United States commemorative silver coins from the "Golden Age" of commemoratives (1892-1954) are among the most popular, beautiful and highly collected of all U.S. coins. This set contains the lowest-mintage silver coin of the 20th century, the second-lowest, the third and so forth. For some reason, this great series was basically ignored in the 1990s, leading to a collapse in prices and loss of interest from many collectors. While modern issues are the number one sellers in all of American numismatics at the present time, silver commemoratives from 1892-1954 are not far behind. Suddenly, this wonderful series has a new life that hasn't been seen since the 1980s!
Commemoratives are collected in dozens of ways. The 50-piece type set includes the 50 major designs, covering 48 half dollars, one quarter and one silver dollar. The 144-piece set includes all of the dates and mintmarks. There is only one Elgin or New Rochelle or Iowa, but there are 13 different Texas commems and 14 different Oregon Trail commems (to name but two of the multi-coin sets).
For the most part commemorative coins did not circulate, and they are known as NCLT coins, for "non-circulating legal tender." They were sold for a premium over their face value, usually to raise money for the causes that they commemorate. A few issues circulated heavily, though, such as the 1892 and 1893 Columbian Exposition pieces. Other issues that are frequently seen in circulated condition include the pre-Depression era coins that were pulled out of the family heirlooms and spent on food and shelter during the 1930s. This list includes the two Alabama issues, the two Missouri issues, the Lincoln-Illinois, the Sesqui, the Stone Mountain and others.
The demand for top quality pieces is basically what this market is all about. A magnificently toned Texas commemorative in PCGS MS67, with a "suggested retail value" of under $1,000, recently realized nearly $9,000 at public auction. Examples that are the finest graded, or tied for the finest graded, may create a bidding war at auction or a "You want HOW MUCH for it?" look of incredulity on the bourse floor. Tremendous eye appeal in this series can equate to tremendous prices.
In addition to the 50-piece and 144-piece sets, collectors also build sets that are of interest to them personally, such as the Civil War commems, the coins with ships on them, the Oregon Trail issues, the Texas commems, the California commems, and many other options.
Not only is there a huge collector base for these coins, there is also a price aberration, as prices across-the-board average only 25% of their 1989 highs in MS65 or better. The old axiom that "If it sounds too good to be true then it usually is" doesn't apply to these coins. They really are beautiful, popular, scarce-to-rare, historic and CHEAP. Here is a look at the 50 major types of 1892-1954.
Note: All mintages noted are the net number of pieces released (not melted, if applicable).
The 50 major silver commemorative types.
Isabella Quarter - In today's world a new commemorative quarter is issued five times a year, but during the "Golden Age" this was the only commemorative of this denomination. The mintage was 24,214 and many reached circulation (PCGS has certified over 350 circulated pieces). This is the only U.S. coin with a foreign monarch on it, and it celebrates not only the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America but also women's industry. Prices for the finest pieces (there are two MS68 examples) flirted with the $100,000 mark in the 1980s. Roughly 10% of the pieces certified are MS65 or better, which is an extremely low number for a coin that was never intended for circulation. One of the most popular of all the commemorative issues.
Lafayette Silver Dollar - This is the only commemorative silver dollar from the "Golden Age." It is a relative rarity in MS65 or better, with just 221 pieces certified. Of the 50 major types only the Sesqui half dollar is rarer in Gem quality, with the Monroe half dollar about equal in rarity to the Lafayette in MS65/better. This coin is extremely popular, and it kept much of its value from the 1989 market peak while the bearish 1990s devastated other commemoratives. Many dealers and collectors feel that this is the "best coin" in the commemorative series, as it is rare, has an excellent theme (Washington and Lafayette) and is a silver dollar.
Alabama Half Dollar - There are two coins from this issue, the Alabama and the Alabama 2X2. The two coins are exact equals in rarity in MS65/better, even though the Alabama 2X2 was produced in extremely limited quantities (6,006 pieces) while nearly 60,000 pieces of the regular Alabama were minted. One of the scarcer commem types in MS65 or better. Trivia: This is the first U.S. coin to portray a living person.
Albany Half Dollar - Only 17,761 pieces were minted of this issue, but the survival rate is extremely high in top condition. PCGS has certified more than 10% of the mintage in MS65 or better, and another 8% of the mintage in MS64. The coin celebrates the 250th anniversary of this historic city. A highly lustrous issue with an attractive design.
Antietam Half Dollar - A total of 25,000 Americans lost their lives at the Battle of Antietam, and it all took place on a single September day in 1862. Popular with Civil War aficionados and all commem specialists, this issue was preserved in excellent condition, with 12% of the mintage certified in MS65 or better. The opposing generals and the artistic Burnside Bridge make for an intriguing design.
Arkansas Half Dollar - This is one of the most poorly made and preserved of all the commemoratives. The luster is usually subdued, the coins were poorly handled at the time of issue and are frequently covered with abrasions, and the design is lacking in aesthetic appeal. Fortunately, there were fifteen different date/mintmark combinations issued, so there are 3,700 pieces certified in MS65/better. Even so, if you are looking for an example that is loaded with eye appeal, you will probably have to buy an MS66 or one of the few MS67 specimens known to exist.
Bay Bridge Half Dollar - That glorious grizzly bear takes up almost the entire obverse, so finding a piece that isn't marked up on this vulnerable design can be challenging. One of most popular of all commemoratives due to the outstanding design. Beautiful! There are about 1,800 pieces certified in MS65/better, which is far less than 50% of the total submitted for grading and only 2½% of the mintage.
Daniel Boone Half Dollar - This is not a rare type coin, as over 7,000 pieces are certified by PCGS in MS65 or better. That being said, the 16-coin series (1934-38) is still highly worthy of consideration. This series contains the lowest mintage coin of the 20th century, the second lowest mintage coin, and a total of seven different issues with a mintage of 2,506 pieces or less! This coin is available in MS67 at times (over 200 certified) and occasionally in MS68.
Bridgeport Half Dollar - How can anyone resist this coin? There's P. T. Barnum on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse that's 25th century meets art nouveau. At one time this was considered to be a toughie in Gem condition, as almost every coin seemed to just miss MS65, including the coins that were still in the original boxes. Even today MS64 is the most common grade, but there are 1,500 pieces certified in MS65 or better as well.
California Jubilee Half Dollar - This attractive design celebrates the 75th anniversary of California's statehood. Many pieces exhibit exceptional luster, although numerous other specimens show rubbing on the high points of the design. Most of the survivors are of MS63/64 quality, and only 21% of those graded are MS65/better. Popular as a Western history item (the '49er panning for the gold) and with California-oriented collectors.
Carver-Washington Half Dollar - This coin was called the "Washington-Carver" for years, but that name created confusion as "Washington" was the middle name of George Washington Carver as well as the surname of Booker T. Washington. The coin commemorates the two prominent black Americans with 12 different date/mintmark combinations. Some of the dates have extremely large mintages while others were issued in quantities of less than 10,000 pieces. It is poorly designed coin with crowded obverse lettering and an uninspired reverse motif. Most specimens are heavily marked on the obverse. Over 10,000 pieces have been certified in all grades combined, but only 153 have graded MS66 and one (!) has graded MS67.
Cincinnati Half Dollar - This is one of the most misunderstood of all the commemorative coins. It is often written that the obverse portrait of Stephen Foster has nothing to do with Cincinnati as a center of music. In fact, Foster was a resident of Cincinnati at the time of his early creativity. While working for his brother as a bookkeeper he published a dozen songs, including the classic "Oh! Susanna." He lived in Cincinnati from 1846 until late 1849 or early 1850.
Three Mints issued this type in 1936, with mintages limited to 5,005 pieces from Philadelphia and Denver and 5,006 examples from San Francisco. The Denver issue is by far the most common in MS65 or better condition, while the San Francisco pieces are quite scarce in top quality.
Cleveland Half Dollar - This coin commemorates the centennial of Cleveland, Ohio, named after its founder Moses Cleaveland (note the different spelling). It has nothing to do with President Grover Cleveland. The mintage was relatively large at 50,030 pieces and nearly 1,900 examples have been certified in MS65 or better. Even so, most survivors are MS63 or MS64 as this issue is notorious for bagmarks and/or broken luster on the high points.
