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Do modern commems intimidate?

For someone just approaching modern commemoratives or even someone who has been collecting them for a long time it might well be time to make some serious decisions about which direction you might be taking with your collection.

Approaching a collection of modern commemoratives is rapidly getting more difficult. It is natural for a program now at the 30-year year mark, but for someone just approaching modern commemoratives or even someone who has been collecting them for a long time it might well be time to make some serious decisions about which direction you might be taking with your collection.


In many respects we should not be surprised by the situation. The older commemoratives of the United States started out slowly and with sporadic issues at least until the Panama-Pacific program of 1915 seemed to touch off a wave of other programs. After the Pan-Pac program, which featured two $50 gold coins among others, new programs started to appear at an ever increasing rate until a point was reached in the late 1930s when even the strongest backers of commemoratives realized the idea was rapidly spinning out of control.

Collectors in the 1930s were faced with some extremely difficult decisions as instead of a simple yearly half dollar costing perhaps a dollar there were sets of many half dollars involving a coin from Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco with a cost of perhaps $7.50. Multiply that dollar figure by 10 and you begin to get an idea of the purchasing power being asked of collectors during the Depression.

Programs such as the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar seemed to continue indefinitely and collectors were in some cases just overwhelmed with options and all at a time when people were worried about their jobs and watching the rise of dictators around the world.

We see the result of too many programs and too many coins today as most hobbyist do not even attempt older issues as a complete set, opting instead for a much more affordable half dollar type set requiring just one example of each design.

The older gold commemoratives with the presence of two Panama-Pacific $50 coins, which start at $50,000 just in AU-50 are not really even attempted by many as the gold issues are a small collection, but even with the small number of coins in it, it is a set of extremes involving tiny gold dollars and the very large $50, but then there are only a couple other gold $2.50 coins, making it a very uneven collection and an expensive one.

When the modern commemorative program was started in the early 1980s there was a very serious and well-intentioned effort to avoid the problems of the past. The marketing was to be done by the government marking a clean break from the sales procedures of the past in an effort to avoid some of the nagging questions regarding what happened to the profits from issues like the Cincinnati Music Center half dollar of 1936. If the government controlled the process instead of local committees or private interests there would be full accounting for how profits were used. This was the logic and it has worked.

Other modifications from the traditional approach to commemoratives of the 1892-1954 period have not worked quite as well.
The 1982 George Washington half dollar was a single coin priced at just $10 for a BU and $12.50 for a proof during the regular ordering period. Moreover, the prices were even lower in a special pre-issue discount ordering period. Many wanted both the proof and BU simply because the proof was produced at San Francisco and the BU at Denver, but a total price of two coins of less than $25 was certainly reasonable. The half dollar also marked continuity in the commemorative half dollar series that ended in 1954, or 28 years earlier.

Modern Commemorative Coins

Do you know which modern commemoratives have the best potential for profit?

Things changed quickly and dramatically with the next issues from the Los Angeles Olympic program of 1983-1984. Many of the controls were virtually thrown out the window less than a year after the first coins had been produced. The Los Angeles Olympic program would last for two years, which while far short of the Oregon Trail record, which stretched from 1926 to 1939, it was still a bad sign for those wanting to keep the overall commemorative program modest. In addition to a half dollar design, there were two silver dollars and a $10 gold design.

The $10 gold basically sold the program to those who had reservations about it. The United States had not issued a gold coin of any type since 1933 and anyone who cared about gold was excited by the idea of a new gold coin of the United States.

The two silver dollars were a bit unusual in that they were not that traditional. Silver dollars, while not historically an important commemorative denomination as all older commemorative dollars except for the Lafayette had been gold, were perhaps seen as slightly unusual for commemoratives but hardly a problem for collectors or those concerned about the program.
What did concern collectors was that the Mint in some ways was an active source for new coins as the gold $10 unlike the Washington half dollar was produced not at two facilities with one producing a proof and the other a BU but rather at four, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and West Point. This was no accident as the Mint was deliberately trying to produce more coins to encourage collectors to buy not one but at least five different $10 gold coins. The proof was in the fact that suddenly there was a mintmark used at West Point, which was a clear attempt at encouraging buyers as West Point had been producing coins for years but never with a mintmark as it was not officially a mint at the time.

