On December 23, 1981 Congress did something it hadn’t done in more than thirty years—it approved a new issue of commemorative coins. The silver half dollar honoring the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth was to be coined in 1982, the first purely commemorative coin minted by the United States since 1954 and the first new design since 1951.
Collectors had been asking for the resumption of commemorative coins for so many years that most in the hobby believed the subject to be hopeless. The long series of commemorative coins, mostly half dollars, had begun in 1892 and came to a quiet end in 1954, following years of complaints about abuses and malfeasance. At that time Congress was relieved to be rid of these special coins. It must be said that many collectors were likewise glad that their pockets would no longer be picked by coin committees that contrived to have the same commemorative type issued year after year from all three mints. Such a policy was highly exploitative and placed collectors in the position of having to buy duplicate coins at ever increasing prices annually or suffer the fate of having incomplete sets.
In contrast, the terms set forth for sales of the George Washington Half Dollar were designed to avoid these abuses. While the coins would be issued from two mints, each issue had a different finish, so there would be no redundancy. Furthermore, the coins were sold directly by the U. S. Mint, rather than through private commissions, with all profits going toward reduction of the national debt. A handsome design by U. S. Mint sculptors Elizabeth Jones and Matthew Peloso, combined with the hobby’s understandable hunger for a new coin, led to very high sales. While this somewhat hurt the value of these coins on the secondary market, their prices eventually recovered.
The proven success of the Washington Half Dollar program led to the coining of both silver dollars and gold eagles for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Despite the less than stellar designs and some complaints about redundant issues from several mints, this program was similarly successful in sales terms. It was followed in 1986 by a three-denomination set of coins honoring the centennial of the landmark statue, Liberty Enlightening the World, a fixture in New York’s harbor and a symbol of immigrant America. The offering of a gold half eagle, a silver dollar and a copper-nickel half dollar provided the template for several future commemorative programs, as it offered something for every budget. Once again, sales were excellent. Both of these programs, however, were legislated to provide funding for non-profit organizations. A seemingly harmless notion at the time, this move toward issuing commemorative coins as fund-raising devices would come under increasing criticism in future programs.
A proven cash cow, commemorative coins soon became annual offerings, and with this increased frequency of issue came an inevitable dilution in the significance of their themes. This became quite evident in 1991 when, for the first time in the modern commemorative era, more than one program was authorized for a single year. In fact, no less than three new programs were offered to collectors. All of them suffered from mediocre designs, but at least those marking the 50th anniversaries of Mount Rushmore and the USO made some sense. The dates of 1953 and 1991 on the Korean War coins prompted a lot of discussion as what anniversary, if any was being recognized. When no answer was forthcoming, the program came under criticism as being exploitative, an echo of the charges that had doomed the original series of commemorative coins in 1954.
Collectors embraced the 1992 coins honoring Columbus’ discovery of the New World, but this was a rare highpoint amid a flurry of so-so issues. While most of the subjects commemorated during the next few years were worthy of recognition, the offering of so many issues in such a short time drew criticism from collectors whose budgets were being stretched to the limit. While once such coins were guaranteed a sellout, by 1994 their novelty had diminished, and several programs fell short of their authorized limits. More and more coins were being sent to the melting pot after their sales period ended. Years later, when the market for modern commemorative coins had become very strong, such issues would prove to be elusive in the secondary market, but at the time their lackluster sales were a troubling sign.
The commemorative program authorized for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some sixteen different coins were minted, each one offered in both proof and mint finish, for a total of 32 pieces needed for the complete set. Collectors balked at this obvious abuse, and sales for some of the less interesting issues were stunningly low. Shortly afterward Congress passed legislation that restricted the number of commemorative programs to just two per year, though it placed no limit on the variety of coins that was permitted for each program.
After that time the United States commemorative coin program was well managed. Though sales continued at a reduced level from previous years, there were few complaints from collectors. It appeared that things would continue in this pattern ever afterward, but then something surprising happened. After years of campaigning for a revival of James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel design, Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell finally scored in Congress. The 2001 offering of a silver dollar adapted from the Fraser design proved to be a complete sellout. The entire mintage was depleted in record time, this despite the fact that the coin had no specified commemorative theme. This reinforced the notion proposed by many in the hobby that the attractiveness of a coin has more to do with its popularity than does the significance of the subject being honored.
The Indian Head/Buffalo Silver Dollar ushered in a period of generally increased sales following the slow years of the late 1990s. Indeed, both the sales of new commemoratives by the U. S. Mint and those of previous issues within the secondary market are maintaining a brisk pace. The sponsors of new commemorative coin bills have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors by placing realistic limits on the number of coins to be struck under each law. This has had the desired effect of achieving sellouts of nearly all recent issues, with values then increasing for these same coins within the secondary market.
Much of the energy driving the market for the modern commemorative coins struck since 1982 may be attributed to the popularity of certified registry collecting. The major grading services permit collectors to register their coins as part of either specific or customized sets, the former being scored and placed in competition against the same sets registered by other collectors. Scored for their relative rarity in each grade, the coins are thus desired by collectors in the highest grades available.
One of the remarkable developments to arise from registry collecting is the great increase in value for many of the commemorative issues that were shunned upon their initial offering. Just as with the original commemorative coins of 1892-1954, it has been the ones with the lowest sales figures that have become the most coveted today. The need for completion prompted by registry collecting has done much to make these former black sheep the stars of the current commemorative coin market. Indeed, the popularity of collecting this series is so great today that there may never again be a low mintage issue.
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