Can’t Pass Them By: A Fondness for Circulated Columbian Half Dollars

Factoring in inflation, circulated World’s Columbian Exposition half dollars are not worth much more than they were more than 50 years ago.

Still, the author likes to periodically add an example to his collection every now or then. (Photos: Gerald Tebben)

By Gerald Tebben

I have a particular fondness for circulated World’s Columbian Exposition half dollars. I love to hold them in my hand, study the details and think about how different the world was in 1892.

Every month or so I buy one. I’ll see one in a club auction or sitting on a dealer’s table. If the price is not too much above bullion, I’ll buy it. I especially like coins where the edge lettering is accented by dark toning. I don’t know why I buy them; I just like them.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage of discovery, but didn’t open until 1893.

The portrayal of the famed explorer on the obverse does not really reflect Columbus. No contemporary images exist. Q. David Bowers, in his “Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia,” says Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber took his portrait from a plaster model based on a medal based on a statue that was based on an earlier portrait.

That fact appeals to me, a fraud of sorts with a long history. Barber’s portrait, though, is what I imagine Columbus to look like—rugged, experienced. His gaze seems tired yet resolute.

The reverse, too, excites and pleases. George T. Morgan placed the Santa Maria in sail above two globes, telling in an instant the story of 15th-century discovery. The globes evoke the Pillar dollar, a coin that would not have existed without Columbus’ voyages, and the founding stone of American numismatics. I like spotting the continents on the globes and am delighted by the way Morgan hid his initial in the ship’s rigging.

The Philadelphia Mint struck roughly one million Columbian half dollars dated 1892 and four million dated 1893. The exposition commission sold the half dollars for $1 each, but found comparatively few takers. Newspapers complained about price gouging at a time when unskilled laborers were making $8.76 a week. Half or more of the coins were returned to the Mint unsold. In 1894, the Treasury Department made the coins available at face value, but not many people wanted them. Over the next several years, the government quietly placed the coins in circulation.

The coins were evidently accepted in the marketplace. Many circulated pieces show evidence of wear, though I’ve never seen one that graded below Very Fine.

As investments, Columbian half dollars have been dogs all their days. Mine will not break that streak.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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