U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

1986 Statue of Liberty Half Dollars (Immigrant Half Dollars)

Reprinted with permission from Commemorative Coins of the United States, A Complete Encylcopedia.

A Set of Three Denominations

The 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City Harbor in 1886 furnished the occasion for the issuance of commemorative coins in 1986. The statue, officially known as Liberty Enlightening the World, was the work of French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and had been presented to the United States by the government of France. Since that time it has been America's most visible symbol of freedom.

Conceived by Bartholdi in 1865, the statue was planned to be ready for the 1776-1876 centennial anniversary of the United States. However, by that time only a small part of the work had been completed, and Bartholdi had to be content with exhibiting just the hand and torch of Miss Liberty at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This element of the statue proved to be a sufficient attraction that it stayed in America drawing visitors until its return to France four years later. In 1884 the statue was completed in Paris, after which it was dismantled and shipped to the United States in 214 numbered crates. Erection work commenced on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor and was completed by October 28, 1886, when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland. In 1924 it was designated as a national monument.

By the early 1980s it was realized that the statue was in serious need of restoration. Beginning in 1982 plans were made to do the necessary work as well as to restore the vacant buildings on nearby Ellis Island, which had been used to process the immigration of millions of Europeans and others who sailed past Lady Liberty, some of whom may have known the concluding words to Emma Lazarus's poem, The New Colossus: "Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Rep. Frank Annunzio sponsored a bill which, after emendation, became law on July 9, 1985, authorizing the production of commemorative coins to assist in fund raising for restoration of the Statue of Liberty and the structures on Ellis Island. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan had appointed Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of the board of the Chrysler Corporation, to head the project. At the time Iacocca was heralded in the public and financial press as the savior of the third largest United States auto maker, a firm which had fallen on hard times and which survived only because of a financial bailout by Congress. Under Iacocca's leadership Chrysler prospered, the loan was eventually repaid, and Iacocca became a folk hero.

David L. Ganz, numismatic attorney and writer, told of his involvement with the coins:l "The role that I had with the Statue of Liberty commemorative coin program came as a result of the retention of my firm by the privately run commission. Up until the time that the Statue of Liberty coinage proposal was introduced, we had never had a low-denomination clad commemorative coin. I made a private bet with Steven Brigandi, executive director of the Commission, that if a copper-nickel half dollar was included it would become the best selling of the issues. With 7.8 million combined, Proof and Uncirculated, this certainly proved to be the case. It also proved to be a successful experiment -- so successful that subsequent programs have followed it. I do claim the language in the bill as my own, though of course, it was introduced by Mr. Annunzio at the request of the Statue of Liberty Centennial Commission."

Three different coin denominations were produced in connection with the observation: the Statue of Liberty half dollar (made in copper-nickel clad alloy; the first commemorative in this format), the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island silver dollar, and the Statue of Liberty $5 gold piece, under provisions of the Act of July 9, 1985, which provided for the coinage of up to 25,000,000 half dollars, 10,000,000 silver dollars, and 500,000 $5 gold coins. The official sale period was from November 1, 1985, through December 31, 1986.

Public contributions to the restoration project exceeded expectations even before the commemoratives became a reality. Funds raised by coin sales were the icing on the cake. Over $83 million (double the original goal) was raised in coin surcharges for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. "It was the most successful commemorative coin program in the history of the Mint. More than 15 million gold, silver, and half dollar Liberty coins were sold," a Treasury Department news release observed.

Mint Director Pope's Observations

In an interview with the author, 2 Mint Director Donna Pope told of the 1986 commemoratives: "The Statue of Liberty program was extremely successful and was wonderful to work on. People related to it. People in America feel the Statue of Liberty is theirs. People around the world feel it is theirs also. This was the first time the Mint did its own international marketing. It was a wonderful experience finding people around the world who loved the Statue of Liberty.

"Without hesitation all of our distributors thought the Statue of Liberty coins would be excellent sellers. In Europe when they think of America, they think of two things: cowboys and the Statue of Liberty. For the Mint the John Wayne medal was the best-selling medal of all time, which shows how interested people are in this theme. When I was in Germany during the Statue of Liberty program, I noticed that the stores that had displays always had a Statue of Liberty and a cowboy when they wanted to represent the United States.

