Description and Analysis

Modern Commemoratives

Description & Analysis

By 1990 word was spreading through Congress and various lobbying organizations how effective commemorative coin sales were in raising funds for private organizations. Such programs increasingly were being viewed as painless alternatives to government funding. The use of coin sales to fund what Congress would not became the overall theme of this and the next several commemorative programs, and it resulted in some issues of dubious historic importance.

Public Law 101-495 was passed October 31, 1990 and provided for the coining of not more than one million silver dollars. All of these coins had to be dated and minted during 1991. Within the sales price was incorporated a $7 surcharge, and the proceeds from this funding were directed toward erecting a memorial in Washington, DC to those Americans who served in the Korean War of 1950-53. Though the final design of any USA coin is selected by the secretary of the Treasury, he was required under this law to consult with Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board and the American Battle Monuments Commission. Despite so many opinions, or rather because of this, the resulting coin was confusing and artistically disappointing.

The obverse of the Korean War Dollar was designed and sculpted by John Mercanti of the U. S. Mint, who was required to honor all branches of the military. Shown are an Army solder climbing a hillside, while Air Force F-86 fighter planes roar overhead and Navy ships are clustered at the bottom of the coin. The inscriptions “THIRTY EIGHTH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATIVE” and “KOREA” appear to the left of the soldier, along with the dual dates 1953 1991 to his right. Eight stars appear just inside the border at upper right in an apparent attempt to balance the imagery, and Mercanti’s initials are placed within the stylized waves at lower right. When combined with the statutory legends and mottoes, the outcome is a cluttered mess that ultimately pleased no one.

It was assumed by many that the selection of the awkward 38th anniversary for the coining of this commemorative was a reference to the 38th longitudinal parallel, the famous truce line separating North and South Korea at the end of the war. The coin’s backers would have been well advised to support this notion, but instead they denied it, affirming in the minds of most collectors that this coin’s primary significance was as a fundraiser.

The reverse of this coin is somewhat simpler in its elements, but no less confusing in its choice of imagery. A map of the Korean Peninsula shows North Korea with diagonal shading, while South Korea is plain, except for the placement of its national symbol at dead center, an icon largely unknown to Americans. The peninsula is divided at the truce line along the 38th parallel, and the head of an American eagle appears at right. Beneath the eagle is the coin’s mintmark, while the initials of U. S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver T. James Ferrell appear beneath the peninsula. The balance of the design is composed of statutory inscriptions.

A first striking ceremony for this coin was held at the Philadelphia Mint on May 6, 1991. Buyers were offered the usual pre-issue discounts on Uncirculated and Proof coins. The Uncirculated examples were struck at the Denver Mint (‘D’ mintmark) and priced at $23 through May 31, after which time the price rose to $26. Philadelphia (‘P’) coined the proof edition, and this was priced at $28 and $31, respectively.

Much was made by the Mint of this coin’s lower than usual production limit of just one million pieces. This lower figure was based on the declining sales of several recent commemorative programs, but the Mint capitalized on it as a means of making the coin more appealing to collectors. Buyers were warned that deliveries to individual customers might be limited, should a sell-out occur. It turned out that no one was denied their purchases, as total sales came under the one million coin limit, with more than 100,000 pieces to spare. As was customary with unsold commemorative coins, these were later melted.