Vailen's Blog

21 Jul 2020

How do you define a commemorative coin?

Coins | Vailen

I collect commemorative coins and want to stay focused on specializing in this area. I once asked myself, "How do I define a "commemorative coin"? My simple question has turned into a longer-term research project than I had originally intended. After reading my explanation I am hoping you can provide feedback and also help me with questions I have at the end.

What's very important to me is how I define a commemorative coin. Good definitions provide boundaries. For example, if you only collect silver dollars then you would never be interested in Sacagawea, Native American, Presidential, or American Innovation dollars because they do not contain silver.

The best way to begin a new definition starts with reading literature from the two gurus in the area of commemorative coins: Anthony J. Swiatek and Q. David Bowers. Here's how they define commemorative coins:

Anthony J. Swiatek

"A commemorative coin is a coin that is produced primarily to honor a historically significant person (living or dead), place, or event. Often, a commemorative is issued to mark an anniversary: the centennial, perhaps, of a person's birth or death, the sesquicentennial of a place's founding, or the 300th anniversary of a great event" (Swiatek, p. 9).The coin must also be legal tender (Swiatek, p. 13).

Q. David Bowers

"A commemorative coin is one that was produced with the primary intention of creating a special souvenir to be sold (at a premium above face value) to observe or memorialize an anniversary, special occasion, or other event. Although they are legal tender, such pieces differ in design from regular circulating coinage of the time" (Bowers, p. 1).

By this definition, Bowers does not consider the Statehood or National Parks quarters to be commemorative coins since they are not sold at a premium above face value. That is, you can find them in pocket change.

After reading Bowers' definition I felt uneasy. I collect the statehood quarters and national parks quarters. How could those coins not be considered commemoratives? I continued my research and learned that Swiatek augmented his definition. That is, he differentiates between "commemorative coins" and coins that are "commemorative in nature." A true commemorative coin "...must be referred to as a commemorative coin in the official Act of Congress that approves the issue. If the Act's wording indicates only that we are 'commemorating' an event, such as the ending of World War I and the arrival of peace, and does not cite the coin as a 'commemorative coin,' I would simply label the particular coin commemorative in nature" (Swaitek, p. 16).For example, the 1776-1976 quarter is "commemorative in nature" since the Congressional approval of that quarter did not have the specific "commemorative coin" language in the Act itself.

Let's temporarily switch to early and modern commemorative coins. Within the early commemorative coin series there are 144 (not including gold coins). Out of 144 only eight coins have repeated designs for 5 years or less and only one for 11 years (Yoeman, et al., p. 297-319): World's Columbian Exposition Half Dollar (1892-1893); Oregon Trail Memorial (1926-1939); Texas Independence Centennial (1934-1938); Daniel Boone Bicentennial (1934-1938); Arkansas Centennial (1935-1939); California Pacific International Exposition (1935-1936); Booker T. Washington Memorial (1946-1951); Carver/Washington Commemorative (1951-1954).

Conversely, the modern commemorative coins since 1982 are never repeated after one year. Why is this significant?

Going back to coins we use for day-to-day transactions (not dedicated commemorative coins), I noticed something in Swiatek's writings. He discusses at length multiple examples of 1stappearances of new designs that is commemorating something (Swiatek, p. 13-16). Consequently, I can infer from his discussions that significant changes in US coins represent either true "commemorative coins" or coins "commemorative in nature" as long as they are commemorating something. For example: the 1909 Lincoln penny representing Lincoln's 100thanniversary; the 1921 Peace Dollar commemorating peace at the end of the Great War; the 1932 Washington quarter representing Washington's 200thanniversary; the 1938 Jefferson Nickel representing the 3rdpresident and author of the Declaration of Independence; the 1959 penny representing Lincoln's 150thbirthday; and more.

I can also infer that the 1stappearance of these coins represents the commemoration, but not the subsequent years of the same design. Otherwise we would have "commemorative in nature" coins every year with the same designs every year. That trend would diminish the meaning or significance of something commemorative. 136 early commemorative coins, which represents 94% of the collection, were issued only one year while only 6% of the coins were issued for more than one year. One can argue that coins issued for fewer years would be more significant. At the time of issue, the US Mint had no idea how many coins would be purchased.If they plan for fewer years, lower mintages, or both, then simple economics will tell you that the fewer coins available implies those coins will become more significant.

Swiatek also considered the Statehood quarters to be commemorative:

"Make no mistake - [the 50 state quarters coins] was a valid commemorative coin program. Just because the coins were available via normal circulation, and through banks for face value, without surcharges, and not produced in pricey precious metals, don't think for a moment that the regularly updated quarters you see in your pocket change are not 'real' commemoratives. In fact, the original 10-year (now 11-year) series is the purest form of commemorative: specific event, limited issue, and no ulterior fund-raising motives (although a little seigniorage and profits from Proof and Uncirculated sets won't hurt the national debt)" (Swiatek, p. 662).

Needless to say, defining a commemorative coin that is outside the category of an early or modern commemorative coin (which has very specific language in the Act of Congress) is very ambiguous. What I decided to do is combine both of Swiatek's categories, "commemorative coins" and coins "commemorative in nature," as well as limit the 1stappearance of a coin commemorating something if the design is repeated for multiple years. That is, subsequent years using the same design are not commemoratives.

Finally, after all of this research, I developed my own definition of a commemorative coin that combines Swiatek's, Bowers', and my own perspectives.

A commemorative coin is a coin that satisfies criteria #1 and either #2 or #3:

(1) The coin must be legal tender of any denomination past, present, or future; (2) The language in the Act of Congress for the creation of the coin explicitly states that the coin is commemorating or honoring a historically significant, person, (living or dead), group of people (living or dead), place, event, or accomplishment; (3) A coin that undergoes a significant design change and that purpose of the new design is to commemorate or honor a historically significant, person, (living or dead), group of people (living or dead), place, event, or accomplishment. No specific language in the Act of Congress is required. If this coin design is used for more than one year, then only the first year is considered a commemorative.

#1 above covers early and modern commemorative coin programs. #2 or #3 covers coins not part of the early or modern commemorative coin programs.

The following table provides examples of coins that meet my new criteria:


1909 Lincoln Penny, Wheat Ears reverse; Commemorates the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth

1959 Lincoln Penny, Lincoln Memorial reverse; Commemorates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth

2009-2010 Lincoln Penny; Commemorates Lincoln Bicentennial (4 different reverse designs)


1938 Jefferson Nickel, 1st appearance of Jefferson on Nickel

2004-2005, Jefferson Nickel - Westward Journey; Commemorates the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase & journey of Lewis & Clark (4 different reverse designs)


1946 Roosevelt Dime, 1st appearance of Roosevelt on Dime


1932 Washington Quarter, Commemorates the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth

1776-1976 Bicentennial Quarter, Commemorating America's bicentennial

1999-2008 Washington Quarter - Statehood Quarters, Commemorating each state in the union

2009 Washington Quarter - DC & US Territories, Commemorating DC and the US territories

2010-2021 Washington Quarter - National Parks, Commemorating sites of national or historical significance

Half Dollar

1948 Franklin Half Dollar, 1st appearance of Ben Franklin (1st year only)

1964 JFK Half Dollar, 1st appearance of JFK(1st year only)

1776-1976 JFK Half Dollar, Commemorate America's bicentennial

1998 JFK Half Dollar (matte finish), Commemorate Kennedy Memorial

2014 JFK Half Dollar, 50th Anniversary of Kennedy Half Dollar

2019 JFK Half Dollar, Commemorates Apollo 11 50th Anniversary


1921 Peace Silver Dollar, Commemorative peace coin; commemorates the end of the Great War(1st year only)

1971 Eisenhower Silver Dollar, Honors president Eisenhower and the first landing on the moon(1st year only)

1776-1976 Eisenhower Silver Dollar, Commemorates America's bicentennial

1979 Susan B. Anthony Dollar, Commemorates the pioneer of women's rights(1st year only)

2000 Sacagawea Dollar, Commemorates Sacagawea; interpreter and guide for Lewis & Clark during the famous westward journey(1st year only)

2009-current Native American Dollar, Each year commemorates contributions made by Indian tribes

2007-2016, 2020 Presidential Dollar, Each coin commemorates a specific US president

2018-2032 American Innovation Dollar, Each coin commemorates an innovation, innovator or group of innovators from each state or territory


I am considering adding the following coins to my list, but I am not sure if these coins adhere to my definition.

2006: Return to Monticello nickel

I considered including the 2006 Return to Monticello since that would seem like in meets criteria #3. Does the new portrait of Jefferson in 2006 constitute a significant design change when compared to pre 2004? I am not sure.

2017: 225th Anniversary of the US Mint

New coin designs were not introduced for this anniversary. A new mint set with "enhanced uncirculated" finishes was created by the US Mint to celebrate the anniversary.

2018: 50th Anniversary of the San Francisco Mint

New coin designs were not introduced for this anniversary. A new silver proof set with "reverse proof" finishes was created by the US Mint to celebrate the anniversary.

2019: American Eagle: Pride of Two Nations

"It commemorates both nations with coins that capture their rich history, pride, and close relationship as neighbors and partners" (https://catalog.usmint.gov/pride-of-two-nations-2019-limited-edition-two-coin-set-19XB.html?cgid=2019-product-schedule, downloaded 07/21/2020). The 2019 W Silver Eagle is the first US coin to have an Enhanced Reverse Proof finish in .999 silver. The American Eagle coin did not have a new design, only a special finish.

Do new coin finishes like enhanced uncirculated, matte finish, reverse proof, reverse uncirculated, etc., constitute a major design change? I am not sure.

Bowers, Q. David.A Guide Book of United States Commemorative Coins: 2nd Edition. Pelham, AL: Whitman Publishing, 2017.

Swiatek, Anthony J.Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States. Chicago, IL: KWS Publishers, 2012.

Yeoman, R. S., et al. (eds.) The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins 2021. Pelham, AL: Whitman Publishing, 74th ed., 2020.


Long Beard

Level 5

I certainly see and understand your dilemma. I have both books on commemoratives, Anthony Swiatek/Breen and Q. David Bowers. While I respect both authors definition, it should be looked at in the simplest of terms. The very word commemorative means to commemorate or honor something, someone, some place. As applied to anything, not only coins/medals, it references an person, place, event or object which is being remembered, or commemorated. It must, therefore, include a dual date of the commemoration and/or a stated length of time. 50th Anniversary, 100 years, Bicentennial, ect. With that, this includes all of the Bicentennial coinage of 1975/76, the Statehood Quarters, The America The Beautiful quarters, the 2004/05 Jefferson Nickels and the 2009 Lincoln Cents. Struck for circulation becomes irrelevant. Quite a few of the early commemoratives were used in commerce, despite the premium charged. It does not include first year issues of series runs.


Level 3

Many thanks for your feedback. I am continually revising the definition. Both Swiatek and Bowers limited commemoratives to legal tender. That's the first step in narrowing the scope of the definition, which is what we all try to do in any discipline. Obviously, we have commemorative medals, coins with no legal tender value, and an almost infinite number of items that could be considered commemorative. I do not mean to diminish items outside the scope of legal tender coins. What I am trying to do is create a new commemorative coin definition for the numismatic community that incorporates the new modern coins like the statehood quarters, westward journey nickels, etc. Currently, only the early and modern commemorative programs are considered "true" commemoratives. Since both Bowers and Swiatek agree on limiting the scope of the definition to legal tender, I am following their example. I agree in that many of the early commemoratives were used in daily commerce. (I am trying to find a credible citation for that. If you have a suggestion please send me a message.) We could also use any modern commemoratives in commerce today. No one does, obviously. The Acts of Congress for all of those coins does make them legal tender and the value is inscribed on the coin itself. I may have found a way to include all of the commemoratives in the list I provided and am currently working on an article. I like your idea of stating a duel/date and length of time. I am now thinking about how to incorporate your idea into the definition. I wanted to send you a message but could not figure out how. Do we have to be friends before we can exchange private messages?


