Q. David Bowers
Next in line came the 1991 Mount Rushmore dollar, observing the 50th anniversary of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, with substantial surcharges going to finance restoration work.
Problems came to a real head with two more 1991 issues: the so-called Korean War Memorial, which celebrated the 38th anniversary of the end of the Korean conflict which in its time was riot even called a war. Who had ever heard of issuing a coin to celebrate the 3811 anniversary" of anything? Surcharges were earmarked for a Korean War (as it 'now was called) Memorial in Washington. No one questioned that such a memorial should be made. There were many questions, however, as to whether numismatists should be forced to donate to this in order to complete their collections. Once again, it' was truly a case of taxation without representation, something that the collecting community thought had been abolished in 17761
Things went from bad to worse, and the United Service Organizations commemorative dollar dated 1991, which observed the 50th anniversary of that group, had surcharges divided equally between the DSO and the United States Treasury. The Treasury under which the various U.S. Mints were operated, was making a nice profit anyway, because of the hefty premium charged over and above the design and production costs of commemorative dollars and other denominations. Now, insult was added to injury, and collectors were forced to make another donation to the Treasury. Heretofore, they thought their only other donations to that branch of government were made on April 15 at income tax time.
History repeated itself, and in the early 1990s collector sentiment concerning newly issued commemoratives was identical to that expressed by an earlier generation of numismatists in the late 1930s, when commemorative coins were being issued willy-nilly, often with no logical reason, and with pricing and the expansion of varieties made simply to exploit collectors. For example, to this day, no one has ever been able to figure out the logic behind the long-lived Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar series, commenced in 1926, a virtual failure from the start so far as sales were concerned, but which continued to exploit collectors through the year 1939, when Congress finally put an end to it.
As these words are being written early in 1993, it seems as though more exploitative commemorative coins are on the way, not only of the dollar denomination but of other values including gold coins. Collectors have little or no say in what subjects are to be observed on coins. A truly important anniversary was the 1792-1992 bicentennial of the founding of the United States Mint, but as there was no lobbying group representing the Mint or the numismatic community, the event came and went without any commemoratives being issued, except for a medal. Medals are fine, but most collectors prefer denominated coins.
As in the 1930s when abuses were prevalent, in the early 1990s numismatists are faced with the need to complete their collections, but dislike being told what to do again, taxation without representation. As a result, many buy these coins, but not with enthusiasm. There is little joy in the marketplace.
The more out of favor a commemorative issue is, and the less popular it is at the time of production and issue, the fewer are sold. Almost unfortunately, it seems, this has a beneficial effect on the value years later-when numismatists forget the controversies swirling around the time of issue, and pay premiums for low mintage coins. History tells us that in 1936 complaints were numerous concerning the Cincinnati commemorative half dollars, to name just one set among many exploitative issues. Some numismatists wouldn't touch them with the proverbial 10-foot pole. However, today these miscarriages of numismatic justice are largely forgotten, and the low-mintage Cincinnati set stands as one of the most desirable of the 1936 year.
Interesting to Collect
All is not lost, and one undeniable attraction of modern commemoratives is that apart from a few mintmark varieties, which are interesting to collect, each issue has its own story. The work of many talented artists is represented, making a collection of commemorative dollars akin to having a miniature art museum.
Acquire a half dozen modern commemorative silver dollars, and you have as many fascinating tales of controversy, differences of opinion concerning designs, and other distinctions. Certainly, the series is anything but tiresome! Of course, the offset is that history in our own time is to many not as fascinating as history of years ago. There is no doubt that by acquiring modern issues as they are made and sold you are a part of history itself-you directly influence the mintage figures, for example.
Almost without our realizing it, the series of commemorative silver dollars-counting just the modern issues from 1983 to date-has grown to almost formidable proportions. Over 30 different combinations of dates, mintmarks, and finishes (Uncirculated and Proof) have been made. By way of comparison of the number of coins, this is a larger set than a complete date run of Proof Morgan dollars, and challenges a date set of Proof Liberty Seated dollars 1840-1873.
Personally, I have enjoyed being a part of the commemorative series as it expands and unfolds. It is my wish that new commemoratives will continue to be issued, but that the needs and sensibilities of the numismatic community be considered by Congress, and that prices be set at levels that just about everyone-including beginning collectors-can afford. I can dream, can't I?
(For a vast expansion of details concerning the commemorative silver dollar issues of 1900-1992, see the author's book, Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia.)