You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but this half-dollar coin has a history of scandal. The coin itself celebrates the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine, but that’s not why it was made. This coin was made to bail Hollywood out of a big problem.
In the early 1920’s, Hollywood scandals were out of control. Until the Hays Code was introduced in 1930, there were few limits on what could be shown on screen, and the actors’ private lives were no less shocking. In 1922, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was charged with assaulting and killing an actress at a party (and later acquitted, though his reputation never recovered), director William Desmond Taylor was murdered, and actress Mabel Normand questioned about possible involvement in his death. Many Americans denounced Hollywood and the film industry as irreparably evil; the film moguls needed a way to change the perception of the industry, and they needed it fast.
One way of casting a more positive light on Hollywood was an exposition, set to be held in Los Angeles in 1923. The organizers of the expo needed funds for the event, and decided to ask Congress to pass legislation for the creation of a coin. However, since Congress had no desire to bail Hollywood out, the coin had to commemorate something that America wanted to celebrate. The most obvious event was the 150th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but this wasn’t an option; not even the most creative Hollywood writer could come up with a way to link the Boston Tea Party with Los Angeles. Instead, they settled on the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, the argument being that the Doctrine had kept California away from European control. Vermont Senator Frank Greene, a critic of the coin proposal, said, “it seems to me that the question is not one of selling a coin at a particular value or a particular place. The question is whether the United States government is going to go on from year to year submitting its coinage to this—well—harlotry.” Despite opposition, the bill was enacted on January 24, 1923, authorizing 300,000 pieces to be struck.
The organizers of the expo had decided that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and had begun to plan the coin before the legislation was approved. The general design was created by the director of the expo, Frank B. Davison. Buffalo nickel designed James Earle Fraser was tapped for recommendations for an artist who could supply the finished design; he, in turn, contacted Chester Beach, a New York sculptor. Fraser and Beach decided to modify the design on the reverse of the coin, the new design being “Map of North and South America. North America is in the form of a draped figure, with the laurel of Peace [an olive branch], reaching to South America, also a draped figure carrying a Horn of Plenty. Their hands to touch at the Panama Canal. The West Indies are indicated. The current of the oceans are lightly shown. Between the dates 1823–1923 are a scroll and a quill pen, symbolizing the ‘Treaty’.” The commission approved the new design concept, and the coin designs were completed quickly. The finished designs were shown to Assistant Director of the Mint Mary Margaret O’Reilly on February 24, 1923, and met with her approval. Photographs were sent to the commission’s offices, and upon receiving their approval, forwarded to the Bureau of the Mint, where they were approved on March 8.
Only 274,000 of the approved 300,000 coins were struck; each was sold for $1. When sales fell severely short of the desired amount, many of the coins were released into circulation for face value. The expo itself was also a failure, with little funds or good publicity being garnered for the film industry. Fair admission was fifty cents, but attendees could simply purchase a coin for $1 to enter. Attendees showed little interest in the historical theme, preferring to try to catch a glimpse of their favorite movie stars. The planners of the expo had hoped for a million visitors, but only drew about 300,000; in the last two weeks, many of the attendees were teenagers who had been granted complimentary passes. The organizers held onto the slim hope that a visit from President Harding, scheduled for August 6, would boost attendance, but the President fell ill and died in San Francisco on August 2.
To top it off, coin designer Beach was charged with plagiarism when Raphael Beck complained that the obverse of the coin was similar to his own design for the seal of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Fraser insisted that he had not seen Beck’s design before proposing the obverse design to Beach, but this is considered unlikely.
Several numismatists have critiqued the coin for having a shallow relief that gave even newly minted coins “an insipid appearance.” Cornelius Vermeule, an art historian, went so far as to say that the figures on the reverse of the coin “seem like mounted cut-outs … the way the females are contoured to achieve their appearance of continents is a clever tour de force of calligraphic relief but an aesthetic monstrosity, a bad pun in art.” About the obverse, he stated, “Adams, with his staring eye, is scarcely a portrait, and Monroe would not be recognized even by an expert.”
Despite its checkered history and less-than-acclaimed design, this coin is still collectible, especially when uncirculated, and can be valued almost as much for the story behind it as for its numismatic worth.(The Stamp and Coin Place has several of these coins in stock.)