By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ........
Today we’ll talk about the modern commemorative “key date” MS-69 short set - a set comprised of the four most expensive half dollars in MS-69 condition. In the coin market, the health of key coins can dictate the growth potential of more common dates. By looking at these four issues and understanding their historical trends, we walk away with a better idea of the health of the entire program and also get to see how these so-called “scarce” issues are marketed to us by dealers and the coin media.
We also provide some guidance as to when you should buy at current market prices. This is not an endorsement of these coins, but simply a measure of where you need to be if you’re in the market for any of these issues.
1982-D Washington Half Dollar
($100 or less)
While there’s no such thing as a rare commemorative (unless we’re talking about 1915 $50 slugs), the astronomical mintages of the first few years of the modern period displace any notion that collectors should have in regards to future scarcity. “Fortunately” for coin dealers, the eleven point grading system, coupled with public faith in the major third party grading services, allows for arbitrage to be had for coins that would otherwise not be promotable due to their commonness.
The 1982-D earned considerable returns early on for dealers who played on ill-informed assumptions about surviving populations. Like the 2001-S Sacagawea dollar (a phony “key date” for that series, if ever there was one), the 1982-D Washington half dollar has also undergone jaw-dropping reversals in market price as certified populations of the coin increased - which is inevitable when there’s money to be made by submitting them.
Unlike the other three commemorative coins that we’ll discuss, the Washington half doesn’t usually come in MS-69. On top of that, only one example has earned a vaunted MS-70 - and that coin was returned via PCGS’ Guaranty Resubmission, where it was downgraded to an MS-68!
We estimate that 8-10% of fresh, unhandled Washington halves would grade MS-69 if submitted. So, let’s be conservative and say that 10% of the total distributed mintage (221,046) remains in a fresh, unhandled state and can be picked through for quality. Eight per cent of that would mean at least 17,683 pieces can be brought to market that grade MS-69.
That’s not a number that compels us to believe that coins in this grade are particularly rare. But that didn’t stop Teletrade, who wrote in their 2003 auction listing about one MS-69 example:
“Full satin-like mint luster. Virtual perfection. Excellent eye appeal. Highly underrated at this grade level...”
Maybe they were just being nice. They should be; they got $850 for that coin.
The 1982-D was never underrated at MS-69, just over marketed.
Now, the same coin can be had for less than $100 if you’re patient. Charles got a package deal on a MS-69 and PR70DCAM in PCGS plastic for $100 on eBay several months ago.
Charles: To be honest, I’m not so convinced it was a good deal as I really don’t like the MS-69 at all. It has a dark toning spot in the field to the upper right of Washington’s head, which obliterates its eye appeal, and a radial scratch on the reverse mars an otherwise beautiful side.
Which all goes to show - buy the coin, not the holder (even if you get two holders for the price of one).
Although this issue in MS-69 is one of the better modern commemoratives, we don’t endorse it as a coin you should invest in. Get it to complete your set, but by all means get the nicest piece you can. Proof Likes do exist. Find one of those in MS-69 and put it away.
1996-S Olympic Soccer Half Dollar
($65 or less)
Surprisingly, soccer is well represented in our nation’s commemorative coin program. A 2012 Harris Poll ranks soccer as America’s sixth favorite sport, behind football, baseball, auto racing, basketball, and hockey. Of those sports, only baseball (five times, including the upcoming 2014 Hall of Fame commemorative) and basketball (once, in 1995) have also been immortalized on legal tender U.S. coins.
By the time the XXVI Olympiad Soccer half dollar was struck in 1996, the sport had been commemorated three times in three years. The preceding two coin World Cup program was a sales disappointment and controversial to boot. The 1996-S Soccer half dollar therefore had a distribution that was only 20% the size of that boondoggle.
While “low mintage” coins often become instant money makers for promoters and wholesalers, the 1996-S Soccer was a slow burn. Perhaps it was the theme, the motif for which appears to have been recycled from the 1994 World Cup dollar, or maybe it was the fact that 52,836 coins isn’t really a “low” mintage*.
A slow upward crawl in price; is this coin for real?
The price of the coin has remained essentially constant since 2004. When adjusted for inflation, that means the coin is losing money year after year.
1996-S Olympic Swimming Half Dollar
($90 or less)
As far as modern sport commemoratives go, the 1996 Swimming half dollar is more than adequate. The art is well proportioned and less cartoonish than designs normally selected by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. Maryland artist William J. Krawczewicz contributed the winning design, and the coin was engraved by Edgar Steevers. The initials of both men appear in the exergue.
One thing that stands out to us is the clever way in which Krawczewicz incorporates elements of heraldry into his design. Below the coin’s central device - a swimmer performing the butterfly stroke - is a lane divider that also separates the coin’s exergue from the action. The shape of the divider is a classic heraldic motif known as a fesse raguly. It not only imparts a sense of three dimensions to the design but also serves as a callback to traditional symbology.
Ups and downs, but ultimately stasis.
