US Coins

Coins star on television shows like Dragnet

This is the third in a series of articles from Gerald Tebben's cover feature about coins starring in television programs, published in the March 2016 issue of Coin World Monthly. This article focuses on an episode of Dragnet, airing Nov. 27, 1969.

The round 1915-S Panama-Pacific International Exposition gold $50 piece, the rarest U.S. commemorative coin, drives the story told in the “Internal Affairs: Parolee” episode (season 4, episode 10) of the revived Dragnet series, but makes only a cameo appearance toward the end.

The Jack Webb cop drama ran from 1951 to 1959 and was revived in 1967 for four more years. 

Other articles in series:

The parolee episode begins with Sgt. Joe Friday (Webb) and Officer Bill Gannon (Henry Morgan) assigned to determine if 15-year-old theft and check-kiting charges against Lyle Thompson (who is never seen) are still prosecutable.

Thompson, 65, has been in prison in Canon City, Colo., for 14 years and is eligible for parole, provided California does not extradite him on the old felonies.

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He was charged with the Jan. 3, 1956, theft of a 1956 convertible from a rental agency, cashing a bad $300 check and stealing a “commemorative coin valued at $400” from his former employer.

Thompson, it turns out, invented the high-pressure valve that accounted for 90 percent of Wentworth Industries’ business, but was fired after 18 years by the founder’s jealous son two days after Thompson’s wife and son died in an auto accident.

In investigating the old charges, Friday and Gannon determined the rental car was left at the airport a few hours after it was taken and the store stiffed with the bad check does not want to prosecute such old charges. George Wentworth (Howard Culver), though, still wants blood from the man he said stole the coin on the day he was fired.

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“He’s in jail now. He belongs in jail and that’s where I’m going to see him stay,” Wentworth says.

He told Friday, “My father gave me that coin — a 1915 $50 gold piece from the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. They only made 483 of them. Do you know what they’re worth?

Gannon replies, “Yes sir, the report listed its market value at $400.”

Wentworth says, “That was back in ‘56. Today the 1915 S series round Pan Pacific gold piece is worth over $6,000. Now don’t you think he should be prosecuted?”

Friday is bothered by the fact that Wentworth keeps track of the coin’s value after all those years, but must report back that the theft charge is still prosecutable.

As Friday and Gannon are discussing the case with their boss two minutes before the episode ends, Wentworth arrives at the police station and plunks down the coin — still in the black leather case lined with purple plush that coin dealer Farran Zerbe placed it in before selling it for $100 at the 1915 exposition.

“There it is: a 1915 S-series $50 gold piece from the Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, worth over $6,000 today,” Wentworth says. “Thompson never took it. I thought he did. All the circumstances indicated he did. It was simply lost the whole time. I found it about five years ago when we moved into our new building.”

He continued, “I don’t know why I said he took the coin. I guess it was old resentments coming through. I got frightened for not reporting that I found the coin five years ago. I want to live with a clear conscience so here I am.”

At the show’s postscript, it is revealed that Thompson won parole.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was commemorated with distinctive half dollars, gold dollars, quarter eagle $2.50 pieces, and two types of gold $50 pieces — octagonal and round. While 1,500 coins of each $50 shape were minted, the octagonal piece, which harkened back to octagonal $50 Gold Rush slugs, proved more popular with buyers than the round pieces. 

Mint records show that 864 octagonal pieces and 1,027 round pieces went unsold and were melted. That gave the round piece a net mintage of just 483 pieces, making it the rarest U.S. commemorative coin.

The coin is shown for just a few seconds during the show, a single coin in a Zerbe case. In Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia, author Q. David Bowers writes, “A complete set consisting of one each of the half dollar, gold dollar, quarter eagle, and choice of $50 (round or octagonal) could be had for $100, the same price asked for a single $50 coin, so it seems reasonable to assume that most $50 pieces were sold as parts of sets.”

The round $50 is a major rarity today, worth considerably more than its $6,000 value in 1969. In 2010, Stack’s Bowers Galleries sold a Professional Coin Grading Service Mint State 66 example for $281,750.

The episode can be viewed online free at Hulu.

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