What Does P.T. Barnum, Christopher Columbus and George Washington Have in Common?

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The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago introduced the American public to not only the first U.S. commemorative coin, but also to the first Ferris wheel.

Commemorative coins were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to record important events and pass along news of the time; they often recorded the victors of battles and new rulers. For example, large denomination decadrachms are thought to have been issued for significant events; particularly of Greece’s victory over Persia in 480-479 B.C. Today, commemorative coins are issued by many nations and nearly always chronicle important people, places or historical events.

U.S. commemorative coins fall into two time periods: Classic (1892-1954) and Modern (1982-present). Authorized by the U.S. Mint, some of America’s finest artists and sculptors designed unique coins not found in circulation. Profits generated from sales of these coins generally funded specific events and interests related to the theme. Early on, commemoratives had a narrow scope of appeal; they were often regionally specific and low mintage numbers made them difficult to obtain. When the U.S. Mint hit its commemorative stride in the 1980s, a greater variance of themes and availability led to universal interest.

Not So Popular First Attempt

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ inadvertent discovery of the New World. To mark the event, the United States issued the first commemorative coin, the silver 1892-1893 Columbian half dollar. It was sold for $1 and was engraved by both artistic powerhouses of the day, Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan. The obverse, engraved by Barber, depicted a bust of Columbus; while the reverse displayed the work of Morgan: Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria and earth’s two hemispheres.

1893IsabellaQuarterAlso issued at the fair was a souvenir that sold for $1; the 1893 Isabella quarter, commissioned by the Board of Lady Managers at Exposition. The quarter represented women’s contributions to industry in the time of Columbus. Engraved by Barber, its obverse depicted Columbus’ financier, the Spanish Queen Isabella and an idealized figure of a woman spinner. Just over 24,000 were minted.

Both early American commemoratives proved unpopular with the general public, presumably patrons of the fair balked at paying three times face value for a quarter. Many ended up in the melting pot, or in the case of the Isabellas, the majority were bought back by the Board of Lady Managers. Just 110 years later in 2013, a Certified MS-68 Queen Isabella quarter sold at auction for over $64,000!

Stalled Out

Although the U.S. mint kept plugging away, commemoratives took a while to catch on in popularity. Many classic commemoratives celebrated states or even cities, but outside of those geographical areas, they did not have broad appeal. Did you know that P.T. Barnum appeared on an official U.S. coin? In 1936, Bridgeport, Connecticut posthumously honored one of its most famous residents, the greatest showman – P.T. Barnum.

1982WashingtonHalfProofAfter the last Carver/Washington coin was struck in 1954, commemoratives were not minted again until 1982. By this time, all silver content had been removed from American Coinage. In 1982, the George Washington commemorative silver half dollar emerged and was the first coin to contain 90% silver since 1964.

 

Something for Everyone

Today, the broad range of subjects and themes of commemorative coins appeals to a wide range of collectors. With the exception of 1985, the U.S. Mint has released at least one commemorative coin every year since Washington’s debut.

Many modern issues have more than one denomination. Half dollars are typically clad, while dollars are 90% silver and some are even minted as $5 or $10 gold pieces. Most designs also have a proof version. Regardless of their face value, all commemorative coins have limited mintages. Once the U.S. mint reaches its quota for a particular design, it will never be produced again. Some earlier modern commemoratives had mintages of over 2 million, while 2017’s Boys Town silver dollar had a mintage of just over 12,000.

 

Where to Go From Here

Really, they sky’s the limit. Some collectors are up for the challenge of obtaining every release since 1982 (or from 1892!). Others only collect commemoratives relating to America’s military history. There are many different coins celebrating Olympic events. With 35 years of production, there truly is a modern commemorative coin for everyone. Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” And yes, there’s even a commemorative coin in his honor.

 

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Cornelius “Con” Hogan

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This week started here at International Coins & Currency with some sad news. The untimely passing of Cornelius “Con” Hogan, a current member of our board of directors and a past president. Con had been affiliated with ICC almost since the beginning and assumed the role of President in the early 1980s. He successfully guided our company through some of our most difficult times. I can say without reservation that Con was instrumental in our longevity and continued success.

Con left the daily operations at ICC to continue what was already a distinguished career in state government, working for several governors here in Vermont in many capacities including Health and Human Services Commissioner.

During my tenure here, now fast approaching 39 years, Con has been a dynamic figure that commanded respect simply by entering a room, and when he spoke it was in your best interest to listen.

Con was a mentor and a friend whom I will sadly miss. I feel blessed to simply have been affiliated with such an individual.

Rest in Peace.

Rick Thurston,
President,
International Coins & Currency Inc.

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“Fake” Pennies

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Can you imagine running a business or managing your personal purchases without coins? As we move into the digital age that might be our future. But back in the day when cash was king, it was almost impossible.

