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Lack of sellout disappoints but no surprise

Did collectors set their hopes to high for the sales of the San Francisco Old Mint commemoratives?

Do coin collectors think up good causes and then desert them?


I ask this because the sales period for the San Francisco Old Mint commemoratives is about to close as this is written (Dec. 12) without achieving a sellout. That is too bad for the project to renovate the Old Mint and turn a portion of it into a Gold Rush museum with a heavy numismatic content. It is a worthy cause. The American Numismatic Association supports it. Many collectors have said they support it. However, when it came time to write a check or send in a credit card number, we collectors as a group failed to buy all of the commemoratives that could have raised up to $8.5 million for the project. Instead, the total as of today is about $4.7 million, or a little more than half of the maximum possible.

Were our hopes set too high? Possibly. 100,000 $5 gold coins, it can be argued, are too many given the experience of the hobby in the last 10 or 15 years. The 500,000 maximum amount for silver dollars doesn?t sound outlandish.

It might be tempting to blame the short order period of approximately four months, but I won?t because we have sold far more coins in far shorter periods in my experience. The Mint did a fantastic job in administering the program and striking the coins very quickly. Congress had taken longer than expected in authorizing it in the first place and the Mint didn?t get the green light until June. When Congress says ?go? in June and orders are taken in August, that is pretty darn quick.

Is it the subject matter? Could be. Just how appealing is the San Francisco Mint, nicknamed the Granite Lady? I cut my teeth trying to find ?S? mint coins in circulation more than 40 years ago. I know many others of my generation did the same. If we don?t buy commemoratives honoring the ?S? mint, who will? The sales total doesn?t show that we have had any great enthusiasm.

I have seen this before. We collectors helped provide a rationale for striking the Smithsonian Institution commemoratives in 1996 as a tip of the hat to the National Numismatic Collection, but when sales were added up, they were awful. There were just over 150,000 silver dollars sold and 30,000 gold $5 coins. The ?S? mint coins have sold almost twice that level.

Should we collectors be expected to rally to good causes through our coins? Good question. We have loved to tell the tale of politicians picking our pockets with surcharges to raise money for pet causes that we have no interest in. Some have demanded payback in the form of surcharges being directed to a numismatic project. In the ?S? mint program, we got what we as a group said we wanted, but the results still disappoint.

On the other hand, some of the topics that the politicians in Congress have come up with were pretty exciting and generating huge sales, like the Statue of Liberty coins of 1986. But Congress has also come up with clunkers, like the Jackie Robinson commemoratives of 1997. Truth to tell, I thought the Robinson coin would have done better than it did, but then I am a baseball fan. The reward for the few collectors who did buy the coins when they were on sale originally is that they can brag all the way to the bank that they purchased coins that became valuable on the secondary market.

It may be a mistake to compare a commemorative program of the 1980s, or even the 1990s, with one today because there are so many more Mint products competing for the collector dollar. Some seem especially designed to induce the eBay buyer to buy them and speculate on a rise in value. It is hard for a commemorative coin with a 500,000 maximum mintage to look appealing to the speculator crowd when a 20th anniversary American Eagle set with a mintage of 10,000 or 20,000 becomes available in the same time frame. Look closely at those speculators and we find that many are the very same collector buyers. It is not surprising then to see the results.

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