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The Coin Student's Blog

10 Sep 2016

The Columbian Exposition Half Dollar

| The Coin Student

The United States Mint has minted countless numbers of commemorative coins, but the first one ever minted was the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar. That coin will always have a special place in the history of the United States commemorative coin series. How did this coin come to be? The idea of the World's Columbian Exposition began because of the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Due to the success of that exposition people began to think that there should be a one for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage. In 1890, the United States Congress passed legislation to allow the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar coins to be minted to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the Americas and help to raise funds for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Charles Barber, Chief Engraver of the United States Mint made some sketches for the commemorative Columbian Exposition Half Dollar, but they were deemed "unsatisfactory" by executives at the Mint. The good news was that others had also made designs for the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar hoping that theirs would be selected for the coin. The design that stood out the most was the one by Olin Warner. His design depicted Christopher Columbus on the obverse with the Santa Maria, Columbus' flag ship on the reverse. Then Barber, with some assistance from George T. Morgan, modified the coin some to make it visually more pleasing. The first Columbian Half Dollar was minted. On December 15, 1892 the mint shipped five kegs each holding 10,000 coins each of the new commemorative to Chicago. The kegs were taken to the Columbian Exposition's headquarters. Then the president of the Columbian Expo, Harlow Higinbotham took a mallet and chisel to open the first keg. Higinbotham removed the first coin and presented it to the Remington Typewriter Company in exchange for a check of $10,000. That would be worth over a quarter of a million dollars today! Five million half dollar coins were initially minted, but due to lack of popularity at that time, about 2.5 million of them were melted by the Mint. When the coins were released to the public only 400,000 were purchased. Obviously, the demand was nowhere close to the expectations of the Mint. The remaining 2.1 million unsold coins were placed in general circulation. Currently, the Columbian Half Dollars can be purchased for around $20 in brilliant uncirculated condition. It's surprising a person can own one in BU condition for that price, when you consider that most of them were distributed for public circulation. One in MS-66 condition cost about $1,000. Today the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar is one of the most popular commemorative coins because of its unique history and beautiful design.

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