Description and Analysis
1986 W LIBERTY $5 MS
Description & Analysis
The centennial of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 was an obvious choice for a new series of commemorative coins, and it was decided that the history of immigration to America should be recognized, as well. This would prove to be one of the most successful commemorative coin programs of the modern era.
The statue of Liberty that stands in New York’s harbor was a gift to America from the Franco-American Union. It was intended that the monumental sculpture be dedicated on the occasion of the nation’s centennial in 1876, but the project fell behind schedule almost immediately. Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi did, however, complete Liberty’s upraised arm that holds her torch of freedom, and this was on display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that year. Once the work was completed and disassembled for shipment to the United States, there remained the problem of raising funds for the pedestal upon which it stands. An appeal to the American people, particularly schoolchildren, finally brought in enough money to begin completion of the monument in 1884, and it was dedicated in October of 1886 on what is now known as Liberty Island. The actual name of this statue is “Liberty Enlightening the World.”
Three denominations were selected for this program of coins. Included were a half dollar of the copper-nickel-clad composition used for circulating coins, a silver dollar of the traditional .900 fine silver alloy and a gold half eagle that conformed to the .900 gold issues produced for circulation through 1929. All three would be produced in both proof and uncirculated finishes, with their production limited to just one mint for each of the six resulting issues. It was believed that this range of options would appeal to all budgets, as well as making for attractive three- and six-coin set for those who afford to spend a little more. This line-up was indeed successful, and it became the template for several later programs.
The half dollar depicts on its obverse an immigrant ship passing between the statue and the rising sun. It is a very attractive composition created by U. S. Mint Engraver Edgar Z. Steever IV, whose initials appear at lower left. The reverse by Sheryl J. Winter shows a newly arrived immigrant family examining the skyline of New York City from the dock at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, the point of entry for millions of immigrants from 1892 to 1954 (coincidentally, this is the same range of years for the earlier series of USA commemorative coins). Steever’s initials are at the lower left, alongside one of the immigrant’s bags. The uncirculated edition of this coin was minted at Denver (mintmark ‘D’ on the obverse to the right of the sun), while proofs were struck at the San Francisco Mint (‘S’).
The silver dollar in this program was the work of Mint Engraver John Mercanti, but the reverse is partially credited to Matthew Peloso. Though the obverse depicts the State of Liberty, its main theme is “Ellis Island, Gateway to America.” A view of the immigration station appears behind the statue, while Mercanti’s initials are just to the right of the statue on the horizon. The reverse of this coin is perhaps the weakest image in the program, as it is merely a view of Liberty’s torch surrounded by stylized rays and an excerpt from the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, herself an immigrant. Though not visible on the coin, these powerful words appear upon the tablet that Liberty holds in her left hand. The initials of Matthew Peloso and John Mercanti are placed near the rim at lower right. The Philadelphia Mint (‘P’) struck the uncirculated version, its mintmark appearing below the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, while San Francisco produced the proof edition.
The gold half eagle was widely anticipated by collectors, and U. S. Mint Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones did not disappoint them. Her dramatic perspective view of the statue’s head for the obverse of this coin is one of the most memorable images in the modern commemorative series. Jones’ initials ‘EJ’ are tucked into the field just to the left of the first ray. A more conventional image appears on the reverse, that of an eagle in profile about to land. Though Philip Fowler of the Mint staff assisted Jones in the preparation of this model, the initials of neither artist appear on the reverse. Both the uncirculated and proof editions of this coin type were struck at the West Point Mint in New York State, and its mintmark ‘W’ is seen on the obverse at lower right.
For some reason it was the half dollar, not the dollar, that was featured in 1986’s Prestige Proof Set. This special packaging of the commemorative piece alongside the regular proof coins from cent through half dollar did not always generate great sales, but it did so in 1986.
All three coin types in this program were extremely well received, with broad sales to both established collectors and the general public. As would become typical, the proof coins vastly outsold the uncirculated pieces. In later years this would make the lower-mintage uncirculated coins more desirable to those attempting to assemble complete sets, with top-grade examples being somewhat scarce and highly sought for registry sets. Though they didn’t receive the rough handling typical of circulating coins, the uncirculated half dollars, in particular, are sometimes marred by nicks and abrasions.