1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Round MS66 NGC. Farran Zerbe had high hopes for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and used his influence in Congress to have legislation approved for an ambitious commemorative coinage issue, including 3,000 gold coins of the fifty dollar denomination. Half of those coins were stipulated to be octagonal, resembling the 1851 octagonal gold pieces of the California Gold Rush. The other half, like this piece, were round. Apparently Zerbe felt that the two shapes meant collectors would need to buy two fifty dollar gold pieces instead of one. There were also smaller-denomination pieces issued, including half dollars, gold dollars, and quarter eagles. The set of five coins had a face value of $104 and an issue price of $200. Purchasers of either fifty dollar gold piece for $100 received the three smaller-denomination coins at no additional cost.
Although the entire authorization of 3,000 pieces was minted, with an additional 19 coins reserved for the Assay Commission, few were actually sold. Zerbe's plan was largely unsuccessful. Just 645 octagonal pieces and 483 round examples were actually sold, and the rest were melted. Had all 1,500 pieces of each shape been sold, the issue would be a rarity today, but the extremely low distribution means that the Panama-Pacific fifty dollar gold coins are now major rarities.
The designs that New York artist Robert Aitken created are essentially the same on the round and octagonal pieces. The obverse features the goddess Minerva, who was the goddess of wisdom, and the reverse features her sacred owl, the accepted symbol of wisdom. The octagonal pieces have the addition of dolphins in the eight angles outside the legends. The design was intended to follow the exposition theme of wisdom and industry. Aitken certainly had his critics and some suggested that the addition of dolphins on the octagonal coins implied that the Panama Canal was constructed for the benefit of those mammals. Treasury secretary William McAdoo was counted among the critics of Aitken's design.
Zerbe and others had contemplated striking these coins on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition grounds, but that never happened. A special ceremony was held at the San Francisco Mint for the first strikes on June 15, 1915. These large gold coins were minted on a special medal press that was shipped from Philadelphia, specifically for the one coinage issue. At the first strike ceremony, guests and officials minted the first 29 pieces, while mint employees produced the next 71 pieces that same day. The other 2,900 large gold coins were struck during the following few weeks.
Although some pieces show signs of wear or rub, most surviving Panama-Pacific fifty dollar gold coins grade MS63 or MS64. Higher-grade pieces like this Premium Gem are rarely encountered. This piece has frosty luster with brilliant lemon-yellow surfaces and strong details. Scattered surface marks are minimal, and unlike most, there is no sign of rub on the high points of Minerva or the owl. This coin sold for $146,000.
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