Q. David Bowers
Chester Beach, a well-known artist and medalist, was selected to prepare the models for the Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollar. The obverse, as finally adopted, depicted the conjoined portraits of presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, both of whom were instrumental in formulating the Monroe Doctrine.
The reverse was a copy of a medal created by Ralph Beck in 1899 (and copyrighted that year) for the seal of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and showed the continents of North and South America represented by symbolic female figures as the outlines of the two land masses, a motif suggested by James Earle Fraser, who acted as an advisor. Beck protested what seemed to be obvious plagiarism of his 1901 medal, but Fraser brushed off the accusation by stating that he had not seen Mr. Beck's design earlier. However, a comparison of the 1901 and 1923 designs shows that this was highly unlikely.
The reverse inscription bore the prominent notation MONROE DOCTRINE CENTENNIAL and LOS ANGELES around the border. Any historian familiar with the Monroe Doctrine must have scratched his head in puzzlement at the contrived connection with this particular city. Certainly, in 1823 when the Monroe Doctrine was being formulated, few if any legislators in the American government were thinking about Los Angeles, which at that time was a sleepy little Mexican pueblo.
The design was executed in shallow relief, with the result that newly minted coins had an insipid appearance. Few if any observers called them attractive.
In his 1971 work, Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule discussed the coin: "The piece is not attractive; but if it can be called ugly, it must also be termed imaginative .... Low, flat relief with an attempt at a feeling for modeling rather than carving makes the bust and the females poised to imitate the outline of the continents seem like mounted cut-outs. They can even be said to resemble daubs of clay on a board, or relief outlines in glass. Adams, with his staring eye, is scarcely a portrait, and Monroe would not be recognized even by an expert. The triple-lined rim is unnecessary. The way the females are contorted to achieve their appearance of the continent is a clever tour de force of calligraphic relief but an aesthetic monstrosity, a bad pun in art .... "
Vermeule went on to relate that, although Ralph Beck took credit for the females representing the continents as he was the designer of the Pan-American Exposition seal, Chester Beach in 1901 at the age of 20 had designed a similar obverse for a medal at the Pan-American Exposition. Vermeule suggested that Beck, Fraser, and Beach himself must have forgotten about Beach's connections with the designs of 1901. (As noted earlier in the text, Beck's design had been copyrighted in 1899 and antedated the Beach motif if Beach's design was conceived in 1901.)
Production and Distribution
In May and June 1923, 274,077 Monroe Doctrine half dollars were struck and sub-sequently sent to the Los Angeles Clearing House, which, as noted, obtained them for face value (Plus reimbursement for the cost of making the dies). The coins were offered for $1 each and were distributed through banks, by mail, and other means, but not significantly through the so-called First Annual American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Industry Exposition, an event which history seems to have forgotten since.?
While it is certain that thousands of pieces were sold at a premium for $1 each, by and large the sales effort was a failure, and soon thereafter "nearly all went into circulation at face value," (Reference: p. 29 of Coinage of Commemorative 50-Cent Pieces (U.S. Government Prinring Office, 1936).) a situation which certainly gained no friends among those who had paid $1 each for specimens.
Fred Woodson, a California banker who was also an active coin collector during the 1930s, recalled that such pieces were common in pocket change and were frequently received at tellers' windows. He amassed a small hoard of pieces in this manner. Graded by the author in the late 1970s the coins were found to be mostly in the AU-55 to MS-60 category.
A Childhood Experience
In an interview with the author, veteran rare coin dealer John J. Ford, Jr. told of an experience he had in his youth: (Interview conducted February 20, 1991.)
"I was born in Hollywood, California. My father had moved out there in the early 1920s and was quite flush with money as he was involved with the United Artists film people-Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.-as a money raiser or money man or something. Anyway, he walked into a bank in 1923 and was induced to buy 25 Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollars. They were in little white envelopes and they cost a buck apiece. As I remember, they had some, but not much, printing on them. Later, when I was growing up in New York, he had a bureau in his bedroom. This had drawers on the top for nicknacks, ties, and handkerchiefs, with deeper drawers in the bottom for other things. In the top drawer he kept his jewelry, cufflinks, and tie pins and things, and that's where he had these half dollars in their envelopes in a little pile.
"We moved to New York about 1926 because in 1925-1926 he had some business misfortune in California. So, our family had these commemoratives, but I didn't know what they were. I was only two years old at the time. By 1932, when the Depression got really bad, we were living in Jackson Heights in Queens, which is about four or five miles from New York City. My father's partner had committed suicide in 1929, and my father was wiped out; he was really scrounging. Money was very, very tight in 1932, when I was eight years old. I went to a parochial school, St. Joan of Arc, and on the way home from school there was a German bakery, and we used to buy our bread and rolls there. When my mother finally ran out of money, she discovered these Monroe Doctrine half dollars still in their envelopes. She went to the store to buy bread and other baked goods with the coins. In those days you could buy two buns for a nickel and a loaf of bread for six cents, and rolls were three or four for a nickel. Money went a long way. The only problem was my mother had a lot of trouble with these Monroe Doctrine half dollars because they didn't look like regular United States coins. The next time she sent me to talk the store owner into accepting them. I was quite persuasive, being eight years old and very sincere, and with my Catholic schooling and all, so I managed to do all the bakery buying for most of 1932 with these half dollars. And they, of course, were gem Uncirculated. And they lasted, I guess, to the end of '32 or early '33.
"When I found out last year that in one of your auctions someone had paid $30,000 for a Mint State-67, whereas I had been spending them for face value in 1932- obviously top Mint State pieces because they were in their original envelopes of issue, never having been taken out-I was rather flabbergasted. This just goes to show you that I should have kept the damn things! That was my first experience with commemoratives."
Collecting Monroe Half Dollars
Today the majority of 1923-S Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollars in existence show evidence of friction or wear. Mint State examples are not particularly difficult to find, although most of them have technical grades in the MS-60 to MS-63 range. Evaluating the numerical grade of such pieces is difficult, for even the finest preserved coins are weakly defined because of the design and have a generally unsatisfactory appearance.
GRADING SUMMARY: Most specimens show handling and friction on the portrait of Adams on theobverse and on the high parts of the continents on the reverse. The design is in. shallow relief. Like the 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar, the 1923-S Monroe half is an aesthetic disaster. Just pick out an acceptable one (you will never find a beautiful one) and then go on to seek the next coin needed in your collection.