Finest Certified at PCGS
Only 645 Pieces Distributed
1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Octagonal MS66+ PCGS Secure. Congress authorized an ambitious, five-piece program of commemorative coins to be issued in conjunction with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915 to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. Prominent coin dealer Farran Zerbe was the sponsor and distributor for the numismatic program. The commemorative set included a silver half dollar, gold dollar, quarter eagle, and both Round and Octagonal versions of a fifty dollar gold piece. The bill authorizing the coins was signed into law on January 16, 1915, and New York sculptor Robert Aitkin was chosen as the designer for the two fifty dollar coins.
Both versions of the fifty-dollar coin featured the same basic design, but the central devices were slightly smaller on the Octagonal specimens, to make room for the addition of some extra peripheral elements in the corners. The obverse featured the helmeted head of the goddess Minerva (wisdom), with a dolphin in each of the eight angles, symbolizing the newly opened waterway between the oceans. The reverse displayed an owl (sacred to Minerva) perched on a Ponderosa Pine branch. Despite the Classical symbolism of the design, the coin has a distinctly American flavor, as the octagonal shape evokes memories of the iconic U.S. Assay Office fifty dollar slugs issued during the Gold Rush era, one of the most colorful periods in American history. As well-known art historian Cornelius Vermeule noted, "These coins were a tour de force, dated to be sure, but unusual enough in all respects to be worthy of what American numismatic art could achieve when creativity and Mint technique worked in unison."
The July 1915 edition of The Numismatist featured an interesting account of the striking of the first fifty-dollar gold coins for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Setting the scene, the article explained:
"The coining of the first $50 gold piece ever authorized by the Government of the United States was made a notable occasion at the United States Mint at San Francisco. The Superintendent of the Mint, Hon. T. W. H. Shanahan, extended invitations to representatives of the Government, State and city, officers of the Exposition, together with notable representatives of various foreign governments and members of the American Numismatic Association, in all to the number of about eighty, to witness the production of not only the first $50 piece, but the first coin of octagonal shape to be produced by Government authority.
"The room in which the fourteen-ton hydraulic press, specially shipped from Philadelphia, for striking the 3000 commemorative $50 pieces had been set, was specially draped for the occasion. ..."
The Octagonal coins were delivered to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition roughly one month later on July 12. The issue had an authorized mintage of up to 1,500 coins, but a prohibitive $50 premium on the already high-denomination coinage limited sales considerably. Only 645 Octagonal fifties were distributed and the rest melted, creating an instant rarity that remains highly sought-after today.
Since the coins were sold as commemoratives, rather than being released into circulation, the 1915-S Pan-Pac fifties have a high survival rate. Unfortunately, despite the relatively large number of survivors, high quality specimens are seldom encountered. As Ron Guth explains on PCGS CoinFacts:
"The $50 Panama-Pacific gold coins are massive, heavy coins made of a relatively soft metal. As a result, the coins are susceptible to wear and damage, Making it difficult to find exceptional examples. The vast majority of survivors are Mint State, usually in MS63. Gems are very rare, and the best examples top out at MS66."
The present coin is a spectacular Plus-graded Premium Gem, with sharply detailed design elements and impeccably preserved orange-gold surfaces. As Ron Guth indicates above, PCGS has never certified any coins in higher numeric grades (there are currently four examples in MS66, including this one in 66+), but NGC has seen a few examples in MS67 (11/17). Vibrant mint luster is evident on both sides of this Registry grade specimen and the overall presentation is simply stunning. The Pan-Pac fifties are widely popular with collectors from many numismatic disciplines as trophy coins. We expect intense competition when this lot crosses the block.
From The Burgess Lee Berlin, M.D., J.D. Collection of Important United States Rarities. (Registry values: P7) (NGC ID# BYHP, PCGS# 7452)
Weight: 83.59 grams
Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper