Impressive MS63 1915-S Octagonal Fifty Dollar

    1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Octagonal MS63 PCGS. This heaviest of all U.S. gold coins shares its design with the round fifty also issued at the exposition in San Francisco that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and Balboa's discovery of the Pacific Ocean some four centuries earlier. What makes this piece unique among U.S. Mint issues is its shape, of eight sides. The designs of the round gold fifty dollar piece are replicated, although slightly reduced to fit within the broad octagonal borders. The major design difference is the appearance on each side of eight swimming dolphins, filling in what would otherwise be blanks between the inner round circle and the outer octagonal edge. These, of course, were intended not merely to be fillers but also to be emblematic--to represent the flowing waterway provided for sea-to-sea navigation of ships traversing the canal. They are also symbols of the sailor's guardians, to be seen in the open sea on each side of the canal. Much has been written about the Neo-Classical designs of the Pan-Pac fifties. So too has it been suggested that the Mint selected this shape as an obeisance to the most famous coins of the California Gold Rush, the "gold slugs" struck by Augustus Humbert from 1851-53 at the facility that shortly became the U.S. Mint at San Francisco.
    The circumstances of this coin's creation, however, make for just as interesting reading and only add to its allure. In fact, so prohibitive was its price at issue that the PPIE's Coin and Medal Department (headed by leading dealer Farran Zerbe) sent a letter to bankers offering unsold pieces some six months after the expo closed. Zerbe suggested they might make exceptional publicity displays and even offered to ship them to banks without prior payment. This final effort evidently produced few sales. Engraver Robert Aitken, a native of San Francisco, might have been disappointed at the public's reception of his magnificent gold fifties, but in truth it was not his design that put the sales so low. It was the cost, at $100 each. The result was a total mintage for the fifties that created a rarity: in all, only 483 Rounds and 645 Octagonals were sold or kept for mint records. Most contemporaries would never appreciate the skill that went into their design, nor the effort required to produce them by the hydraulic coin press that weighed 14 tons and was shipped from the Philadelphia Mint to the exposition for the express purpose of coining them. In fact, most of the authorized 3,000 specimens were never even struck. After the fair ended, the nation suffered through World War I and then the Great Depression. Aitken's precious fifties lay largely forgotten for decades, mostly in the possession of their original purchasers. Interest in commemorative coinage was renewed in the late 1930s but then another world war displaced public awareness. It was not until half a century after they were created that their significance began to be understood by a new generation of numismatists. And, in the last 40 years, these splendid creations of a United States just coming to international prominence have gained legendary stature in our hobby.
    This beautiful specimen is from the same collection as the Round MS64 a few lots back. The coins have a similar overall appearance and look like pieces that have been in the same environment for decades. The rich orange-gold color of this coin is also accented with pale lilac. A few tiny marks and one small depression on the cheek of Minerva account for the grade of this lovely commemorative gold coin of unique design.
    From The Freedom Collection.(Registry values: P7) (NGC ID# BYHP, PCGS# 7452)

    Weight: 83.59 grams

    Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper

    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

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    January, 2007
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