The Panama-Pacific Commemorative $50 gold coins were designed by Robert Aitken. The obverse depicts a left-facing portrait of the goddess Minerva (or Athena) wearing a Greek helmet pushed over the back of her head to signify peaceful intentions. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST is present above and the date MCMXV is inscribed on the top of the shield that Minerva carries. Around the border are the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the denomination FIFTY DOLLARS. (The octagonal pieces, but not the round ones, also display an inner border of dolphins on both sides.) Among other things, Minerva was the goddess of agriculture, horticulture, spinning and weaving. All of these skills are important to the economy of California, which played host to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition for which these coins were struck.
On the reverse, Minerva's owl-an important emblem of watchfulness given the fact that World War I was raging in Europe at that time-is perched atop a branch of ponderosa pine. Arranged around the border are the inscriptions PANAMA-PACIFIC EXPOSITION and SAN FRANCISCO. The Latin motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is present in the field behind the owl, as is the mintmark S for the San Francisco Mint.
The authorizing act of January 16, 1915 allowed the Mint to strike 3,000 Pan-Pac Fifties: 1,500 in round format and 1,500 in octagonal format. The price asked for these coins during the Panama-Pacific Exposition ($100 each, which included the Pan-Pac Half Dollar, Gold Dollar and Quarter Eagle at no extra charge) meant that many attendees could not afford to purchase an example. The $50 gold pieces were also sold in the complete five-coin Pan-Pac commemorative sets ($200/set) and the complete double sets ($400/double set).
Although Farran Zerbe continued to offer these coins well after the Pan-Pac Exposition closed, overall sales remained disappointing and a sizeable number of coins were shipped back to the Mint for melting after November 1, 1916. In the case of the $50 round, 1,017 examples were destroyed, leaving a net mintage of a mere 483 pieces. Fewer octagonal pieces were melted, probably because their design (read: shape) proved more interesting to contemporary buyers.
Today, the round variety is rightly recognized as the rarer of the two Pan-Pac Fifties. Interestingly, there are a few more high-grade round pieces extant than there are octagonal, but both varieties are conditionally challenging and typically offered with abrasions, slidemarks and/or other signs of mishandling. Even Choice representatives can be elusive from a market availability standpoint, and Gems are nothing short of rare.