1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific Round
Choice Uncirculated or better.
Commemorative coins are one of the most popular specialties in American numismatics. In this field there are several hundred different varieties, what with silver and gold coins from the Classic Era 1892 to 1954, plus a marvelous parade of modern issues since then. Among the classics, there are two pieces first and foremost in the limelight: the large, impressive, and rare $50 "slugs" produced to the extent of just 1,500 each, with a net distribution of far less (see descriptions below).
The obverse of each issue features the helmeted head of Minerva, a classic touch, and an owl, representative of ancient Athens and knowledge, is on the reverse. While both are essentially the same motif, the octagonal differs inasmuch as dolphins are found within each angle. At the Exposition it seems that the octagonal format was the more interesting to buyers, evoking images of the famous Augustus Humbert $50 pieces of the same shape issued during the Gold Rush in 1851 and 1852.
Regarding the event itself, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, laid out on the shore of San Francisco Bay, was a veritable city of elegance. Buildings resembling temples were interspersed with sculpture and other art, truly a wonderland. Construction was mainly of a composition known as staff, resembling stone on the outside, but not durable. After the Exposition closed, the buildings were demolished, except for the Palace of Fine Arts, which remained and was used as a municipal store facility for fire engines and other equipment. Eventually, the heritage of the building was re-recognized, and today it stands in fine form and is an attraction for visitors.
The fair opened with much publicity, and crowds rushed to see exhibits ranging from historical to scientific to the trappings of current life. A day could be spent at the Exposition without seeing even a fraction of what the exhibits offered. The concession for numismatic items was held by Farran Zerbe, a man of questionable ethics and reputation who earlier served as president of the American Numismatic Association, but not with distinction. A scandal erupted concerning "bought" proxies, special members signed up for a six-month term (instead of a year) so they could cast their vote, and more. All of this is detailed in The Centennial History of the American Numismatic Association 1891-1991. In addition, his hyperbole and untruthful statements concerning the distribution of the 1903-dated Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars was still echoing in the minds of many. That said, Zerbe was not held in high esteem by many if not most members of the ANA. The Association determined to hold its annual convention in San Francisco that year, with the Exposition as the prime drawing card, not to overlook Zerbe's impressive display. On view for sale were all of the new commemoratives, including the silver half dollar, the gold dollar and quarter eagle, and both versions of the $50. These were available in several forms including in envelopes and in leatherette cases. (After the Exposition closed, some sets were sold in frames.) The convention was a flop, with fewer than two dozen people attending, the poorest turnout before or since. With regard to the commemoratives, the half dollar, gold dollar, and quarter eagle were sold in fair numbers to the public and others, but many thousands were melted. The story of the melting of the $50 pieces is given below. After the event closed, Zerbe mounted a campaign, including a mailing to banks, to sell more coins. Then he called it quits, and the unsold remaining coins were shipped to the Mint and melted.
It did not take long before the coins achieved a premium value, and by the early 1920s the $50 pieces were in strong demand. Ever since then the value has gone up year by year, punctuated by the Depression, but still upward by the end of the 1930s. Today in 2009, all of the Panama-Pacific coins are strongly desired, with the $50 pieces especially so. The beautiful quality of the coin offered here makes it especially appealing.
Shimmering velvet bloom bathes both the obverse and reverse of this remarkable example. Close examination of the surfaces yields the presence of only a very limited number of defects (a rather amazing observation considering the open nature and fragility of this design). The rarity and importance of this issue is foremost among all of the commemoratives (whether they be gold, silver, platinum, or copper-nickel) in the U.S. coinage series. It is highly probable that no more than a handful of known survivors are within a condition range that clearly surpasses the outstanding quality of the present specimen. Of the 1,500 pieces initially struck, 1,017 remained unsold and were subsequently melted, leaving a net mintage of just 483 coins. (PCGS 7451)