40 Years Since U.S. Bicentennial Coins First Hit Pocket Change

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek....
 

Growing up, I didn’t spend much time looking for 50 States Quarters--they didn’t exist yet. It was the early 1990s, and I was just foraying into the world of coin collecting. As those who were involved in the coin industry will remember, the early ‘90s was a pretty staid time for the hobby. Coin prices had sunk to their lowest levels in years following the market crash of 1989. As for circulating U.S. coinage at the time, Kennedy half dollars were already non-existent in pocket change and Susan B. Anthony dollars--the most recent new coin design--had been out of production for a decade. But there was at least one interesting modern coin that kept popping up in my pocket change every other day or so: the 1776-1976 Bicentennial quarter.

As I quickly learned, circulated copper-nickel clad Bicentennial quarters, although distinctive from the single-date, heraldic-eagle-reverse Washington quarters I had been accustomed to finding, really weren’t worth more than face value. But that didn’t stop me from holding aside those patriotic coins anyway.

In 2015, they, along with the Bicentennial Kennedy half-dollar and Bicentennial Eisenhower dollar, turned 40 years old. It may be hard for some to imagine that mid-1970s coinage is already rounding the corner to the half-century mark. Yet here we stand, at a juncture where common Bicentennial coinage, first minted in 1975, is becoming vintage material in some collectors’ eyes (or do we call it “retro” today?).

Bicentennial Coins Almost Didn’t Happen

americanbicentCongress established the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) in 1966 to begin preparations for all activities celebrating the nation’s 200th anniversary. By the summer of 1970, the ARBC had established a Coins and Medals Advisory Committee, which had originally proposed the production of a commemorative half dollar.

This initiative was soon expanded to cover all coin denominations.

Financial abuses with commemorative coins decades earlier dissuaded the Treasury Department from considering the notion of special Bicentennial coinage. While Mint Director Mary Brooks did support the idea of 1776-1976 dual-dating on all coinage, technical issues would have made this rather difficult on smaller coins such as the penny and dime. She also supported the idea of a commemorative coin, but felt it should have been a non-circulating half dollar or gold coin to avoid interrupting the production of ordinary business-strike coins.

By 1973, the Treasury changed its tune and threw its support toward commemorative Bicentennial coinage, with proposed changes to the reverses of the circulating dollar and half dollar coins. Brooks added that she felt a commemorative quarter should also be struck.

Both the House and Senate hashed out a bill that would provide for the striking of circulating copper-nickel Bicentennial commemorative quarters, half dollars, and dollars, as well as 15 million sets of the three denominations featuring a 40 percent silver-clad composition. A final version of the bill passed on October 4, 1973 and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on October 18.

Coin Design Contest Attracts Hundreds Of Entries

Within days of the Bicentennial coin bill passing, the Treasury called for an open competition to seek new designs for the reverses of the involved coins. By the January 9, 1974 deadline, the United States Mint had received 884 entries, with 12 semifinalist designs making the initial cut. Each of the semifinalist designers were given $750 prizes and asked to submit final designs as plaster models, or galvanos.

The 12 designs, which included images of sailing ships and spacecraft, were whittled down to six designs following a panel review by the National Bicentennial Coin Design Competition Committee. Treasury Secretary George Shultz chose the final three designs and on March 6, 1974, Brooks went on the Today Show to announce the winners.

They included:

  • Jack L. Ahr, who designed a quarter featuring the now-widely-familiar Colonial drummer and victory torch
  • Seth Huntington, who designed a half dollar featuring an image of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776
  • Dennis R. Williams, who, at the age of 22, became the youngest person to design a U.S. coin, provided an image of the Liberty Bell superimposed on the Moon for the dollar

Each winner received $5,000 for their submission, and the coin designs were touched up by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro in preparation for initial striking. Gasparro added minor details to the Colonial drum and the face of the drummer on the quarter, made minute changes to Independence Hall on the half dollar, and changed the shape of the Liberty Bell and simplified details on the lunar surface on the dollar.

During a special ceremony at the Philadelphia Mint on August 12, 1974, prototype silver proof coins absent a mintmark were struck with the three designers present. Special presentation sets were provided to a few select officials, including President Gerald Ford. He would sign a bill that allowed the U.S. Mint to strike 1974-dated quarters, halves, and dollar coins until the U.S. Mint could begin striking 1776-1976 dual-dated coins on July 4, 1975. This action was taken largely to preclude a short period of manufacturing relatively low-mintage 1975-dated quarters, half dollars, and dollars that would have been inevitably hoarded by coin collectors.

