During all the years I was growing up, it seemed a certainty that the U. S. Mint would never again strike commemorative coins...
During all the years I was growing up, it seemed a certainty that the U. S. Mint would never again strike commemorative coins. The Treasury Department had vigorously opposed any new proposals that were raised. Everyone I knew in the hobby had long since stopped campaigning for new coins, and this had a dampening effect on the value of existing issues. In fact, the market for commemoratives seemed rather dormant throughout the 1960s and '70s. Even during the big coin market run-up of 1978-81, this series participated only peripherally.
Then, at the end of 1981, things changed quite suddenly. Though I read all the popular numismatic periodicals regularly, I remember being surprised at the announcement of a new commemorative coin. Perhaps I was just too absorbed in studying old coins to follow news stories relating to current issues, yet it seemed that the half dollar honoring the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth in 1982 came out of nowhere. In fact, it had been approved by the House as far back as May of 1981. Signed into law by President Reagan on December 23, 1981 this bill provided for the coining of not more than ten million half dollars to be dated 1982 and minted no later than December 31, 1983.
Not specified were the mints at which this coin type was to be made. This was an oversight common to many of the commemorative bills of the 1920s and '30s and one that compelled collectors to purchase three-coin sets to keep their collections complete. Fortunately for buyers of the Washington half dollar, the Mint demonstrated admirable constraint in that only two mint facilities produced these coins. Denver coined the regular edition, while San Francisco provided the proof coinage. These were priced by the Mint at $8.50 and $10.50, respectively.
In many ways the Washington commemorative seems to belong more to the classic era of 1892-1954 commemoratives than it did to the numerous issues that followed it. First, it was a half dollar, like most of the earlier issues, and it was coined solely in the traditional composition of .900 silver and .100 copper. Second, though the Denver Mint pieces were probably struck twice to bring out their design, they were otherwise handled as normal production coins. They evidently were ejected mechanically from the press and permitted to tumble into hoppers, where they made contact with other coins. Subsequent commemorative coins appear to have been removed from the press one at a time and handled with some care, as they are seldom found with the numerous bagmarks that are a problem with the 1982-D Washington halves. Finally, though the dies were replaced before they developed actual flowlines, the uncirculated coins struck at Denver have a fairly normal finish to them. They thus look more like uncirculated silver coins of earlier years. In later commemorative programs, the coins advertised by the Mint as having an "uncirculated" finish are in fact satin proofs, struck two or three times from specially prepared dies having a uniform texture throughout.
I've long admired the manner in which Congress and the Mint sold these coins. No extensive marketing was required, and nearly all coins were sold to existing customers on the Mint's mailing list. All profits were directed toward reduction of the national debt, while most subsequent programs have benefited various private or quasi-public organizations. If there was one failing in this program, it was that sales were not terminated soon enough. There was no specified cutoff date in the authorizing act, so these coins were available from the Mint through the end of 1985. Before that time, the prices had been raised to $10 for the uncirculated edition and $12 for proofs, which did slow sales and offer some theoretical protection to those who had already purchased their coins. Yet, though the remaining pieces were melted, net sales were simply too high for this coin issue to maintain its value. Prices fell over the next few years, and uncertified examples of either finish remain available below issue price to this day.
With the recent widespread popularity of modern coin issues, particularly those graded and encapsulated by third parties, top-grade examples of the Washington half dollar trade at considerably more than their raw counterparts. This is especially true of the 1982-D uncirculated halves, which are easily the rarest of the modern commemoratives in high grades.
I'd like to leave you with one personal anecdote relating to the Washington half dollar. When a friend of mine retired from the San Francisco Mint in 1987, he was permitted to take a few people on guided tours of that facility, which is normally not open to the public. In the basement I was treated to the sight of unsold proof 1982-S Washington halves, still in their plastic capsules, being run through an upsetting mill. This machine, which is normally used to form a rim on planchets prior to striking, provided enough compression to shatter the plastic capsules. While plastic shards went in every direction, requiring us to wear safety goggles, the coins were freed in a quick and efficient manner so that they could then move on to the melting oven. Seeing thousands of scratched and scuffed proofs piled up in a hopper is an experience I'll never forget.
David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.