"In addition, Lee Iacocca was wonderful as head of the organization. He was doing all sorts of things, one event after another. There was constant publicity so that everybody knew of the celebration. It was basically because of the Foundation's publicity that we were already playing to a knowledgeable audience. We were notified of all of the events, and we were usually represented, or at least Lee Iacocca would mention the coin program. That is the key. If the organization scheduled to get the money from the sale of the coins ties the coins in with the rest of its program, it makes all of the difference in the world. The Olympic Committee did not do this in 1983 and 1984. We were not really happy about it. The program was successful because it was the first big commemorative program, and we were hosts of the games, and there was so much publicity, but not because of anything the Committee specifically did on our behalf."

The Half Dollar Design

Upon learning that the enabling act for the Statue of Liberty half dollar stated that the subject matter would be "the contributions of immigrants to America," J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, wrote to James C. Murr, March 28, 1985, stating: "In view of the difficulty of representing such a broad concept on such a small coin, it was suggested that one element symbolic of this contribution -- perhaps Liberty's torch -- be used as the basis of the design."3 However, this suggestion was not heeded.

An in-house competition was held in the Engraving Department at the Mint. The staff created numerous sketches for the half dollar and silver dollar, while they suggested that Elizabeth Jones alone make sketches for the $5 gold. 4

For the half dollar, designs by Edgar Z. Steever IV and Sherl Joseph Winter were chosen by Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III. Steever created the obverse, and Winter produced the reverse. The obverse, according to a Treasury Department news release, "focuses on the growing New York skyline of about 1913, with the Statue's uplifting gesture welcoming an in-bound liner. The scene is set against the sun rising in the east to convey the start of a different life in the New World."

Edgar Z. Steever Discusses the Obverse

Edgar Z. Steever told how he prepared the design: 5 "In general the obverse is satisfactory. After going through many stages with helpful comments from Washington Mint Headquarters and the Philadelphia Mint staff, the final sketch version got a 'go ahead.' I enjoyed working out the design and modeling the plasticene, and plaster letter cutting, as well as adapting the heights of relief in steel hubs to 'bring up' the strikes.

"Some things I was never fully convinced of at the time: (1) The removal of a ray of sun in the lower right to provide a bigger space for the mint mark; that ray would have made more of a 'fan' movement in that area to go with the idea of a 'lift,' but the ample space now makes the various mint marks quickly recognizable. This is a minor matter and I no longer seem to be bothered by it. (2) There were many questions raised by the location of the statue and its side view, but these were all substantiated by maps, charts, and photos.

"I was happy that aesthetically the subtleties... were retained as well as these considerations:

"(1) The gesture of the statue.

"(2) The raised disk of sun on a concave basin (the sun is purposely eccentric and not round).

"(3) The rays have a slight inward curve. Their area is not on center, which implies largeness of scale and movement not too static.

"(4) In the early ideas I had more 'fuss' in the background, such as more incoming ships and seagulls and flags. These were reduced to one ship. The design of the ship was derived from plans in the Scientific American at that date, built in Philadelphia (sister ships St. Paul and St. Louis) the first American ship bringing immigrants past the Statue of Liberty after dedication. This substantiation I also provided to Washington Headquarters. The scene is of a later date (shows the Woolworth Bldg., a landmark in 1913), and the same skyline was used on the reverse. Sherl J. Winter and I agreed to use the same one. The same ship also sailed by the statue in 1913.

"(5) The original ideas showed 'vignetting' of the statue and water and thus hard to define area edges for 'proofing.' Headquarters suggested that I make a border-to-border exergue instead, and that was successfully incorporated.

"Footnotes, annotations, and communications involving my searching in libraries, museums, art reading, census and immigration dates and lists and site visits were numerous and rewarding, but are now of only anecdotal interest ...."

Sherl J. Winter Discusses the Reverse

The reverse was sculpted by Sherl J. Winter from a concept supplied by Mint Headquarters, which was "derived from a photograph of immigrants at Ellis Island, waiting to go to New York," according to a Treasury Department news release. Shown was an immigrant family of four people standing on a pier at Ellis Island, baggage at their feet, with a skyline view of New York City in the background across New York harbor.

Sherl J. Winter described the background of his design:6 "In designing coins and medals all of us at the Mint usually read whatever we could find on the subject, and then we went through the print and picture file at the library. We used as much research material as we could find. Once that was done for the Statue of Liberty coin, I made a number of sketches -- quite a few of them -- to try to get ideas that were in my head, down on paper. The usual procedure is that you make a lot of sketches and then submit two or three to Washington for consideration. The one that was picked showed immigrants on a wharf. I recall that a couple of other sketches showed the main building on Ellis Island, but these were not selected. One of these just showed the building and some lettering. They usually pick out complicated designs, not simple ones. A lot of times they make their own changes in Washington. They will take your design and then ask you to take this out and put that in. Before you know it, they have designed it. However, my design of immigrants on the wharf was accepted just as I submitted it, although my first choice was the building, a simpler design. Everyone at the Mint thought my building design was better than my wharf design; but at Headquarters in Washington, where they have the final say, they didn't feel that way."

