Jim Bisognani: Collecting Classic Commemoratives

Posted on 6/16/2022

Silver coins with an impressive array of designs can be obtained for an affordable price.

Although summer doesn’t officially arrive until next week, the new joyously warm and sunny season is upon us. With the ongoing slate of online auctions to keep us busy, my fellow coindexters are hopefully taking advantage of some of the magnificent coins that are appearing every day in the coin cyberworld. Some examples have been priced very modestly, while many are still achieving bold and even record prices, which would take a robust first mortgage to reel in.

As I’ve mentioned many times in this column, I strongly believe that the classic US silver commemoratives (1892 to 1954) are a series that is woefully underpriced. Whether by design, history, theme or mintage, this series has something for every collector and budget. I can’t think of another more enjoyable series to tackle for the collector just getting on board with US numismatics.

Although most commemoratives sold for premiums above face value to defray the costs of production and distribution, many of them nonetheless did see modest circulation. As a youthful coindexter armed with the Red Book, I was fascinated to read that most of the mintages were so minuscule. That’s right: The majority of coins that make up the 144 within the series each report in with mintages or distributions that are well below 20,000. Also, more than a handful have mintages that wouldn’t satisfy the population of a small town in the middle of the Maine woods. I can hear some of my fellow coindexters scoffing at that statement, but it’s true!

For example, Milo, a small town in Maine, has a population of 2,251 (according to the last Census in 2020). That means there’s not enough supply of several issues within the classic US silver commemorative coins to go around to each of Milio’s inhabitants.

Unbelievable, you say. Are there US coins with mintages under 2,251? Yes, it is true, my fellow and budding coindexters. Ready for some more eye-opening stats? Each was found for sale within the last year at under $500 in full MS 65 or better! Consider the following sextet.

Boone Bicentennial Commemorative

1938 Boone Half Dollar graded NGC MS 66. Realized: $480 in a January 2021 Heritage Auctions sale
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1938-D Boone Half Dollar graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $336 in a February 2022 Heritage Auctions sale
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1938-S Boone Half Dollar graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $360 in a May 2022 Stack's Bowers sale
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1939 Arkansas Centennial Commemorative

1939 Arkansas Half Dollar graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $425 in an April 2022 David Lawrence sale
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1939-D Arkansas Half Dollar graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $350 in an April 2022 David Lawrence sale
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1939-S Arkansas Half Dollar graded NGC MS 65. Realized: $528 in an August 2021 Heritage Auctions sale
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These coins have all the ingredients for some blockbuster movement. Although these six coins cannot be considered keys to the classic silver commemorative series, they are nonetheless the lowest-mintage coins within this popularly collected series!

Truthfully, the longevity of the Boone (1934-1938), Arkansas (1935-1939), Oregon Trail (1926-1939) and the last installments of the classic US commemorative series for Booker T. Washington (1946-1951) and Washington Carver (1951-1954) was a major contributing factor in the decline of these subseries. Each overstayed their welcome with the public.

The demand and interest of collectors had waned; thus, the mintages or distribution dropped significantly. Yet, while the series promoters’ and marketers’ profits and sales had ultimately undermined the integrity of several of these popular subseries, in a twist of fate, it was their unbridled greed that delivered us the aforementioned sextet!

Classic commemoratives’ carousel of color

Aside from rainbow or otherwise colorfully toned Morgan Dollars, the classic US silver commemoratives have an enormous following for those highly patinated coins.

Classic commemoratives pedigreed to the Greg Bingham collection are spearheading this unprecedented demand. Ian Russell’s GreatCollections auctions are featuring coins from Bingham in sales this month ending June 12, June 19 (perhaps Father’s Day gifts for the loving coindexter dad on your list) and June 26. The results from the June 12 sale have been tremendous!

Leading the NGC barrage was this superb NGC MS 68 1935 Connecticut, the top-graded, finest-known and obviously spectacularly toned example that last appeared for public sale at a Heritage New York signature sale 20 years ago (July 27, 2002), realizing $9,488.

A flurry of bids was recorded in the last few minutes and catapulted this coin from a high bid of $10,000 to its final closing at $24,188, emphatically registering a new record for this coin. For the record, there was only one graded MS 68 in the NGC Census 20 years ago and still is today. This coin still stands as the finest, so it is likely that anything finer or equal doesn’t exist.

This fabulous first year of issue of the Booker T. Washington commemoratives is just stunning and visually utterly fantastic! Let’s face it, while noble, the coins’ design elements have never been one that would win accolades based solely on the engraver’s execution. Yet, this coin belies the otherwise Plain Jane status and puts us on the spot to spew some superfluous adjectives. But why?

A look at the scintillating obverse will immediately tell you that the patina was at work triple time on this. Ultimately, it was graded NGC MS 68+ . Just wonderful! According to the NGC Census, another MS 68+★ lurks out there. Yet, I can’t imagine how anything could best this amazing coin visually.

1946-S B.T. Washington Half Dollar graded NGC MS 68+★
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A 1918 Lincoln, Illinois Centennial graded NGC MS 68★ is tied for the finest-known example according to the NGC Census and is pedigreed to Salzburg/Bingham. This is another coin that must be seen in person. This proud issue has always been one of my favorites.

1918 Lincoln-Illinois Half Dollar graded NGC MS 68★
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The bold interpretation of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse, designed by none other than George T. Morgan, and a spectacularly proud eagle, designed by J.R. Sinnock on the reverse, stands as the third US Commemorative Half Dollar ever struck. This coin has already registered 29 bids and will meet the final auction block this Sunday evening, June 19 — Father’s Day and Juneteenth, which is very appropriate.

Below is a trio of highlights still up for bid from the GreatCollections Bingham sales:

1893 Isabella Quarter Dollar graded NGC PF 65, 1922 Grant-Star Half Dollar graded NGC SP 65 and 1926-S Oregon Trail Half Dollar graded NGC MS 68★, all pedigreed to the Bingham Collection
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So, my friends, please do your due diligence regarding any coin purchase. Carefully consider the intangibles such as color and other attractive patinazation. This is especially true now. For when the market is hot and prime, pedigreed coins come to market and many dealers tend to elevate prices of similar appearing coins in their inventories as if they are all on the expressway! So, be sure to check auction results, census reports and current trends to ascertain better what the real prices are.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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