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Commemorative Columbus Half Dollar
Columbian Exposition, 1893
In August 1892 Congress specially authorized the coinage of 5 million half dollars for sale during the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus “discovery” of the New World. This was the first of the great World’s Fairs to be honored with a commemorative coins. The first issue was dated 1892. The Exposition was scheduled to open in Chicago in October 1892, but did not open until May 1893, at which time additional coins bearing this new date were struck.
The obverse features the bust right of Christopher Columbus. The coin was originally supposed to be made by U.S.J. Dunbar. His design was based on a portrait painted by Lorenzo Lotto of Columbus in 1512. The U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver at the time, Charles E. Barber, derailed any attempt by Dunbar from producing the coin, and instead took on the project, basing his depiction of Columbus allegedly on a bust made by artist Olin L. Warner.
1892 Issue:The first half dollar was struck at the Philadelphia Mint in November 1892. A total of 950,000 coins were minted there, with an unknown number reserved for assay. It is believed that none were melted. They were distributed by the World’s Columbian Exposition and Chicago banks, which sold them for $1 each.
1893 Issue: The Philadelphia Mint began production of 1893-dated Columbian Commemorative Halves on January 3 of that year. A grand total of 4,052,105 pieces were produced (including 2,105 coins for assay purposes), but sales were nowhere near the levels hoped for by government officials. The Mint destroyed all of the unsold coins. That amounted to 2,501,700 coins which were melted.
The half dollar was the first US legal tender coin to bear the portrait of a foreigner.
Commemorative Queen Isabella Quarter
Columbian Exposition, 1893
The Isabella quarter or Columbian Exposition quarter was a United States commemorative coin struck in 1893. Congress authorized the piece at the request of the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The quarter depicts the Spanish queen Isabella I of Castile, who sponsored Columbus’s voyages to the New World. It was designed by Bureau of the Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, and is the only U.S. commemorative of that denomination that was not intended for circulation.
The Board of Lady Managers, headed by Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer, wanted a woman to design the coin and engaged Caroline Peddle, a sculptor. Peddle left the project after disagreements with Mint officials, who then decided to have Barber do the work. The reverse design, showing a kneeling woman spinning flax, with a distaff in her left hand and a spindle in her right, symbolizes women’s industry and was based on a sketch by Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan.
The quarter’s design was deprecated in the numismatic press. The coin did not sell well at the Exposition; its price of $1 was the same as for the Columbian half dollar, and the quarter was seen as the worse deal. Nearly half of the authorized issue was returned to the Mint to be melted; thousands more were purchased at face value by the Lady Managers and entered the coin market in the early 20th century. Today, they are popular with collectors and valued in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.