Interesting facts: At one time, a complete set of Panama-Pacific coins in the original Mint issued frame or box was one of the most desirable items in United States numismatics. The small boxes alone were worth over $5000 each. The copper frames traded in excess of $20,000.
Both the Octagonal $50 and the Pan-Pac Round $50 are the only $50 gold pieces ever issued by the U.S. Mint.
Four hundred years later the dream of connecting two oceans was realized with the opening of the Panama Canal. It took ten years and many millions of dollars to construct the giant locks through Panama’s deadly jungles, but completion of the monumental project assured America’s stature as a world power. It had been apparent since the Spanish-American War that floating a two-ocean navy was logistically overwhelming, and shortly after the conclusion of hostilities, plans began in earnest to connect the two oceans.
Congress felt the Panama Canal was of such importance that in 1915 it appropriated 50 million dollars for an exposition celebrating its completion. San Francisco was selected as the site of the festivities, giving that city an opportunity to showcase the rebuilding undertaken since the devastating earthquake of 1906.
New York artist Robert Aitken was selected to design both the round and octagonal fifty-dollar coins. Aitken was an accomplished sculptor, but the Panama-Pacific commemoratives were his first attempt at coin designs. Critics had a field day with his creation, ignoring the aesthetic merits of the design and complaining that “there is nothing American about the coin except the inscription.” On an artistic level, however, Aitken’s work is a rather successful attempt to blend classical Greek motifs with modern coinage.
Weighing in at nearly 3.5 ounces, these magnificent coins are very popular with collectors. These issues were sold individually during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition for $100 each. According to the Exposition price list, this entitled the buyer to the commemorative half dollar, gold dollar, and quarter eagle at no additional cost.
Octagonal pieces proved more popular and outsold the Round issue, albeit because of it's distinctive shape. Although 1,509 Octagonal examples were originally struck, a substantially larger number went into the melting pot. It was after 1915, that the commemorative series began to gain momentum. From 1920 through 1928, the Mint produced commemorative coins for fifteen different occasions; at least one new issue appeared every year, and some coins were struck in more than one year.
Obverse: Features the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, skill, and agriculture.
Reverse: The coins’ reverse depicts an owl perched on a Ponderosa Pine, surrounded by cones. Owls were sacred to Minerva, and the bird is commonly recognized as a symbol for wisdom as well as for watchfulness, alluding to America’s need for vigilance on the eve of its entrance into the European war. Aitken’s initials are tucked away on the reverse in the field above the R in FRANCISCO.
Overall: Survival of the original net mintage is high but Gem examples (MS65 and higher) are rare. No Proof issues are known or reported.