The 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition is very familiar to most numismatists, and the $1, $2 ½, and $50 gold commemoratives created as part of this event remain popular to this day. The first gold commemoratives produced for an exposition, however, were envisioned and struck more than 10 years earlier in 1903 for the similarly significant Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Although the Louisiana Purchase Exposition has not tended to garner quite as much attention from numismatists as either the Colombian Exposition or “Pan-Pac” Exposition in recent years, it was a significant event for both historical and numismatic reasons and is worthy of our interest and collecting dollars today.
Held in St. Louis, Missouri, this major event opened in 1904 and was also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was intended as a celebration of the economic and cultural development that had occurred in the ever-expanding United States with the addition of the Louisiana Purchase to the nation’s territory. During its tenure from late April to early December of 1904, approximately 20,000,000 attendees were estimated to have come through the gates and explore the wonders of the fair.
Prior to opening, however, the 1903 LA Purchase $1 gold commemorative coins were struck. Two varieties were produced with the intention of raising money for the fair—one depicting Thomas Jefferson due to his role in the Louisiana Purchase, and the other recently assassinated President William McKinley for his sanctioning of the Exposition. Colorful coin collector and eventual American Numismatic Association president Farran Zerbe was charged with promoting both of these coins, which were sold for $3 each despite their $1 face value.
The relatively high issue price, which was set at three times face value, proved unpopular for collectors. Although a combined mintage of 250,000 pieces was produced, only 35,000 total pieces were sold and distributed. The remainder were returned to the U.S. Mint and melted, making this coin much scarcer than its original mintage might suggest.
Years later, these coins have climbed significantly in value from the days of their $3 issue price. Even so, they remain relatively affordable in most grades and are part of the only 13 classic gold commemorative issues produced by the U.S. Mint. Furthermore, the 1903 Louisiana Purchase gold dollars retain notable historical significance as not only the first gold commemoratives ever produced but also due to their connection to the Louisiana Purchase and its centennial exposition. As we think back to the Exposition more than 100 years later, these diminutive but fascinating gold commemoratives provide a window into the past.