Level 6

Wow! I am going to have to think about all this for a while to digest it. I'll get back to you. Very thought provoking.


Level 3

Thanks! I am still struggling with my definition. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

What a post! Build it and they will come, a commemorative collection like this would be much better than any strictly "commemorative" collections I've seen. Modern commems aren't for me, not enough beauty, but the older commems have great designs.


Level 3

We all have our own personal taste. If I won Powerball I would have my own coin museum and collect everything! :)

It's Mokie

Level 6

I do not think that alternate finishes count as any kind of commemorative but I would make an exception for the enhanced 225th Anniversary U.S. Mint set. I agree with your revised definition and I also agree with your additions to the normal commemorative canon. Good Work.


Level 3

I thought about making an exception. However, if I make an exception for the 225th anniversary then, logically, the other anniversaries would have to be included. Remember that I am trying to create my own, slightly broader definition of commemorative coins that goes beyond Swiatek's and Bowers'. I can still collect the 225th anniversary of the US Mint, 50th anniversary San Francisco mint, etc. even though they may not be part of my definition. The definition is more academic. Due to all of the commemorations that are happening in modern coins, I feel an update to the definition of "commemorative-like" coins needs to be updated. With your help, as well as help from people who are participating in this discussion, I may submit this to the Numismatist for publication. Not sure they will accept it but worth a try.


Level 4

I am not a commemorative coin collector, but this post is so well-written that I had to read it all! Your research is impeccable, and your idea development is perfect. Though I am not a fan of commemorative coins, you had me hooked the whole way through. You seem to have spent a very long time on your research. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your concluding criteria; it is new and original, and i just love it. I would love to read more of your writing!

I. R. Bama

Level 5

Very thought provoking, informative and well researched. Great job on this article!


Level 4

Wow, this is very impressive piece and I would suggest sending it to the editor for submission. The only thought that came to mind to me regarding your definition and the use of the word significant. In applying this term to the Korean War dollar would it not be significant as it was the 38th anniversary? I even wonder if the Robinson half dollar, the governor not the baseball player, would even fall short of significant. Anyway that is my only commentary, but very thought provoking reading. Thanks!


Level 4

I would try the Numismatist, I think it is an interesting topic and I hope they do too.


Level 3

Submit to an editor for publishing? Who? What magazine? If you think this piece is that good I will be happy to submit.


Level 5

Nice post full of information and thoughts. Almost any coin commemorates a person or topic. I think anything intended for regular spending and commerce is not a commemorative in the true meaning. Anything made special and once would be a commemorative.


Level 7

A commen coin is one to describe or honor someone who did something historically. The commens of the Vietnam war Korean war a percentage went towards to monument . I personally like the older ones. I don't consider the state quarters of ATB coins as commens.That's a series of coins that was started to get young people in the hobby. It worked fine. The mint and red book break down commens like the NBA. This coin I don't like. But it's a commen . The Apollo space was considered an anniversary coin of an event. You have to each the difference between anniversary coins and commens.. The expositions usually are medals. Not commens. There made especially for that exposition. Back to the quarters. Some were made for circulation some for collectors only. Not a commen but a series only. And the reason for the state you people. The ATB have P,SD. And proof silver proof. Those are not commens. You collect anyone's you want. Some collect just the silver proof. . You can discuss this but I'm running out of room . Thanks allot for a well done blog your research was inspiring. But most people will go by the commens in the red book.Not to be confused with special sets. Thanks again

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