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Collecting Strategies for Classic Commems

by Kathleen Duncan


pinnacle_commems_092409Between 1892 and 1954, there were 50 different silver commemoratives authorized by Congress: 48 Half Dollars along with a single Quarter and Dollar. Because many of these were issued for multiple years, were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints, and were issued with subtle design variations, there are a total of 144 different silver coins that constitute the Classic Silver Commemorative category. Many of the coins were designed in contest by important sculptors and among them are some of the most creative examples of coinage art in all of numismatics. They also form an instructive history course of our nation, as each commemorates an important event.

Commemoratives differ from regular issue coins as they are struck primarily for collectors rather than to circulate as money, although they are legal tender. Most Classic Commemoratives were struck in conjunction with a large exhibition and festival. These coins were sold to collectors at a premium to their face value, typically to raise money for a monument to be built or to defray the costs of the particular celebration. The very first such exhibition was the 1892 Chicago World’s fair, which produced the 1892 Columbus Half Dollar, honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Silver Commemoratives can be assembled in nearly an endless number of ways, in all price ranges, making them an easy area to pursue. Purchasing one of each of the 50 unique designs is referred to as a type set. The ambitious pursuit of a complete set requires one of each of the 144 dates and mintmarks referenced above. If you prefer a less daunting task, you can choose among any number of sub segments to match your particular interests.


There were 6 designs that were issued over several years and at various mints, resulting in highly popular Specialty Sets where one of each date and mint is obtained.

  • Arkansas Set (1935-39) 15 coins
  • Boone Set (1934-38) 16 coins
  • Washington-Carver Set (1951-1954) 12 coins
  • Oregon Set (1926-1939) 14 coins
  • Texas Set (1934-1938) 13 coins
  • Booker T. Washington Set (1946-1951) 18 coins


There are a number of commemorative half dollars that are related to battles or great leaders of the Civil War.

  • Antietam (1937). Struck to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first major battle on northern soil and the bloodiest one day battle of the United States’ Civil War. The coin was designed by William Marks Simpson who also designed the Roanoke and the Norfolk commemorative halves. The obverse features the busts of generals George B McClellan and Robert E. Lee. The reverse is an illustration of the Burnside Bridge at Antietam, a geographic representation of the location of the actual battle. Despite promoters efforts the Antietam was not in great demand at time of issue. Of the original 50,000 coins struck, some 32,000 were returned to the Treasury for melting.
  • Gettysburg (1936). The Battle of Gettysburg half dollar observed the 75th anniversary of the epic Civil War battle. The models were made by Frank Vittor who depicted both a Union and Confederate soldier on the obverse. The commemorative market had faded by 1938 and nearly half the 26,928 mintage was melted.
  • Grant (1922). A 100th anniversary coin struck in honor of the birth of the Union general and future President. Laura Gardin Fraser was chosen for the design. She depicts the bust of Grant in uniform on the obverse, while the reverse displays Grant’s childhood home. The commission desired a variety in this type. They came up with the idea of stamping half the gold dollars with a star. Much to their surprise, about 5,000 halves were also struck with the same star.
  • Lincoln/Illinois (1918). The Lincoln commemorative is not a true Civil War issue (it actually honors the Centennial of the state of Illinois) but it features the bust of Abe Lincoln on the obverse, so it seems an appropriate addition to this subset. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Illinois’ induction to the Union, Congress authorized a quantity of 100,000 commemorative coins be struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1918.
  • Stone Mountain (1925). This half dollar depicts the Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and it helped to fund the Stone Mountain Civil War memorial in Georgia. The obverse of the Stone Mountain shows Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on horseback. The reverse depicts a bald eagle on a cliff along with the inscription “Memorial to the Valor of the Soldier of the South”. Over 1,000,000 were produced, a huge mintage for commemoratives, and funds received for their sales were used to defray expenses for carving of the figures of soldiers and confederate leaders on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which was started in 1923 but not completed until 1970.


There are four California-related issues and each is remarkable for its beauty.

  • Bay Bridge (1936). The coin was designed by Jacques Schnier, a young immigrant artist living in the San Francisco area. On the obverse, Schnier used a grizzly bear motif – symbolic of the state and its wild roots. The reverse is a modernistic panorama of the bridge and bay. The coins were sold at an issue price of $1.50 and many were sold from booths located at the entrances to the eight mile long bridge.
  • California Jubilee (1925). Authorized along with the Vermont and the Vancouver commemoratives in early 1925, the California Diamond Jubilee celebrated the 75th anniversary of the state’s admission to the Union. Despite opposition, the coin was designed by a Joseph Mora, an immigrant from Uruguay who lived in Carmel. The obverse bore a representation of a prospector panning for gold, symbolic of California’s “Gold Rush” beginnings. The reverse was a rendition of the large bear motif used on the California state flag. A whopping 150,200 coins were struck exclusively in the San Francisco mint. An optimistic number as 63,606 were later melted.
  • Panama-Pacific (1915). The Panama Pacific half dollar was issued to help fund the 1915 Exposition in San Francisco, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Charles E. Barber’s obverse design features Ms. Liberty dispensing flowers from her child’s cornucopia – a “hollow, horn-shaped wicker basket typically filled with various kinds of festive fruit and vegetables.” In the background is a sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge. The reverse displays an eagle surrounded by oak and olive branches. Many consider this design one of the most beautiful in the Classic Commemorative series.
  • San Diego (1935-1936). Designed by Robert Aitken, the San Diego commemoratives were produced for sale as souvenirs at the San Diego World’s Fair in Balboa Park in 1935-36. The obverse design was an adaptation of the state seal – Minerva holding a shield and spear. A bear appears in the left background. The reverse features the observation tower and the State of California building from the exposition. The 1935 issues were struck in San Francisco and the 1936 pieces in Denver.


