November 19, 2013
Founded in 1792 by the United States government, the U.S. Assay Commission was established to supervise the annual testing of gold and silver coinage produced by the U.S. Mint to ensure that the metal content met specifications. Members of the commission, which were composed of prominent private citizens including numismatists, were appointed every year. Beginning in 1860, to thank the members for their service, each commissioner received a medal struck by the U.S. Mint commemorating famous persons, topics and places. It is not clear why this tradition was started. It may have been the result of Director of the Mint, James Ross Snowden's desire to expand the medal department at the Mint. The medals were produced every year from 1860 through 1977 except 1862 -1866 and 1954.
Most U.S. Assay medals are rare. With the exception of 1977, it is estimated that mintages range from 50 to 200 pieces each year. In the 1800s, release of the medals was tightly controlled and limited to members of the commission, Mint officers, treasury officials, and an occasional president if he was featured on the medal. Distribution policy was relaxed from 1900 to 1910, then controlled again from 1911 to about 1918, then more widely distributed from 1920 to 1935. After 1935, a very stringent policy was put in place. Medals of the 1940s and 1950s are very difficult to locate. In the early years, restrikes may exist because the dies had not been destroyed. However, after about 1910 most dies had been defaced, destroyed, or secured. The only issue that was made in quantity and was offered to the public was 1977. The commission was abolished in 1977 by President Carter, which was passed into law in 1980.
There is no absolute size for the diameter of the medals but they range from approximately 33 mm to 76 mm. In the early 1900s a number of 40 x 57 mm rectangular issues were struck and in 1976 and 1977 76 x 60 mm oval issues were struck. Metal content is primarily copper (bronze after 1901) and silver, but issues were also struck in aluminum and white metal. One issue each was struck in nickel and gold. In 1974, 1976 and 1977, prior to the commission's demise, the medals also were struck in pewter.
There is a vast array of designs that cover subjects such as Moneta from Greek mythology, places such as the Philadelphia Mint, U.S. presidents such as George Washington, and famous persons like Martha Washington who appeared on the last issue in 1977. The designs are not only interesting, but beautiful as well.
Recently, with the guidance of numismatist, William Shamhart, owner of Numismatic Americana, Inc., PCGS began grading the medals of the United States Assay Commission. Besides being a coin dealer, Bill is also a collector, and his U.S. Assay collection is one of his favorites. Upon Bill's suggestion, we have added five new composites to the PCGS Set Registry®:
U.S. Assay Commission Date Set (1860-1977) – Total 112 coins required
U.S. Assay Commission Copper Set (1860-1975) – Total 115 coins required
U.S. Assay Commission Silver Set (1867-1963) – Total 47 coins required
U.S. Assay Commission Aluminum Set (1867-1893) – Total 13 coins required
Note that while there are four coins are not included in the above composites because they are thought to be unique (1869 JK-AC7 Aluminum, 1921 JK-AC-65 Gold, 1932 JK-AC76b Bronze, and 1932 JK-AC-77 Bronze), these sets are not for beginners. The medals of the U.S. Assay Commission are rare. It will take years of hunting and deep pockets to complete any one of them. However, while extremely challenging, the rewards are great. The medals are big, bold and beautiful, and if placed together in a collection the owner would have something very special.
Medals of the United States Assay Commission 1860-1977, R. W. Julian and Ernest E. Keusch, The Token and Medal Society, Inc., 1989.