Mint Director Pope and the Half Dollar

In an interview with the author,7 Mint Director Donna Pope recalled her involvement with the half dollar: "One of the designs was of a group of immigrants. The Mint staff submitted all sorts of sketches, none of which looked right. I asked that a babushka be used as a head covering on an immigrant woman, but the engraving staff didn't seem to understand what a babushka was. They submitted things such as a stole. I told them all they had to do was to go to Parma, Ohio [Mrs. Pope's home town] and they would see plenty of babushkas.

"We had a raging debate at one time as to whether it was proper for the sun coming up at that angle with the Statue of Liberty on the half dollar obverse. Was it a sunrise or a sunset? The production staff always seems to have trouble with water. I do not particularly like the way the water looks on that piece. The design is rather striking, and it tells a story immediately, and it is a great story. It was a difficult task to do one coin that showed the story of the contribution of immigrants. That is how we finally interpreted it, and the coin was very well received."

Production and Distribution

Coinage of the Statue of Liberty 50-cent pieces, designated by some as "Immigrant half dollars," was accomplished at the Denver and San Francisco mints in a procedure identical to that used earlier with the 1982 Washington commemoratives. Coins struck at the Denver Mint were given an Uncirculated finish, whereas coins with Proof finish were struck at the San Francisco Mint.8 Statue of Liberty half dollars were made of copper-nickel clad alloy consisting of two outer layers of 75% copper and 25% nickel bonded to a pure copper core.

In November 1985 the Bureau of the Mint made a special discount offer to the Mint mailing list and to contributors to the Statue of Liberty Foundation. Uncirculated 1982-D half dollars were offered for $5, and Proof 1986-S halves were listed for $6.50. On January 1, 1986, the standard prices for the 1986-D Uncirculated coins were raised to $6 and the 1986-S Proofs to $7.50.

As was the case with the 1984 Olympic Games coins, various purchase options were offered.9 The following numbered sequence is continuous with that used later in the present text to describe the 1986 Statue of Liberty silver dollars and $ 5 pieces:

(1) Single 1986-S Proof half dollar. Special advance price $6.50, increased on January 1, 1986 to $ 7.50. These were eventually distributed through over 4,500 banks as well as leading department stores and general merchandisers who obtained them at a discount. 2,433,091 half dollars were sold by this method. Each coin was mounted in a plastic capsule housed in a blue felt lined cardboard box with its lid imprinted with the Great Seal and "United States Liberty Coin."

(2) Single 1986-D Uncirculated half dollars were first offered at a discount of $5, a figure increased on January 1, 1986, to $6. The sales of 1986-D half dollars through this option amounted to 667,468 pieces. Each coin was sealed in a plastic wrapper and with a descriptive certificate was housed in a felt-lined blue box. The lid was imprinted with the Great Seal and "United States Liberty Coin."

(3) Two-coin Proof sets contained a 1986-S half dollar and 1986-S silver dollar and were offered at an advance discount price for $29, increased on January 1, 1986, to $31.50. The sale of sets under this option amounted to 3,510,776. Coins in plastic capsules were housed in a blue velvet presentation case with a hinged lid and a plaque of the Great Seal on the lid. The case and a descriptive certificate were enclosed in a blue cardboard box imprinted on the lid with the Great Seal and "United. States Liberty Coins." The blue box was placed within a blue slipcover similarly imprinted.

(4) Two-coin Uncirculated sets containing the 1986-D half dollar and the 1986-P silver dollar were offered at an advance subscription price of $25.50, increased on January 1, 1986, to $28. The sale of pairs of Uncirculated coins under this option amounted to 172,033 sets. Coins in plastic capsules were on a blue felt tray with a heraldic eagle plaque, the entire contained in a blue cardboard box with its lid imprinted with the Great Seal and "United States Liberty Coins."

(5) Three-coin Proof sets comprised Proof examples of the 1986-5 half dollar, 198CrS silver dollar, and 1986-W $5. The advance discount price of $175 was raised on January 1, 1986, to $206.50. This offer was sold out by January 31, 1986. 343,345 sets were distributed. Coins in plastic capsules were housed in a blue velvet presentation case with a hinged lid and a plaque of the Great Seal on the lid. The case and a descriptive certificate were enclosed in a blue cardboard box imprinted on the lid with the Great Seal and "United States Liberty Coins." The blue box was placed within a blue slipcover similarly imprinted.

