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What's in store for U.S. Mint?

Last week in a blog post I mentioned that my impression in Europe is the U.S. Mint is behind the times and I am of two minds about it.

I will elaborate here to further spell out what I mean.

When I see what is being offered by other world mints, I realize how different the U.S. Mint is.

Because what the Mint presently does is familiar to me, I am comfortable with it as someone who has collected for 50 years and it still can be considered successful, though a declining profit trend line requires that we at least must ask the question about what should be done in the future.

Let’s start with products. There is almost nothing in the present product line-up that the Mint couldn’t have produced 100 years ago. The exceptions might be the gold/platinum bimetallic commemorative for the year 2000 for the Library of Congress and current reverse proofs.

In other countries, bimetallic coins in base metals are standard circulating fare. Those in precious metals are sold to collectors.

Color issues are dramatically multiplying. Berlin World Money Fair attendees could actually strike their own pad-printed color piece as a demonstration of the technology.

The Austrian Mint uses different colors of niobium to create interesting bimetallic coins in hues I never would have expected to see in anything other than Mardi Gras tokens in New Orleans.

Does any American collector believe the U.S. Mint would win the Coin of the Year Award for a coin with a scannable QR code on it as the Royal Dutch Mint did? I don’t. That’s not a slam. It is simply the outcome of the congressional shackles under which it operates.

The Mint engages in very little direct marketing. Other mints do much more or work with third-parties to do it for them.

There is a downside to marketing as some mass marketers are just too “successful” in convincing people who shouldn’t be buying coins to spend large sums on them. These coin buyers are then disappointed when they try to cash out.

Even as the U.S. Mint’s product line has expanded somewhat and U.S. collectors complain of it, by world standards it is a slow poke. Most of its products are simply derivative of other products repacked in differing combinations. Other world mints produce more new issues for collectors.

The U.S. Mint still reaches out to the mass market where other mints deliberately create low-mintage niches. Would American collectors stand for a series of new products with mintages deliberately capped at 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 pieces as other world mints do? The Mint has nibbled around the edges with special sets and we could point to the First Lady series, but usually low mintages are the result of collectors losing interest and stopping their buying.

Smaller coin sizes are more and more prevalent. The Royal Canadian Mint won Best Silver Coin honors in the Coin of the Year ceremony for a quarter-sized silver coin with a $20 face value.

Would Americans put up with such a thing? The coin has the beautiful design of a canoe and its reflection.

It was also was accompanied by a clever marketing campaign of “$20 for $20” where buyers simply paid face value for it.

Other smaller coins are simply recognition of high prices for gold. New coins are at 1/20th of an ounce and even smaller.

Should the U.S. bullion coin line be extended to add smaller more affordable sizes?

The irony here, of course, is Congress forced the Mint in the opposite direction by adding 5-ounce silver America the Beautiful coins. With the high price of silver, the price point is not the most attractive.

And when it comes to low price points, I was told the Royal Canadian Mint generates 18 percent of its revenue on products it markets through Canada Post. The U.S. Postal Service might or might not be the ideal marketing partner, but if a revenue stream of that size could be developed in the United States, it would help both the Post Office and the Mint.

All of these issues should be explored in a process to achieve my suggested U.S. Mint 2020 vision statement.

In short, world mints have changed much more than the U.S. Mint has.

For fans of PBS series “Downton Abbey,” I will phrase it this way: Is the U.S. Mint like the Earl of Grantham in 1920? Is the old estate in need of change before its money drains away on cent losses, nickel losses and low-margin bullion coins?

Present trends are not in the U.S. Mint’s long-term favor.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."