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1915-S Panama Pacific Gold Coins

The Panama Canal ranks among the greatest man-made marvels in the world—a 51-mile-long system of natural lakes, excavated channels and locks that slashes up to 8,000 nautical miles from voyages between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was viewed as such an accomplishment that Uncle Sam marked its opening with a gala world’s fair in San Francisco: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. And as part of that celebration, the United States Mint issued five different commemorative coins in four different denominations—the most diverse tribute for any single event in the first hundred years of U.S. commemorative coinage and the first in which coins were struck in both silver and gold.

The notion of building such a waterway dates back as far as the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors conceived it as a shortcut to the treasure-laden lands along the Pacific coast of the Americas. The first serious effort to transform that dream into a reality took place under the auspices of a French consortium, the French Panama Canal Company, which set out to build a canal in 1880. The French, however, hadn’t sufficiently grasped the formidable difficulties they would face. As a result, 10 years later they were forced to abandon the project after losing the staggering sum of $287 million—a king’s ransom and then some, in an age when laborers routinely earned well under $5 a day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the request of Congress in 1899, President William McKinley appointed a commission of military officers, government officials, and engineers to determine the cost and most practical route of constructing a canal under U.S. control and ownership. Seated in the front row at the far left is renowned engineer George S. Morison, the commission’s primary proponent of a Panama route.

Like the Europeans, the United States came to be keenly aware of the benefits it might reap from a Panama Canal—particularly after the mid-19th century, when the California Gold Rush opened America’s West to ever more intensive development and greatly expanded shipping between U.S. ports on the East and West coasts. New impetus for a canal came with the Spanish-American War of 1898, as the U.S. took on a greater role in the global arena. Congress responded in 1902 by passing the Spooner Act, which authorized President Theodore Roosevelt to acquire the rights to build a canal and proceed with its construction. Roosevelt did so with characteristic relish and relentlessness. When Colombia—which then had sovereignty over Panama—balked at the proposal, he engineered and guaranteed a declaration of independence by the Panamanians and then arranged a treaty with them for the canal.

Like the French before them, American engineers were confronted by enormous obstacles. Unlike the French, however, they didn’t have to face the worst ravages of yellow fever: Research a few years earlier by Dr. Walter Reed linking this deadly disease to the bite of a mosquito had enabled sanitarians to keep it under control during construction.

Completion of the canal coincided almost exactly with the outbreak of World War I in Europe. The war began officially on July 28, and the new canal opened to traffic just 18 days later, on August 15. Americans, however, were still three years away from direct involvement in the conflict, and the Panama Canal was not only closer to home but also a source of more immediate interest to many in this still rather insular country.

The San Francisco fair reflected the nation’s exuberance over its remarkable accomplishment (as well as civic pride over San Francisco’s renaissance following the earthquake and fire in 1906, which served as a second theme for the celebration). The fair featured exhibits by 36 countries, 44 states of the Union and several U.S.


Mayor Rolph giving a speech

The man in charge of “Pan-Pac” coinage was Farran Zerbe, a former president of the American Numismatic Association and a savvy showman who promoted numismatics non-stop. Issuance of the coins to help finance the fair—and, in the process, to showcase the hobby—was Zerbe’s idea, and this as much as anything accounts for the scope of the program. He also was deeply involved in their preparation and sale.

It wasn’t until January 16, 1915, the very eve of the fair, that Congress finally authorized the coins. The enabling legislation called for a silver half dollar plus gold coins in three denominations: $1, $2.50 and $50. Mintage limits were set at 200,000 for the half dollar, 25,000 for the gold dollar, 10,000 for the quarter eagle and 3,000 for the $50 piece, with these 3,000 subsequently being divided equally between round and octagonal versions.

Upon the recommendation of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, the Treasury Department turned to outside artists for help in designing the coins. It commissioned Charles Keck, a well-known New York sculptor, to design the gold dollar. Keck’s initial design carried a depiction of Poseidon, the god of the sea in Greek mythology. This was rejected, however, by Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, who deemed it too detailed for such a diminutive coin. Keck then fashioned a new design featuring a portrait of a typical Panama Canal laborer. The workman faces left on the obverse of the coin, into the two-line inscription UNITED STATES OF / AMERICA, with the date tucked below his chin. The statement of value ONE DOLLAR is the central device on the reverse, with dolphins above and below, symbolizing the joining of two oceans by the canal. This is encircled around the rim by the words PANAMA PACIFIC EXPOSITION–SAN FRANCISCO. Although the workman is sometimes mistaken for a baseball player because of his cap, on the whole this coin’s design is generally viewed with favor by coinage critics.


