US Coins

Revisiting classic silver Commemorative coins

A gorgeous 1938-D Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar graded MS-68 by PCGS sold for $2,209 at Stack’s Bowers recent American Numismatic Association auction in Portland, Ore. It is one of just 38 in this grade by PCGS.

Images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.

Falling prices in a declining market for classic commemorative coins (1892 to 1954) might offer collectors opportunities to buy some of the coins at attractive levels.

As collected, the complete type set of classic era silver commemoratives has 144 coins, representing 50 different designs including 48 commemorative half dollar types along with the 1892 Isabella quarter dollar and the 1900 Lafayette dollar. 

In sight-unseen trading, where dealers agree to buy a coin certified by a major third-party grading service at a given price without seeing the coin, this popular series has declined. 

The Feb. 6 Certified Coin Dealer Newsletter, which reports on the current wholesale market bids for many certified coins, characterized the decline in prices as a collapse and noted that the week had the 22nd consecutive drop for sight-unseen commemorative coins. 

A large part of this is due to the coins themselves. 

Many commemorative silver coins were stored in their original boxes and packaging, which led to often ugly toning with dark or uneven shades of rust, brown and gray. This affects the eye appeal, but even an ugly commemorative may find itself in a high Mint State grade like MS-64 or even MS-65. 

When these less-desirable coins appear at auction, their prices are often depressed, and occasionally an ugly example may sell below the sight-unseen bid. This causes prices to drop even more, which creates an aura of volatility for the series.

These declines aren’t seen across the board for classic commemorative coins, as gorgeous, high-quality examples continue to bring big prices at auction. For example, at Heritage’s Jan. 7 Florida United Numismatists sale, a gorgeously toned 1900 Lafayette Monument dollar graded MS-67 by Professional Coin Grading Service, with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker, brought $73,437.50, while a 1928 Hawaii Discovery Sesquicentennial half dollar graded MS-67 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. realized $30,550. Yet these very expensive coins are outliers, and the majority of classic commemorative half dollar types are available at accessible price points. 

If looking to collect this specialized series, take the time to look for a nice coin. Although these pieces have low mintages, they have generally high survival rates, as they were produced for collectors rather than for general circulation.  

Look at many examples to figure out what a handsome, original coin looks like. One can start by using auction archives from major auction houses. In this area, auction prices can be wildly different based on the quality of the coin. For many issues, like the 1946 Iowa Statehood Centennial half dollar, the price difference between Mint State grades is small, so why not buy the best you can afford when the difference between grades is only a few dollars? 

For patient collectors willing to learn the series and look at coins, the series is ripe for opportunity at current levels. 

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