Since February 2008, when MS-69 examples routinely sold for $150 or more (after “peaking” for slightly more than four years), the 1996-S Swimming half dollar has spumed and sputtered at around $100, sometimes selling for considerably less. We estimate its value at $90 retail, but the coin does dip below $70.
Unpopular when it came out, the coin has been heavily promoted for years by dealers who (we’re guessing) stockpiled the issue before the Mint pulled the plug on the program. Initial buyer apathy is “pure gold” for coin dealers. Why buy a coin for $10, when you can wait a year or two and pay $150, right? Until the release of the 2011-D Army half dollar, this issue was considered the “key date” to the modern half dollar series, but ask yourself: How many collectors are actively looking for this issue?
Answer: Judging by the number of unsold lots on eBay, not many.
Like nearly every other coin from this issue, if retained in its original government packaging it will grade MS-69. The only premium a collector should pay for a certified example should be related to the cost of slabbing, which at present is about $15. Consider raw examples taken out of original government packaging as being impaired unless attractively toned.
2011-D Army Half Dollar
($45 or less)
We’re just two years out from the release of the 2011-D Army half dollar, a coin we wrote about in-depth in May 2012. In that piece, we said that “[it] has been selling for a significant premium... despite the fact that it is a coin virtually nobody wanted to buy last year”.
We warned our readers that “industry types want you to be aware of just how ‘scarce’ these coins are, which is driving demand and consequently an increase in price.”
We know some of the players in the modern commemorative market and became aware that a significant portion of the mintage was located in dealer stock. All they needed to create a bubble was some carefully placed buzz.
Sorry to burst your bubble, 2011-D Army half…
Fortunately, One of the Major Numismatic Publications was Johnny-on-the-Spot, writing in their Expert Advice column (13 Feb 2012) that “It is often hard to predict which modern issues will become tomorrow’s key coins”, before going on to cite the issue’s “paltry mintage” of 39,461 coins. The free advertising in a major coin magazine helped some speculators cash in, as you can see in the graph below. Thankfully, the endorphin high of the “paltry mintage” 2011-D Army half dollar wore off, and the doldrums that marked its first year of availability returned.
Today, the coin trades for about as much money as the 1995-S Civil War half dollar, which has a mintage three times as large.
Like the 1982-D Washington half dollar, the 2011-D Army half has no certified example in MS-70. We blame planchet quality, since these are indistinguishable from Kennedy half dollar planchets that’ve been struck up like regular circulating coinage. Care was taken to avoid most coin-on-coin contact, but planchet flaws don’t always strike out.
Early speculation in 2012 was that a considerable number of these coins would grade MS-68. That didn’t happen. Instead, only the most egregious examples graded lower than MS-69, which took another arrow away from the marketing hype quiver.
Personally, we think a tougher coin to find truly nice is the current business strike Five Star General half dollar commemorating Omar Bradley and Hap Arnold. On that coin, even MS-69 examples show naked eye scratches to the right of Bradley’s forehead.
At the end of the day, there are no winners in this series. Collect for the sheer enjoyment of it. If you’re the kind of collector who has to have one of every coin in a series, then stay on top of things (and we humbly suggest that CoinWeek.com is a great place for that). Don’t buy into the hype, and stay as close as you can to the coin’s issue price. In certified plastic, you can do better only with the most common issues.
If we were to endorse collecting modern commemorative half dollars, we recommend doing so raw, with the intention of filling DANSCO-type albums for long-term storage. We might even say buying modern commems indiscriminately and storing them in DANSCOs is the way to go. If the coins tone up over time, you’ll make a tidy profit. Most clad coins do not tone attractively, so even with this strategy there’s no guarantee.
* For a modern circulating issue, 52,836 is indeed an outrageously low mintage. For a coin struck exclusively for collectors, it’s not. In order for this total to be scarce in any way, active buyers would have to outnumber the coins, and the coin would have to be hard to find in the marketplace. Neither of these criteria has ever been met by a modern commemorative coin.
Flip of a Coin:
The 1996-S Swimming half dollar, mentioned above, wasn’t artist William J. Krawczewicz’s only brush with numismatic history. His design was selected over hundreds of other applicants to serve as the reverse of the 2000 Maryland state quarter. While Krawczewicz’s initials appeared alongside Edgar Steever’s on the Swimming half dollar, only engraver Thomas D. Rogers is credited on the quarter.
The 1989 Congress Bicentennial silver dollar is one of the more attractive coins from the early part of the modern commemorative program. The obverse features Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom (finished in 1862), which sits atop the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. The reverse features the Mace of the House of Representatives. The uncirculated release is known to have a small number of 180 degree rotated reverse errors.
Speaking of Crawford’s Statue of Freedom, the statue is featured prominently (for a few seconds, anyway) in the new Roland Emmerich film White House Down. The camera focuses on the statue as it falls in a cloud of debris after one of the movie’s many explosion sequences (yes, we said explosion sequences). A bit heavy-handed perhaps, but then again how many people know what they’re looking at? Don’t know what this has to do with numismatics, but a modern commemorative collector worth his salt may see an unintentional parallel to the cloud-filled commemorative dollar obverse.