PCGS MS67, sold for $8,625 on 01/09/08

The dollars were struck (as were all the Pan-Pac coins) at the San Francisco Mint. The S mintmark appears below the D and O of DOLLAR. The maximum authorized mintage of 25,000 was struck (along with 34 pieces for assay), but evidently, many fairgoers balked at the official price of $2 each, as 10,000 pieces were subsequently melted, leaving a net mintage of 15,000 coins. The dollars were sold individually in envelopes imprinted with a description of the coin, the designer’s name and the price — “$2.00—6 for $10.00.” The coins were also included in three-, four- and five-piece sets in velvet-lined leather cases and five- and 10-piece sets in copper frames. After the exposition closed, the price was raised to $2.25 each. The dollars remained available for years afterward, with a large quantity in the possession of celebrated dealer B. Max Mehl. As late as the 1950s, Mehl still had quite a few Pan-Pac dollars on hand, many of which were sold to dealers Abe Kosoff and Sol Kaplan.

Pan-Pac gold dollars are not difficult to locate in grades up thru MS-65, but since many of these coins were mishandled by the public, relatively few survive in the higher mint-state grades. Points to check for wear are the peak of the laborer’s cap and the heads of the dolphins. Officially, no proofs were struck, but the late Walter Breen stated in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins that there were unconfirmed reports of one brilliant proof. Several varieties of counterfeits are known to exist: authentication of any questionable specimen is strongly recommended.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Diameter: 15 millimeters

Weight: 1.672 grams

Composition: .900 gold, .100 copper

Edge: Reeded

Net Weight: .04837 ounce pure gold


Upon the recommendation of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, the Treasury Department turned to outside artists for help in designing the coins. It commissioned sculptress Beatrice Longman of New York to design the quarter eagle. Illness forced Longman to withdraw after she had done just preliminary sketches—and the quarter eagle’s design then fell to Charles E. Barber, the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver, and his longtime assistant, George T. Morgan. Barber was undoubtedly happy with this arrangement, as he consistently opposed any coinage designs fashioned by artists from outside the Mint. Extremely territorial, Barber was also exquisitely sensitive to criticism of his own mediocre creations, particularly since the lukewarm reception afforded his series of regular issue silver coins that debuted in 1892.

Barber’s design for the quarter eagle’s obverse shows an allegorical figure—the goddess Columbia—astride a hippocampus, a Greek mythological sea horse with the head and forequarters of a horse and the tail of a fish. In her hand is a caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession, signifying the strides against yellow fever that had helped make the canal’s construction possible. The date is below this portrait; above it, along the rim, is the inscription PANAMA-PACIFIC EXPOSITION. Morgan designed the reverse, which depicts a left-facing American eagle perched atop a plaque on which is inscribed the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Below this is the statement of value—2 ½ DOL.—and above it, along the rim, is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


PCGS MS67, sold for $19,550 on 09/14/06

The quarter eagles were struck (as were all the Pan-Pac coins) at the San Francisco Mint. The S mintmark appears to the right of the date. Although the maximum authorized mintage of 10,000 coins was produced, due to weak sales, 3,251 pieces (along with 17 pieces made for assay) were melted in the fall of 1916, leaving a net mintage of only 6,749 coins.

Many of these quarter eagles were mishandled by the public, and relatively few survive in the higher mint-state grades, particularly above MS-64. At least one brilliant proof, without the S mintmark, is reported to exist, but this is unconfirmed by Mint records. Counterfeits are known: these are weakly struck and will show depressions and tooling marks. Points to check for wear include Columbia’s head, breast and knee, the head and shoulder of the hippocampus, the eagle’s neck and legs, and the torch band on the column supporting the plaque.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Diameter: 18 millimeters