Columbia, SC Half Dollar - This is a P-D-S set similar to the Cincinnati issues discussed above. Many magnificent examples have survived, with nearly 1,000 pieces in MS66, 175 in MS67 and even 14 in MS68! These coins were sold in sets, with the mintages ranging from 8,007 to 9,007 pieces.
Columbian Exposition Half Dollar - This is the first commemorative half dollar, struck to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's initial voyage to the New World. Examples were minted in 1892 and 1893, with over 2,500,000 specimens struck. The first coin was sold for $10,000 to the Remington Typewriter Company, but it was rejected because it had a scratch on it! They accepted a second "first coin" in its place. The first 100 coins minted (plus #400, #1492 and #1892) were Proofs.
A huge number of the original mintage reached circulation, and some of them were still used in everyday commerce as late as the 1950s. PCGS has certified nearly 10,000 examples of the two dates combined, but only 870 of those are MS65/better. This is a highly popular coin due to its significance in the world of numismatics, its relative condition rarity, and many other factors. Speculation drove the prices sky-high in 1991-92, but current levels are highly attractive.
Connecticut Half Dollar - In a recent eCollector survey, this coin was chosen as the second-most beautiful of all the commemorative designs. Yes, the winner was (obviously) the Oregon Trail in a landslide, but this inspired motif received enthusiastic support as well. The magnificent Charter Oak graces the obverse, with a modernistic eagle on the reverse. Gem examples are somewhat scarce, with less than a third of the specimens submitted earning the grade of MS65 or better.
Delaware Half Dollar - This coin commemorates the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Swedes in Delaware. In an oddity, it was struck in 1937 but carries the dates of 1936 on the obverse and 1938 on the reverse. The church on the obverse is the oldest Protestant church still in use in the U.S. This coin is noted for two problems; one, the church roof frequently exhibits scratches and, two, the reverse sails are often abraded by minor contact marks. About 44% of the pieces certified are MS65 or better. A beautiful coin in top condition!
Elgin Half Dollar - The 100th anniversary of the founding of Elgin, Illinois, was the occasion for this coin. The proceeds were to be used for a pioneer memorial statue, but it is yet to be built. Over 2,300 pieces have been graded in MS65 or better. At one time the most desirable specimens were those with a fully struck baby's head, but this is no longer considered to be an integral part of the coin's overall design or aesthetics.
Gettysburg Half Dollar - This is perhaps the #1 Civil War commemorative, remembering the 75th anniversary of the battle that changed the war. A Union and a Confederate soldier grace the obverse, with shields representing the two warring sides on the reverse. MS64 is the most common grade, usually attributable to the marks on the reverse. There are about 1,500 pieces certified in MS65 or better, and an MS67 example (55 pieces) is a numismatic prize.
Grant Half Dollar - This coin commemorates the 100th birthday of a great American. Grant was belittled after the Battle of Shiloh, then became a national hero at the Battle of Vicksburg. After Robert E. Lee surrendered to him at Appomattox he served eight controversial years as President of the United States. He completed his autobiography only four days before his death, and the 300,000 copies sold earned his widow $450,000 in royalties, an incredible fortune in 1885.
Grant is honored with both a half dollar (two varieties) and a gold dollar (two varieties). The type coin of the half dollars is the "plain" variety without the star. It is scarce in Gem quality, with just over 600 pieces certified in MS65 or better. Most specimens are MS63 (936 pieces) or MS64 (1,000 pieces). Most surviving examples exhibit excessive die polish and subdued luster.
Hawaiian Half Dollar - This coin commemorates the 150th anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival in 1778. Do not confuse this 1928 coin with the 1883 half dollars that were issued by the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The mintage is only 9,958 coins, plus 50 Proof specimens (total 10,008). In a remarkable piece of bookkeeping acumen, all 50 Proofs were pedigreed to the original owners. This is the lowest mintage for a commemorative type, although not the lowest for a date within a particular type. Gem examples are extremely scarce, with only 312 certified in MS65 or better. Most survivors are MS63 or MS64. An extraordinarily popular commemorative.
