The last heavy stages of cataloging for Heritage’s Official ANA Auction next month are underway. Cataloging life is never more stressful than in “the crunch,” but at the same time, it doesn’t get any more interesting. It’s impossible to predict what will come next!
For me, this past Friday was the most interesting day of all. Among other lots, I cataloged seven 1915-S Panama-Pacific fifty dollar gold pieces, three round and four octagonal. That’s…not normal.
Then again, it’s not normal for one of our auctions to have seven of these enormous coins, regardless of how many lots it contains. For example, the January 2010 FUN Auction had just three examples of either shape.
The fifty dollar pieces, along with three smaller denominations, were struck to commemorate the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a World’s Fair-grade celebration held in San Francisco in 1915. (The San Francisco Public Library has an engaging “virtual tour” of the Exposition grounds as seen through contemporary photographs.)
For the first time in a decade, the U.S. Mint struck commemorative coins for the event, and for the first time ever, it did so away from the main Mint in Philadelphia. At more than two ounces of gold each, the fifty dollar coins were too large to be struck on regular coin presses. Rather than strike the huge coins in Philadelphia and ship them out to California, the Mint sent a medal press over instead. This allowed the San Francisco Mint to strike the coins on demand.
In addition to their huge size and dollar value (the fifty dollar face value remains a record for a U.S. commemorative), the Panama-Pacific fifties are known for coming in two different shapes, round and the more dramatic octagonal format. The octagonal shape is a nod to the massive fifty dollar “ingots” struck in California at the height of the gold rush, like this United States Assay Office piece.
The entire maximum mintage, 1,500 pieces each for the round and octagonal formats, was struck, though less than half of that mintage would be sold, with the rest re-melted. Not surprisingly, the octagonal pieces were more popular and sold 645 examples, leaving the round version a net mintage of just 483 pieces, the lowest of any classic commemorative.
With seven examples on offer in the upcoming auction, there are plenty of chances to own one of these massive gold coins. Two featured collections are key. The Cliff Street Collection offers four separate examples: here, here, here and here.
The Larry V. Cunningham Collection has two more pieces as part of a complete five-coin set of Panama-Pacific commemoratives, one round and one octagonal. A “lone wolf” octagonal, an attractive MS63 coin, rounds out the selection.
Whatever your budget (assuming you have, say, $40,000 or so to spend on a coin), there’s sure to be a Panama-Pacific fifty dollar in the auction for you. If they’re all out of your reach, there are a variety of other Panama-Pacific denominations, such as the half dollar, gold dollar and gold quarter eagle, that could be yours for a fraction of the price. I’m sure Mr. Cunningham would be happy if you bid on any of them…