These coins celebrate historical events and people, so they can be great conversation pieces at parties or good for impressing your friends.
There are plenty of different types of commemorative coins out there, but we’ve narrowed it down to 11 that we think collectors should have on their radar.
Old Commemorative Coins to collect:
1920-1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar, also known as the Pilgrim half dollar, as a commemorative fifty-cent piece in 1920 and 1921 to honor the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in North America.
Cyrus E. Dallin was responsible for its design. In October 1920, the Philadelphia Mint struck 200,112 half dollars, with the extra coins left over being saved for the yearly Assay Commission meeting in 1921 for examination and testing.
The National Shawmut Bank of Boston received them and sold the coins to the general public for $1 each, with the proceeds going to the tercentenary commission.
The value of the Pilgrim half dollar has increased with time for both dates, especially the 1921 issuance, of which only 20,000 remain in existence.
1920 sold for $1.75 and 1921 for $8 during the first commemorative coin boom in 1936; at the second boom in 1980, 1920 sold for $275 and 1921 for $800.
Depending on the condition, 1920 is valued between $85 and $650, and 1921 is valued between $170 and $850, according to R. S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins. In 2014, an excellent example of 1920 fetched $7,344 at auction.
1892-1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Half Dollar
The Bureau of the Mint produced the Columbian half dollar in 1892 and 1893.
The first official commemorative currency of the United States was produced to raise money for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary of his first journey to the Americas.
The first American currency to include a historical figure was the Columbian half dollar. The Columbian Exposition’s planners wanted federal funding to finish the fair’s construction, hence the coin.
Congress approved an appropriation and stipulated that it take the form of commemorative half dollars, which lawmakers and organizers thought may fetch a higher price.
Fair official James Ellsworth lobbied for the new coin to be based on a supposedly Columbus painting by Lorenzo Lotto from the 16th century during the design process.
Fair organizers went to a design by artist Olin Levi Warner when Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber’s early ideas were unsatisfactory.
After Barber and his assistant, George T. Morgan, modified Warner’s design; Mint minted the coin.
1900 Lafayette Memorial Dollar
The United States’ participation in the 1900 Paris World’s Fair included the silver currency known as the Lafayette dollar. Designed by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, it featured Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington.
It was the first commemorative silver dollar issued by the United States before 1983 and the first coin to feature residents of the United States.
The Lafayette dollar is listed in the 2018 Deluxe Edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins, priced at $485 in Almost Uncirculated (AU-50) and going up to $15,000 in Nearly Perfect (MS-66) condition.
One in MS-67 condition went for $73,438 in 2015. Since the coins were automatically ejected from the press into a hopper without any attempt to preserve their appearance for collectors, most Lafayette dollars bear contact marks from other coins.
Although the quality of the strike rarely influences value, finely struck specimens will display the engraving line dividing Lafayette’s boot from the rest of his attire.
They will also clearly exhibit the features of the bottom portion of his clothing.
1918 Illinois Centennial Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced a commemorative 50-cent coin in 1918 called the Illinois Centennial Half Dollar. Based on the Seal of Illinois, Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, who was also his assistant, created the reverse.
The obverse, which features Abraham Lincoln, was created by Chief Engraver George T. Morgan. The Andrew O’Connor monument served as inspiration for Morgan’s obverse.
The coins were released to the general public in August 1918 and cost one dollar apiece. Later writers have largely liked the coin, thinking it one of the more elegant American commemoratives, albeit a bank held many until 1933.
The proceeds were used to offset the expense of local centennial festivities or to support people in need due to World War I.
The coin is currently worth several hundred dollars, while exceptional examples can sell for even more.
1920 Maine Centennial Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced the commemorative Maine Centennial half-dollar coin in 1920 to mark the anniversary of Maine’s entry to the Union on March 15, 1820.
Following the sketches of Monmouth, Maine-based artist Harry Cochrane, it was sculpted by Anthony de Francisci.
To publicize the upcoming celebrations and the 100th anniversary of the state’s entry to the Union, officials in Maine wanted a commemorative half-dollar to be in circulation.
Without any resistance, a measure authorizing such a coin was approved by Congress. However, the state’s centennial commission subsequently opted to sell the coins for $1, double their face value.
Half of the allowed mintage, or 50,000 pieces, was produced for public distribution. Although they were released too late to be sold at Portland’s centennial celebrations, the coins were eventually all sold, even though only a small portion went to coin collectors.
Depending on the condition, they can list for hundreds to thousands of dollars.
1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint issued the Alabama Centennial half dollar, often known as the Alabama half dollar, in 1921 as a commemorative fifty-cent coin to mark the 100th anniversary of Alabama’s entry to the Union in 1819.
The first woman to be given credit for coin design was Laura Gardin Fraser, who made the coin. The half dollars were not released until October 1921, reportedly due to the possibility that the original choice to feature Democrat President Wilson on the coin could be changed depending on the outcome of the 1920 presidential election.
