The First Struck 1915 Panama-Pacific Set; First Offering at Public Auction1915-S Panama-Pacific Set NGC. This is the most famous set of these coins, and the present auction appearance is the first time this set has ever been offered for public competition. Each of the first coins struck from the dies of the half dollar, gold dollar, gold quarter eagle, the round and octagonal fifty dollar coins were gathered together and presented to Charles C. Moore, the president of the Exposition. The first octagonal gold coin was struck by Mint Superintendent T. W. H. Shanahan himself. All of the #1 or first strike specimens were placed in a special gold presentation case by Shreve & Co. This set is photographed in Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins 1892 to 1954 by Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen. Without a doubt, this set is one of the most historic and important of all commemorative issues and will certainly become the highlight of any advanced collection.
The 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. In addition, the celebration commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Balboa. Competition to host the fair was intense among cities, with President Taft announcing that San Francisco was selected in 1911. San Francisco was still recovering from the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, and this international event helped provide employment and restore much civic pride to a city, which had literally been knocked to its knees. The site chosen for the Exposition is the current Marina District, which in 1911 was a mud flat. In all, 635 acres of mud were reclaimed for building sites, and construction of numerous buildings consumed over one hundred million feet of lumber and employed a small army of construction workers for three years. Landscape architect John McLaren, (also the designer of Golden Gate Park) was in charge of the exposition's landscaping, and worked closely with the many different architects involved in the project to ensure a harmonious appearance.
General Electric was in charge of lighting the fair, and numerous hidden colored spotlights were employed to give the buildings an ethereal glow in the evenings. The magical effect changed the way fairs were illuminated from that point forward. The Exposition proved so popular that many people returned again and again to enjoy the many exhibits and enjoy the world cuisine that was offered by the many countries represented.
Congress authorized the coinage for the convention on January 16, 1915, which included up to 3,000 gold coins of the $50 denomination, 10,000 gold coins of $2.50 denomination, 25,000 gold coins of $1 denomination and 200,000 silver coins of the 50 cent denomination. It is interesting to note that the authorizing act also included a provision to allow the Secretary of the Treasury at his discretion, to actually coin the silver half dollars at the Exposition itself as part of the educational exhibit from the Mint. However, popular lore to the contrary, the coins were actually struck in the San Francisco mint on a 14-ton hydraulic press shipped from the Philadelphia Mint expressly for the striking of the $50 coins. The smaller denominations sold fairly well to attendees, but the $50 gold coins were well beyond the means of most of the population at that time. All unsold coins were to be melted after the Exhibition closed. Congress authorized $5,000 to pay for the coinage, providing this sum was repaid after the Exhibition closed. Hence, the premium required above face value for these commemorative coins, as the costs of producing them would obviously exceed the cost of striking regular issue coins at the various mints.
The half dollar was designed by Charles E. Barber, designer of the Barber silver coinage, Liberty nickel, the Hawaiian coinage of 1883, Cuban coinage starting in 1915, the Isabella and Lafayette coinage and numerous other coins, medals and commemoratives of the period. Barber's choice for the Panama-Pacific Exposition half dollar depicts Liberty scattering flowers from her cornucopia held by a cherub, with the setting sun seen behind, while the reverse shows an eagle perched on a shield with wings outstretched and flanked by an oak (strength) and olive (peace) branch beneath the wings. Current research suggests that George Morgan may have been involved in the reverse of this issue.
The gold dollar was designed by Charles Keck, who also designed the Vermont and Lynchburg Sesquicentennial Half Dollars. The obverse depicts a laborer symbolizing the canal workers who built the Panama Canal coupled with the reverse which shows two dolphins, a reference to the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canal.
The quarter eagle was also designed by Charles E. Barber, in collaboration with George Morgan, and this design employs rich allegorical engraving. Liberty or Columbia rides sidesaddle on a hippocampus while holding a caduceus. In can be assumed that the horse-fish combination suggests the labor saved by shipping goods through the new canal instead of moving them across country with the labor of horses. Perhaps the caduceus symbolizes Col. Gorgas's medical triumph in developing a vaccine, which greatly reduced malaria and yellow fever epidemics. These epidemics had decimated the canal workers and helped cause the previous canal project to end in failure in the early 1880s. The reverse shows a stylized eagle perched on a standard, with the denomination below.
