The Rise and Fall of the Commemorative Market – Part 1

If you’ve been following the coin market in recent years, you know that prices of federal coins in 1988 were, on balance, tiny fractions of what many pieces would sell for today. This is true across the board from colonials to Capped Bust silver coins, to large copper cents, to Liberty Head twenties, to—well, just about everything!

Records made since that time, say in the Eliasberg Collection sales of 1996 and 1997 over 20 years ago, are likewise in many instances bargains today. How happy anyone would be to purchase such pieces today at the record prices of yesteryear.

There is, however, one major exception to this.

The oddity is the field of classic silver commemorative coins from 1892 to 1954. Time was when just about every serious collector of American coins enjoyed commemoratives. Open an issue of The Numismatist from the 1950s or 1960s and you will see many advertisements. These were hot tickets, and everyone wanted them!

The low mintages of many of the dates and mintmarks—quite a few with 5,000 or fewer distributed—made them a magnet for investors. Can you imagine the excitement and scramble there would be today if the United States Mint issued a new commemorative with a mintage of only 2,000 to 5,000 pieces? Right out of the starting gate they would soar in the marketplace to multiple thousands of dollars!

Also a magnet for investors was the usual grade of a classic silver commemorative: Mint State! What more could be asked?

Enter a number of investment funds set up by Wall Street companies and others in the late 1980s. The idea was to sell silver or gold coins (copper coins were usually not involved) to individuals who had been aware of the great profits that carefully selected collections had realized in the past and wanted to tap into it. What better way to do it than to buy classic commemoratives in Gem condition with low mintages, and in a popular series?

Absolutely foolproof!

The race was on, commemoratives proved to be very popular and untold millions of dollars’ worth of them were sold. Prices went up, up, and up some more! It was very exciting, at least for a while. But, as can happen when investment replaces collecting as the focus of buying, what seems foolproof may not actually be so, as I will relate in my next article.

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