Description and Analysis

Modern Commemoratives

Description & Analysis

The discovery by Europeans of the New World in 1492 had been celebrated a century earlier with the USA’s first official commemorative coins, the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition quarter dollar and half dollar. The far more significant quincentenary, or 500th anniversary, of this event certainly called for a coin program of some sort, even though the nation as a whole was far less excited about this occasion than it had been in 1892. The modern depiction of Columbus and his successors as exploiters of the native population played a role in this ambivalence, but collectors were nevertheless pleased at the prospect of more commemorative coins.

With so many other coin programs in the pipeline, it is not surprising that approval for this one came at the eleventh hour. It was not until May 13, 1992 that Congress approved the familiar lineup of 6 million copper-nickel-clad half dollars, 4 million silver dollars and 500 thousand gold half eagles. The Denver Mint was slated to produce the uncirculated half dollars and dollars, while the proof editions of these coins were divided between San Francisco and Philadelphia, respectively. As usual, the West Point Mint had sole responsibility for both versions of the gold half eagle.

In what was becoming a rare occurrence, both sides of the half dollar were created by a single artist—T. James Ferrell of the U. S. Mint. Perhaps the most pleasing of the three coins, it depicts Columbus stepping ashore in the New World, his men and ship behind him in the distance. The dual commemorative dates are below, the coin’s mintmark at right just beneath the horizon. Below this are the artist’s initials. For the reverse Ferrell chose a lively view of the explorer’s three ships under full sail. Above these is the slightly awkward inscription “500TH ANNIVERSARY OF COLUMBUS DISCOVERY,” while the balance of the coin is comprised entirely of statutory legends and mottoes.

The silver dollar is more typical of modern commemoratives in that it features the work of different sculptors for each side, though both were members of the U. S. Mint’s engraving staff. John Mercanti’s obverse portrays a full length Columbus standing with pennant in hand before a floor-mounted globe of the world. Above and behind is a stylized view of his three ships at sea, while the inscription “COLUMBUS QUINCENTENARY” is below. The coin’s date of minting is at right, with the mintmark below it, and Mercanti’s initials appear beneath the globe pedestal. Thomas D. Rogers, Sr. provided the clever reverse view of Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria morphing into the American space shuttle, symbolizing two eras of exploration. Above these split images are a sea bird and a star, with a view of Earth to the right of the space shuttle. Rogers’ initials appear beneath the shuttle, and the dual commemorative dates are placed along the lower border. Statutory inscriptions balance out the design on both sides.

Ferrell and Rogers prepared designs for the gold half eagle’s obverse and reverse, respectively. Columbus is shown facing left toward a map of the New World which, of course, would have been unrecognizable to him at the time. His anglicized name appears in full beneath his chin, all of these elements enclosed within a circle. Outside this circle are the dual commemorative dates at left and right, respectively, as well as two statutory inscriptions. Just beneath Columbus’ hair are the initials of T. James Ferrell. For the reverse, Thomas D. Rogers, Sr. featured a map of the Old World dated 1492 over which is superimposed the crest of the Admiral of Oceans, a title conferred upon Columbus by a grateful Spanish Monarchy. The map is flanked at left by Rogers’ initials and at right by the coin’s mintmark, with statutory inscriptions completing this side.

All three coins were issued in both uncirculated and proof editions, with pre-issue discount prices to attract advance purchases. Despite relatively superior designs as compared to other contemporary coin programs, the Columbus Quincentenary issues posted disappointing sales, the combined mintage of uncirculated and proof half eagles barely surpassing the 100,000 mark. There were simply too many coin programs in too brief a period for most collectors’ budgets, and the fact that some earlier issues had already fallen in value below their issue prices certainly did not encourage sales at the time.