Robert Aitken designed the fifty dollar gold pieces, one in octagonal format, the other round. The obverse shows Liberty as Athena, with an Athenian helmet with the date below, and surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and FIFTY DOLLARS. Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, agriculture and such things as spinning and weaving and was often paired with the owl on the reverse. On the octagonal coins, small dolphins were tucked into the corners of the obverse and reverse. A majestic owl resides on the reverse perched on a pine branch. Owls have always been respected for wisdom and watchfulness, characteristics needed with a war unfolding through much of Europe. Aitken is also credited with designs of the Missouri and San Diego Half Dollars.
These were struck beginning on June 15, 1915 at a ceremony using the large medal coining press required to bring up the design elements. Few of the fifty dollar gold coins were sold, as the issue price of $100 per coin was far more than most people could afford. The attendees to the Exposition could stay in local hotels for about $1 a day, and eat for another $1 a day. With incidentals such as tickets and fees, a single person could attend the Exposition for about $20 a week.
Collectors should note that when these coins were designed and struck, much of the Western hemisphere was embroiled in World War I. America had carefully avoided the conflict at the time these were coined, but that would change in 1917. The Great War had a voracious appetite and America stepped up to fill that plate with armaments, gunpowder, clothing, ships, and food. The new canal boosted shipping by shaving 18,000 miles off the voyage from New York to San Francisco, and eliminated the very dangerous passage through the Straits of Magellan. Goods of all sizes could now move from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean via the Panama Canal, taking days off that voyage and saving weeks at sea. Furthermore, warships could quickly move between oceans as needed.
America at that time was experiencing strong economic growth, partly because of the war supplies being sold overseas and a general increase in the money supply. The art and coinage of this period reflected the beauty and inspiration of the era, with the advent of flying, the production line of automobiles, improved communications with the telegraph, electricity was coming to cities and towns, all these advances were becoming more commonplace. In fact, biplane rides were available at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and for a nominal fee a person could fly out over San Francisco Bay. One can only imagine the thrill of attendees who took the opportunity to go on such a flight. Americans had much to be proud of during these heady days, and these ever-popular Panama Pacific Exposition coins captured the essence of the period with their symbolic designs and majestic proportions, especially on the large $50 gold pieces.
The individual coins are each housed in an NGC holder labeled "First Set Stuck," and are described as follows:
1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar. MS65 NGC. Breen-7432. Doubled S Mintmark. Although the surfaces are not totally free of marks, and the devices are not fully struck, this is an attractive and sharply struck example with satiny silver luster beneath pale gold, steel, and iridescent toning. The S mintmark is sharply doubled above, with the top curve of the original mintmark punch nearly level with the top of the digit 1.
1915-S Panama-Pacific Gold Dollar. MS66 NGC. A splendid Gem with frosty yellow-gold luster and rich orange patina. Much sharper than usually seen. The mintmark punch is the same as that used years earlier for the 1909-S V.D.B. Cent.
1915-S Panama-Pacific Quarter Eagle. MS65 NGC. Like the Gold Dollar, the mintmark is from the same 1909-S V.D.B. Cent punch with its diagnostics clearly visible. Sharply struck with frosty and highly lustrous yellow-gold surfaces. Considerable die polish lines are visible on both sides. Like the Half Dollar, this is sharply struck although not fully detailed.
1915-S Panama-Pacific Fifty Dollar Round. MS64 NGC. This Choice Fifty-Dollar Gold Piece is a splendid example of the design in the scarcer round format. The brilliant yellow-gold surfaces are satiny and highly lustrous. Most of the design features are sharply defined. Light die polishing lines are visible on both sides.
1915-S Panama-Pacific Fifty Dollar Octagonal. MS63 NGC. An attractive example of the octagonal format Fifty, with satiny luster and brilliant yellow-gold surfaces. Faint die polish lines are visible along with pantograph lines from the reducing process to produce the original hubs.
