Friday, September 4, 2009

Coin (Friday &) Monday: The Oregon Trail Commemoratives’ Overstayed Welcome

Sept. 7, 2009
Written by John Dale

(Ah, the end of summer... Bittersweet, certainly, but not so much as it used to be. I can remember, as a kid, that when Jerry Lewis sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" it meant there was just a single meal and a night to sleep before school always started the next day... Where was I? Oh yes! Blog post... Right... Given the long weekend, and the pile of work still in front of me, John Dale has consented to let the blog use his regular Coin Monday post for today through the long weekend, and for that he has my thanks. A numismatist of deep knowledge and many strengths, John Dale is not without a sharply honed sense of humor and irony - really - as this post on Oregon Trail commemoratives shows. Coin writing is not necessarily known for its humor, but the young man does a fine job with an interesting subject. Thanks again, John Dale, and I hope you enjoy. Happy Labor Day. - Noah Fleisher)

The history of the early or “classic” commemorative coinage of the United States has its good points and bad. Some commemoratives, like the various Oregon Trail half dollars, combine both. As has widely been noted, the design for the Oregon Trail half dollar — a collaboration between the Frasers, a “power couple” in American art in their time — is among the most beautiful in the commemorative series.

The Conestoga wagon design was done by James Earle Fraser, who was famous for monumental art and Western-themed work, such as his sculpture End of the Trail and the Indian Head or “Buffalo” nickel. Laura Gardin Fraser, whose design showed a full-length portrait of an Indian over a map, had crafted several previous commemoratives with subjects including Alabama, Ulysses S. Grant, and Washington state’s Fort Vancouver.

As a one-off issue, the Oregon Trail half dollar would be celebrated mostly for its beauty. Later circumstances, however, led it to become infamous instead. First, a batch of 48,030 pieces (later reduced by 75 coins melted) was struck in Philadelphia in 1926. So far, so good.

Then 100,055 examples were struck at San Francisco; this raised a few eyebrows, since it was the first time a single commemorative design was struck at more than one mint, meaning that collectors would have to pick up both the Philadelphia and San Francisco coins to have a complete set.

It gets worse: The authorization for the Oregon Trail commemoratives stated a mintage of “not more than six million” pieces, a quotation that is often highlighted; more disturbingly, the authorization did not specify where and when the pieces would be struck. It was a loophole big enough to drive a Conestoga wagon through, and the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, beneficiaries of the proceeds from the Oregon Trail halves, took full advantage.

Their initial request for 1927-dated Oregon Trail halves was rebuffed, since the 1926-S issue had not sold out. Still, the Association persisted, and in 1928 they wheedled another batch of half dollar strikings out of Philadelphia; the Treasury blocked these from release, however, until the 1926-S coins sold out. The 1928-dated coins stayed in limbo for five years, until the remaining stock of 1926-S pieces was melted, creating an artificial “sellout.”

It gets worse: Under the influence of a new distributor, Scott Stamp & Coin Company, all but about 6,000 of the 1928-dated halves were melted, and these were sold alongside a small mintage of new halves, struck in 1933 at the Denver Mint. Even more small-mintage issues followed: 1934-D, 1936, 1936-S, and 1937-D, the last of which was sold by the Association instead of Scott.

It gets worse: In 1938 and 1939, all three mints (Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco) struck Oregon Trail halves! In the first year, there were 6,000 such sets produced, plus a handful of coins for assay, or silver content testing; in 1939, that number shrank to 3,000 sets, again plus a few assay pieces. In August 1939, legislation prohibited the striking of commemoratives first authorized in March of that year, finally putting a stop to the shenanigans.

In the end, the Oregon Trail half dollars spanned 13 years and 14 distinct issues, a longer run than some U.S. coinage denominations (the two cent piece and twenty cent piece come to mind).

The lessons learned from the exploitation of the various Mints have influenced Treasury policy regarding commemoratives ever since. While collectors usually obtain either a single Oregon Trail half for a commemorative type set or all 14 for a date set of all 144 silver commemorative issues, a “mini-set” of the 14 Oregon Trail halves is another possibility, one that has been suggested as an in-between endeavor by cleverer heads than mine.

For those willing to take on the challenge, Heritage’s September Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction and October Dallas U.S. Coin Auction are great places to start!

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-John Dale Beety

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