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When collectors won

Tomorrow I join Clifford Mishler in giving a presentation at the second annual Northern California Numismatic Seminar sponsored by the Northern California Numismatic Association.

We have a lot of ground to cover.

Not only are we offering a capsule history of the 63 years of Numismatic News, but we are putting it on a framework of the history of numismatics in the same period.

We have one hour.

That’s less than a minute per year.

Where would you start?

For the purposes of this blog I am going to jump to 1981 and 1982.

It was during those years that commemorative coins returned to the United States after a 28-year hiatus.

However, the program as it exists now could have been very different had oil tycoon Armand Hammer been able to seize control of the marketing as he wanted to with the 1983-1984 Olympic coin program that raised $74 million for the Los Angeles Games and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Nobody quarreled with the ends of supporting our athletes, but the fight over the means was a real donnybrook.

Imagine the costs that would have needed covering and profits that would have had to be generated for a private marketing group rather than the U.S. Mint.

If you think you can’t afford Mint issues today, what would you have thought of a 53-coin Olympic set rather than the three-design, 13-coin set we ended up with?

We estimated the Hammer-proposed set would have cost over $10,000.


The Hammer proposal called for four $100 gold pieces struck on approximately quarter-ounce planchets, four $50 gold pieces on eight-ounce planchets, 16 silver dollars to the old Morgan dollar specifications and copper-nickel dollars struck to Ike specifications.

The precious metals coins were to be struck in both proof and uncirculated. The clad dollars were to be just in one quality.

That makes 53 coins in all.

The idea of completeness had not yet taken the beating in 1981 that it has suffered since.

Collectors were outraged.

We found a champion in Chicago Representative Frank Annunzio.

But collectors were not bystanders.

They were activist heroes.

The American Numismatic Association contacted all members of Congress to share its views.

At one point when Annunzio called for a living room lobby of collectors, Numismatic News published a form and contact information so that readers could write their support to Annunzio.

He received more than 10,000 letters.

Most were on our form. Imagine that in the pre-Internet days.

The tide eventually turned, but not before Annunzio was voted down by his own banking committee led by its chairman.

When things looked blackest on May 20, 1982, just before the vote, Annunzio said on the House floor, “I refuse to turn over your mint, the mint that belongs to the people of the United States, to a private corporation.”

Then the Hammer Olympic marketing juggernaut’s bill was beaten on the floor of the House.

The actual vote of 302 to 84 made it look like a foregone conclusion, but for the year leading up to that vote, it looked like Annunzio and his collector supporters would be beaten.

A three-design, six-coin set proposal had won.

“Victory” said the one-word headline I put on the front page of Numismatic News.

That victory assured that the Mint would always be the marketer of U.S. commemoratives.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper has twice won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."

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