Modern Silver and Clad Commemorative Coins (1986-)
Commemorative coins have a long and storied history with origins dating all the way back to Classical Greece. From the Mughals to the West Germans, governments have created special coins created to memorialize great people and events. Commemoratives are collectibles, and usually are not made for circulation (though they may be in some cases, such as the 50 State Quarters or Washington quarter).
These coins are almost always historically significant and are usually issued either for commemorations or to collect money for monuments or celebrations. Before 1982, U.S. commemorative coins were often created by a commission in charge of the event. The coins would be sold for a premium over the regular price of the coin to collect seigniorage. After 1982 commemoratives came through the U.S. Mint. Some of these still had the old Precious Metal content of previous years while others were only clad coins.
Modern Silver and Clad Commemorative Coin Design
Silver commemorative coins are the most common kind that were created, particularly because most commemorative coins (especially early ones) were based on the half dollar. Half dollars of this type starting with the 1892-1893 World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar were 90% Silver. These coins were usually designed with a unique obverse and reverse. They were sold by the commission in charge of the event and given a premium over the actual price of the metal or face value of the coin.
Modern issues were sold after 1982 and did not have the same selling structure as previous commemoratives. These were unique, but they were not sold by a commission. Instead they came directly from the U.S. Mint, but for the same purpose of collecting seignorage. There are exceptions (such as the Mount Rushmore Golden Anniversary, which was split between the Treasury and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society of Black Hills, South Dakota), but most fall under this pattern. These coins have smaller mintages than commemorative coins of the past and collectors are more willing to take them on.
Commemorative half dollars in the modern day are minted from clad cupro-nickel. Dollars were in 90% Silver from 1983 through 2018, but from 2019 through the present they have been 99.9% Silver. Gold coins are 90% Gold, though there are some unique bimetallic issues with Gold and Platinum and at least one unique issue with 85% Silver, 14.8% Copper and .2% zinc.
The first modern commemorative was the 1982 George Washington 250th Anniversary of Birth half dollar. Other issues followed on rapidly from that point, and commemoratives are regularly issued by the U.S. Mint today. There are also specific sets that can be bought from the Mint that contain several different coins.
Most commemorative issues are tied to a specific event or historical anniversary, so they have some historical significance. Commemoratives may not have come out at the time of the event, but they are reminders of it and some of the designs were done by very famous coin designers and sculptors of the day.
Modern commemoratives are cheaper to buy than older commemoratives, despite low mintages. That may change as time goes on and they get rarer.
Commemorative value can be volatile. Many of them had low mintages and surviving populations, which can drive prices up dramatically. Some issues were firsts, including the first U.S. coin to have a U.S. president and the first U.S. coin to have a living president. Modern commemoratives have low mintages but are less expensive to collect than older ones, and clad coins do not have the intrinsic value of the Precious Metal supporting their price. Commemorative value isn’t completely stable and is worth checking on a more regular basis than some other coins.
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