Q. David Bowers
Congress Bends the Rules
Arkansas commemorative half dollars, first issued in 1935 and bearing a design with Miss Liberty and an Indian on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse, were not popular with collectors, and many complaints were made concerning them (see earlier listing of the 1935-1939 Arkansas series). Adding ammunition to those who complained about the Arkansas coins early in the distribution of the series was a special issue created in 1936, featuring a new design, although the creation of a new design for an existing series was contrary to prevailing government policy.
The origin of the new design came about in 1936 when the Texas Centennial Commission people pushed a bill (S. 3721, January 16, 1936), which ultimately proved unsuccessful, to create five new reverse designs for their half dollar. The Arkansas Centennial Commission, sniffing a similar profit possibility, thought it a good idea to request three new Arkansas reverses as an amendment to the Texas bill. The Act of June 26, 1936, eventually resulted and authorized the issuance of 50,000 Arkansas coins of one new design, in addition to those of the regular centennial style.
A.W. Parke, who was the spokesman for the Arkansas Centennial Commission and the prime moving force of the group, originally stated that the supplementary design would illustrate one side of an old coin (the exact coin was not specified, nor was it stated whether the obverse or reverse would be used) of a type which early explorer Hernando de Soto was said to have presented to an Indian woman during his exploration of the territory that would later become Arkansas. Other considerations intervened, and it was decided to use the portrait of a well-known living politician.
Heads or Tails?
Featured on the obverse of the coin was the image of Joseph T. Robinson, Democratic senator from Arkansas, a living individual who was well known at the time. Robinson had served in the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1913 and was elected governor of Arkansas in the latter year, resigning soon thereafter in order to serve in the U.S. Senate, where he remained until his death on July 14, 1937.
Enid Bell, a New Jersey artist, designed the obverse of the new coin. Henry G. Kreis, earlier the creator of the 1935 Connecticut and 1936 Bridgeport half dollar motifs, made the finished model from her sketch. The motif was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on December 23, 1936, too late for coinage and distribution to occur in the year in which the proposed coins were to be dated.
The reverse of the Robinson-Arkansas half dollars incorporated that used on Arkansas Centennial half dollars from 1935 onward and was designed by Edward Everett Burr, a Chicago artist. Emily Bates, a resident of Arkansas, finished the model.
Following the wording of the legislation, an official announcement was made that the Robinson side was really the reverse, whereas the Arkansas side, which contained the date, was the obverse (even though it was the reverse of the regular Arkansas coins), and this nomenclature was followed by a number of people at the time including David M. Bullowa in his 1938 study of the series. However, many numismatists today designate the Robinson portrait side as the obverse.
In Numismatic Artin America Cornelius Vermeule gave the design qualified praise: "The large bust in business dress is a masterpiece of photographic naturalism such as has seldom been seen before or since on any modem coin. This is the very summa-tion of the modem senator, and this businesslike apotheosis of a local hero turned what had been an artistically miserable coin into a passable aesthetic commodity."
In January 1937, 25,265 specimens of the 1936-dated Robinson-Arkansas half dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and were sent to Stack's, who by that time had been named as the official distributor for 1937 Arkansas P-D-S sets. The New York City firm offered Robinson coins at $1.85 each. On the back of Stack's subscription application for the coins the following notice appeared: "From all outward appearances, this issue will be over-subscribed and sold the day the coins will be released."
Unfortunately, sales plodded along at a rather unsatisfactory rate, for the issue was criticized by many in the numismatic fraternity. In any event, by early in 1937 commemorative half dollars of all types were out of favor with many collectors and nearly all speculators.
In The Numismatist in February 1939, Stack's placed an advertisement offering for sale to the highest bidder 500 Robinson-Arkansas half dollars (and also 500 sets of 1935 Texas commemorative half dollars). Bids were to be received on or before February 15, 1939. This represented only a small portion of the unsold Robinson-Arkansas pieces. Finally, the remainder of coins, said to have amounted to 8,000 pieces, was wholesaled to Abe Kosoff, who maintained a coin business in the same city. Other large lots may have been sold to still other dealers, or perhaps Kosoff redistributed them, but, in any event, there were large quantities of unsold Robinson Arkansas half dollars in dealers' hands as late as the 1950s. The present writer recalls buying bulk groups of them from the Hollinbeck-Kagin Coin Company (of Des Moines) and Toivo Johnson (of Maine). An original mint bag of 1,000 coins was reported to exist in Arkansas in 1991.
Collecting Robinson-Arkansas Half Dollars
Today collectors consider the Robinson Arkansas (or, if you prefer, Arkansas-Robinson or just simply Robinson) half dollars to be just another variety among the multiplicity of designs released during the decade of the 1930s. No particular attention is paid to them, apart from their necessity for inclusion in either a type set or complete set of commemorative pieces.
Most known pieces are in Mint State, for nearly all (perhaps entirely all?) were originally sold to collectors and dealers. Examples are plentiful today. Typical grades are MS-60 to MS-63. The portrait of Sen. Robinson is apt to display friction and contact marks, for the coins were not handled with care at the time of production.
GRADING SUMMARY: Coined and handled with indifference at the Mint, Robinson-Arkansas half dollars nearly always show handling marks, particularly on the cheek of Sen. Robinson on the obverse and on the higher areas of the eagle on the reverse. Some examples are lightly struck on the eagle just behind the head.