Hudson Half Dollar - The Hudson half dollar has the same overall mintage as the Hawaii, but there are no Proofs. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the founding of Hudson, New York. The obverse design is poorly executed in every way, as the detail did not strike up well and the motif is bland. The reverse, showing Hendrik Hudson's ship, is a marked improvement.
The Hudson half dollar is a recognized key to the set, with many price records in excess of $5,000 in MS65 before the series fell on hard times in the 1990s. There are 520 pieces certified in MS65 or better.
Huguenot-Walloon Half Dollar - This is somewhat of a condition rarity in the series, as there are more coins certified in MS62-63 than in MS65 or better. Overall, only 28% of those certified are Gem quality (MS65/better).
This coin comes with two finishes. About 90% of the coins have a somewhat granular surface similar to Matte Proof coins. About 10% (perhaps less) have blazing brilliance. There is no distinction in price, at least at this time.
The coin celebrates the 300th anniversary of the settling of the Huguenots and Walloons in the New World.
Illinois Half Dollar - This commemorative, also known as the "Lincoln" or "Lincoln-Illinois," recalls the 100th anniversary of the admission of Illinois to the Union. Lincoln's cheekbones make this coin a scarcity in Gem quality, as the design is conducive to rubbing and contact marks on the high points.
The mintage of this coin is large (over 100,000) but just 1,250 pieces have graded MS65 or better. A popular issue, as would be expected for a coin with Honest Abe's portrait.
Iowa Half Dollar - This is one of the most common of all the commemorative types with over 5,000 pieces certified in MS65 or better. Only issued for one year, this coin celebrates the 100th anniversary of Iowa statehood. Examples in MS67 (401 pieces) and MS68 (41 pieces) are popular, especially when they exhibit beautiful toning or radiant, icy luster.
Lexington Half Dollar - The Minute Man. The Old Belfry at Lexington. These famous icons of the Revolutionary War are remembered on this popular and scarce commemorative. Over 162,000 pieces were struck, yet only 640 have earned the grade of MS65 or better. Many of the survivors of this issue are circulated, while many others are dull and/or show rubbing plus environmental damage from spending decades stored in the original wooden boxes of issue.
The popularity of this coin continues to blossom as interest in America's history is coupled with a growing excitement about all areas of U.S. numismatics. An excellent and highly affordable coin!
Long Island Half Dollar - This is another relative condition rarity of the series. The Long Island half dollar has a large mintage (81,826) but a low survival rate in Gem condition, with only 901 pieces certified in MS65 or better, less than 21% of those submitted for grading. This coin commemorates the 300th anniversary of the first white settlement on Long Island. I have always found this coin to be especially tough to locate considering its price range.
Lynchburg Half Dollar - The 150th anniversary of the city charter of Lynchburg, Virginia, was the occasion for the striking of this coin. Carter Glass, a former Secretary of the Treasury, objected to having his portrait used on the coin; regardless, he graces the obverse while Miss Liberty dominates the reverse. Of the 3,118 pieces submitted for certification roughly 50% have earned the grade of MS65 or better.
Maine Half Dollar - These coins have a checkered history. They were intended for the 100th anniversary of Maine's statehood, but they never arrived for the celebration. For years afterward they were available from the State Treasurer for a small premium over the face value. Many of the coins received bumps and bruises while in storage, and Gem examples are scarce. There are about 900 pieces certified in MS65 or better out of 2,700 submitted for grading. The design is one of the most unconventional of all U.S. coins.
Maryland Half Dollar - This coin is noted for the numerous light contact marks on Lord Baltimore's face. "I never see a Gem!" collectors used to complain, but today some extremely nice pieces have made their way to the market. There are just under 1,200 pieces graded in MS65 or better, but the majority are still MS63 or MS64. Both the MS66 (250 pieces) and MS67 (21 pieces) offer an especially attractive value.