The issue’s sponsors decided to include William Bibb, the State of Alabama’s first governor, and Thomas Kilby, its governor during the centenary period, making Governor Kilby the first living person to appear on a U.S. coin after Republican Warren G. Harding won the presidency.
A symbol, 2X2, was added to the design of a small portion of the coins to increase sales; these coins are now often more expensive.
1923 Monroe Doctrine Centennial Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced a fifty-cent coin known as the Monroe Doctrine Centennial Half Dollar.
Bearing images of past Americans, honoring Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, was created at the San Francisco Mint in 1923 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine.
The design is attributed to Chester Beach, a sculptor, while Raphael Beck’s earlier piece looks similar on the reverse. A total of 27,000 half dollars were sold for $1 through the mail, banks, and the fair.
Sales persisted after it shut down, but by October 1923, they had almost completely stopped. The banks holding the remaining nine-tenths of the mintage released them into circulation, which explains why most surviving specimens are worn.
Thousands more of those placed aside were used during the Great Depression. A Guide Book of United States Coins’ 2015 edition prices it at $75 in uncirculated MS-60 condition.
In his 2012 book on commemoratives, Swiatek notices that many specimens have undergone treatments to make them appear brighter or less used; as with other circulated items, these are less valuable.
A remarkable specimen that was auctioned was certified in MS-67 condition and sold at an auction for $29,900.
1935 Connecticut Tercentenary Half Dollar
The Connecticut half dollar, sometimes known as the Connecticut Tercentenary half dollar, is a commemorative 50-cent coin produced by the US Bureau of the Mint in 1935.
Henry Kreis created the coin, celebrating the 300th anniversary of Connecticut’s foundation.
The Connecticut Charter was allegedly hidden under the Charter Oak on the coin’s reverse to prevent the English governor-general from seizing it. The back of the coin has an eagle.
The Philadelphia Mint first produced 15,000 coins, but the Connecticut Commission requested the 10,000 extra allowed when they were sold out.
Numismatic writers have generally applauded Kreis’s design. The coins originally cost $1, but over time, they have appreciated in value and now trade for hundreds of dollars, depending on condition.
1935 Old Spanish Trail Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced the Old Spanish Trail half dollar as a commemorative currency in 1935. L. W. Hoffecker, a coin dealer who oversaw its distribution, was in charge of it.
The Gadsden Purchase half dollar bill was vetoed by President Herbert Hoover in 1930.
Hoffecker had been the driving force behind that initiative, and if authorizing legislation was approved, he wanted to propose another commemorative coin he could control.
He picked the early 16th-century journeys of Spanish commander Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
For collectors looking to assemble a type set of commemoratives, one of each design, the issue’s low mintage has made it attractive.
In 1940, the uncirculated Old Spanish Trail half dollar retailed for around $4. After that, its value rose, reaching roughly $38 by 1955 and $510 by 1975.
A Guide Book of United States Coins, released in 2018, values the coin at between $1,050 and $1,450. In 2005, a rare example brought $25,300 at auction.
1936 Battle of Gettysburg Half Dollar
Frank Vittor created the Battle of Gettysburg half dollar, produced in 1937 but with a 1936 date on it. It honored the forthcoming 1863 Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th anniversary in 1938.
During the American Civil War, on July 1–3, 1863, Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in combat in and around the Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg.
The combat, frequently referred to as the turning point of the war, resulted in the most fatalities in the whole conflict. Lee’s invasion of the North was stopped when Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac repulsed assaults from Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The obverse of the coin depicts two American Civil War veterans, one from the Union camp and one from the Confederate camp.
Above the two war heroes is a large display of E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), the de facto United States national motto up until 1956. The “E” serves as both the first letter of the phrase and the middle letter of Liberty.
1937 Roanoke Colonization 350th Anniversary Half Dollar
The United States Bureau of the Mint produced a commemorative coin in 1937 called the Roanoke Island, North Carolina, half dollar.
The coin, which honored the Roanoke Colony’s 350th anniversary, featured Eleanor Dare cradling Virginia Dare, the first person of English ancestry to be born in an English colony in the Americas, and Sir Walter Raleigh on the reverse.
The Philadelphia Mint first struck 25,000 half dollars in January 1937, plus an additional 15 coins set aside for the Assay Commission’s inspection and testing. The memorial association was selling these for $1.65, which included postage.
In uncirculated condition, the Roanoke coin sold for roughly $1.50 in 1940, $2.50 in 1950, $30 in 1970, and $540 in 1980 during the second commemorative coin boom.
The coin is listed in the 2020 Deluxe Edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins for between $135 and $250, depending on condition. In 2015, a rare specimen brought $5,170.
Before you go…
If you’re looking for a way to start collecting coins and are unsure where to begin, we hope this list of commemorative coins will help. These are just some of the many coins available in the U.S., but they represent some of the most iconic designs from our nation’s history and culture.
Check out my next article: “Top 10 Coins to Collect.”