The first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration saw a flourish of new commemorative half dollars issued. For the most part, the intent of the Mint in issuing these commemorative half dollars was to benefit some organization or cause of national interest. In theory, an association of some sort would purchase the full issue at face value, and in turn sell the commemorative coins on the secondary market at a premium price. The profits generated were intended to benefit the issuing organization and the cause or mission it represented.
In reality, this process was less than transparent, and the actors involved less than scrupulous. Because many of the commemorative coins were minted in small quantities – sometimes only a few thousand spread across multiple mints – their collectible value increased. This attracted not only members of the general public with an interest in collecting coins, but also coin dealers and businessmen looking to make a profit for themselves. A few individuals essentially succeeded in having their own, private half dollars minted for private profiteering in the secondary market.
The Cincinnati Musical Center half-dollar is perhaps the most blatant example of this sort of abuse. It was the brainchild of Thomas G. Melish, a Cincinnati-based businessman and prominent member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA). He formed the Cincinnati Musical Center Commemorative Coin Association, with the stated goal of commemorating the fiftieth anniversary Cincinnati as a center of music. Precisely how Melish succeeded in obtaining a House resolution is a process lost to history. Nonetheless, Congress approved a resolution authorizing 15,000 commemorative half dollars in February 1936.
Melish’s choice of something to commemorate was a stretch: it is still unclear what, exactly, happened in Cincinnati in 1886. It was already a center for music by this time, and no specific musical event of note occurred in this year. Melish further blundered in the design process, choosing to feature American musician Stephen Foster. Foster’s connection to Cincinnati was tenuous at best, having lived there for a few years in the 1840s while working as a bookkeeper. He died in New York City in 1864, before Cincinnati became a musical center in the 1870s, and well before 1886, the supposed anniversary being commemorated.
The Commission on Fine Arts tasked with advising the Mint on the design of US coinage, saw through this comedy of errors and rejected the proposed coin featuring Foster. However, the Commission’s recommendation was not binding, and through a similarly murky process, the Mint approved the Cincinnati Music Center half-dollar.
Production began in July 1936, just as the market for commemorative coins was peaking. Around 5,000 coins were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints. Melish used a variety of tactics to induce artificial scarcity, driving the price of sets to $40 by some accounts. The market cooled by the end of the year, but the venture had been tremendously profitable for Melish.
Though the origins of the Cincinnati Music Center half-dollar were rather deceitful, today’s collectors seek them out regardless. They are sought-after issues in the complex series of commemorative half dollars.