In this very Art Deco composition, the portrait represents-very much after a fashion, as it is idealized almost to unregognizabilty-Stephen Foster (b. Lawrenceville, now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 4, 1826; d. New York City, 1864). Behind Foster's neck are linked initials co for Constance Ortmayer, the designer. We have not been able to trace the ultimate source of the phrase AMERICA'S TROUBADOUR.
On reverse, the female holding a lyre is supposed to personify Music; the date 1886 was chosen on the basis of no historical event whatever, in order to obtain a suitable year for convincing Congress to authorize the coin, "to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a center of music, and to commemorate Cincinnati's contribution to the art of music in the United States for the past 50 years," to quote the authorizing act. These false claims were at once used as grounds for rejection by the Federal Commission of Fine Arts, whose chairman Charles Moore wrote on May 13, 1936, complaining about them to Mint Director Nellie Tayloe "Ma" Ross.
For starters, Stephen Foster had no connection with the musical life of Cincinnati; his only relevance to the city was that he worked there as a bookkeeper in his brother's firm for three years in the 1840s. In addition, as Moore pointed out, Cincinnati had become the locale for musical festivals beginning in 1873 with the May Festival Association, organized by George Ward Nichols, and conducted by the illustrious Theodore Thomas, using a chorus of over 1,000 voices assembled from 35 Midwestern musical societies. Following this initial success, Thomas became director (1878-1881) of the newly founded Cincinnati College of Music, and in later years he acquired the title "Musical Missionary" by taking the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (itself an outgrowth of the biennial festivals) on nation-wide tours, gradually creating an appetite in audiences from Massachusetts to California for symphonic music, at a time when most people's musical experience consisted of village band concerts, singing around the parlor piano, or watching song and dance routines done in Uncle Tom shows or blackface minstrel shows. (There were, of course, no photograph records, and to the average young person of the day a completely professional violinist was as exotic as a performer on the Tibetan trumpet today.)
So that if any commemorative coin were to have been legitimately planed to honor Cincinnati's immense contribution to American cultural life, it should have borne dates 1873-1923 or 1873-1973, and it should have portrayed Theodore Thomas. (As authorized, it would have more appropriately portrayed Tom Melish and a bank vault.)
Unfortunately for rationality, historical accuracy and any sense of the fitness of things, the "Cincinnati Musical Center Commemorative Coin Association" (unknown to any of the Cincinnati musical groups then or later) put pressure on the Treasury to overrule the Commission of Fine Arts, and the design was adopted as is.
Pressure from the above-mentioned Association on Congress induced passage of the Act of March 31, 1936, authorizing this issue. There were neither local celebrations nor any attempt to coordinate publicity for the coin with any musical events in Cincinnati; as it was an even-numbered year, there was not even a May Festival to tie in with publicity for the coins, let alone to justify the Act's wording.
In July 1936, 5,000 sets were struck at the three mints, with 5 extra reserved for assay at Philadelphia and Denver, 6 extra at San Francisco. The first 200 coins produced at each mint were caught by an operator wearing soft gloves, to avoid nicks or scratches; this operator then placed each piece into a specially marked envelope, in order of manufacture, and the coins went thereafter to the Association, which placed the numbered sets into specially marked black cardboard holders. These show notarized statements that the coins within were the 6th (or 48th, or whatever) coins produced at each mint of this issue; besides the notary's signature and seal, they bear the signature of Thomas G, Melish. Accompanying letters originally went with these "special striking" set; they were either given or sold for undisclosed prices to VIP friends of Melish and his gang.
The remaining 4,800 sets were placed into the same kind of holders (the usual Wayte Raymond type, with celluloid strips in openings to prevent the coins from falling out) but minus the numbering or documentation. As the issue was oversubscribed before the August 1936 issue date, those who got theirs at the announced $7,75 issue price were the lucky exceptions. Asking price thereafter was $45 and it rapidly climbed to $75 roughly the equivalent of ^600 in 1980 dollars! Cartoons had the meantime been published ridiculing the commemorative market, showing speculators buying coins from Commissions at $5 and offering them at once for $10 to collectors rushing to line up for them.
After issue sold out, the Association attempted to obtain Congressional approval for a second mintage to be dated 1937, but the bill failed to pass. Possibly because of this issue, Congress was becoming less and less enthusiastic about commemorative coin proposals; the Cincinnati authorizing act was the last in which the phrase "at the mint" was to be used in this period.
No proofs have been confirmed to exist. Sets in original numbered holders are extremely rare; these appear to be the ultimate source of the few absolute gem survivors from all three mints. Possibly 50 sets remain in original unnumbered holders; these tend to have bag marks. Denver coins are found in choice uncirculated more often than Philadelphia and vastly more often than San Francisco strikings, aside from those first 200. May specimens are lightly struck so that the designer's initials co are faint or indivisible. Specimens such as that pictured here, with initials plain, are seldom available. This obverse is also notable for die scratches behind head, near TED.
Counterfeits are mostly high-quality casts made from a genuine specimen. Aside from the peculiar surface (which is unlike ordinary mint bloom), these show raised granular defects especially on cheek and in field near TROUBADOUR. On reverse, there are raised die file marks at CINCINN, and more of the same kind of granular raised "bubbles" around date and mottoes. As an investment, this set is a great one. However, this applies only to sets in truly gem state: full original mint luster, no ugly bag marks and sharply struck. Occasional individual coins qualify at this level, but sets seldom do. For some unknown reason, more Denver MInt gems have survived than Philadelphia or San Francisco specimens.
A set in which all three coins are gems should be snapped up at once as a fantastic find. (This remark holds true even if as many as 200 sets survive in original numbered holders an extremely unlikely upper limit.) Assembling a gem set from individual coins could be a profitable endeavor.