This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Both classic (1892-1954) and modern commemorative issues (since 1982) were created to earn money for worthy causes. Many were whims. Most are historically interesting.
Are they a good investment? No, not usually. A rule I have mentioned is very applicable here: “if it was made to sell to collectors, it is not generally a good investment.” While one could play games with statistics, the fact is classic issues have done poorly over the last decade and I doubt they have kept up with inflation for the last 50 years.
If you use the oldest issue, the 1892-1893 Columbian half dollars, that is quite evident, especially in low grades. Of course, the 1892 Isabella quarter would negate much of that, but even it is cheaper than it was 10 years ago. Mint state examples are 10 to 20 percent less, with the exception of MS-66 graded coins. While classic issues are for the most part interesting and very attractive, they suffer from a lack of understanding and popularity unless promoted. There have been various promotions over the years, but the strength of these promotions continues to diminish. There may be a silver lining in this cloud. There seems to be renewed collector interest in the classic series without the aid of promoters. Perhaps some have woken up to the true scarcity of these issues and their hidden (depressed) values.
Modern issues and sets have similar problems, but the melt value of the gold and silver issues has prevented losses and even shed a profit for many who held from the beginning. There have been a few nice exceptions in the modern issues where certain coins were not popular at the time of issue so very low quantities were released. The best examples of this are mint state Olympic issues of the mid 1990s where nearly everybody ordered proof versions and very few mint state versions. This is also true for the Jackie Robinson and FDR issues.
Modern commemoratives may be a practical investment especially when viewed in the context of metal value. There is a large group of gold issues that is available very near melt value and this would be a great way to put away gold bullion with the potential of numismatic appreciation and the accompanying shield from possible 1933-style government confiscation of gold bullion. Silver issues pose the same advantage on the common dates. Here, however, the promotional market continually draws off the proof issues while the mint state issues accumulate or go to the melting pot. Again, these are another good bullion possibility.