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Is First Spouse sellout fair?

The first two First Spouse gold coins sold out quickly on opening day of sales yesterday. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams half-ounce gold coins were sold for $429.95 for the proofs and $410.95 for the uncirculateds.

As editor of Numismatic News, I might be expected to pronounce the coins popular and ascribe the sellout to eager collectors snapping up the first coins of what will be a long series.

I can’t do that, at least not yet. The reason is that the sellout may be due to the existence of an informal group of buyers that I will call the eBay posse. They only buy the coins in order to immediately turn around and sell them online.

There is nothing illegal about this. Collectors have bought quantities of new issues for many years in order to sell a few in order to be able to keep one as the profit. Nothing wrong with that.

What has changed is the Mint’s willingness to cater to this profit motive and in essence shove aside the average collector from participating in the process.

The Mint sets low mintages in the hopes of inciting the eBay posse to ensure a sellout.

The maximum order was five coins per household per sales option. When divided up among proof and uncirculated coins, that becomes 10 coins per household per First Lady. With a maximum mintage of 40,000 combined, that theoretically means that as few as 4,000 buyers can clean out the whole issue. That excludes nearly all of the millions of active collectors.

If that didn’t do it, the price of $4,204.50 would preclude many from playing the eBay game. Double that number if buyers bought both designs.

Now I know sellouts are in the financial interests of the U.S. Mint. The possibility of profit is the only reason the Mint sells coins to collectors at all. However because this sales approach is so exclusionary, perhaps the Mint should sell all of the coins itself in online auctions. The windfall profits would then belong entirely to the government, and theoretically at least, a piece of the profit would accrue to all Americans as a few dollars less in taxes that would have to be paid.

Sporting events don’t sell all of the tickets directly to scalpers. They at least try to achieve some semblance of fairness. The Mint should reflect on what it is doing in this light.