Exceptional Gem 1915-S Octagonal Panama-Pacific Fifty

    1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Octagonal MS65 NGC. In 1915, San Francisco was far to the west of any American city where a major fair had yet been held. In that city, a leading citizen named James Phelan headed up a group that had ambitions to turn their city into a world-class town. In 1904, inspired by recent fairs, and particularly those hosted by Chicago and St Louis, they approached Daniel Burnham, an architect involved in the building of both the Chicago World's Fair and San Francisco's Chronicle Building and Merchant's Exchange. He possessed precisely the vision this group shared. He had been quoted in print as saying that "Beauty in the public work of a city has always paid." This was exactly the spirit Phelan and his friends desired--a neat blending of pleasing aesthetics and commercialism that would pay off, producing a showcase for the many qualities of their city as host to a world gathering. They also insisted that it was high time for such a fair to be held on the West Coast.
    The Burnham Plan was presented to and endorsed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1905. Architects were chosen for the project. Sketches of planned monuments, buildings, streets, and parks were all readied by the spring of 1906. All were lost when the great earthquake of that year almost destroyed the city. The plans burned with City Hall. Enthusiasm for rebuilding San Francisco was almost immediate, and Phelan's group hoped it included their plan for the world's fair. But such was not to be. Financing the rebuilding of the city proved daunting, and many citizens felt that a celebration was not yet appropriate. Thus, for a few years the idea of staging a fair at this locale faded.
    Elsewhere, others had plans of their own. Momentum built particularly in New Orleans for the next American exposition. Within a mere five years of the earthquake, however, San Franciscans had gathered enough spiritual steam to launch an advertising and lobbying campaign. In 1911, they achieved their goal when, following Congressional debates, President Taft declared that San Francisco would be host to the next American world's fair. This inspired a funding campaign. Almost all of the required money was given by Californians, who hoped to showcase San Francisco's resurrection. Their campaign succeeded largely because it had two spearheads that New Orleans could not equal. They proposed an exposition that would honor the 400th anniversary of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's historic discovery of the Pacific Ocean as well as the upcoming completion of the Panama Canal, which in 1911 was seen as a new world wonder. New Orleans was a great shipping center that would benefit from the opening of the canal, but the Pacific Ocean was far away.
    San Francisco set to work. Before the Panama Canal officially opened to sea traffic in August 1914, an army of architects, designers, inventors, contractors, and builders descended on the city by the bay. It had taken 50 years to plan and construct the canal, but the expo city seemed almost to grow organically. The fair site would be huge, and would even feature a detailed reproduction of the Panama Canal covering five acres! But it would not be a real city. Much would be fantasy. The stage would be real enough, but the buildings that would look so substantial were actually constructed almost entirely of temporary materials intended to last approximately one year. Most of the building material was called "staff," an odd combination of burlap fibers and plaster which could be painted and decorated to look like concrete or marble. It had been used in building the Chicago fair in 1892 and tended to disintegrate slowly; it was not intended to last more than the duration of the exposition.
    It took three years to put up this new city for the fair. It was located at the northern end of San Francisco on the bay, where land space was too short. This was alleviated by filling in the mud flats there, the site of today's Marina District. The fairgrounds eventually occupied 635 acres, stretching between the Presidio and Van Ness, bordered on the south by Chestnut Street and on the north by the bay. When the exposition officially opened on February 20, 1915, all of the anticipation and years of planning and building proved worth the wait. Over the next 257 days, more than 18 million visitors passed through the turnstiles of the entrance to wander through the modern and classical wonders displayed on the 635 acres.
    The octagonal fifty dollar gold pieces that were produced at the fair are said to have been a tribute to the Gold Rush era, the famous "gold slugs" struck by Augustus Humbert from 1851-53. Humbert's work had led directly to the establishment of the U.S. Mint at San Francisco. However, mint officials may not have been as acutely aware of this history as we suppose. It is entirely possible that the two types of gold fifties were intended to reflect the dual nature of the events being celebrated--one for the Canal, and one for the anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific. No one has looked deeply enough into the archives to see if such an idea was postulated.
    This stunning orange-gold example has a lovely overlay of satiny mint luster. The surfaces are as clean as one would expect from a Gem. In fact, the only mark we see is a tiny horizontal mark across the highpoint of the cheek of Athena. An outstanding example of this unique gold commemorative.(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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    Auction Dates
    January, 2007
    3rd-6th Wednesday-Saturday
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