Within the series of United States early commemorative coins, there have been numerous issues which were created to celebrate the centennial or other anniversary of a state of the Union. Such coins are treasured items that find an audience with collectors as well as interested people from the state, and they certainly would make an intriguing subset within the broader series. An anniversary is generally limited to one year, as logic goes, but as we have already seen with the Texas Commemorative Half Dollar (which was issued to celebrate the centennial of independence of that State in 1936) this is not always the case. Just like the Texas Half Dollar was issued from 1934 to 1938, the commemorative coin issued in celebration of Arkansas’ centennial of statehood was not only struck in 1936 (the actual centennial year) but also in 1935, 1937, and yes, even 1938 and 1939. One would think that even the most celebrative of states would have ceased celebrating three years later, but that certainly remains disputable when it comes to the Arkansas Centennial Commemorative Half Dollar.
Arkansas, located in the Southeastern United States and known for it’s sheer variety in nature and natural resources, had been populated by Native Americans for thousands of years before Hernando de Soto became the first European to visit the area, but for over a hundred years no other Europeans visited. The French came next, first Robert La Salle, who explored in the early 1680’s, and in 1686 the first European settlement was erected in the Southwestern part of what eventually would become Arkansas. The trading post was called Arkansas Post (led by Henri de Tonti), and was primarily meant to aid trappers hunting for fur in the area.
Arkansas, which had been Spanish from 1762 to 1800 before returning back to the French, was part of the Western boundary of the United States until it was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. Over time, the Native American population was displaced westward and in 1819 the Arkansas Territory was created, which would become the state of Arkansas in 1836, joining the Union as the 25th state.
So almost a hundred years later, it was deemed appropriate to issue a commemorative half dollar in honor of Arkansas’s admission to the Union. The 1930’s were a decade of commemorative craziness, and especially in 1935 and 1936 the number of different issues was huge. Collectors and dealers, however, speculated heavily and dealers soon offered many issues at a large premium over the issue prices. As such, the Arkansas Honorary Centennial Celebration Commission was eager to start selling their own commemorative half dollars, and wasted no time. Congressional legislation authorizing a maximum of 500,000 coins (but not limiting the number of years that the issue could be struck) was passed by Congress on May 14, 1934, two years before the actually centennial year would even start.
A year after legislation had been passed, in May of 1935, the Philadelphia Mint struck the first of the Arkansas Centennial Half Dollars, a mintage of 10,000 coins. How the coins were distributed and at what prices they were offered to the public would change over the following years, but initially the 1935 Philadelphia issue was offered by the centennial commission for $1 each, and within four months the total issue had been sold out. This prompted the centennial commission to request 3,000 additional coins to be struck, with an additional 5,500 pieces struck at both the Denver and San Francisco mints. The additional pieces struck at the Philadelphia and both branch mint issues were the idea of Texas coin dealer B. Max Mehl. All these issues were initially sold at the same $1 price, but Mehl quickly scooped up almost the entire mintage of each additional issue and offered them for sale to collectors at inflated prices: $2 for the Philadelphia issue and $2.75 each for the branch mint issues. A pair of the branch mint issues was offered at a discounted rate of $5 for the pair.
The coins were designed by Arkansas resident Edward Everett Burr and later modeled by Emily Bates. The Commission of Fine Arts did not approve of the initial sketches and changes that were suggested by member Lee Lawrie were implemented. The final result featured an obverse with two busts, facing left, that of a male Native American Chief in the background and a figure of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap in the foreground. In front of the male Chief is the date 1836 and in front of Liberty is 1936. The words ARKANSAS CENTENNIAL are below the busts, near the rim.
The reverse’s main design element is a realistic looking American Eagle, it’s wings stretched, resting on a sun with it’s rays spreading across virtually the entire reverse. On the sun itself are the words HALF DOLLAR and the date of issue. In the eagle’s beak is a scroll, with the words IN GOD WE TRUST on the viewer’s left side and E PLURIBUS UNUM on the right side. Part of a triangle or diamond-shape featuring thirteen stars is seen above the eagle, this is part of the Arkansas State flag, which features a square with 25 stars. Within the space created above the eagle is the word ARKANSAS. Below this are three stars, signifying the three nations that have ruled over Arkansas (Spain, France and the US). Above the name of the state is a single star signifying Arkansas’s involvement in the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Along the top is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
In the actual centennial year, 1936, all three mints produced 10,000 coins, which were initially offered for $1 a piece as well. After the first month, the issue price was raised to $1.50 a piece, later raised to $6.75 for the three-piece set. Unsold coins that remained in the state after the centennial had ended were offered to dealers across the country, making the coins very available just about anywhere despite the lower mintage. 350 pieces of each of the 1936 issues were at some point returned to the mint for melting. One would imagine that by now the issues would cease, but this was not the case. In 1937 each Mint produced 5,500 coins, which were only available as a set of three coins for $8.75. These and subsequent issues were handled by the New York coin firm of Stack’s, which also created black leatherette cases for the 1937 and 1938 issues.
The 1938 issue had even lower mintages, although initially 6,000 pieces were created at each of the mints. These were offered by Stack’s for $8.75 per set as well, but sales were slow, as by now the commemorative market boom was going bust. 2,850 sets were returned the mint for melting, and net mintages for each issue were a mere 3,150 pieces each. Surprisingly, even 1939 issues were created, but needless to say these were not very popular. With an increased issue price of $10 per set only 2,100 coins were produced by each mint. The 1939 issues have among the lowest mintages of all classic commemoratives.
Despite all the low mintages Arkansas Centennial Half Dollars are virtually all relatively affordable (the 1938 and 1939 issues do sell for higher prices because of their lower mintages) and certified gems are virtually always available. Because most collectors assemble type sets, demand for the individual dates is not tremendously high, making for generally affordable coins. Truly superb gem examples, however, are very scarce, and only a handful of pieces have been certified at the MS-68 level for all Arkansas issues combined. Even MS-67’s are very scarce, with the highest populations at that level found for the 1935-D coin.
Needless to say the Centennial Commission went “a little” overboard with the Arkansas Centennial Half Dollar. But the story doesn’t end here. In a future article we will take a look at the 1936 Arkansas-Robinson Commemorative Half Dollar, another issue that was distributed by Stack’s, which shares the reverse (the eagle side) with the Arkansas Centennial Commission Half Dollar. It was the only such modification to an existing issue ever approved by Congress (a similar proposal for the Texas Centennial was not passed) and a prime example of what was happening during the commemorative boom market of the mid 1930’s.