silver dollars with past presidents, undoubtedly the top one is the 2009 Lincoln silver dollar issued two hundred years after the birth of our most popular president. In addition to the subject matter and the fact that apart from Lincoln cents, the 2010 Presidential dollar coin, and the 1918 half dollar, this coin tops our list because it sports an outstanding design.
The obverse features an impressive portrait of Lincoln by Justin Kunz that was sculpted by Don Everhart, while the reverse contains the key final 43 words of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.
The coin had a maximum authorized mintage of 500,000 coins. It was released on February 12, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth – which was also the same day a new Lincoln cent was launched with the first of a series of four special reverse designs that depicted different phases of the president’s life.
By March 27, 2009, the Mint State versions had sold out, and by the end of the next day, so had the Proofs. This added up to 450,000 coins, including 125,000 Uncirculated and 325,000 Proof coins.
The 2009 Lincoln commemorative remains inexpensive at between $40 and $50 below 70, while MS-70s run $75 and Proof 70s go for $90.