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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 theme.

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 $50 coins.

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 Washington Carver.

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” mintmark).

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 numismatics.

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.

Collecting Strategies

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.

By Denomination

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 coins.

By Theme

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.

By Set

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.

How Much?

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 retail values.


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.


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