No one ever disputed that the city of Albany, New York was a pleasant enough place to live and worthy of its residents’ pride. Yet, in the mid 1930s, those who believed that commemorative coinage programs had gotten out of hand needed only to point at the half dollars honoring cities such as Albany and Hudson, also in New York State, to make their point. Marking events of purely local importance, these themes seemed unworthy of commemoration on a national scale. Such coin issues were a product of the times, however, as Congress was inclined to approve just about any coinage bill that had sufficient support from one of its members. A typical example, the Albany half dollar was authorized during the late spring of 1936, at the very height of the speculative market in commemorative coins.
Albany was originally a Dutch village, Rensselaers-wyck, founded by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer in 1630 on the banks of the Hudson River. It shared the riverbanks with Fort Orange, founded six years earlier and manned by Dutch Walloons from Holland. After Fort Orange fell to the English in 1664, the surrounding region that would soon be renamed New York became dominated by British colonists. The Dutch came to terms with this new establishment and in 1685, the Van Rensselaers surrendered their claim to the village, which was renamed Albany after the Duke of York and Albany. The following year, Peter Schuyler of Albany traveled to New York City (formerly New Amsterdam) in the company of his secretary, Robert Livingston, and the two men obtained a charter for the city from the English Governor Thomas Dongan. Shortly afterward, Peter Schuyler became mayor of the new English colonial city of Albany.
As residents of the second oldest chartered city in the United States, the leaders of Albany sought to recognize the 250th anniversary of their charter in 1936. Among the souvenirs of this occasion, it was hoped that a commemorative half dollar could be obtained from Congress, as such coins were much in the news during 1936 and had proved quite successful in raising funds for local celebrations. With relatively little debate, a bill was passed on June 16 of that year authorizing the coining of 25,000 half dollars commemorating the Albany Charter.
The Albany Dongan Charter Coin Committee selected as its coin’s designer Miss Gertrude Lathrop, an accomplished sculptor and Albany native who would go on to create the New Rochelle half dollar the following year. It proved a wise choice, as her models were highly praised by both the Commission of Fine Arts and the U. S. Mint. The one hitch seemed to be in the size of the legend LIBERTY. Recognizing the obtrusive nature of the various statutory inscriptions, Miss Lathrop had made this word so small as to be nearly unnoticeable, even on the enlarged model. The Commission’s sculptor member, Lee Lawrie, feared that its miniscule rendering would cause it to disappear entirely during the reduction process by which a master hub is made. Lathrop responded by submitting her models to the Mint’s Chief Engraver, John R. Sinnock, for his comments. Sinnock assured her that the legend would reduce properly, however small it may appear. This enabled her to retain the decorative eagle, which would have otherwise succumbed to enlarged lettering. Lawrie withdrew his objection, and the models were approved by the Commission on September 9.
The obverse of the Albany Charter half dollar is dominated by a realistic and lifelike beaver gnawing on a maple branch. The beaver (and more specifically its pelt) formed one of the Albany region’s principle products in its early years, as well as being symbolic of industrious effort in general. It also appears on the city’s seal. The maple is New York’s state tree, and its keys (seeds) are used to separate UNITED STATES OF AMERICA from HALF DOLLAR, both of which are arranged in arcs around the obverse periphery. Appearing in small letters above the beaver, in a semi-circular pattern, are the statutory mottoes E PLURIBUS UNUM and IN GOD WE TRUST. On the reverse are standing figures of (from left to right) Thomas Dongan, Robert Livingston and Peter Schuyler. The governor is shaking hands with Schuyler in farewell, the latter holding onto the new charter that he and his secretary will take back to Albany. The three stand upon a semi-spherical base, on which is inscribed the date 1936. Over their heads is an eagle, and above it in tiny letters the legend LIBERTY. Arranged in arcs around the periphery are SETTLED 1614 CHARTERED 1686 (above) and ALBANY, N Y (below). Pine cones separate these two inscriptions, and the artist’s initials GKL are incused in minute letters beside Dongan’s feet. The small pine tree behind the governor, along with the pine cones and the maple keys collectively represent the fertility and growth of the city.
The models were quickly reduced to hubs and working dies, and the entire mintage of 25,013 pieces was coined at the Philadelphia Mint during October of 1936 (the odd 13 coins were reserved for the Assay Commission and were later destroyed). The Albany Dongan Charter Coin Committee, W. L. Gillespie, Chairman, offered these coins in the fall of 1936 at $2 apiece. Great emphasis was placed on the fact that the number sold to each individual was limited, thus implying that a quick sellout was certain. By this time, however, the commemorative mania of the spring and summer had taken a noticeable downturn. In addition, the offering price of $2 was higher than usual for new coins, which typically cost $1 to $1.50 at issue. Coin collectors, who had already been assailed with nearly twenty commemoratives in that same year, let out a big yawn, and sales of the Albany half dollar fell far short of expectations. To its credit, the Committee refused to discount the coins for several years afterward, trying to maintain the integrity of its program. In a final effort to move the remaining few thousand pieces, the entire lot was offered to coin dealer Abe Kosoff at $50 over face! Unable to find interested backers, and likewise unable to tie up such a sum himself, Kosoff had no choice but to decline the offer. Accepting defeat, the Committee returned most of the unsold coins (totaling 7,342 pieces) to the Philadelphia Mint in 1943, where they were melted. A few remained on hand, however, and the State Bank of Albany made these available at the original issue price around 1954. Some 1,600 to 2,400 pieces were thus sold to a handful of local collectors dealers in short order.
The typical Albany half dollar is an attractive coin. Its luster will range from frosty and brilliant to frosty and somewhat subdued. The latter is particularly true of the coin’s reverse. Contact marks, especially common on the exposed flank of the beaver, can be a deterrent to finding a gem. Still, enough nice examples exist that locating coins in grades MS-60 through MS-64 will be little challenge, while even MS-65 and MS-66 gems are not too rare. Higher-grade specimens are quite elusive, however. A few coins of this type have suffered from mishandling; these may have been cleaned, chemically dipped or show light hairlines. Very few specimens were actually circulated. Look for signs of wear on the beaver’s hip and on Governor Dongan’s sleeve. Counterfeits are known; these have a dull gray color, washed-out luster and lack sharpness in their lettering. No authentic proofs are verified, but a few forgeries have been offered; authentication of any coin designated a proof is mandatory.
The various types of original packaging that accompanied the Albany halves are also collectable. These included a four-page booklet which illustrated the coin, presented a brief history of Albany and provided slots for one to five coins. This was enclosed in an envelope imprinted ALBANY DONGAN CHARTER COMMITTEE, 60 STATE STREET, ALBANY, N.Y. A scarcer item is the small box designed to hold single coins and imprinted THE NATIONAL COMMERCIAL BANK AND TRUST COMPANY OF ALBANY