Bicentennial Coins Make Their Debut

The U.S. Mint opened up pre-ordering for the 40 percent silver clad coin sets on November 15, 1974, charging $9 for three-coin uncirculated sets and $15 for proof sets. While a limit of five sets per person was originally in place, what concerned numismatists were the high prices of the proof sets. Though a direct response to the protests was never cited, Brooks announced on January 19, 1975 that the price of the proof set would be lowered to $12 and that ordering limits would be removed.

1976In a similar fashion, the price of the uncirculated set was lowered to $7 for bulk orders of 50 sets or more. In addition to the silver proof sets and uncirculated sets, copper-nickel clad proof and uncirculated sets for 1975 would include the three Bicentennial coin designs. These were issued for $7 and $6, respectively.

On July 7, 1975, the Bicentennial half dollar was officially released. The quarter was the next to debut on August 18. Finally, on October 13, the Bicentennial dollar first appeared in circulation. By the start of 1976, hundreds of millions of Bicentennial coins, mostly quarters, were wending their way through channels of commerce.

The United States Mint would make small changes to the circulating Bicentennial dollar for the 1976 striking, retooling the appearance of the letters on the reverse with a slimmer, more delicate font featuring minute serifs. Numismatists differentiate the two types of Bicentennial dollar reverses with “Type I” and “Type II” designations.

While this design attribute is useful for determining whether a copper-nickel clad Bicentennial dollar was made in 1975 or 1976, all 40 percent silver Bicentennial dollars feature the Type I lettering. There is no way to tell whether a given Bicentennial quarter or half dollar was struck in 1975 or 1976, except perhaps for those that are packaged with other 1975 or 1976 coinage in government-packaged proof sets and mint sets.

The Bicentennial Coin Market Today

The last three-coin Bicentennial uncirculated and proof sets were sold by the United States Mint in 1986. Though offered for a full decade, neither the proof sets nor the uncirculated sets ever sold out completely, and the government therefore melted several million silver Bicentennial coins in the 1980s.

Though there are certainly far fewer intact Bicentennial proof and mint sets today than there were 30 years ago, the good news for coin collectors who enjoy modern coinage is that these sets are still extremely affordable. With silver prices hovering around $15 an ounce, one can buy either a complete silver proof or mint set in government packaging for $14 to $16. Astute collectors searching eBay can find the occasional three-coin proof set, along with its slipcover and foam mailing container, for around $20.

Aside from the silver proof and uncirculated sets, which tend to increase in visibility whenever silver prices make a marked move one way or the other, the copper-nickel clad coin sets with 1776-1976 coinage have been relatively dormant in terms of coin collecting activity for years now. Selling for less than $10 each, they find their largest markets among those who collect government-issued coin sets and collectors who are completing modern series sets and need to cut out the denomination(s) of their choice for rehousing in an album. The clad sets are also a favorite among cherrypickers looking to snag a scarce, high-end example for slabbing and possible registry set inclusion or lucrative resale.

Of course, all circulated copper-nickel Bicentennial quarters and half dollars are worth only face value, though worn clad Eisenhower dollars are usually bought and sold for a few cents above face. Most numismatists who are attuned to the peculiarities of Eisenhower dollars know that business strikes that grade above MS-64 are extremely scarce.

It is within this small segment of Eisenhower dollars that those who buy and sell Bicentennial coinage may find their best opportunities for numismatic challenge and monetary profit.

According to eBay sales data, business-strike Eisenhower dollars grading MS-66 and certified by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) or Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) have sold for more than $300. Even MS-65 examples have found buyers in the $150 to $200 price range. MS-67 Bicentennial Ikes are truly elusive and sell for thousands – on the rare occasions they enter the marketplace, that is.

Whether you want to build a simple set of circulated Bicentennial coins from pocket change and bank rolls, seek pristine-quality specimens for a registry set, or are simply looking for a nice three-coin, 40 percent silver set to display on your office desk, 1776-1976 Bicentennial coinage offers something for everyone. On their 40th anniversary, these popular commemorative coins are lustrous reminders that the Spirit of ’76 will ring on for eternity.

 

See Also: CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker's On Collecting Bicentennial Quarters: Risks & Rewards Video.

1 Comment on "40 Years Since U.S. Bicentennial Coins First Hit Pocket Change"

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  1. Munzen says:

    While the half and dollar designs were a welcome change, for me Jack Ahr’s drummer boy image was head and shoulders above. It’s a real shame it couldn’t have been continued on later circulating issues.

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