Collecting Modern Commemorative Coins
By Arlyn G. Sieber
Congress has authorized a myriad of
commemorative coin series since 1982.
Commemorative coins honor events, people,
organizations, or other things, and are
authorized by law. They are official U.S.
government issues and legal tender, but they are
not intended to circulate.
Instead, the U.S. Mint—at a premium above face
value—sells them directly to collectors. Laws
authorizing commemorative coins usually mandate
that a certain amount of the purchase price
benefit a group or event related to the coin’s
In terms of cost, collecting modern
commemoratives is a step up from collecting
coins from circulation at face value or buying
them at shops or shows for a few dollars each.
But focusing on one or more collecting
strategies, as outlined earlier, can keep
purchases within a budget.
The Story Behind the Coins
The first U.S. commemorative coin was an 1892
half dollar for the Columbian Exposition. The
exposition was held May 1-Oct. 30, 1893, in
Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of
Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The U.S.
Mint struck 950,000 Columbian half dollars dated
1892 and more than 1.5 million dated 1893.
The Columbian half dollar opened the door to
many other commemorative coins from the 1910s
and continuing into the 1950s. Most were silver
half dollars, but there was also an 1893 quarter
(also for the Columbian Exposition), a number of
gold dollars, two gold $2.50 coins, and two gold
The coins were sold by the Mint at a premium
above face value with a portion of the proceeds
benefiting some organization or event related to
the coin’s theme. Some of the coins commemorated
state anniversaries or national themes, such as
the U.S. Sesquicentennial in 1926.
There were no less than 18 commemorative half
dollars issued in 1936 alone. Among them was an
issue commemorating the 75th anniversary of the
Battle of Gettysburg. Others, however, were of
little national importance, such as issues for
the Cincinnati Music Center and the centennial
of Elgin, Ill.
Congress grew weary of U.S. coinage being used
as local fundraisers, and the flow of
commemorative coins slowed in the 1940s and
’50s. The last issue among what are commonly
called “early” commemoratives was a 1954 half
dollar honoring Booker T. Washington and George
A 28-year hiatus on commemorative coinage ensued
until Congress authorized a half dollar in the
traditional 90-percent-silver composition to
honor the 250th anniversary of George
Washington’s birth in 1982. Thus began what are
commonly called “modern” commemoratives.
The Washington coin was a winner in many
respects: First, its theme was of truly national
significance and worthy of commemoration.
Second, its design by Mint engraver Elizabeth
Jones featured a striking depiction of
Washington on horseback, a departure from the
staid busts used for portraiture on coins since
the Lincoln cent of 1909. The reverse, also
designed by Jones, features a view of
Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
These factors, combined with the long break in
commemorative coinage, made the coin popular
with collectors. The Mint sold more than 2.2
million uncirculated versions (“D” mintmark) and
almost 4.9 million proof versions (“S”
Like the Columbian half dollar 90 years earlier,
the George Washington half dollar opened the
door to more commemorative coinage, and like the
commemorative coinage of the 1930s, an
undesirable proliferation resulted. The coins’
themes in the 1990s weren’t as localized as many
of those in the 1930s, but commemorative coinage
became an easy mark for senators and U.S.
representatives looking to do a favor for a
constituency or a favor for a fellow lawmaker by
offering their vote for a commemorative coin
program. Commemorative coins could raise funds
for a pet cause through surcharges on the Mint’s
sales of the coins, and a vote for a program
went largely unnoticed by the general public.
The year 1994 alone brought five commemorative
coin programs: World Cup soccer, National
Prisoner of War Museum, U.S. Capitol
Bicentennial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and
Women in Military Service Memorial. Although
each theme had its virtues, the market for
commemorative coins couldn’t keep up with all
the issues, and sales plummeted from the highs
of the Washington half dollar and other early
issues in the modern era.
