In 1926, Governor Charles Sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company purchased 1,000 recently issued Fort Vancouver half-dollar commemorative coins. The coins were later moved for safekeeping to the Provincial Archives Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. In 1982, a janitor working there came down with a case of sticky fingers. But he had no idea how valuable the coins actually were.
Issued in 1925, these commemorative coins honored the centennial of Fort Vancouver’s founding and its role in developing the Northwest. The Hudson’s Bay Company helped found Fort Vancouver, thus the sentimental attachment to the coin. While the design was first created by Sidney Bell from Portland, Oregon, Laura Gardin Fraser, the wife of famed sculptor James Earle Fraser, later revised the designs.
In an attempt to gain publicity and boost coin sales during the 1925 centennial, 50,028 coins weighing nearly 1,500 pounds were loaded onto a plane in San Francisco and flown to Vancouver. This marked the first, single-day round-trip flight between San Francisco and Vancouver.
Though more than 50,000 coins were minted, sales were disappointing, and over 35,000 were returned to the San Francisco Mint to be melted. Today, Fort Vancouver half-dollars—grade MS-64 or lower—aren’t that hard to find, but coins rated MS-65 and better are scarce, and, therefore worth significantly more.
Oblivious to the fact that he had anything valuable, the Winnipeg thief lived it up for a while, spending 400 coins around town at face value. Then, needing money to buy a car, he took 568 coins to the bank and cashed out for $284 Canadian.
The teller realized that the coins were valuable and got permission to buy them from the bank at face value. Later, she sold them to a coin dealer for $37,500! What happened to the other 32 half-dollars from Charles Sales’ original 1,000-coin stash is lost to history.
If you like this article, then you might enjoy other articles in our archives, such as “How Silver Dollars Won the West.”
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