The Art Deco style began in Europe during the 1920’s and spread to America soon thereafter. By the mid-1930’s it was very popular in this country and it can be most easily identified by streamlined or severely angular designs. There are four silver commemorative half dollars which display classic Art Deco motifs.

  • Bridgeport (1936). The Bridgeport half dollar commemorates the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of this town and it features the portrait of P.T. Barnum on the obverse. The reverse, with a very Art Deco-influenced eagle, is a favorite of collectors. Henry G Kreis is the artist responsible for this design as well as the Connecticut below.
  • Cincinnati (1936). The obverse of this issue displays a portrait of Stephen Foster while the Art-Deco reverse honors Cincinnati as a center of American music. The Cincinnati half dollar was authorized to commemorate the 50th anniversary for the city as a center of music. The Cincinnati Musical Center Commemorative Coin Association got the measure passed and struck 15,016 coins divided equally among the three mints.
  • Connecticut (1935). The stylish Art Deco eagle found on the obverse of the Connecticut Tercentenary half dollar is one of the finest designs on any silver commemorative half dollar. A massive rendition of the famed Charter Oak, where colonist hid the original colony’s charter, resides on the obverse. On the reverse a modernized eagle is displayed.
  • Hudson (1935). Incorporated in 1785, the city of Hudson, New York was named for the river on which it was located. The river’s namesake, Henry Hudson was famous for a number of explorations to the New World during the early 1600’s. The reverse of this issue features an appealing Deco-inspired rendering of the seal of the city of Hudson. The obverse depicts the Half Moon, the flagship of Hudson’s fleet. The Philadelphia Mint coined the small mintage of 10,000 coins.


The five commemorative half dollars that relate to the Empire State include some of the most attractive designs in the series.

  • Albany (1936). This coin commemorates the 250th anniversary of the charter of the second oldest city in the U.S. The obverse depicts a beaver perched on a Maple branch which is the state tree. The beaver pelt trade was the main industry of the early settlers. Although 17,671 were produced, by 1943 many remained unsold and the remaining 7,342 were sent back to Philadelphia to be melted.
  • Hudson (1935). The Hudson half dollar, which has mentioned above because of its lovely Art Deco design, is an integral member of this New York-related quintet.
  • Huguenot-Walloon (1924). New York (originally known as New Netherlands) was founded by these Dutch colonists in 1624 and this issue was struck to commemorate the 300th anniversary of this settlement. The design was suggested by Dr. John Baer Stoudt, with George T. Morgan preparing the models. The reverse is a depiction of the New Nederland ship sailed by the early settlers from Holland.
  • Long Island (1936). The design has slight Art-Deco overtones and could be added to the Art Deco set listed above. Another in the long line of silver commemoratives struck in 1936, the Long Island Tercentenary observed the 300th anniversary of the settlement at Jamaica Bay on Long Island, by Dutch colonists. The design was conceived by Howard Kenneth Weinman, son of the Mercury dime designer Adolph A. Weinman. His obverse depicted busts of both a Dutch settler, and native Algonquin Indian. The reverse is a representative to a period Dutch sailing vessel, and is often compared to the ship on the reverse of the Hudson. The net mintage was 81,826 after nearly 20,000 unsold pieces found their way to the melting pots.
  • New Rochelle (1938). This half dollar was issued in observance of the founding of New Rochelle in 1688 by French Huguenots from La Rochelle. These early colonists purchased the 6000 acre tract from John Pell. Gertrude K. Lathrop designed the coin. Mr. Pell appears on the obverse with a calf, as part of the title arrangement to the land supposedly provided that he gave away a fattened calf every year. The reverse bears the fleur-de-lis, as adopted from the Seal of the city.


Besides the many historical and aesthetic attributes and the countless collecting possibilities, one of our primary reasons for promoting this area is that prices are at small fractions of their highs from 1990. These coins were issued in very small numbers. Seventy of the 144 Silver Commemorative issues have an original mintage of under 10,000. And a large percentage can be purchased in MS65 and higher grades for less than $500. Below are a few that appear to have especially good upside potential, and the chart includes the number of retail auctions and average price realized in the last 12 months. I don’t recommend purchasing any coins that are not certified by either PCGS or NGC.

Silver Commemoratives MS67 Population
Population Higher
Quantity Auctioned
Avg. Price Realized
Albany (1936)
Cleveland (1936)
86         121
37          50
1              7
1              3
3              2
1              4
$1,269        $719
$1,553     $1,186
Delware (1936)
Huguenot (1924)
Lynchburg (1936)
67          87
39          37
55          88
0              3
0              0
0              6
5              3
2              3
3              2
$1,375        $959
$2,645     $1,457
$1,438        $892
Maryland (1934)
Robinson (1936)
44          77
59          26
0              3
1              0
3             10
0              1
$2,032     $1,153
none sold   $1,610

Silver Commemoratives have wide reaching appeal as beautiful objects in their own right. They also tell an instructive story of the beginning of our nation. Majestic images portrayed by gifted sculptors highlight the milestones of the America’s past, from the voyage of Columbus to the Monroe Doctrine to the Panama Canal. Whether you decide to pursue each date and mint of each of the fifty designs, collect one of the specialty sets listed above, or simply purchase individual coins that strike your fancy, the collecting possibilities are practically limitless. When you factor in prices at historical lows, they provide an unbeatable opportunity.


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