The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, hosted in San Francisco from February to December 1915, celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which had been completed the previous year. The event also underscored San Francisco’s recovery after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.
A set of commemorative coins that included a silver half dollar and gold dollar, quarter eagle, and $50 denominations, was authorized by Congress in January 1915, a month before the Expo opened. Included were $50 commemorative coins of two different shapes– round and octagonal, the latter a nod to the gold ingots (“slugs”) produced by Moffat & Co. under the direction of Augustus Humbert in San Francisco in the early 1850s. Robert Ingersoll Aitken’s $50 designs displaying a helmeted Minerva and an owl perched on a branch of western pine were well-received. Aitken also designed an American Numismatic Society medal commemorating Ferdinand Foch’s (a French military officer who became the Supreme Allied Commander in WWI) 1921 visit to the U.S., as well as the monumental sculptures on the west pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
Neither $50 coin sold well and some pointed fingers at Farran Zerbe, the former ANA President tasked with marketing the commemoratives. The octagonal issue outsold its round counterpart, possibly reflecting an interest in the octagonal slugs of Gold Rush fame. With only 483 recorded sold (less than a third of its mintage), the round $50 is one of the most expensive and elusive classic commemorative issues, though perhaps not as visually distinctive as its octagonal sibling.
Stack’s Bowers Galleries is offering a round $50 Panama Pacific commemorative $50 gold coin in lot 5124 in the Rarities Night session of the Winter 2022 Expo Auction. NGC gave the coin an MS-62 grade, one of 49 other coins in that grade reported by that firm’s Census. Our catalogers note warm rose-gold coloration with orange-apricot undertones. Some hairlines and signs of handling are typical for the issue in this grade.
Interested readers should consult the second volume of Roger W. Burdette’s Renaissance of American Coinage for a comprehensive numismatic history of the Panama-Pacific Expo.