The 100th anniversary of Arkansas’ statehood called for a number of celebrations, the grandest of which was scheduled for 1936 at the state capital of Little Rock. Noting the success of other states in funding such events through the sale of commemorative coins, a similar plan was devised by a state-appointed group calling itself the Arkansas Honorary Centennial Celebration Commission; this name was later shortened to the Arkansas Centennial Commission. Acting promptly, the Commission got its bill passed by Congress May 14, 1934, authorizing the coinage of 500,000 half dollars honoring Arkansas’ statehood centennial. The review process was no doubt eased by the fact that Arkansas’ Joseph T. Robinson was Senate Majority Leader and, until his death in 1937, the most influential figure in Congress. Robinson would later be recognized (against his own wishes) with an additional authorization of Arkansas halves featuring his portrait. This coin is usually collected as a distinctive issue from the regular type.
The first Europeans to enter what is now Arkansas were led by Hernando de Soto of Spain, who explored the area in 1541-42 but evidently found no reason to remain. More than a century later, Frenchmen Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet passed through Arkansas while canoeing down the Mississippi River in 1673. They too moved on, but were followed a few years later by Robert La Salle. It was his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, who established a trading post along the river in 1683 for exchanges with the native Quapaw. Through warfare, often in distant lands, Arkansas passed from France to Spain and then back to France again. It was ultimately sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Arkansas was included within the Missouri Territory from 1812 to 1819, but when Missouri achieved statehood, the Arkansas Territory was established. By 1836, enough settlers were living there for it to be admitted to the Union on June 15 as the 25th state. Siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War, Arkansas was not readmitted to the Union until 1868, three years after the war’s end.
The language of the Arkansas commemorative coin bill passed in 1934 conveniently omitted any reference to a place or date of issue, yet it specified that the coins were to be delivered only to the Commission or its designated agent “at such times as they shall be requested.” With so generous an authorization, the Commission could and did request that Arkansas halves be coined at all three mints and in several consecutive years. If this weren’t enough to aggravate collectors (who naturally sought completeness in their sets), the Commission’s clumsy and sometimes suspect handling of distribution further fueled the fires of resentment surrounding this and other “serial” commemoratives.
To advance the sale of Arkansas halves even further, the Commission sought to create new designs commemorating the same theme. This move was prompted by the Texas Centennial Commission’s scheme to have five new reverse types adapted to its existing commemorative obverse. The Arkansas Commission, however, scaled down its request to just three new reverses. Growing Congressional resistance to commemorative coin abuses led to the Texas proposal failing altogether and the Arkansas plan being reduced to just a single new reverse. Legislation passed June 26, 1936 authorized a supplemental production of not less than 25,000 nor more than 50,000 coins.
The new issue of Arkansas halves would be struck in addition to the regular commemorative type, which had already been produced at all three mints during 1936. The supplemental coins would bear the familiar centennial obverse designed by Edward Everett Burr and sculpted by Emily Bates. The question remained, however, of what would be appropriate for the new reverse. A. W. Parke, Secretary of the Arkansas Centennial Commission, wrote to Fine Arts Commission Secretary H. P. Caemmerer on this very subject. In a letter dated September 3, 1936, Parke requested prompt approval from the Commission of whatever design was chosen, and he added that the Arkansas people were considering the image of a coin which explorer Hernando de Soto was supposed to have presented to an Indian woman during his travels through the region. This idea never progressed very far, and a portrait of Arkansas native Joseph T. Robinson was ultimately selected as the most desirable subject. In addition to being an important figure in the United States Senate, Robinson was a former governor of the state.
Unlike the long and painful process associated with producing the designs and models for the Arkansas Centennial half dollar, the Robinson coin progressed smoothly and quickly. The selection of professional medallist Henry Kreiss to perform the work was the saving grace, as he proved fully qualified for the job. Kreiss had previously sculpted the models for the Bridgeport Centennial and Connecticut Tercentenary issues, and his model for the Robinson coin was based on sketches created by Enid Bell. Kreiss’ model was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on December 23, 1936.
A large, right-facing portrait of Joseph T. Robinson dominates this coin’s reverse (popularly but incorrectly considered the obverse). Arranged in an arc about the periphery is the legend ARKANSAS CENTENNIAL 1836-1936. In much smaller letters to the left of the portrait is the statutory motto LIBERTY. To the right is JOSEPH T. ROBINSON. Below that is letter K, the designer’s initial.
Due to the lateness of its approval, this new type was not coined until January of 1937. Some 25,265 pieces were struck at the Philadelphia Mint (15 of these were reserved for the Assay Commission). The full allotment of 50,000 coins was never realized, as the market for commemorative coins took a sharp downturn at about this time.
The official distributor for the Arkansas-Robinson halves was Stack’s of New York City. It already held exclusive rights to the 1937-dated three-coin sets of the regular Arkansas halves, so it was only natural to extend its commitment to the series. Offering the Robinson pieces at $1.85 per coin, Stack’s cautioned potential buyers on the order form that “From all outward appearances, this issue will be oversubscribed and sold the day the coins will be released.” The lackluster market for commemoratives, combined with growing collector resentment over the proliferation of exploitative issues, conspired to hold down sales. An unspecified number of pieces remained, and Stack’s was compelled in 1939 to advertise 500 Robinson halves for sale to the highest bidder. This was apparently just the tip of the iceberg, as dealer Abe Kosoff was rumored to have brokered a deal involving some 8,000 coins. Hoards of varying size remained with dealers through the 1950s.
It’s almost certain that most or all of the Robinson halves were distributed within numismatic channels. Though there are very few circulated examples as a result of this exclusive marketing, that doesn’t mean that gems are abundant. No special care was taken in the coining or shipping of this issue, and the typical Robinson half dollar will show extensive contact marks and abrasions on the Senator’s face. The luster of this coin type is uniformly frosty, though it may be either bright or dull.
Eight satin-finish proofs were reportedly struck, half of these going to prominent coin dealer Wayte Raymond. Since satin proofs are not easily distinguished from conventional coins, expert authentication is required before the proof status of a Robinson half dollar can be determined.
The packaging for this commemorative issue consisted of a four-page, buff-colored cardboard folder. Appearing on the front in black ink is the inscription: SENATOR JOSEPH T. ROBINSON, COMMEMORATIVE HALF DOLLAR; A NEW DESIGN ISSUED BY THE ARKANSAS CENTENNIAL COMMISSION: AUTHORIZED BY SPECIAL ACT OF CONGRESS JUNE 26, 1936; OFFICIAL DISTRIBUTORS: STACK’S, 690 SIXTH AVE., NEW YORK, NY