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Commemorative Coins

Recently I read in Coin World that the Royal Canadian Mint is going to issue a commemorative coin for collectors, not to circulate in commerce, with a face value of $100,000. This will be a legal tender coin and, presumably, could be cashed in at a bank or with the Canadian government. This prompted me to think that now for a specialist in Canadian coins to complete his or her collection, $100,000 plus any premium charge is a starting point! Can you imagine if more than one variety is coined every year or if examples with later dates are made? One would have to be a millionaire to just keep current.

Some time ago Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World, commented that in order to keep current with United States Mint coins it would cost considerably over $10,000 per year. I do not know the figure as I write these words, but you can contemplate commemorative coins from different mints and of various finishes, a current Proof set, various gold bullion coins, platinum coins in Uncirculated and Proof finishes, and perhaps others. It would be interesting for someone to calculate how much it would cost simply to have one of each coin variety made by the United States Mint since the year 2000. I wouldn’t be surprised if over $100,000 would be needed. This certainly takes numismatics out of the realm of triflers, casual buyers, and the like.
My gosh, how things have changed!

Now, for a bit of nostalgia I go back to 1953, my second year in numismatics. As a student in Forty Fort (Pennsylvania) High School I enjoyed looking for coins in circulation, doing some trading, and starting a local business in numismatics. Living not far from me was Mr. Edmund Karmilowicz, who had formed a beautiful collection including an Uncirculated set of commemoratives from 1892 to date, a set of Peace silver dollars from 1921 to 1935, and a number of other specialties, all mounted in plastic holder sheets. These were beautiful to examine and very impressive. We discussed current coins. Proof sets of five pieces—the Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter, and Franklin half dollar—were available from the Mint for $2.10. In addition, the Treasury Department sold sets of Uncirculated coins. Mr. Karmilowicz told me that he was keeping current on his commemoratives by buying the Carver-Washington half dollar sets (one from each mint: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco) each year, but the coins were not particularly attractive, and he did not recommend that I acquire them for my holdings. The next year, 1954, was the last year that Carver-Washington pieces were offered. They were not popular at the time, and I never did buy any. In 1955, the cost of having a complete collection of current United States coins, including a Proof set and one Uncirculated piece from each mint (no half dollars were coined in San Francisco) was less than $5. What a contrast that is to the more than $10,000 to keep current today.

I am asked every once in a while as to whether buying current commemoratives and the like is a good investment. My reply has been essentially this: If you want to keep current, find these coins desirable, and can afford it, by all means purchase one of each. Not many people do this, however. If a particular commemorative is interesting to you—say the subject is historically appealing—buy one or an example of each variety of the issue, remembering that the value is often based on bullion value. Their numismatic value for many modern issues is very slight, and except in recent times when gold and silver has gone up in price, many modern commemoratives could be sold only at a sharp discount from the Mint issue price. That said, there is no doubt that modern coins keep our hobby dynamic.

Returning to the past, through 1981, matters continued more or less as they were in 1955, with a simple Proof set available each year and Uncirculated current coins. The cost of keeping up to date remained relatively modest. There were many pleas in the numismatic press, at coin conventions, and the like, for the government to resume coinage of commemoratives. By that time the Carver-Washington half dollars of 1954 were a memory for some, and not recalled at all by others, as so many people had come into the hobby since that time. There was a certain nostalgia in looking through the Guide Book of United States Coins and seeing all of the half dollars issued beginning with the 1892 Columbian. These comprised 48 different designs and 142 varieties if you included mintmarks and the like. How nice it would be to have commemoratives again!

As they say, be careful what you wish for, or you may get it! That happened, but not right away. In 1982 the U.S. Mint issued the first commemorative half dollar since 1954: an attractive coin honoring the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The design was by Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones, was well received, and set the pace for a new round of interest. The pieces were not particularly expensive at the time. Then the flood gates opened! In the offing were the 1984 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles. Multiple commemoratives were made, some dated 1983 in advance, and others dated 1984. In addition to silver issues, $10 gold commemoratives were made—a denomination never used on commemoratives before. From that point it was onward and upward, gaining great momentum in 1986 with the introduction of American eagle coins, and later with a flood of other issues. Today in 2011 someone can say, “I have spent over $100,000 on my coin collection, and not have a single coin dated before the 21st century.

I would be remiss if I did not insert at this point a compliment to the Treasury Department regarding a very nice series of coins. These are the Statehood quarters, issued at face value beginning in 1999, followed by the recent National Park quarters. These are commonly seen in circulation and with some patience a set can be completed by paying no more than a quarter each. Uncirculated and Proof varieties are a bit more and must be purchased from dealers, but still the overall amount is not great. I also give a nod to the 2009 Lincoln cent reverses—four of them—also released into circulation.

What a contrast this has to traditional numismatics. Consider these hypothetical displays at a coin convention:

1: One of each commemorative, regular, and bullion coin issued by the United States Mint since the year 2000. Cost, as stated, over $100,000.

2: The only known example of a certain bank note issued in the 1830s by the Winnipisseogee Bank of Meredith, New Hampshire, right end missing, grade otherwise Good to Very Good, recently purchased for $300

3: A unique token relating to the Civil War, issued the year before in 1860, with the Wealth of the South motif on one side. Cost $2,100.

4: A five-cent scrip note issued by a New York City merchant in 1862, at a time when coins were not available in circulation, probably unique, but who knows, as there is no reference book to consult. Cost $75.

5: A group of 10 1794-dated copper cents, grades from About Good to Very Good, none of them costing more than a couple hundred dollars, not otherwise classified, but with a magnifying glass nearby so that anyone interested could look at them.

My guess would be that a few people would be fascinated by the commemorative collection, but there would be a line waiting to see the exhibit case with the worn 1794 cents, with a lot of enthusiasm from those who would like to check out the die varieties.

If there is any point to this commentary, it is that it takes a lot of money to keep current with new issues, and if the United States Mint ever follows the steps of the Royal Canadian Mint and issues a $100,000 coin, only a handful of people will be able to afford them. On the other hand, going back to traditional American numismatics—coins, tokens, medals, and paper money issued generations ago—there are many opportunities to acquire interesting coins, including great rarities, at reasonable prices, and to spend a lot of enjoyable time researching their history and checking their varieties.

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