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Old Mint bill nears reality

Legislation that would authorize commemorative coinage featuring the Old San Francisco Mint and help fund restoration of the Granite Lady moved a step closer to reality Nov. 10 when the House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 1953, under the unanimous consent rule.

The commemorative proposal has a long history but only now, after many years of trying, has it reached critical mass and the possibility of becoming a reality and law.

That requires approval by the U.S. Senate, which has its own version of the bill to consider, and then a signature by President George W. Bush, who to date has no stated opinion about it.

Survivor of the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, and savior of a good part of the downtown financial district by its mere presence, the Mint functioned effectively from 1874 until 1937, when it was succeeded by the current San Francisco Mint that an earlier generation of collectors referred to as the Assay Office.

Located in the heart of the financial district at Fifth and Mission Streets, the Granite Lady has, in recent years, fallen into disrepair. Recent earth tremors have left cracks in its foundation.

Modern building codes in San Francisco require it to be earthquake proof – an expensive proposition – and a restoration would run into the millions of dollars, which the government no longer has to spend.

Enter Dr. Donald Kagin, a well-known Bay Area coin dealer whose Ph.D. dissertation was done on Pioneer gold, and whose single-minded dedication to restoring and saving the Old San Francisco Mint has now extended to trying to create a commemorative coin program to fund the restoration process.

He approached both of California’s U.S. Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, with the commemorative coin idea, based on an article that had appeared in Numismatic News.

The result was legislation that was introduced calling for coins with a surcharge dedicated to San Francisco Mint restoration.

Two coins, a $5 gold piece and a silver dollar, are the object of the legislation. Surcharges of $35 for the gold coin and $10 for the silver dollar coin are contemplated.

Mintage is limited to 100,00 gold pieces and a half million silver dollars. In a sellout, a total of $8.5 million would be raised for restoration of the Granite Lady.

The legislation also contains precatory language that is interesting for a prospective law to have – a recitation of rare coin values. The findings made by Congress are historic firsts in contemporary numismatics.

The Congress hereby finds as follows:
(1) The Granite Lady played an important role in the history of the Nation.

(2) The San Francisco Mint was established pursuant to an Act of Congress of July 3, 1852, to convert miners’ gold from the California gold rush into coins.

(3) The San Francisco Old Mint Building was designed by architect A.B. Mullett, who also designed the United States Treasury Building and the Old Executive Office Building.

(4) The solid construction of the Granite Lady enabled it to survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, making it the only financial institution that was able to operate immediately after the earthquake as the treasury for disaster relief funds for the city of San Francisco.

(5) Coins struck at the San Francisco Old Mint are distinguished by the “S” mintmark.

(6) The San Francisco Old Mint is famous for having struck many rare, legendary issues, such as the 1870-S $3 coin, which is valued today at well over $1 million, and the 1894-S dime which is comparatively rare.

(7) The San Francisco Old Mint Commemorative Coin will be the first commemorative coin to honor a United States mint.

The passage in the House had some drama associated with it. It was originally up on Nov. 8, but there was a procedural glitch. It next came under consideration early in the day on Nov.10, when the House recessed. Late in the afternoon, it made it to the floor a third time for passage, to which no one objected.

Action now shifts to the Senate where the Senate Banking Committee has held the bill since mid-October.

The bill also has a technical correction. It would allow Lewis and Clark coins minted in 2004-2005, all nickels, to continue to be sold by the Mint after Dec. 31, 2005.

That’s because of a provision contained in Title 31 of the U.S. Code, Section 512, which says “The obverse of any 5-cent coin issued after Dec. 31, 2005, shall bear the likeness of Thomas Jefferson and the reverse of any such 5-cent coin shall bear an image of the home of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.”

Focusing on “issue,” Mint officials evidently believe that absent the change they have no authority to sell off old inventory. It ignores the custom that the Mint has had for decades of taking December’s coinage, putting it in vaults and releasing as necessary in succeeding years.

Regardless, this is a bill that seems ripe for the Senate to take action on and pass. 

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