(6) Three-coin Uncirculated sets included a 1986-D half dollar, 1986-P dollar, and 1986-W $5 and were offered at an advance discount price of $165, raised on January 1, 1986, to $193. By January 31, 1986, this option was sold out. The total number of sets distributed comprised 49,406. Sets were packaged in a blue box.

(7) Six-coin sets contained 1986-S Proof and 1986-D Uncirculated half dollars, 1986-S Proof and 1986-P Uncirculated dollars, and 1986-W Uncirculated and Proof $5 pieces. These were offered at an advance discount price of $375, raised on January 1, 1986, to $439.50. By January 31, 1986, the sets were sold out, by which time 38,983 orders had been received (Walter Breen points out that Coin World, July 29, 1987, page three, gives the alternative quantity of 39,101). Coins in plastic capsules were housed in a cherry wood box imprinted with the Great Seal. The box and a certificate of authenticity were contained in a blue cardboard box with the lid imprinted with the Great Seal.

(8) Prestige Proof sets consisted of regular 1986-S Proof sets from the Lincoln cent to the half dollar plus the Proof 1986-S Statue of Liberty half dollar and the Proof 1986-S Statue of Liberty dollar. These were first offered on March 10, 1986, at a price of $48.50. Subsequently, 599,314 sets were sold. Each set was mounted in a blue and gray plastic holder with hinged covers of gray suede with a plaque of the Great Seal mounted on the front cover. The holder and a descriptive card were housed in a blue cardboard box imprinted with the Great Seal.

The first half dollars (1986-S) were struck at the San Francisco Mint in a ceremony on October 18, 1985, on which date the first Statue of Liberty dollars and, at the West Point Mint, Statue of Liberty $5 pieces were also struck. At San Francisco the initial coin was produced by Thomas Miller, officer in charge. The eventual distribution of San Francisco Mint 1986-S Statue of Liberty Proof half dollars amounted to 6,925,627, an all-time high for a commemorative coin mintage figure.

The first 1986-D Statue of Liberty half dollars were struck in Denver at a special ceremony on December 9, 1985, when Nora Hussey, superintendent of the facility, pushed a button. Among those watching were Kenneth E. Bressett (education director of the American Numismatic Association and editor of A Guide Book of U.S. Coins) and Dan Brown (Denver rare coin dealer). Eventually 928,008 1986-D Uncirculated pieces were issued during the life of the Statue of Liberty coinage program.

Nomenclature concerning the 1986 commemorative half dollar has varied, and while they are titled Statue of Liberty half dollars in the present text (the style also used by A Guide Book of United States Coins), Walter Breen has designated them as Immigrant half dollars, as have certain others. Others have called them Ellis Island half dollars.

Collecting 1986 Statue of Liberty Half Dollars

Today examples of the 1986-D Uncirculated and 1986-S Proof Statue of Liberty half dollars are readily available in condition as issued. The design is considered by many collectors to be among the most attractive in the modern commemorative series.

1 Letter to the author dated January 17. 199 1.
2 February 11, 1991.
3 Letter to James C. Murr, Office of the Assistant Director for Legislative Reference, Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budgct, Washington, D.C. 20503.
4 Per a letter from Elizabeth Jones to the author, March 15, 1991.
5 In a letter to the author, Deccmber 16, 1990.
6 Interview with the author, February 15, 1990.
7 February 11, 1991.
8 All dies for Statue of Liberty coins were produced at the Philadelphia Mint. In fiscal year 1985 (ending September 30, 1985) 24 dies were produced for Statue of Liberty issues, whereas in fiscal )car 1986 31,594 dies were made and in fiscal year 1987 4,981 dies were produced (these figures are for all denominations combined: 50C, $1, and $5).
9 From Walter Breen's study of the 1986 issues published in the 1990 reprint of The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins.

Q. David Bowers has been in the rare coin business since 1953 when he was a teenager. The author has served as president of the American Numismatic Association (1983-1985) and president of the Professional Numismatists Guild (1977-1979), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the ANA (the Farran Zerbe Award), was the first ANA member to be named Numismatist of the Year (1995), has been inducted into the Numismatic Hall of Fame (at the ANA Headquarter in Colorado Springs), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the Professional Numismatists Guild (The Founders' Award), and has received more "Book of the Year Award" and "Best Columnist" honors given by the Numismatic Literary Guild than any other writer. He has has written over 40 books, hundreds of auction and other catalogues, and several thousand articles.

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