Commemorative coins have a particular attraction in that they are generally more aesthetic and unique than coins for circulation. Commemoratives are minted to celebrate an event or an anniversary, while general coinage continues with the same images before, during and after any event. This offers a great opportunity for amplifying the significance of events that should be recognized, enhanced and promoted. When a commemorative coin gets into circulation, it can make the event known that it is commemorating. Thus the event is promoted and can be made well known and thought of.
In the 19th century commemorative coins were issued sparingly, maintaining their value as promotional pieces advocating significant events. Examples were the Swiss Shooting Talers issued every two or three years. Russian Imperial commemoratives on the average were issued about every seven years. Other countries also issued commemoratives very sparingly. Austria issued only two in the 19th century to celebrate specific events.
Perhaps the commercialization of commemorative coinage started in the United States. The United States started its commemorative program in the 19th century and issued a pair of commemoratives to commemorate the Columbian Exposition, ie the Chicago World's Fair. Over the next twenty-seven years US commemoratives were issued sparingly, though with increasing frequency. However, serious proliferation of US commemoratives started in the 1920s and continued until the classic commemorative series stopped in 1954. Anniversaries of such local, innocuous places as Elgin, IL; Lynchburg, VA; New Rochelle, NY; and York County, ME were celebrated with national commemorative coins. From 1920 to 1954 forty-six different anniversaries and events were celebrated with US commemoratives, some funded by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. Congress recognized the exploitation of commemorative coins and terminated the commemorative program after the 1954 issue.
Similar exploitation took place in the German Wiemar Republic and the Third Reich. In a ten year period, from 1925 to 1934, Germany issued commemoratives for 24 different anniversaries and events. The program ceased after the election of Hitler. It is surprising he did not continue the exploitation of the commemorative program to promote his own purposes. It would have been consistent with his ambitions.
Exploitation of commemoratives started up with a real vengeance world wide in the 1960s and has continued and expanded since. Germany issued three different commemoratives in 1968 and has issued at least two different commemoratives every year since. From 1968 to its dissolution in 1990, East Germany issued 118 different commemorative coins.
Perhaps the most prolific has been Gibraltar. One would wonder just how much has Gibraltar to celebrate? Starting in 1991 Gibraltar started issuing commemoratives pretty indiscriminately. I stopped counting after 831 and had 15 pages left to count in the Krause 1901-2000 catalog. I realized, not having the 2001 catalog, I wouldn't be able to give an accurate count. Would it make any difference? Krause doesn't even give pictures for over 90% of the Gibraltar commemoratives. Gibraltar commemorated every event of the Olympics held in Atlanta and Barcelona. They commemorated such locally famous celebrities as the Marx Brothers and Alfred Hitchcock. Now we get to the really ridiculous part - Gibraltar issued an entire commemorative series celebrating DOGS, depicting various breeds on the coins: Yorkshire terrier, collie, bulldog, cocker spaniel, dachshund, etc.
China is certainly not to be out done. I stopped counting Chinese commemoratives at 408 with 34 pages left to count in Krause 1900-2001, still not having the 2001 catalog. Chinese commemoratives celebrate such traditional Chinese celebrities as Rembrandt and Verdi. Not to be out done by the Gibraltar dog series, China created a commemorative series on dinosaurs! Of course they celebrate the Olympics, along with every other country issuing commemoratives, by issuing Olympic coins in several denominations for each event.
Certainly with all this promotion going on, the United States can't be left too far behind. The US reinstituted its commemorative program in 1982 with the issuance of a coin commemorating the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth. While that was a significant event to celebrate, the US issued 65 more commemoratives through the year 2000, plus the 50 state quarter program. Again, I don't have access to figures after 2000, but I don't believe the trend would be different.
So what is the effect of this massive proliferation of commemorative coins? Does it do any harm? Well it certainly gives Krause Publications plenty of work to do. The 2001 catalog after nine years is in its 4th edition and is one third as thick as the 1901-2000 catalog. The latter catalog was so thick, that Krause had to publish a supplement (Unusual World Coins), because all the data would not fit into one catalog for 1900-2001. All this may well seem rather petty, as Krause probably doesn't mind having more and bigger catalogs to sell $$$. For the collector it simply means buying more catalogs $$$ and finding more shelf space to put them. Perhaps a little more time will be spent thumbing through such catalogs to find the one coin you are looking for. So what's the big deal?
Recall the purpose of commemorative coins in the first place - They are issued to celebrate, enhance, promote and advocate anniversaries, events and significances. How would you feel comparing George Washington's birthday to the significance of the cocker spaniel or the stegosaurus? Is it really important that every country commemorate every event at the Olympics? When so many commemorative coins are issued, the important ones get lost in the great mass of coins. Gibraltar had little to do with the Marx Brothers. Who in Gibraltar ever heard of the Marx Brothers? Gibraltar would have been better off issuing a commemorative to the monkeys in the rocky cliffs. (They probably did right after the dogs and I missed it.) What did Rembrandt contribute to Chinese culture? Don't the Chinese have a culture of their own to promote and celebrate? Mixing it in with Rembrandt and Verdi will only lose any significance in the coins. How many Chinese ever heard of Rembrandt or Verdi? The Chinese commemoratives should deal with Confucius and Lao Tse, real icons of Chinese culture.
A similar effect has been created with the resurgence of commemoratives in the United States. The significance of events gets lost when so many are celebrated at once. In 1992 US commemoratives celebrated the Olympics, Bicentennial of the White House and James Madison signing the Bill of Rights. Each individual celebration gets lost amongst all the others.
And then there is the poor collector. Who collects these things anyway? Does anyone know anyone who collects Gibraltar or Chinese commemoratives? The only way to effectively do it would be to get on the mailing list of the mints issuing the coins. I gave up 40 years ago and have no desire, inclination, premonition, intention, ambition or purpose in doing so.
Good luck to Krause. I am not even going to bother purchasing the 2001 catalog.
In the interest of full disclosure, I do very avidly collect commemoratives. The latest is the 1965 Churchill commemorative. Great Britain did not start issuing commemoratives prolifically until after the implementation of decimal coinage in 1971.