In response, Congress passed the Commemorative
Coin Reform Act of 1996. Among other provisions,
it limits the number of commemorative themes to
two per year. In addition, congressional
proposals for commemorative coins must be
reviewed by the Citizens Coinage Advisory
Committee, which reports to the Treasury
secretary. The 10-person committee consists of
members from the general public and those with
credentials in American history, sculpture, and
Where to Get Them
Current-year commemoratives can be purchased
directly from the U.S. Mint (www.usmint.gov).
Issues from previous years can be purchased at
shows, shops, or through advertisements in hobby
publications, such as Coins magazine.
A complete collection of every commemorative
half dollar, silver dollar, and gold coin issued
since 1982 is a commendable but daunting goal
for many collectors, especially beginners.
Following are suggestions for getting started in
collecting modern commemoratives, which can lead
to expanding the collection in the future:
Collect What You Like
If you see a modern commemorative coin and you
like it, buy it. The coin may appeal to you
because of its theme or design. Whatever the
reason, if you like the coin and are willing to
pay the asking price, it will make a great
addition to your collection.
A new collector may want to focus on just the
commemorative half dollars issued since 1982 or
just the silver dollars. With a good value guide
in hand and more money to spend, a new collector
could also venture into gold coins and select
one or more of the many commemorative gold $5
Collectors of modern commemoratives can also
focus on a particular theme that appeals to
them, such as presidents, the Olympics or other
sports, women, or military themes. Again,
collect what you like.
As a Complement to a Circulating-Coin Collection
One or more commemorative coins can complement a
collection of circulating coins with similar
design themes. For example, a 1993 silver dollar
commemorating the 250th anniversary of Thomas
Jefferson’s birth can complement a collection of
Westward Journey nickels. A 1990 silver dollar
commemorating the centennial of Dwight
Eisenhower’s birth can complement a collection
of Eisenhower dollars.
When selling a current-year commemorative
series, the U.S. Mint often offers various sets
containing individual coins in the series in
uncirculated and proof versions. For example,
the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial coin
series consisted of a base-metal half dollar,
silver dollar, and gold $5. Various sets of the
series offered by the Mint that year included a
two-coin set consisting of an uncirculated
silver dollar and clad half dollar; a three-coin
set consisting of uncirculated versions of each
coin; and a six-coin set consisting of proof and
uncirculated versions of each coin.
These and sets of other series can be found in
their original Mint packaging at shops and
shows, and through advertisements in hobby
publications such as Coins magazine.
Some of the least popular commemorative coins at
the time of their issue are the most expensive
on the secondary market today, and some of the
most popular commemorative coins at the time of
their issue are the most affordable today. Why?
The least popular coins didn’t sell as well,
which resulted in lower mintages. Generally
speaking, the scarcer coins are more valued by
collectors, which increases demand and drives up
their asking prices on the secondary market.
For example, the 1982 George Washington silver
commemorative half dollar was popular and sold
well at the time of issue. With millions of
coins produced, either an uncirculated or proof
example can be purchased for under $10.
In contrast, less than 50,000 uncirculated
versions of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
commemorative clad half dollar with the swimmer
design were produced. Expect to pay more than
$150 for one on the secondary market.
Coin Prices magazine, available on many
newsstands, provides a complete list of modern
U.S. commemorative coins and a guide to current
Modern U.S. commemorative coins have either a
“P” mintmark for Philadelphia, “D” for Denver,
“S” for San Francisco, or a “W” for West Point,
N.Y. Mintmark location varies by coin.
Commemorative coins are specially handled and
packaged at the mints. Thus, grading is less of
a factor in purchasing and collecting them.
Still, check each coin before you purchase it or
after you receive it in the mail. Make sure its
surfaces are clean and free of scratches or
other significant blemishes.
The U.S. Mint has a 30-day return policy for
coins purchased directly from it. Mail-order
dealers, such as those who advertise in Coins
magazine, also offer return policies. Check
individual ads for specific terms.
How to Store Them
Keep commemorative coins in their original U.S.
Mint packaging, whether purchased directly from
the Mint or on the secondary market. The
packaging is suitable for long-term storage and
protects the coins from wear and blemishes that
occur when handled directly.