This issue holds the distinction of being the results of a total fraud and scam conceived and perpetrated by Thomas G. Melish, an entrepreneur and Numismatist. Melish concocted both the event described in the authorizing legislation “to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a center of Music and to contribution to the art of music in the United States for the past 50 years” and the organization that was to benefit; “the Cincinnati Musical Center Commemorative Coin Association, Ohio” (Chaired by none other than T. G. Melish!). There is no record of anything musical worthy of commemoration happening in Cincinnati in 1886!
Melish and a select few co-conspirators initially tried to get the legislation passed with the exceeding low mintage of only 15,000 pieces. In addition they lobbied to have the coins minted in all three active mints, but to have the numbers minted at San Francisco (3,000) and Denver (2,000) so low as to become instant rarities. In spite of active protest by the Federal Commission of the Fine Arts, the final authorization, which was passed on March 31, 1936 called for 5,000 coins to be minted at each of the active facilities (with the addition of a handful of coins reserved for assay at each mint).
Once the Coins were minted, the scam continued at the expense of dedicate collectors, with Melish and the gang packaging the coins in sets of three for a total advertised cost of $7.75. However, it doesn’t appear that any sets were actually sold at this price, as even the earliest subscribers received an apologetic letter explaining that the issue was sold out. It wasn’t until the after market price of these sets rose to the $45 or higher range that sets began to become available! Speculation was rampant and the price seems to have topped out at about $75 a set!
To heighten the appeal, Melish conceived of one additional twist to the scam. He advertising that the first 200 coins stuck at each mint would be hand stuck and caught in a soft gloved hand before being individually packaged in numbered presentation packaging to indicate the striking orders. These first 200 sets (which today probably account for most of the true gems in the market) were distributed to VIP’s including the mint director and treasurer along with various congressmen and representative.
The coin itself was designed by Constance Ortmayer of Washington DC. The obverse shows the slightly cartoonish bust of “Stephen Foster America’s Troubadour” (as inscribed below the bust) with the inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” (words separated by dots) above the bust and “HALF DOLLAR” below. The conjoined initials “C” &”O” can be seen in the field behind fosters neck on well struck pieces (though they tend to get lost in the field of the piece that is only an average strike such as the piece pictured here!).
On the reverse a kneeling female figure strums a Lyre in the center of the field (again, slightly cartoonish in the art deco style as on the obverse). The figure is surrounded by the inscription “CINCINNATI A MUSIC CENTER OF AMERICA” (with words separated by dots) that runs around the entire rim. On the left of the female figure is the date 1886, and on the right 1936, while under the figure there are three lines of text; “IN GOD WE TRUST”, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” and “LIBERTY”. The mint mark on the Denver and San Francisco coins can be found on the reverse just under the date on the right.
General Market Notes
As mentioned previously, the final Melish scam did result in a number of pieces of exceptional quality that are occasionally available as true Gems.