The Rise and Fall of the Commemorative Market – Part 2

As I discussed in my last article, in the late 1980s classic silver commemorative coins became a focus of the coin market, especially as people saw them as investment products, attracted by low mintages and generally high grades. Investors flooded the market and prices kept increasing, attracting more and more attention. However, prices went so high that by 1988 most serious numismatists had dropped out. Few wanted to pay, say, $3,000 for a coin that a few years earlier could have been bought for $500 or even less. As investment-oriented coin circles have always done, in 1990 the market ran out of new faces. Few new investors appeared. Those who had poured large sums of money into commemoratives, without knowing what they were buying, sensed that the market was quiet. Time to sell! And so, the prices dropped, dropped and dropped some more!

The result is that today early in the third decade of the twenty-first century nearly all silver commemoratives sell for small fractions of what they sold for in 1988 and 1989!

Here are some samples for Mint State-65 commemorative half dollars of 1990 (from a study I did that year) and values from the most recent (2022) edition of A Guidebook of United States Coins:


MS-65 Prices in 1990 and today in 2020

1892 Columbian: 1990: $3,850 • 2022 Guide Book: $275
1915-S Panama-Pacific: 1990: $4,500 • 2022 Guide Book: $1,325 

1921 Pilgrim: 1990: $2,400 • 2022 Guide Book: $275 

1925 Stone Mountain: 1990: $650 • 2022 Guide Book: $175 

1927 Vermont: 1990: $2,400 • 2022 Guide Book: $460 

1928 Hawaiian: 1990: $10,500 • 2022 Guide Book: $3.500 

1935 Connecticut: 1990: $2,000 • 2022 Guide Book: $375 

1936 Bridgeport: 1990: $1,200 • 2022 Guide Book: $180 

1937 Roanoke Island: 1990: $700 • 2022 Guide Book: $230 

1938 New Rochelle: 1990: $1,025 • 2022 Guide Book: $375 

1946 Iowa: 1990: $400 • 2022 Guide Book: $110   


But, no matter what the price history, to me classic commemoratives are endlessly fascinating, and these are among my favorite series from a numismatic viewpoint. I have written a great deal on the series, including Commemorative Coins of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia, published by Bowers and Merena Galleries, that sold thousands of copies (despite the market declining at that time). If you are looking for an interesting new field to collect, consider classic commemorative silver coins from 1892 to 1954. Here are some suggestions:

1. Each commemorative has its own story, always interesting, sometimes surprising—the last with fake sold-out notices and the like, as distribution in the twentieth century was in private hands. If you had good contacts in Congress you could order commemorative coins, set the market price, and keep the profits. Two men who were later presidents of the ANA, Thomas G. Melish and L.W. Hoffecker did just that! To learn more, first check out what the Guide Book has to say, and then find a book or two or three on the subject and read them.

2. Cherrypick for quality. There are many certified MS-64 coins that are nicer than pieces that offer higher grades (and higher prices). Eye appeal is everything. You can see a lot by just looking, as Yogi Berra said, and so do just that!

3. Choose how YOU want to collect. Most people either acquire one each of the 48 different half dollar designs plus the 1893 Isabella quarter and 1900 Lafayette dollar or get one of each date, mintmark, or other half dollar variety—142 coins in all—plus the quarter and the dollar.

4. Once you start on your collection, take time to study each coin with a magnifier and enjoy its features.

Caveat: Although as I write these words the prices of these coins are at bargain levels, I see no indication that they will become hot tickets in the marketplace anytime soon.

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