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Mint needs to tend its grass roots to stay in business

Coin collecting is becoming a more elite activity again.

Once it was called the hobby of kings.

When I began coin collecting, it was the hobby of paperboys.

It was made so by the advent of coin albums that made circulation finds as much a game as it was an organizer of budding coin collectors.

The game part persists today as an echo of the 1950s and 1960s.

There is still a desire among many people to find a valuable coin in circulation.

There is just much less opportunity to do so.

Week after week, a nearly two-year old story on our website draws huge numbers of Internet views.

All are united in their interest in finding a 1982-D small date copper cent, the subject of the article.

Since only one such cent has ever been found and verified, it is safe to say virtually all cent searchers will end up disappointed and move on to other things.

Such was not the case in the Whitman album days of my youth.

Every album hole filled was a triumph.

The positive reinforcement egged us all on.

How many thousands of cents can you look at before you give up if you are not actually building a set and are looking for only one special coin?

Contrast this to the frenzy over a palladium American Eagle proof.

The admission price to play the speculator game was $1,387.50.

A quick sellout of 15,000 pieces rewarded those playing.

Most coin collectors don’t spend $1,387.50 in a year.

This means they are shut out of the speculative roulette at the Mint’s website.

They don’t like it. It leaves a bad taste.

So the Mint has become a primary engine of this trend to elitism.

Making a few high-end products is rewarding its bottom line.

Good business, right?

I would submit that the Mint is uniquely positioned to care for the grass roots of collecting.

With such repeated examples of online interest in cents, the Mint should take advantage of it.

It has presses in San Francisco cranking out circulation strike “S” quarters.

It should begin striking circulation “S” cents, too.

While it is at it, it should put a press or two at West Point to strike “W” cents.

And not only should the Mint sell these by the bag and roll to collectors as it does quarters, it should put another 10 million or 20 million of these into the banking system each year.

Let the Mint rebuild the circulation finds possibilities in this way.

Is it willing to do this?

It should look into its own records of its experience with the collector cent products in 2009 and make its own conclusion.

Collector purchases of cents would probably finance the cost of the extra ones made for circulation.

The Mint does not have to do this.

But if it does not, the trend is ominous.

In another decade, there will be even fewer grass-roots buyers left for its proof sets, uncirculated coin sets and quarter bags.

The Mint might not care if it thinks exotic and expensive bullion items will bail it out.

However, even those few who can put down their $1,387.50 bets are not an eternally growing market.

There are world mints that have come up against the limits here already.

Many of these expensive new issue buyers came up from the collector grass roots.

If fewer collectors are beginning down at the grass roots, there will be fewer at the high end a decade from now.

The Mint needs to act while it has a cash flow to work with.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017. He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."