Additional important items and ephemera accompany this set:
The original violet and purple presentation case, with gilt inscription "Charles C. Moore." The case is made of wood and covered in violet leather, gilt. The interior is purple velvet with two 14K plaques identifying this as the first set. The larger plague is attached to the lid in a manner so that the case turns into an easel. It is inscribed: "Presented to Charles C. Moore in appreciative recognition of his inestimable services as president of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition San Francisco 1915." Signatures of the Governor of California, the Mayor of San Francisco, and eight members of the Citizens Committee of San Francisco are all reproduced. The smaller plaque is attached to the removable velvet frame with openings for each of the five coins, and it is inscribed: "These five coins are certified by the Director of the Mint to be the first struck in each of their respective denominations in commemoration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition pursuant to the Act of Congress Approved January 16, 1915." This exceptional and unique case was created by Shreve & Co. of San Francisco.
1915 Florida Exposition Fund Medal. HK-404. MS65 NGC. Although we have not seen any documentation that this medal belongs with the set, they were all received together. Several states, including Florida, issued "State Fund Dollars," struck prior to the opening of the Exposition as a fund raising device to help finance each states' exhibition. All of these fund-raising pieces are rare today. This Gem example is silver-plated bronze with deep steel, gold, and iridescent toning.
Other ephemera includes: The Numismatist for August 1915, containing photographic coverage of the first production of the $50 gold pieces, June 15, 1915 at the San Francisco Mint; The Argentine Republic hardbound in brown cloth with important information about this country's exhibit; View Book of the Exposition, with text in English and Japanese; Annual Permit No. 1, issued to Charles C. Moore, enclosed in a small black leather wallet; Small red leather coin purse, lettered in gilt PANAMA PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION SAN FRANCISCO 1915; and a Closing Day Badge and Ribbon.
Charles C. Moore, president of the Exposition; The Bancroft Library, Oakland, CA; Earl Parker; Robert Johnson; later, Ronald Gillio; Larry Hanks; Dr. W.P. Stratemyer; Joseph Kuehnert; Leon Hendrickson; Harlan White; Ronald Gillio; Elvin Unterman; private collection, Paris, France; to the present consignor.
Further pedigree notes were provided by our consignor:
"After the death of Charles C. Moore, the Moore estate bequeathed the set in the 1940s to the Bancroft Library in Oakland, California. The set remained there until 1958 when San Francisco dealer Earl Parker traded some very rare Mark Twain documents for it. That same year, Parker sold the set to Robert R. Johnson, another dealer from San Francisco, for $4,000.
"Robert R. Johnson went on to display the set at all major coin shows in a special presentation case made by Al Edson of Santa Barbara. Johnson never offered the set for sale. In 1968, Johnson was robbed and the set was stolen and recovered later that year. Then in 1978, Johnson sold the set to Santa Barbara dealer Ronald J. Gillio for $90,000.
"Gillio subsequently sold the set to a private collector; then purchased the set back in 1978 for $120,000; then sold the set in 1979 to Larry Hanks for $135,000. Hanks sold it to Dr. W.P. Stratemyer in 1980; bought it back in 1982; and sold it the same year to the late Joseph Kuehnert, a dealer from San Diego, for $180,000. Kuehnert then sold the set to Leon Hendrickson who in turn sold it to Harlan White. It is not known who had possession of the set from 1982 to 1989. The set did not appear again until 1989 at Auction '89 in the Rarcoa section as lot #338 and once again, Gillio became the set's owner.
"The next owner of the set was Elvin Unterman, an attorney from New York. Unterman had just retired and was looking to spend the money he had received for selling the King of Siam set that he had originally bought from New York dealer Lester Merkin many years earlier. Upon Unterman's death, Gillio again acquired the set from the Unterman Trust in June 1998.
"The set was displayed in the coin museum of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. This set was included in the Treasures of Mandalay Bay from opening day in March 2000 until the next year, when a collector from Paris, France visited the museum. The French collector appreciated the set so much that he bought it from the owner who lent it to the museum. The set is now back in San Francisco where it all began 90 years ago--and is available for another appreciative collector."
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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