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Consider Collecting Classic Commemorative Coins

In recent weeks I have enjoyed reviewing the cataloging for our forthcoming Americana Sale to be held in New York City, January 22-24, 2013. I plan to be there. If you attend, be sure to track me down and say hello.

Part of the sale — actually part of just about every sale — is a very nice selection of classic commemorative coins. These encompass the era from the first commemorative half dollar, the Columbian issue of 1892, down to the tail end, the Carver-Washington halves from all three mints in 1954. By the way, over the years Stack’s was official distributor for a number of commemoratives, beginning with the 1936 Arkansas-Robinson and continuing through the Booker T. Washington and Carver-Washington issues.

The world of United States commemorative coins is most fascinating. Each design has its own story. In fact, the introduction to commemoratives in A Guide Book of United States Coins states something to the effect that among all series none have more history or romance connected with them. A handy guide is my book I did for Whitman, A Guide Book of United States Commemorative Coins. This is available at your local bookstore, coin or hobby dealer, or from Whitman on their website. The cost is nominal. Spend an evening or two reading it and you will become quite conversant with the different varieties, why and how they were issued, and characteristics as to their availability today.

Among silver half dollars of the early era, there were 48 different design types made from 1892 to 1954, but, with mintmark and other varieties added, the total comes to 142. A nice way to start is with the basic types, then add the other varieties as you see fit. In addition, there is the 1893 Isabella quarter and the 1900 Lafayette dollar, both unique for their denominations. Among gold coins there are 11 different gold dollars from 1903 to 1917, the rarest by far (in terms of examples existing today) is the 1905 Lewis & Clark. The reason is that while the mintage was generous, the market for commemorative coins was in a slump, and most pieces were sold to the general public, not to numismatists who were apt to save them. There are two gold quarter eagles, 1915-S for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and 1926 for the Sesquicentennial of American Independence Exposition held in Philadelphia. Topping off the series are two distinctive $50 gold coins, one octagonal in shape and the other round, both dated 1915-S and issued for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Among classic silver commemoratives the prices today in 2012 are for the most part much less than they were a generation ago! This is because attention has been diverted to modern issues in high grade, and early commemoratives have been ignored more or less. Interestingly, at two or three times in the past, commemorative coins were the hottest ticket in the market, most particularly in 1935 and 1936. My book tells all about these.

If you really want to get involved, go on the Internet and try to track down a used copy (long out of print) of my 1992 book, Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. This is the foundational reference that has more or less served as a place where writers since that time have obtained most of the information not hitherto in print (often without credit, sometimes with credit). In any event, this book will take you a long weekend to read — so be forewarned. On the other hand, you will learn more about commemoratives than just about anyone ever thought possible.

Classic silver commemoratives are quite inexpensive. Believe it or not, there are some with mintages less than 5,000 pieces that can be obtained in MS-63 and MS-64 for the low hundreds of dollars! My philosophy is to buy when others are selling, and when others are scrambling to set record high prices, and then is the time perhaps when I should sell. Right now not many people are buying commemoratives, and this would seem to offer an opportunity!

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