From 1994 to 1998, before the debut of the U.S. state quarter series, the U.S. Mint struck an average of 1.71 billion quarters per year. The popularity of the state quarters, that for the 56 different issues in the 11 years from 1999 through 2009, resulted in annual mintages ramping up to 3.43 billion per year. With a metal value of less than five cents per coin, that increase in demand sharply boosted the profits of the U.S. Mint.
The popularity of the state quarters prompted the U.S. Mint to come out with another series of quarters, called the America the Beautiful® Quarters. From 2010 through early 2021, the U.S. Mint will again issue 56 different quarters.
There are some similarities to the preceding state quarters. The coin specifications are identical: gross weight 5.67 grams of 91.67 percent copper and 8.33 percent nickel, 24.26 millimeters in diameter, 1.75 millimeters thick and reeded edges.
However, the possible designs and the selection method for the designs were different than for the predecessor series. The coins in this series would honor only sites within the National Parks system under various forms of federal conservancy such as forests, sites within the National Wildlife Refuge System, or listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Instead of candidate designs originating from each state or jurisdiction, the locations honored were selected by U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, with input from U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and some input from the state governor or the chief executive of the jurisdiction. No public input was allowed.
Another change was that the sequence of issues was in the chronological order of when the sites were recognized by the federal government. For the state quarters, the sequence was in the order that states ratified the U.S. Constitution, or joined the Union.
Candidate designs for the ATB series were generated internally at the U.S. Mint. The state’s governor, the park director of the specific site appearing on the coin, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee all had input on what the final design should be. However, the ultimate decision maker on each quarter’s design was the U.S. Treasury Secretary.
For the first seven years of ATB quarters, average annual mintage has been 1.40 billion, about 280 million per coin. That is a decline of more than 58 percent per issue from the state quarters. That is also about 18.2 percent lower than the average annual mintage from 1994 through 1998, the five years before the state quarters began.
So, should the ATB quarter series be considered a boom, just so-so, or a bust?
One thing to keep in mind is that the financial world today is different than it was two decades ago. The use of physical coins and currency in everyday commerce is shrinking in the U.S. and worldwide.
To get something of a feel of how much the change in payment technology may have affected coin mintages, I checked for changes in the average mintages of U.S. cents, nickels and dimes from the periods 1994-1998 and 2009-2016. Here’s how that came out:
Cent output declined 41.8 percent in the second five-year period compared to the first five-year stretch. The total was 11,950,547,700 in the first period and 6,952,095,714 in the second. For nickels, the decline was 17.7 percent, 1,401,870,422 to 1,153,834,286. The dime drop was 12.6 percent, 2,404,164,222 to 2,100,930,000.
When looking at the total decline in mintages for each of the other three denominations, a drop of 18.2 percent for quarters is not out of line. The cent, because it has lost so much purchasing power because of inflation of the money supply, is definitely trending toward obsolescence.
Therefore, the case can be made that the ATB quarters are not duds from the perspective that the denomination’s mintages have fallen somewhere in line with that of the nickels and dimes.
However, there is obviously a sharp decline in collector demand for these quarters. I don’t have statistics on the number of collectors of this series. At one point, the U.S. Mint claimed a survey showed that there were 130 million people collecting the state quarters. When you figure that a high percentage of ATB quarters are needed for everyday commerce, the small percentage sought by collectors and accumulators probably doesn’t make it a strong tool for promoting the hobby of numismatics.
After thinking about it, considering the decline in demand for coins and currency in total, I can think of seven possible reasons why collector interest in the ATB quarters is much less than for the state series:
Collector fatigue. It is difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the slow rollout of a series of coins over a decade or longer.
It is the second series, which is sparking less interest than the first series, no matter the theme.
The state quarters have not appreciated in value, so there is less interest from speculators hoping to make easy profits.
People who were collecting rolls tied up $560 face value in the state quarters. Starting another series would represent another significant cash commitment.
Whereas many people could identify all the states and have visited a lot of them, few would be familiar with most of the landmarks honored in the ATB series, much less have traveled to them.
Few people have knowledge of when these sites were federally recognized so that they understand the sequence in which they are being released.
These quarters are being released by the name of the site on them, rather than by the state where they are located. Many people would not initially know where many of these sites are located, which decreases interest.
In absolute terms, figure that the U.S. Mint’s cost for raw materials and the overhead of production comes to less than 10 cents per coin. As such, the U.S. Mint’s production of quarters, which must have some design, is profitable.
In my overall judgment, the ATB quarters are certainly not a boom business for the U.S. Mint. But, neither are they an outright dud. They may be considered as an overall little bit less than average coin series.
The U.S. Mint is seeking input from the public about what coin series could replace the America the Beautiful series after it is finished in early 2021. I would certainly encourage everyone to contribute their ideas, hopefully well thought out in terms of what would appeal to the public to collect them. You can reach the U.S. Mint’s Office of Corporate Communications at (202) 354-7222.
If suggesting a theme for the next coin series, I also ask that you request that the public have the opportunity to contribute design ideas as happened for almost every state with the state quarter series (Mississippi was an exception). It seems to me that any students who suggest a design idea would be a better prospect for being tomorrow’s numismatist than if the students were never asked.
Patrick A. Heller was the American Numismatic Association 2017 Exemplary Service and 2012 Harry Forman Numismatic Dealer of the Year Award winner. He was also honored by the Numismatic Literary Guild in 2017 and 2016 for the Best Dealer-Published Magazine/Newspaper and for Best Radio Report. He is the communications officer of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Mich., and writes “Liberty’s Outlook,” a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at http://www.libertycoinservice.com. Some of his radio commentaries titled “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com).
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2018 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.