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It can be argued that the first actual commemorative coin minted by the United States was the gold coins struck in Phil. with the first shipment of the newly discovered California gold in 1849. The coins had "Cal." minted on the reverse.


The first recognized commemorative coin struck in the US is the Columbian half dollar in 1892. This is a fairly common coin which can be purchased at a very reasonable price in circulated grades. These coins actually circulated because since the mintage was not sold out at the Columbian Exposition, the remaining halves were released into general circulation.


The next commem released was the Lafayette Silver Dollar which is an expensive coin in the mint state grades.


There then followed two to three decades of an evolution and uncertainty of a standardized commemorative issue. Coins ranged from a multitude of small gold dollars to fifty dollar gold slugs minted in 1915. Then, starting in the 1920's, the half dollar denomination became the standardized issue which ushered in 30 years of abuse. The Oregon Trail issue, for instance, was minted for over a decade in order to maximize revenue potential. Many collectors at the time became fed up with the abuse of the program which eventually led to the discontinuation of any commemorative issue whatsoever in the early 1950's.


There then followed three decades where no commemorative coins were issued at all. This all changed in 1982 with the strike of the silver Washington commemorative half dollar. Many were fearful at the time that the prior abuses would once again become pervasive. In fact, it only took one year for standard abuses to become ordinary practice once again. 1983 and 1984 saw silver dollar issues of the same design minted at all of the various mints in both proof and uncirculated.


The release of the gold $10 commem created a stir in the numismatic community since it was the first gold piece struck in the US since 1933. Yet, this issue too was abused with numerous, redundant coins being struck.


Then, through the late 1980's, things finally got into a rhythym with one proof and one uncirculated coin struck for each design. Yet, there was still no limit on how many different commems could be authorized in one year which led to the rampant abuses in 1994, 1995 and 1996. By 1996 collectors were frustrated at this flagrant abuse since the collector community was being used as a money reservoir for pork barrel programs. They finally said enough! and stopped buying. This led to some very low mintages in 1995 and especially in 1996 when some of the uncirculated mintages were actually below 15,000 for the silver dollar issues. Some of these coins are now valued at over $400 which has created some set stoppers and key dates.


Finally, congress passed a law in 1999 which limited yearly issues to only two different designs which could be struck in both uncirculated and proof. However, legislators are still trying to bypass this by requesting up to nine different issues in a single year as evidenced by the NASA & jet propulsion laboratory proprositions.


Today, in 2006, it is becoming increasingly difficult to complete a set. "Tis a task that has no apparent conclusion since the commemorative program continues with no end in site.

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An e-mail from Heritage Auctions:



Collector News


Gold has often been referred to as "The King of Metals." With an undeniable allure, this precious material has been highly valued throughout history, coveted by monarch and peasant alike, and often reserved for the crafting of items of the highest significance. It is an absolute symbol of wealth and affluence, and the natural choice when selecting a metal in which to cast important, commemorative coinage.


US Commemorative coinage started in the late 19th-Century, with the 1892 and 1893 Columbian half dollars, and continues to the present day. The commemorative program really took off, however, in the early years of the 20th-Century, thanks to the efforts of Farran Zerbe, past president of the American Numismatic Association, and a tireless promoter of the hobby of numismatics. He was involved with the commemorative program at all levels, from design through distribution, and he sold the coins at expositions across the country.


Originally issued to memorialize such events as the centennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, America's sesquicentennial, or the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, and in spite of Zerbe's tireless efforts to promote the program, early commemorative gold coins proved only moderately popular with collectors, resulting in the melting of countless unsold examples. Consequently, these beautiful coins, created to the highest standards of art and commerce, are even scarcer than was originally intended.


Another thing to keep in mind is that gold is a naturally soft metal, more susceptible to dings and damage than many other coins. We know that many of the commemoratives sold were either carried in people's pockets, polished, set in jewelry fixtures and the like, all of which would have resulted in various degrees of damage.

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One was issued regularly, like most other silver eagles, and the other could only be found in a special Millenium Set issued in commemoration from the mint. The Millenuim set I believe had a $1 note, a Sacagawea, and the silver eagle. Someone please correct me if I am mistaken.

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