Missouri Half Dollar - This type is composed of two coins, the "Plain" and the "2*4," noting that Missouri was the 24th state admitted to the Union. The survival rare is staggeringly low in MS65 or better, running about 11% of the total submitted to PCGS. Just as is true with the Alabama and Alabama 2X2, the mintages are not commensurate with the rarity, as both varieties are equally tough. This is one of the keys to the 50-piece commemorative set even though there are two coins from which to choose. Highly recommended in Gem quality!
Monroe Half Dollar - More than a quarter of a million pieces were struck (274,077 to be exact) and almost none survived in Gem condition! Far less than 10% of the pieces submitted are MS65 or better, and this coin ranks second in rarity to the Sesqui among the half dollars in Gem condition. The design is in extremely low relief, giving the coin few protected areas and minimal detail. While it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, it was promoted and distributed by the motion picture industry and is sometimes called the "Los Angeles" commemorative.
This is one of the most highly recommended of all the commemorative issues, as the key coins almost always perform the best during a major market recovery or outright bull market.
New Rochelle Half Dollar - Booming luster and an intriguing design make for a popular commem, and this coin definitely qualifies. Only 15,266 were minted, yet over 1,800 have graded MS65 or better. On occasions this coin comes with deep mirror fields that add to the eye appeal. This coin commemorates the 250th anniversary of New Rochelle, New York, and its founding by French Huguenots.
Norfolk Half Dollar - This coin is a triumph of coin design, execution and preservation. While the mintage was limited to 16,936 pieces, the coins were handled with the maximum of care. Of the 3,796 examples certified to date over 79% (!) have earned the grade of MS65 or better. There are even 85 pieces certified in MS68!
The coin is beautiful, with a three-masted ship on the obverse and the Royal Mace of Norfolk on the reverse. Most specimens have virtually no contact marks or other impairments. Not rare, but oh so popular!
Oregon Trail Half Dollar - What is the fairest commemorative in the land? In a recent eCollector survey, 54% of the respondents chose this coin. James and Laura Fraser prepared the design, and three Mints executed their vision to virtual perfection.
This commemorative remembers the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who traversed it in the early days of the opening of the West. The coin was minted intermittently from 1926 through 1939, with a total of 14 different date/mintmark combinations. The 1933-D was the first commemorative issued from the Denver Mint.
Fortunately, numerous wondrous examples have survived, making this coin affordable to almost any collector. There are 928 pieces certified in MS67, 76 examples in MS68, and two in MS69! Let's put together the entire 14-piece set in MS67 and start today!
Panama-Pacific Half Dollar - This is an unusual commemorative as it celebrates not the past, but the present. It was struck for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 to memorialize the opening of the Panama Canal. Over 27,000 pieces were struck and just under 500 have graded MS65 or better.
Many examples of this issue were mishandled, and it is common to find them with poor luster and/or heavy cleaning.
Pilgrim Half Dollar - The 300th anniversary of the landing on Plymouth Rock was the occasion for the striking of this commemorative. There are two issues (1920, 1921) with a large overall net release of over 172,000 coins. The design makes the coin conducive to rubbing on the high points.
There are a little over 1,300 pieces certified in MS65 or better for the two dates. This coin is popular because of the theme and the excellent depiction of the Mayflower on the reverse.
Rhode Island Half Dollar - This is another tercentenary (300th anniversary) coin, this time commemorating the founding of Providence by Roger Williams. Three Mints issued this coin in 1936, with mintages ranging from 15,010 to 20,013. There are 730 pieces in MS66 and 39 in MS67 for the three issues combined.
Roanoke Island Half Dollar - This coin celebrates the 350th anniversary of the "Lost Colony" and the birth of Virginia Dare. It is a North Carolina commemorative, not a Virginia piece as often thought. A large number of these coins survived in outstanding condition, and there are over 2,700 pieces certified in MS65 or better. There are even 174 pieces in MS67 or better (!) so a superb specimen is within reach for most collectors.
Robinson Half Dollar - This unusual commemorative is a mule of the eagle side (Obverse? Reverse?) of the Arkansas half dollar with a new portrait side. Senator Joseph T. Robinson is depicted in the new portrait, and the mintage was only 25,265 pieces. There are nearly 1,000 pieces certified in MS65 or better, and most collectors look for spectacular quality in this issue to make up for the otherwise unexceptional elements of this design.
