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Commemorative Coin

Learn what purpose commemorative coins serve and their value.

Commemorative coins purchased through the U.S. Mint raise money for important causes. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Commemorative coins purchased through the U.S. Mint raise money for important causes.

A commemorative coin is a coin minted to honor a person, place, event or institution. American commemorative coins that serve as legal tender are authorized by the United States Congress and produced by the United States Mint, a part of the Department of the Treasury. Other commemorative coins that are replicas of currency or altered versions are produced by private organizations not affiliated with the Mint. These coins are required to bear the words "Copy" or "Replica," or be otherwise distinct in appearance from legal tender.

Commemorative coins purchased through the Mint raise money for important causes through surcharges added to the purchase price. The U.S. Mint reports that since its modern commemorative coin program began in 1982, it has raised more than $418 million that contributed toward building new museums, preserving historic sites and supporting the Olympic Games, among other causes.

Producing Commemorative Coins

Commemorative coins differ from coins intended for general circulation in that they are typically produced in limited quantities and offered for limited periods of time. It should be noted, however, that general circulation coins are sometimes issued in commemoration of historic events: The Lincoln cent, Washington quarter and Jefferson nickel were issued to honor the centennial of Lincoln's birth and the bicentennials of Washington's and Jefferson's births. Commemorative coins are produced at facilities in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and West Point; the San Francisco and West Point locations also produce bullion coins.

Congressional authorizations for commemorative coins specify the coin's size, denomination and composition, as well as which Mint location will produce the coin and cost considerations to reckon with. The authorization legislation also stipulates the amount of the surcharge to be collected from the sale of each coin, which organization is to receive the proceeds of the surcharge, and how that organization may use the proceeds.

Early Commemorative Coins

The first commemorative coin authorized by Congress was the 1892 half dollar commemorating the Columbian Exposition, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. This was followed the next year by a quarter commemorating Queen Isabella.

The first dollar commemorative coin was issued in 1900, depicting profiles of George Washington -- the first time a president had been portrayed on a coin -- and the Marquis de Lafayette. The coin's dies were designed by Charles E. Barber, then-chief engraver of the Mint, who had designed the Liberty Head dime, quarter and half dollar introduced in 1892.

The coin was followed three years later with two gold coins, designed by Barber and issued to promote the exposition commemorating the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. One of the coins displayed the image of Thomas Jefferson, and the other displayed William McKinley. Barber also designed the commemorative coin for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1904 and 1905; the coin's sales financed a bronze memorial of Sacagawea erected in the exposition's host city of Portland, Oregon.

The next commemorative coins would not be issued until 10 years later, in conjunction with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal the year before. Two $50 gold coins were issued, one round and one octagonal, along with $1 and $2.50 coins. These were followed by gold coins in 1916 and 1917 memorializing President McKinley. A succession of half dollar coins commemorating the centennials of Illinois, Maine, Alabama and Missouri followed, along with commemorations of the Pilgrim landing on Plymouth Rock, the Monroe Doctrine and the Grant Memorial.

In 1926, commemorative half dollars and $2.50 gold pieces were issued for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The half dollar depicted images of George Washington and Calvin Coolidge, making it the first coin to depict a sitting president. The previous year, however, objections were raised in Congress to the production of so many commemorative coins, many of which were not of items of national interest. These objections culminated in a 1939 law that halted the production of commemorative coins, except for 1946 half dollars commemorating the life of Booker T. Washington and the centennial of Iowa.

The Booker T. Washington commemorative was modified in 1951 by adding George Washington Carver's image to the coin; production continued until 1954. Commemorative coin production was then discontinued altogether, with the Mint having produced 157 different commemorative coins.

Modern Commemorative Coins

Production of commemorative coins was reinstated in 1982 with a half dollar commemorating the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth. Two years later, a set of commemorative coins was issued to celebrate the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, followed by commemoratives in 1986 for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, in 1987 for the bicentennial of the Constitution, 1988 for the Olympic Games in Seoul and 1989 for the bicentennial of Congress.

The 1990s saw coins commemorating the lives of Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Robert F. Kennedy and Dolley Madison, as well as a $5 George Washington gold coin. Coin sets were issued to mark the 50th anniversary of World War II and the Mount Rushmore Memorial, the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Capitol and the Bill of Rights, and the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. The 1992 Olympics were recognized with a three-coin set, while the centennial 1996 Olympics were honored with 16 different coins.

The 2000s saw coins commemorating the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown colony in Virginia and the millennial anniversary of Leif Ericson's voyage. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison were recognized with commemorative coins, as was Chief Justice John Marshall.

In 2009, commemorative silver dollars were issued for the 200th birthdays of Louis Braille and Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln coin's obverse (heads) was inspired by the Lincoln Memorial sculpture of Lincoln, while the reverse (tails) features Lincoln's signature and the last 43 words of the Gettysburg Address framed in laurel wreaths.
Valuing Commemorative Coins

While commemorative coins were originally issued to honor a person, event or institution, many coin collectors seek such coins for their monetary value. The American Numismatic Association recommends consulting the latest edition of a published coin guide, such as R. S. Yeoman's "A Guide Book of United States Coins or the Standard Catalog of World Coins," to get an approximate value. These guides are available at most libraries and bookstores or can be ordered online. Those looking for a precise value or dealing with a large coin collection can consult with a professional numismatist. Generally, a commemorative coin's monetary value is determined by the coin's condition and how rare the coin is.

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