This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The U.S. Mint is all dressed up and ready to go. The problem is it is ready to go to a 20th century destination.
A decade into the 21st century we have to ask ourselves where it should be heading to be relevant to our futures.
The Mint as it currently exists was organized, and its productive capacity built to meet the astronomical coin demands ushered in by the age of vending machines and the replacement of silver coins with copper-nickel clad coins.
After the massive coin shortage of the 1960s, no Mint official ever wanted to be caught short again. Aside from a couple of minor cent shortages, the first in 1973 and the second at the beginning of the 1980s, the Mint has pretty well met the goals of its mission and added other goals on an ad hoc, congressionally authorized basis. These are modern commemoratives and bullion coins.
The latest ad hoc mission is the creation of a five-ounce silver version of America the Beautiful quarters having a diameter of three inches.
To say this strange numismatic beast, which will have the same face value as a standard quarter, was not planned is an understatement. Is there a need for such a coin? If there is, there is no study or review that I am aware of that points it out.
Equally true is that it was authorized by Congress. When the coins are sold to collectors sometime about September, it will be interesting to see if it will sell in any significant numbers.
The salient fact remains, however, that this mandate simply came out of the blue. The Mint, in consequence, had to buy a new German press and specially install it at the Philadelphia Mint.
What about bullion coins? The Mint has been rationing supplies of the gold and silver American Eagles on and off for two years due to the fact that it does not manufacture its own blanks.
Should it invest in precious metal planchet making capabilities, or would that just create an infrastructure that will become idle at times when demand for bullion coins recedes?
Modern commemoratives no longer resonate with collectors as they once did. The excitement of the 1980s and the rage of the 1990s has given way to what perhaps should simply be called weariness. They exist. Collectors will buy to the point of sellout something like a Boy Scout issue, but only occasionally.
Should the commemorative program be reduced to one a year or abolished completely?
Should we consider the current bullion coins to be commemoratives? Proof platinum American Eagle designs change annually already. There are four First Spouse designs each year. And how do you classify the ultra-high-relief Saint-Gaudens of 2009?
There is or was a logic to all of these programs, but what should be done for the future? Do we want to continue to on this ad hoc basis and assume all will be well, or should there be a fundamental re-evaluation of everything the Mint does?