San Diego Half Dollar - Over 100,000 pieces were minted of the two dates that make up this issue. MS66 examples are easily located for both dates (over 1,400 total) and there are 88 pieces in MS67 or better as well.
Even with this large supply this is a "problem coin" at times as the Observation Tower on the reverse is frequently poorly struck.
Sesquicentennial Half Dollar - This is the key to the 50-piece commemorative set in MS65 or better condition. This makes it one of the most highly sought 20th century coins in Gem quality.
This issue has a problem (or two). Poor die preparation left the entire mintage with a porous, fuzzy central obverse. In addition, the coin was struck in low relief, leaving details poorly defined. PCGS has graded only seven pieces of the "Sesqui" half dollar MS66 with zero higher.
When you consider the large collector base of this series and the demand for Gem quality pieces, it is not an overstatement to say that this coin has virtually unlimited potential in top grades, especially in MS66. Don't let the mintage of 141,120 scare you away. This coin is a whopper of a condition rarity.
Spanish Trail Half Dollar - This coin has the same mintage as the Hudson (and the Hawaiian) at 10,008 pieces. Many are nicely preserved, with 950+ in MS65 and nearly 400 others higher.
The Spanish Trail half dollar commemorates the 400th anniversary of Cabeza de Vaca's expedition in 1535. The reverse shows the route of the expedition, while the obverse displays the head of a cow, a pun on the name Cabeza de Vaca (literal translation). Popular because of the low mintage and attractive price levels at this time.
Stone Mountain Half Dollar - This is perhaps the #1 "entry level" commemorative because they've always been available in circulated condition for a cheap price. Over 1.3 million were issued and most of them were eventually spent during the Depression. There are over 1,300 pieces in MS65 or better, with MS66 and MS67 specimens in the greatest demand.
Texas Half Dollar - Talk about a busy design! There's a lot happening on this coin, with Texas independence, Winged Victory, the Lone Star, the Alamo, Sam Houston, Stephen Austin and lots of other details thrown in. This issue includes 13 different date/mintmark combinations, with mintages ranging from 61,463 to a mere 3,775 for the 1938-D. Remarkably affordable these days, even in MS67 (619 pieces).
Vancouver Half Dollar - This is a scarce type, with only 612 pieces graded in MS65 or better. It celebrates the centennial of Ft. Vancouver (1825) and its founder. This is one of the most lustrous of all the commemorative issues, but many survivors are plagued with contact marks. Only 14,994 pieces were issued.
Vermont Half Dollar - Ira Allen, the founder of Vermont, shares this coin with a catamount (puma, cougar, etc.). It celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bennington. This is one of the best values on the market on a price/rarity scale, and the design is popular with collectors.
Only 688 pieces are certified in MS65 or better, and most survivors are MS63-64. This coin is frequently found with heavy toning on the obverse and reverse, and the cat is susceptible to lots of chatter (light contact marks).
Booker T. Washington Half Dollar - This large issue covers 18 different date/mintmark combinations with a total mintage of over 3,000,000 pieces. Many examples are heavily marked on the face, while the reverse is usually clean. Some of the P-D-S sets have a low mintage, most notably that of 1949, when 6,004 pieces of each coin were struck.
Collectors usually seek this coin in MS66 (1,456 pieces) or MS67 (32 pieces). The large supply holds the prices of these coins down, except in the rare MS67 grade.
Wisconsin Half Dollar - This coin commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Territorial government, and it's filled with symbols, including the state emblem (badger), mining, and the Black Hawk War. The coins were well preserved, with 3,000 examples certified in MS65 or better. Even so, this issue is noted for marks, especially on the miner's arm, and superb examples are always in demand.
York Half Dollar - The 300th anniversary of York County, Maine. Large quantities survive in exceptional condition, with over 3,100 pieces certified in MS65 or better. Even if you're looking for an MS67 there are 362 pieces graded, with 21 additional examples in MS68! Affordable and attractive.
Oregon Trail Half Dollar