In all there were “P,” “D,” “S,” and “W” proofs and a “W” uncirculated on coins that contained nearly 2.5 ounces of bullion.
There were some complaints. It was clear that just like the sets of the past this was a blatant attempt to get collectors to order more than one coin. However, to a collecting public that had never known the pleasures of buying current gold coins from the Mint, these complaints were muted and mintages were fairly large. You can buy these coins essentially for bullion value today.

Until the 1986 Statue of Liberty program it could safely be said that the modern commemorative program had no real direction just like the historic commemorative program where the first issues had been half dollars followed by a quarter which was followed by a silver dollar and then gold dollars.

In the case of the modern commemorative program, it had started with a silver half dollar followed by a gold $10 and two silver dollars. To that pattern or lack, thereof, the 1986 Statue of Liberty program added a $5 gold, one silver dollar and a half dollar that was clad not silver. Collectors who wanted an orderly collection of specific denominations were certainly out of luck, but the huge success of the Statue of Liberty program came to the rescue as its formula of a $5 gold, silver dollar and clad half dollar would become the model for future programs.

Over time, however, especially in the light of sinking sales other variations would be tried such as a single silver dollar, a single $5 gold, multiple silver dollars, some programs with half dollars and some without and even the platinum-gold alloy for the 2000 Library of Congress $10. In the First Flight Centennial program of 2003 there was a switch from the $5 gold coin to a $10 for the first time since the Los Angeles Olympic program assuming we consider the Library of Congress $10 as a unique issue.
Collectors attempting to determine what to collect when it comes to modern commemoratives in light of the assorted changes face an increasingly difficult task. It is certainly still possible to collect every modern commemorative whether gold, silver or clad or even platinum and gold, but such a collection is very expensive to start.

The Library of Congress platinum and gold issue with relatively modest sales has already topped $4,500 in MS-65 and there are other cases of lower mintage $5 gold coins like the BU Jackie Robinson $5 at $2,900. The profits are great if you had bought the Jackie Robinson BU from the government, but if you are considering starting a collection now some of these coins can quickly add up to a costly set. Others, of course, are just so much bullion. Even if you already have a collection the temptation to take profits on things like the Jackie Robinson $5 and Library of Congress $10 has to be very real.

Determining where to go from here with a collection or what type of modern commemorative collection to start is a real issue for newcomers to numismatics as there are so many different coins and so many factors to be considered especially if you want a long-term collection that you can cheerfully enlarge each year with new issues. Most at this point if they are not attempting a complete collection have to be looking at a specific denomination just as collectors of older commemoratives tend to focus on half dollars.

For those on a limited budget the half dollar offers the lowest cost especially if you need to buy the issues of the past as it is only the half dollar where there is not a single coin much above $100. The Atlanta Olympics 1996 Swimmer half dollar which is currently at $140 in MS-65. It is, however, possible to purchase the proof for just $31. If you are simply assembling a type collection the proof is adequate. The other issue currently over $100 is the Atlanta Olympics 1996 Women’s Soccer half dollar which is $130 in MS-65 but there too there is another option in the form of the $88 Proof-65. In almost all other cases either the proof or BU version of every type can be found for $25 or less.

The one negative with half dollars is that they have become very sporadic. In an apparent effort to produce fewer coins the half dollar is regularly not included in new programs as it generates the lowest revenues in the form of surcharges.

We see evidence of that in the fact that after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics half dollars there was not another half dollar issued until 2001 in the form of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center half dollar. The next one was the 2003 First Flight Centennial and the pattern continues to be no pattern. If you like to add a coin to your collection every year the modern commemorative half dollar is a problem as there is simply no regular pattern of including them in programs and that means you can potentially go a long time without adding a new issue.

The silver dollar has basically replaced the historic half dollar as the denomination in silver found regularly in commemorative programs. That makes for a great collection in terms of diversity as except for programs of just one gold coin it is safe to assume there will be a silver dollar in every new program, which means a couple new coins each year. In addition, there have been a number of cases starting with the Eisenhower dollar of 1990 where a program was simply a silver dollar or in the case of the 1994 veterans issues more than one silver dollar. It all comes together making the silver dollar a fascinating possibility although one which is much more costly to complete even if you are limiting your purchases to one coin of each design.

