Panama Pacific Exposition Coins

In 1915 visitors from all over the world converged on a veritable new city that had been built of lath and plaster on the San Francisco shorefront. Building upon the tradition established by the 1876 Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia), 1892-1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago), the 1900 Paris Exposition, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and other such events, the Pan-Pacific showcased marvels of technology, art, history, and science. The official reason for the Exposition was to celebrate San Francisco’s rebirth from the 1906 earthquake and fire and to observe the opening (in August 1914) of the Panama Canal.

After the event ended, nearly everything was torn down. An exception was the Palace of Fine Arts, which, while never intended to be a permanent structure, survived to be used to store fire engines and other municipal equipment. In recent times it has been restored. This building in 1915 was the numismatic focal point of the Exposition. Under its huge dome was Farran Zerbe’s Money of the World exhibit and, after the fair’s closing, his concession to sell the remaining Panama-Pacific coins by mail order.

Today the five different coins issued in connection with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition stand as the high water mark among American commemoratives. In connection with the present offering, it is appropriate to give a sketch of the event which caused its production. The following is excerpted from Frank Morton Todd’s book, The Story of the Exposition, published in 1921:

“On the basis of federal legislation the Exposition instituted an official Coin and Medal Department, and put it under the direction of Farran Zerbe, as past president of the American Numismatic Association. The Act of Congress provided that a series of commemorative medals, a souvenir medal, the award medal, and the diplomas, were to be produced by the government and delivered to the Exposition at face value for the coins and at cost for other items.

“In spite of the delay, whereby the coins were not ready until well after the fair opened, the Coinage Department took in $179,506 in the Exposition period, and $51,966 in the post-Exposition time. The whole net return of the Exposition’s coin and medal business after deducting the cost of materials and all administration came to $65,555.09.

“60,000 commemorative half dollars were coined, of which 34 were reserved for assay. Of the 59,966 pieces available, 27,100 were sold and 32,866 were destroyed later at the Mint. 25,034 gold dollars were coined, of which 34 were used for assay and the balance all sold. 10,017 $2.50 gold pieces were struck, of which 17 were used for assay, leaving 10,000 available. Of these 10,000 there were 6,750 sold and the rest, 3,250 pieces, were melted.

“There were 1,509 of the octagonal $50 pieces made, of which nine were used for assay, 646 were actually sold and 854 went to the melting pot. There were 1,510 round $50 pieces including 10 for assay. Just 483 were sold. 1,017 were melted.

“The striking of the first octagonal $50 gold piece, the largest coin ever authorized by the government, and the first minted since 1852 of any other shape than circular, was made a notable occasion at the Mint. The superintendent, Mr. T.W.H. Shanahan, extended invitations to various dignitaries and to members of the American Numismatic Association, to be present at 11:00 on the morning of June 21, 1915, when the first of these coins was struck.”

In the years since 1916, the Panama-Pacific coins have been highly prized by numismatists. Today, the large and impressive $50 coins are especially admired. The two we offer here are very attractive.