The following Q&A is excerpted from Clifford Mishler’s Coins: Questions & Answers:
Q: What is a commemorative coin?
A: All coins are commemoratives to the extent that by their existence they affirm and recall the beginning and development of art and metallurgy, the rise of nationalism, the development of monetary theory, etc. Our present regular-issue presidential-theme coinage honors the achievement of past presidents who left indelible marks on our nation and society.
However, by definition and practice, the official commemorative coins of the United States have been issued supplementary to and concurrent with the regular-issue coinage to specifically honor a person, place, or event — generally in celebration of an anniversary. They were struck by the U.S. Mint with authority from Congress and, though generally sold for a premium, they are legal tender for their face value.
Regrettably (and this caused their suspension in 1954) most U.S. commemoratives have been commercially — as well as historically — motivated and their issuance facilitated through political connections. Rather than being released to general circulation, the early issues of the classic commemorative period (1892–1954) were generally sold to the sponsoring commemorative commissions at face value, to be resold to the public at a premium. The modern commemorative issues (since 1982) have generally been sold as a U.S. Mint program, with designated proceeds from sales being earmarked for the benefit of organizations tied to the event, place, or person honored.
Commemoratives were issued intermittently from 1892 through 1954 in 157 distinct varieties, including mintmarks and dates. That total includes 48 major types of half dollars, creating 143 varieties; one silver dollar; one quarter dollar; six major types of gold dollars forming nine varieties; two $2.5 gold pieces; and two $50 gold slugs.
Commemorative designs were adapted to our circulation issue quarter, half dollar, and dollar coinage in 1975 and 1976 in commemoration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.
In 1982, following a 28-year lapse, the matter of special-issue commemoratives was renewed with the introduction of a single coin: A half dollar marking the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Over the subsequent 25 years (through 2006) the number of modern commemorative issues vastly eclipsed the number of types and varieties issued over the 63-year period from 1892 through 1954. The 49 commemorative issues over that time (an average of two per year) have embraced 95 types, of which 26 were offerings tied to the Olympic Games. Of the 95 types, 16 were half dollars, 54 were silver dollars, 20 were $5 gold pieces, and five were $10 gold pieces. Inclusive of mintmark varieties, the number of distinctive issues is 134, without considering the various Uncirculated and Proof editions that were offered of some types, bringing to 197 the grand total of varieties.
And, there is no end in sight!