Weight: 4.18 grams

Composition: .900 gold, .100 copper

Edge: Reeded

Net Weight: .12094 ounce pure gold

New York artist Robert Aitken was selected to design both the round and octagonal fifty-dollar coins. Aitken was an accomplished sculptor, but the Panama-Pacific commemoratives were his first attempt at coin designs. Critics had a field day with his creation, ignoring the aesthetic merits of the design and complaining that “there is nothing American about the coin except the inscription.” On an artistic level, however, Aitken’s work is a rather successful attempt to blend classical Greek motifs with modern coinage. He used the same design for both coins, but slightly reduced the design elements on the octagonal pieces to fit within the border. His subjects were the Roman goddess Minerva (after the Greek goddess Athena) and an owl, symbols, as he put it, “full of beauty in themselves,” that would also express “the larger meaning of the Exposition, its appeal to the intellect.” Aitken’s appeal to the intellect, however, required some interpretation, which fortunately was included on the packaging accompanying the five-piece sets consisting of the two fifties, a quarter eagle, gold dollar, and silver half dollar.


NGC MS66, sold for $172,500 on 08/16/06


Octagonal MS65 PCGS. CAC, sold for $121,325 on 02/13/08

To the Romans, Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, skill, contemplation, spinning, weaving, agriculture and horticulture, all undoubtedly admirable qualities. Ironically, she was also the goddess of war, albeit representing the more reflective and civilized side of conflict. As the central design of the Panama-Pacific $50 pieces, she wears a crested helmet, pushed back to signify peaceful intentions—a symbol of American sentiment towards a Europe deeply embroiled in the carnage of World War I. The date appears in Roman numerals—MCMXV—at the top of Minerva’s shield. The entire central design is surrounded by a “Morse code” circular border, actually a long and short-beaded motif, also adapted from Classical Greek design. Although some critics of the day remarked about the dolphins encircling the border of the octagonal pieces, sarcastically commenting that it seemed as if the canal was built for their benefit, the dolphins quite suitably symbolize the uninterrupted waterway created by the canal. The coins’ reverse depicts an owl perched on a Ponderosa Pine, surrounded by cones. Owls were sacred to Minerva, and the bird is commonly recognized as a symbol for wisdom as well as for watchfulness, alluding to America’s need for vigilance on the eve of its entrance into the European war. The beaded border is repeated again on the reverse, separating the central design from the statutory legends that surround the perimeter of each side: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and FIFTY DOLLARS on the obverse, PANAMA-PACIFIC EXPOSITION and SAN FRANCISCO on the reverse. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST appears above Minerva’s head, while E PLURIBUS UNUM is to the right of the owl. Aitken’s initials are tucked away on the reverse in the field above the R in FRANCISCO, while the S mintmark is located between the lowest right pinecone and the beaded inner border.

Because of the coins’ large size, a special 14-ton hydraulic press used for striking medals was sent from Philadelphia. Although officials considered striking the coins on the fairgrounds, the final decision kept production in the San Francisco Mint. The first coins were struck on June 15, 1915, and a total of 1,509 octagonal and 1,510 round fifties were produced by the end of the summer. The odd 19 pieces that exceeded the authorized mintage were reserved for assay. The first 100 coins struck were distributed to various dignitaries and Mint employees. Despite the popularity of the coins’ large size and appealing design, only 645 of the octagonals and 483 of the rounds were sold. The remaining pieces were melted in November, 1916.

The artistic beauty, size, and rarity of the Pan-Pac fifties place them among the few commemorative issues that are widely recognized and sought by non-specialists. The net mintage figures reflect both their absolute and relative rarity: the lower-mintage round variety is the scarcer of the two. Many surviving Pan-Pac fifties suffer from slight handling friction on the cheek and helmet of Minerva and on the upper portion of the owl’s breast. Often the corners of the octagonal pieces will show rim bumps and nicks. Most examples will range from AU-55 to MS-63: gem examples are quite rare and seldom offered for sale. Almost as coveted as the coins themselves are the original-issue holders: The cases made for single $50 pieces have sold in the $400-$800 range, while the hammered frames for five-piece sets bring several thousand dollars each. The extremely rare double-set, framed holder is even dearer: one example sold several years ago at auction brought an astounding $18,000!

SPECIFICATIONS:
Diameter: 1.74 inches

Weight: 83.55 grams

Composition: .900 gold, .100 copper

Edge: Reeded

Net Weight: 2.41757 ounces pure gold.

 

 


1915-S Panama Pacific Gold Coins

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