This is the first in a series of articles from the June 2105 issue of Coin World Monthly on congressional gold medals struck by the U.S. Mint:
While the U.S. Mint’s annual sets and its many current collector, bullion and circulating coins might be its best known products, another series deserves collector attention, too.
Since the Continental Congress authorized the first congressional gold medal in 1776 to recognize Gen. George Washington’s military achievements during the Revolutionary War, the nation’s legislators have approved some 160 pieces of legislation authorizing such medals to recognize people in a wide range of fields for contributions to the nation and society. Themes of the medals today range from peacemakers to military heroes to pioneers of space exploration.
The original gold medals awarded only rarely appear on the market, and when they do, prices can be spectacular (a congressional gold medal awarded to Zachary Taylor sold for $460,000 in November 2006). Fortunately for collectors, however, a much more affordable alternative exists — the duplicate bronze medals.
As early as the 19th century, duplicates of the earliest medals were produced, often in silver and sometimes in bronze or copper, in different diameters for sale by the Mint to the public. Eventually, bronze became the preferred composition for the collector versions of the congressional medals, as well for the Mint’s many other medal series.
During the 20th century, Mint customers had a limited array of these bronze medals to select from. That was because from the mid-19th century, when the Mint began catering to the collector community, to the last two decades of the 20th century, Congress authorized congressional gold medals sparingly and in only a few categories, dominated by the themes of military exploits and exploration. As an illustration, from 1902, when the first medal of the 20th century was authorized, until 1977, fewer than 40 medals were authorized. Congress rarely authorized more than one medal a year (1946 was an exception, as Congress honored a trio of military leaders in the post-war era). Often, several years would pass with no medal authorized.
That restraint ended in the late 1970s.
Four medals were authorized in 1980; in 1982, five medals gained congressional approval. For the remainder of the century, Congress authorized congressional gold medals regularly, with multiple awards issued in some years.
Several factors contribute to the abrupt rise in the number of medals awarded in the late 20th century and early 21st century.
In 1996, Congress restricted the number of commemorative coin programs (the commemorative series had been resurrected in 1982) to two programs a year after the coin collecting community began complaining about too many coins, many commemorating people and events that did not always resonate with collectors. Members of Congress thus began turning to gold medals to honor individuals and groups that another time might have been celebrated with a coin.