In looking at a modern commemorative silver dollar collection there are far more issues where you can expect to pay $50-$100 simply for the more available example of every type. In fact, there are a few where the price will be $100 or more just for a type coin. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial dollar of 1997 for example is one where even the less expensive Proof-65 is currently $78. It is reasonable as the combined proof and BU sales stood at just under 140,000 pieces and that total is very low especially when you consider the American Buffalo silver dollar of 2001 is another case where either the BU or proof will be over $100 and it had a combined mintage of 500,000.

The 1998 Black Revolutionary Patriots silver dollar is perhaps the best deal of all as you can obtain a Proof-65 for $89 but the combined sales of proof and BU examples was under 115,000 making the Black Revolutionary War Patriots dollar a modern commemorative silver dollar with a great potential.

With all of the different issues the commemorative silver dollar is perhaps the denomination of modern commemoratives where you find the most diverse pricing, suggesting a market which is still maturing. The American Buffalo silver dollar sold out it’s 500,000 authorization and rose to over $200 for either the BU or proof before falling back to $169.

The 1992 White House silver dollar did precisely almost same thing, soaring to over $100, yet today the BU and proof White House dollars are less than $40 while the American Buffalo dollars remain over $160.

In theory, with survival rates at virtually 100 percent and collectors needing one of every type if not both the BU and proof for a complete collection, the American Buffalo and White House dollars should be at or near the same price. Examples of such differences are many, suggesting that there will continue to be adjustments for some years in the future.

As for now, the modern commemorative silver dollars are less likely than either the half dollars or gold to have their prices relate closely to their mintages. Some that should see solid increases in the future in price would include the 1991 Korean War dollar, the 1991 USO dollar the 1994 U.S. Capitol Bicentennial dollar and the 1994 Women In Military Service Memorial dollar as well as a number of others. Those dollars as well as new issues should keep commemorative silver dollars an interesting group for the future.

The $5 and $10 gold modern commemoratives along with the single gold and platinum alloy Library of Congress $10 represent by the far the most expensive group of modern commemoratives and they also tend to have the most volatile price history. More often than not every new commemorative program will have a gold coin.

The modern commemorative gold issues follow much more closely their mintage in their pricing and that actually sees the $5 issues break down fairly simply between common issues prior to 1995 and those starting in 1995 which are the scarcer issues due to a falling off in collector demand.

This was dramatic with the Jackie Robinson BU $5, which had a mintage just under 5,000 pieces. That has seen the BU $5 Jackie Robinson soar to it’s current $2,900 listing in MS-65. Of course for a type set a proof example is an alternative but the pressure of type buying has seen the proof also rise dramatically to a current listing of $590.

Interestingly enough, although the Jackie Robinson $5, thanks to the BU, has basically grabbed the bulk of the headlines, the most expensive type coin, assuming it is counted as a gold issue, is the platinum and gold $10 for the Library of Congress. The 2000 Library of Congress $10 was one of those ideas that was interesting but so far there have been no attempts to repeat it with other modern commemoratives and that makes it a difficult coin to really evaluate.

The proof actually had a fairly high mintage of over 27,000 pieces, yet today it sits at $1,300 which is above the Jackie Robinson proof and also above its $395 issue price. Whether that will continue to be the case is uncertain although the $5 Franklin Roosevelt had a similar mintage and it too is safely above its issue price today. At least for now the proof Library of Congress is the most expensive type coin in the gold issues.

World demand for scarce MS-65 Olympic gold coins also makes the 1996 issues stand out. Just look at the monthly price guide and see.

If you were to start to assemble a modern commemorative gold set including all denominations as well as the bimetallic Library of Congress $10, you would simply have to expect to spend quite a bit of money. The recent trend for those who buy directly from the Mint when coins are offered has been good as every gold coin since 1996 has tended to rise. That trend could always change but at least for the present a modern commemorative gold coin collection has lately been perilously close to a can’t miss proposition.

Whatever collecting options you might select, modern commemoratives in all denominations are still a collection that is possible for many to complete, though it is understandable for newcomers to be daunted by the prospect of going back to acquire 30 years’ of issues starting in 1982.

Certainly with the diversity of designs and topics, it is an interesting collection and one that is a great deal of fun. Whether the prices are going up or down modern commemoratives are a collection that many enjoy and one that grows over the course of time as new issues appear every year. If you like the diversity and slowly building a collection, then modern commemoratives might well be a perfect challenge for you.

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