Assay Commission's End Resulted in Collectible Medals|
April 05, 2010
Once upon a time the U.S. Mint had an Assay Commission. Its chief duty was to check samples of the current coins to ensure that they met specifications. Spawned in the early days of our country, the commission would remain until it was axed in 1977.
The Act of April 8, 1792, which established the Mint, required such meetings, but it was ignored until March 1797, when the first meeting was held. The 1792 law specified that the chief justice of the United States, the secretary and controller of the Treasury, secretary of the Department of State and the attorney general of the United States made up the committee, with the meeting to be held “on the last Monday of July of each year.”
The first commission to examine and weigh the coins was established in 1823. This would ultimately become the Assay Commission, which was a group of private citizens appointed each year to conduct tests and review the coin production records of the Mint. One of the principal duties over the years was to compare the weight of the standard pound, made and used by the Mint, with the original standard pound sent over from England in 1827. One wonders if the commission ever recommended better bookkeeping standards at the Mint.
The first public members joined the official members of the commission in 1837, and were booted out by President Carter in 1977. Despite picketing and political presure, the Mint stood firm and refused to reestablish the commission.
The U.S. Assay Commission actually did find underweight coins or coins that were below the standard alloy. In one of the rare instances when the Assay Commission found something wrong during its annual meetings, the 1881 body discovered that about 3,000 CC dollars had been struck in 1880 from an alloy that assayed .892 fine rather than the normal .900 fineness.
It is unclear from Mint records as to whether the coins were recovered and melted. The original tolerance for silver dollars was 1.5 grains. The commission of 1895 reported finding one dollar dated 1884 that was 1.51 grains below normal weight.
Since then the specifications were changed to allow a tolerance of six grains. In 1792 the original regulation specified one part in 144.
The Assay Commission of 1971 was unique, as for the first time since the first meeting in 1797, there were no silver coins to examine. The commission met on Feb. 10, 1971, too early in the year to receive any of the 40 percent silver Eisenhower dollars that were struck that year. They were actually there to check the 1970 coins, which included no silver pieces.
The first U.S. Assay Commission medals was issued in 1860. The theme of the medals included coins, and sitting presidents. The first instance of a U.S. president appearing on the medals while in office was on the 1880 Assay Commission medal.
Among the Assay Commission medals that depict coins are the 1964, which had the 1964 Kennedy half dollar. The 1881 medal depicts Liberty and Justice before a coin press.
Although the commission started out checking bullion coins, there never was any legal requirement for the commission. Members paid their own way, so the cost to the government was less than $2,500 a year.
With the end of the commision, the 1977 Assay Commission medals were sold to the public. This was not the first time the medals were put on public sale. The Bowers and Merena Rare Coin Review quotes John J. Pittman as stating that the Mint at one time offered the 1909 Assay Commission medal for sale in its list of medals, labeling it the (Treasury) Secretary Cortelyou medal.
The medals were identical except that the Assay Commission medal had information on the back about the commission, which subsequently was removed by the Mint and the secretary medal remained on sale with a blank reverse.
The 1876 Centennial medal depicts Washington, and the same design was also used on the 1878 medal. A 1936 piece that mules dies of Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt medals is described as an Assay Commission Medal. The 1932 medal has a cameo of Washington and a view of Mount Vernon, and the 1939 medal also reportedly uses a bust of Washington, as does the 1974 medal.
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On September 29, 2011 Dan White
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