Last month’s installment of “Making Moderns” discussed the
low-mintage Uncirculated 2011-D U.S. Army commemorative half dollar,
of which just 39,461 were produced. It seems fitting this month to
discuss the coin that signaled the rebirth of the modern commemorative
coin program: the 1982 silver half dollar commemorating the 250th
anniversary of George Washington’s birth.
Its production marked the restoration of the U.S. Mint’s
commemorative coin program, which began strong in 1892 with the
World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar and ended with a whimper in
1954 with the production of the final Booker T. Washington-George
Washington Carver half dollar.
During congressional hearings on the bill to authorize the 1982
commemorative half dollars, legislators heard testimony from George
Hatie, then president of the American Numismatic Association, and coin
dealer Anthony Swiatek. Congress agreed with the Treasury Department’s
suggestion that the U.S. Mint be allowed to use leftover silver from
its Eisenhower dollar program.
The authorization of a new silver commemorative half dollar
presented a sterling opportunity for the newly-appointed chief
sculptor-engraver Elizabeth Jones to design a U.S. coin. She modeled
her half-length equestrian portrait of Washington after a Thomas Sully
portrait of Washington on horseback, and the reverse depicts
Washington’s plantation home at Mount Vernon, Va.
The 90 percent silver, 10 percent copper alloy used for the George
Washington commemorative half dollar was replaced with a copper-nickel
clad composition for the next commemorative half dollar — released in
1986 to mark the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.
For today’s collectors, the huge contemporary demand for the 1982
George Washington half dollars means that large quantities exist today
and that the issue is generally available for little more than bullion
value, or around $15.
The Denver Mint struck 2,210,458 Uncirculated half dollars while
4,894,044 Proof half dollars were struck at the San Francisco Assay Office.
This issue is unusual in the modern era in that Mint State 69 is
the highest collectible grade for Uncirculated coins. Certified
examples in this grade sell for around $200. In contrast, Proof 70
coins are relatively hard to locate. In 2002, an example graded Proof
70 Deep Cameo by Professional Coin Grading Service realized $1,063.75
Ten years later, the PCGS population in this grade has expanded
from 13 coins in 2002 to 181 coins today, and the price has come down
considerably. A PCGS Proof 70 Deep Cameo example sold in January for
$130 in an online auction.
Steven Roach is associate editor of Coin World. Email him