In 1992, the quincentenary or 500th anniversary of the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas was celebrated with the issuance of three commemorative coins from the United States Mint. The program included extremely high maximum mintage levels likely formulated with the expectation that the coins would be heavily ordered by the general public. From a numismatic perspective, the program harkened back to the first commemorative coin produced by the United States Mint issued in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.
The program to mark the quincentenary of the voyage was authorized under Public Law 102-281, signed by President George H.W. Bush on May 13, 1992. The law authorized the production of clad composition half dollars with a maximum mintage of 6 million pieces, silver dollars with a maximum mintage of 4 million, and $5 gold coins with a maximum mintage of 1 million. Each coin would be available in uncirculated or proof versions. Surcharges added to the cost of each coin would benefit the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Coins and Fellowship Foundation.
The obverse design for the half dollar featured a scene of Columbus landing in the new world with the Santa Maria visible in the background. The reverse featured all three ships of Columbus’ voyage the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The obverse inscriptions include the dates “1492” and “1992” and the reverse includes the caption “500th Anniversary of Columbus Discovery”.
The silver dollar obverse design featured a full length portrait of Columbus holding a banner in his right hand and a scroll in his left. A globe appears to his side and three ships appear above. The reverse design includes the split image of the Santa Maria and the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery to contrast explorations of the past and present. An inscription on the obverse states “Columbus Quincentenary”.
The $5 gold coins featured a profile portrait of Columbus facing a map of the New World on the obverse. The dates “1492” and “1992” appear to either side. On the reverse is the Crest of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the rank given to Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella, which overlaps a map of the Old World, which carries the date “1492”.
The United States Mint offered the coins in a total of eleven different ordering options. This consisted of individual proof or uncirculated options for each coin, proof or uncirculated two coin sets containing the half dollar and silver dollar, proof or uncirculated three coin sets, and a comprehensive six coin set. The sales period extended from August 1992 to June 1993.
Ultimately, sales would reach around one-tenth of the maximum mintage levels for each coin. The half dollars sold 390,154 proofs and 135,702 uncirculated coins. The silver dollars sold 385,241 proofs and 106,949 uncirculated coins. The $5 gold coins sold 79,730 proofs and 24,329 uncirculated coins. Across all coins and versions, total sales were 1,122,105 out of the total maximum mintage of 11,000,000.
Although the program did not seem to attain the measure of success anticipated, the program did bring the United States Mint commemorative coin program full circle. As noted within promotional materials, the first official commemorative coin ever produced by the Mint was the Columbian Half Dollar, produced in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage and issued at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Across two dates of issue, this early commemorative coin had a mintage of 2,500,405, or more than double the collective mintage for the three coins of the modern program.