The difficulties of that situation were felt intensely over 150 years ago during the American Civil War. Scarcity and hoarding led to severe coin shortages during that long and difficult conflict.

Civil War Currency Challenges:

Early in the 1860s, with coins in such short supply commerce was becoming difficult and merchants began to make change with credit slips or even postage stamps. In 1862 the U.S. government did provide small paper notes in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents. But few trusted paper money at that time; “fractional currency” did not solve the crisis.

Private Tokens:

Another solution was the private minting of tokens. Produced mostly from 1861 to 1864 these issues, now called “Civil War tokens” were generally copper pieces the size and shape of the standard cent. These tokens can be divided into tradesmen’s tokens or store cards and pieces with political or patriotic themes.

The tradesmen’s tokens were purchased by merchants and included advertising messages, presumably to be redeemable for goods in the store. Tokens with political or patriotic themes were produced anonymously and put into circulation unconnected to specific consigners.

Being privately issued, these tokens carry a multitude of messages and designs. Creators had to be careful not to mimic actual coinage too closely, but otherwise were free to express themselves ad libitum.

Legal Status:

Were these “fake” coins legal?  At the time, Mint Director James Pollock thought not, but there was no counterfeiting law prohibiting the issue of tradesmen’s tokens or private coins that did not imitate United States coinage. Civil War tokens did become illegal after April 22, 1864 when Congress passed a law prohibiting the private issue of any one or two-cent coins, tokens or devices for use as currency. On June 8, 1864 an additional law was passed that forbade all private coinage.

Where to Go From Here:

Luckly for today’s collectors, many of these interesting and historic treasures were saved. Although not U.S. issued coinage, these pieces are often found with other numismatic items. Approximately 10,000 different varieties of Civil War tokens have been identified. The huge assortment of types and designs make the category a wonderful area for focus. It’s an almost never-ending treasure hunt for the next find to add to your stash.

 

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How Much Silver is in a Silver Dollar?

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Romance and mystery surround America’s big silver dollars: The cowboy sliding one across the bar in the western movie, a shiny holiday gift from Grandpa, a magician pulling one from behind your ear. Collectors love these historic treasures both for their collectible value as well as their silver content.  Continue reading

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The Lincoln Cent: The Perfect Collectible Coin

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The Lincoln cent may be the most collected coin in U.S. history. Millions of Americans have at one time or another amassed Lincoln pennies. For many, the lowly one cent coin was their entry into the hobby.

Today the Lincoln cent remains a mainstay of the numismatic world and is still a wonderful way for new collectors to enter the fascinating world of coin collecting.

In fact, not only do our current pennies have a new “Shield” reverse engraving, but just recently a surprise issue was released.

Without fanfare, a very important numismatic treasure entered circulation in 2017. The 2017-P Lincoln cent is the very first U.S. penny to bear Philadelphia’s “P” mintmark. Since 1793, cents produced in Philadelphia have carried no mintmark. This unique, one-year-only type was quietly output in recognition of the principal Mint’s 225th anniversary.

Why Lincoln Cents are the Perfect Collectible:

In its over 100 year run, the Lincoln cent has had a number of design changes making the series especially interesting for numismatists. And since all four of the reverse engravings can be found, at least occasionally in pocket change, it makes for an easy collection for beginners.

On the Lincoln penny’s 50th anniversary in 1959, the Lincoln Memorial reverse replaced the long-standing “Wheatie” design. In 2009, to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and 100 years of the Lincoln cent, four one-year-only engravings were released to honor the famous president’s birthplace, formative years, professional life and presidency. Since 2010, the Lincoln penny has featured a “Shield” reverse design.

Although you can’t find too many early dates in circulation, there are still a wonderful variety of affordable coins to get new collectors started.

Collectible From the Very First Issue:

Continuously minted since 1909, the Lincoln cent is the oldest type of U.S. currency still in everyday use. Introduced on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, it is the first circulating U.S. coin to bear the portrait of a president.

While the Lincoln image won universal acclaim, there were strenuous objections to the designer’s initials appearing too prominently on the reverse (or back) side. It was a long-standing tradition for the designer’s initials to appear on coins, but most were inconspicuous. However, the “VDB” was as visible as a mintmark, appearing in the open space below the wheat sheaves of the reverse. Three days after the Lincoln cent’s triumphant release, the Secretary of the Treasury insisted that new dies be made without the initials. The Philadelphia Mint had already released 27 million “VDB” pennies and the San Francisco Mint an incredibly small number of 484,000.

Ever since, the 1909-S VDB issue has remained the key rarity in the circulation Lincoln penny series.

Where to Go From Here:

You can start your Lincoln cent collection right now! I’ll bet you have a penny or two in your pocket, your desk drawer or under your couch cushions. Start with those and work toward a full collection. Penny folders are a great help to keep you organized.

