Among the federally-issued coins covered in Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ Coin Resource Center are two gold commemoratives that are arguably the most famous in the series: the round and octagonal 1915-S $50 commemorative coins issued for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco that year. More classic commemorative content will be added to the CRC in the future.
The Pan-Pac $50 gold commemorative coins feature designs that synthesize themes that include the opening of the Panama Canal, the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, and 1850s, classical mythology, and Western flora and fauna. Both were designed by Robert Ingersoll Aitken, a San Francisco sculptor whose other notable works include the Western Pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court Building and several other major public monuments. At the time they were struck and sold, the $50 gold commemoratives were the largest denomination coins produced by the U.S. Mint.
Proposals for an international exposition in San Francisco celebrating the progress of the Panama Canal originated in the first years of the 20th century, shortly after the U.S. took control of construction in 1902. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake delayed plans for any major public celebration. In 1911, President Taft signed a resolution declaring San Francisco the site of a Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Legislation approving commemorative coins for the event was introduced in 1914 and signed into law by President Wilson in early 1915. The legislation authorized five coins: a silver half dollar, gold dollar, gold $2.50, and two different $50 gold coins. The octagonal shape for one of the $50 coins was written into the bill, a nod to the gold slugs of that shape produced in San Francisco before the San Francisco Mint opened in 1854.
Though the 1915 gold commemoratives are probably his most distinctive contribution to the pantheon of American coinage, Aitken also designed the Missouri Centennial half dollar and the commemorative half dollars struck in 1935 and 1936 for the San Diego-based California Pacific International Exposition. His contributions to American exonumia include the 1921 medal commissioned by the American Numismatic Society marking Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s visit to the United States and the Society of Medalists’ 15th issue, Omnia Vincit Amor, in 1937.
The octagonal pieces were struck in a special ceremony at the San Francisco Mint on June 15, 1915. Notable attendees, including the president of the Exposition Company, San Francisco’s postmaster, two U.S. District judges, and San Francisco’s mayor, struck the first 13 examples.
The coins were offered for sale at twice their face value. 1,500 of each shape were produced, of which 483 of the round and 645 of the octagonal were distributed.
Our CRC listing covers much of the history outlined here and offers perspective on the coins’ collectability. The listing offers this appraisal of the availability of the round $50: “Elusive at all levels of preservation, the round examples are especially challenging to locate in problem free Choice and higher Mint State grades.” And this comment on the availability of the octagonal version: “Like the round $50 coins, while they did not circulate, the octagonal pieces suffered from mishandling, as a result choice examples are quite difficult to locate. A few more are known as Gem specimens than there are of the round coins but are by no means common.”
Our CRC listings include Coins in Motion videos and links to recent auction appearances of the coins covered, both of which are useful to collectors and others interested in learning more about these beautiful, historic pieces. Interested readers are highly encouraged to consult Roger Burdette’s Renaissance of American Coinage: 1909-1915 for more information.