COMMEMORATIVE DOLLARS 1900 TO DATE
by Q. David Bowers
The first United States commemorative coin of the silver dollar denomination is the "1900" Lafayette silver dollar, of which 50,000 pieces were struck all in one day, December 14, 1899-the centennial of George Washington's death. Perhaps this curious beginning sets the tone for commemoratives of the dollar value, for it seems that each one since then has its own peculiarities and own story.
The Lafayette dollar began with great expectations-that 50,000 coins would be sold for $2 each, representing a 100% premium over the face value. Sales fell short of expectations, again setting the tone for nearly all later commemorative pieces of the denomination.
Modern Commemorative Dollars
After the 1900 Lafayette dollar, there was a span of several generations until the advent of the 1983 Olympic silver dollars, produced in connection with the Olympic games held in Los Angeles the following year, 1984.(Certain data for modern commemoratives described here was gathered by Andrew W. Pollock III and Mark Borckardt.) Additional Olympic dollars were made in 1984, with a completely different design from that used in 1983.
From the mid-1980s onward production of silver dollar commemorative varieties increased in frequency and number, while, almost perversely, sales decreased. It seemed that the more varieties that were available, fewer were the collectors who wanted them. A great deal of this came from a feeling of estrangement between collectors and the government. Letters to the editors of Coin World and Numismatic News revealed full well that many numismatists thought not only that the designs were inappropriate or ugly in many instances, but also that the prices were exploitative. There was not a good feeling between the seller (the Mint) and the buyer (the collector), a situation which did no one any good. Actually, the Mint could not be held responsible then, nor can it be today, for the issuance of commemoratives, as production has been strictly the result of various legislation passed by Congress. The Mint was told what to do, and it did it. In reality, the 1981-1991 decade when Donna Pope was director of the Mint saw the closest rapport the Mint has ever had with the coin collecting community. The Mint set up exhibits at coin conventions, invited hobby leaders to first-strike ceremonies, and did much else of a beneficial nature.
After the 1986 Statue of Liberty dollar, the next issue was the 1987 Constitution Bicentennial. Following that, the 1988 Olympic silver dollar was minted in connection with the games held in Seoul, South Korea. In 1989 the Congress Bicentennial dollar commemorated 200 years of that institution, which by 1989 was continually making the newspapers with the scandals of its members, something which has scarcely abated since. "Throw the rascals out" was the pervading sentiment of American citizens, and several years later in 1992, following scandals with the House bank and post office, graft, corruption, and many other things, numerous congressmen turned in their resignations, and others were soundly defeated. Hopefully, the Congress tercentenary dollar, if such is minted in 2089, will rest upon a sounder foundation of ethics.
About this time, exploitation of collectors by Congress began with a vengeance. The 1990 Eisenhower centennial dollar observed the 100th anniversary of birth of the distinguished general and former president, but the question was raised as to the appropriateness of the issue. Eisenhower had already been honored on a series of regular issue dollars 1971-1978. Other critics pointed out that while the dual date of 1890-1990 observed Eisenhower's birth, depicted on the reverse was Eisenhower's retirement home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which had little to do with either Eisenhower's birth or career. Collectors felt that this was an issue made expressly to take their money.
The insidious concept of a "surcharge," a part of the issue price of the Eisenhower centennial dollar and other recent issues, is a practice which has continued to the present day. Under this potion, costs are estimated for the design and production of the coin and its distribution, and a price is formulated. Then, a surcharges added, forcing buyers of the coin to make an involuntary donation to one cause OJ: another, typically' the' group or organization which had the clout to push the commemorative legislation through Congress in the first place. Numismatists do not mind paying a modest premium for a commemorative coin, but to be forced to make a donation to an organization in which they have no interest or perhaps have an opposition to, is another matter 'entirely. Further, the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that the surcharge (which, really, is a charitable donation) part of a commemorative's price is not tax deductible. Collectors have wound up with the short end of the stick.
An article in Coin World, "Hobby Sees Surcharges as Pork Barrel," August 10, 1992, discussed the surcharges on commemorative coins, saying that special-interest "taxes" did nothing for the numismatic hobby. Premiums ranging from $1 to $50 per coin became commonplace beginning with the 1983-1984 Olympic coin program approved by Congress. Since the reinstitution of the commemorative coin program under the tenure 'of former United States Mint Director Donna Pope, a total of more than $285.2 million in surcharges has been raised to finance a number of special-interest projects' and help reduce the national debt. The opinions of a number of coin hobby leaders were quoted including the following:
Harold J. Flattey, numismatic writer: "If surcharges are to be continued, a portion of the funds collected should be put into the hobby to revitalize it rather than allowing it to shrink .... "
Helen Carmody, of the Society for U.S. Commemorative Coins: "The brunt of the fund-raising efforts of various orga-nizations targeted by Congress should not fall on the shoulders of the commemorative coin collector."
Anthony Swiatek, commemorative coin specialist and a member of the ANA Board of Governors, said the surcharges are "way too high," and that people are going to "avoid buying the commemoratives once they realize that the minute they purchase them from the Mint, in most, cases, the value immediately drops."