Earlier this month, bills were introduced in both the House and Senate which seek to authorize a commemorative coin program to mark the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the Panama Canal. The proposed program drew immediate interest from collectors since it would feature designs from popular early commemorative coins.
If approved, the program would include four different coins:
- $5 Octagonal Gold Coins with a maximum mintage of 50,000. The coins would have a weight of 8.359 grams, distance between opposing vertices of 0.850 inches, and composition of 90% gold and 10% alloy.
- $5 Round Gold Coins with a maximum mintage of 50,000. The coins would have a weight of 8.359 grams, diameter of 0.850 inches, and composition of 90% gold and 10% alloy.
- Silver Dollars with a maximum mintage of 500,000. The coins would have a weight of 26.73 grams, diameter of 1.500 inches, and composition of 90% silver and 10% copper.
- Half Dollars with a maximum mintage of 500,000. The coins would have a weight of 11.34 grams, diameter of 1.205 inches, and the copper-nickel clad composition used for current half dollar coins.
The designs for the two gold coins would be a close likeness of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition $50 Gold Piece. This is one of the most prized early commemorative coins, which had a mintage of 483 for the round version and 645 for the octagonal version. Designed by Robert Aitken, the obverse features the helmeted head of Minerva with an owl as the symbol of wisdom on the reverse. The octagonal version of the coin has dolphins at the vertices.
The design for the silver dollar would be a close likeness of the Roosevelt Medal, which was awarded to every citizen who worked for a continuous two year period on the construction of the Panama Canal. Designed by F.D. Millet, the obverse features a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt and the reverse features the Culebra Cut, a 9-mile, 272-foot-deep excavation through the Cordillera Mountains. An image of the medal can be found here.
The design for the half dollar would be a close likeness of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition Half Dollar. This coin is often noted as one of the most beautiful of the early commemoratives. The obverse design by Charles Barber features Columbia with the rays of the sun and the golden gate in the background and a cherub holding a cornucopia. The reverse by Charles Morgan features an eagle perched on the Union Shield with branches of oak and olive to each side.
Although the prospect of seeing some of the most beautiful designs from early commemorative coins on modern coins is exciting, there were a few aspects of the proposed program that tempered my enthusiasm.
Part of the impressive nature of the original Panama-Pacific $50 Gold Piece is the physical size. The original specifications are 83.55 grams (about 2.5 times the weight of the classic double eagle) with a diameter of 50.8 mm or 2 inches. The proposal for the new version shrinks the size down to 8.359 grams (one-tenth of the original weight) and shrinks the diameter to 0.85 inches.
Almost certainly, the reduced size was selected in order to keep the cost of the coin low, but it takes something away from the historical appeal of the design. Alternately, they could have specified for the coins to contain one ounce of gold, used a wider diameter, and kept the original denomination of $50. Even though the coins would be higher priced, I think sales would still do reasonably well. The 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle, which contained one ounce of gold managed to sell more than 100,000 pieces when it was offered.
The second aspect that I found unusual with this program is the requirement for the half dollar to be struck with the copper-nickel clad composition. The original Panama Pacific Half Dollar was struck in 90% silver and I feel that this composition should be retained for the modern version. Although the vast majority of modern commemorative half dollars are struck in clad composition, there have been a few exceptions in the past. The 1982 George Washington Half Dollar, which began the modern era, was struck in 90% silver. More than a decade later and after other half dollars had been issued in clad, the 1993 James Madison Half Dollar was stuck in 90% silver. Last year I noted a change in the general quality and finish used for clad composition commemorative half dollars, which makes the case for using silver even stronger.
Another option would be to use the half dollar design for the modern silver dollar, and feature the design from the Roosevelt Medal on the half dollar and use the clad composition.
At any rate, the bill is a long way from becoming law. The House version of the bill has no cosponsors and the Senate version has only a single cosponsor. As discussed in the previous post, in order to be considered for a vote, two-thirds of each house must co-sponsor a bill. The bill also competes with other proposals for 2015 programs, one of which has already been passed in the House. Tomorrow, I will present a complete summary of introduced legislation and approved programs.