Dr. Sol Taylor

U.S. Assay Commission Medals

Mary Brooks Letter
By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, April 26, 2008

n February 1977, I received a letter from outgoing Mint Director Mary Brooks. She was concluding her duties as Mint director and had some good news and some not-so-good news. I was named a member of the 1977 Assay Commission. However, President Carter had just redlined several other commissions, and the U.S. Assay Commission budget of $2,500 was deleted for 1977. Thus, for the first time in more than 140 years, there would be no public members of the annual Assay Commission.
    The U.S. Assay Commission was established when our first Mint opened in 1792. It followed the common English tradition of having the national coinage examined by a special committee each year in what was known as the "trial of the pyx." It gave confidence to the public that the national coinage was of the correct standard.
    Originally, the commission did not consist of any members of the public, and only a few government officials met one day in February to test the standard coinage. It wasn't until the 1830s that Congress approved the addition of members of the public to the annual commission. Such membership assured a more democratic approach to our standards of coinage.
    The commission's role was to sample the current coinage for fineness and weight. That usually was conducted and concluded in a single day.
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    Starting in 1867, the Assay Commission added a souvenir medal for each member of the commission, varying in number from about 30 to as many as 55.
    These annual medals were offered each year up to 1977. The medals usually were round and made of silver and were larger than the silver dollar.
    From 1901 to 1908, the medals were rectangular and usually bore an image of the current U.S. president on one side and a die maker on the other. Some of the earlier medals also bore presidential images. Since the Mint made no specimens for public sale, these Assay Commission medals have become very collectible and valuable, with some years not known in private collections.
    A few issues were made in copper, white metals and pewter (the 1977 issue). A single medal was made in gold. In a book by Julian and Keusch, each annual medal is described along with the known mintage and, in some cases, alternate metals.
    The 1977 medal was offered for public sale in a unique oval format featuring Martha Washington on one side. About 1,250 were known to have been sold. It is the least valuable of the medals in the series. When any of the medals show up at public auction, they tend to bring spirited bidding since so few ever come up for public sale.
    The more recent issues from the 1960s and early 1970s are virtually unknown in collections except in the hands of the original commissioners. There is no known "complete" private collection, and even major collections are less than three-quarters complete.
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    In a March 21, 2000, article titled "The Death of Tradition: The End of the U.S. Assay Commission," numismatic columnist Ed Reiter detailed the origins of the practice and how it came to expire. Since the public members served only once, they had the chance to enjoy the experience each year as a member of the exclusive OTACS club (Old Time Assay Commissioners), which met at the American Numismatic Association headquarters. Reiter had the unique experience of having attended three such commissions — not as a member but as a numismatic reporter.
    The commission met until 1980 when it was officially abolished. No public members attended the final four meetings. There have been bills submitted in recent years to reestablish the commission, since in recent years the Mint has been producing coins of gold and silver — albeit exclusively for collectors and not for general circulation.
    Since I came close to an appointment in 1977, I have submitted my name for consideration, should the commission come back from the dead.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.