Watch your change and continually replace pieces when you find the same issue in better condition. You’ll want to be sure to watch for mintmarks as well as dates. The mintmark is below the date on the obverse (or front) of the coin. This tells you what U.S. minting facility produced the coin. A complete collection will include not just one coin from each year of issue, but one from each mint that produced coins that year.

Once you’ve gone through your own penny stash you can ask friends to exchange their pennies for paper money or you can go to a local bank and ask for rolls of pennies to search. Once you get started you’ll never look at a penny the same way again!

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The Most Beautiful Coin: Walking Liberty Half Dollar

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The Walking Liberty half dollar is one of my very favorite coins and I am not alone. Everyone seems to love this striking and patriotic 90% silver U.S. issue. If you aren’t already familiar with the beloved and historic half dollar you should take the time to learn a bit about the series.

She’s a Beauty:

Issued from the World War I era right through the post-World War II period, the magnificent half dollar is often regarded as America’s most beautiful classic silver coin. Even today, the coin designer A.A. Weinman’s flag-draped Liberty and indomitable Eagle engravings remain enormously popular. (In fact, the obverse design is so beloved that it was adapted for the U.S. American Eagle silver dollar introduced in 1986.)

And She’s Popular:

Collectors flock to the series to enjoy the combination of numismatic and silver value. The Walking Liberty half dollar is probably the second most collected U.S. silver series — after the famous Morgan dollar. But, far fewer “Walkers” were minted, and they tended to get much more use in commerce. (Many of the famous Morgan dollars were stored in bank vaults and never entered commerce.) So today a far smaller proportion of Walker half dollars survive in collectible quality grades.

She Aged Well:

The Walking Liberty half dollar became eligible for retirement in 1942, after 25 years of service. But the wonderfully patriotic coin continued to be minted through World War II and the immediate postwar period. It wasn’t replaced by the Franklin half dollar until 1948.

It’s the most unabashedly patriotic coin in U.S. history: Liberty is garbed in the American flag, striding towards the dawn of a new era. She wears the traditional Phrygian freedman’s cap of the ancient world, symbolic of hard-won freedom and carries laurel and oak branches, representing civil and military attainments.

On the reverse, a vigilant eagle stands on guard for American freedoms. Introduced when World War I was raging in Europe, the eagle does not hold the traditional peace branch and arrows of war. Instead, his right talon rests on a pine sapling. Like Liberty, the eagle exudes a confident power.

She’s Affordable:

Most Walking Liberty issues are wonderfully affordable in circulated grades. A few issues are scarce and pricey but the majority are easily attainable. This is a wonderful coin for the new collector, as these half dollar are available, affordable, and beautiful.

Where to Go From Here:

Although you won’t see Walking Liberty half dollars in circulation, they should be available anywhere you find other collectible coins. Coin shops, coin shows, antique shops and flea markets are a great place to start. Online sources (ICCoin.com) and catalogs will also carry a wonderful selection.

Happy coin hunting!

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Tradition

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By Richard Thurston, ICC President

It’s spring here in Vermont. The days are getting longer and warmer, the snow is melting, mud season is arriving and most importantly of all it’s sugaring season.

For those of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, “sugaring” is the process of making maple syrup, a time-honored tradition here in the northeast and one that I look forward to participating in each year. Having been raised here in Vermont, I was taught the importance of tradition, of respecting those that came before us and the struggles they endured to make our lives better.

Coin collecting is another time-honored tradition that I have had the privilege of being involved with during my 39 years here at ICC. I see many similarities between the art of making maple syrup and the hobby of coin collecting. Both honor the legacy of our ancestors and the traditions that they represent.

As I watch the steam rising out of the evaporator in the sugar house, or as I hold one of the many coins in the inventory vault of our company, I am taken back to a simpler time. I think back to those who have made maple syrup before me, or to the many people who have held the same coin that I hold today and I can’t help but respect the importance of tradition.

Coins have always been more than a means of exchange. Each is a small piece of art telling the story of its country’s history, values and traditions. Coins often bring back fond memories (spending that mercury dime in a dime store) or invoke glories of the past (the Kennedy half dollar reminding us of the short-lived days of Camelot).

Some coin collectors pursue the hobby for the investment potential, others for the thrill of the chase or in appreciation of the coin’s artistic merit. But the true value of a coin collection is in preserving history for future generations.

One of my favorite coins is the 2001 Vermont issue from the very popular Statehood quarter series. Commemorative quarters from the series honor the history and traditions of U.S. states with one-year-only designs. The Vermont coin has a wonderful engraving of a farmer trudging through the spring snow to harvest sap that will be boiled into maple syrup — the tradition of “sugaring” preserved forever through the tradition of coin collecting.

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