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The Masterpiece Syndrome

Writer’s Name Withheld

I am a recent coin collector whose preference when it comes to coins are modern and ultra-modern coins. When I share this with most seasoned collectors and coin dealers, there is a tinge of unintentional condescension. I find this group doesn’t seem that interested in discussing the wonderful and historically informative designs of the Native American dollars produced since 2009. Rather, the conversation turns to Morgan dollars, Saint-Gaudens gold coins, Colonial coinage, and, sometimes, how well they sell in auctions and what dealers pay for them. It makes a collector interested in the coins of today feel a bit lonely. I do appreciate the artistry of Saint-Gaudens’ work and other master designers, but there are many talented ones who have produced great designs for coins with remarkably low mintages such as Joel Iskowitz’s design for the 2008 American platinum Eagle.

Now, I see this condescension as unintentional as it is something that, as a composer of classical music, I have seen, heard and experienced as I have tried to get my own music performed – the crowding out of music by many worthy modern and contemporary composers as well as composers outside a particular gender and geographic area. This accidental prejudice in both the coin collecting and classical music world is due to what I call the “Masterpiece Syndrome.” For European art music, one can say this syndrome developed in full about the time of Beethoven in the early 19th century.

Before the Masterpiece Syndrome began to dictate concert programs, public taste, and adulation of music performers and composers as superhuman geniuses, they were considered at best as craftspeople, at worst a few degrees above an itinerant gypsy band. Composers usually wrote music that had to adhere to the dictates of the music’s proposed purpose and meet the tastes of their employers and the times. So, when J.S. Bach took a position as composer, performer and administrator for a larger prosperous church, his first duty was to toss most of the music composed by his predecessor. Of course, music of past composers was preserved – Palestrina’s, and Josquin des Prez’s music for Catholic masses were preserved in handwritten scores and very limited printings. However, copyright law and the printing press did not exist, so errors and misattributions crept into these documents. In addition, if a composer was lucky, he may have some latitude in what he could compose due to the generosity of his patron or if independently wealthy. Haydn’s critical contributions to developing the foundations of the modern symphonic and string quartet forms was due to the latitude of his employer, the Esterhazy royalty of the 18th century.

The Masterpiece Syndrome could be said to have started with Beethoven’s peak creativity at the turn of the 18th into the early 19th century. He was pushed by his patrons to be innovative but, in turn, they had to tolerate Beethoven’s lack of court manners and highly independent nature. Critics hailed him as a genius or criticized him as a madman. Either way, his pieces became known as “masterpieces” that would far outlive his generation.

From my limited experience, I detect to a lesser scale the Masterpiece Syndrome in the advice given to new collectors on what to collect for both numismatic value and investment purposes on respected numismatic websites, social media and publications: Morgan dollars, Gobrecht coins, Saint-Gaudens coins, Colonial issues and primarily much of the U.S. coinage prior to 1933 (with a growing interest in some between 1932-1964). Outside those time periods, it is anything with bullion on it – not so much for its numismatic value but for the intrinsic value of the metal.

It is this well-placed adulation of pre-1933 coinage that creates irrationalities in the premium of some ultra-modern issues. For example, why are 2012 silver proof sets sold after eight years above $100 when the 2017 and 2018 mintages for those year’s silver proof sets are 50,000-60,000 lower than 2012? And why do proof sets from the late 1950s and early 1960s sometimes price significantly higher than the silver proof sets from 2011-2018? Or why do I not see more auction news showing healthy premiums of American Eagle platinum coins? This issue has mintages well below 10,000 for many issues and the reverses feature some gorgeous designs. Or a simpler example, why have Peace dollars’ premiums always lagged behind Morgans even though their run was shorter, the design beautiful and refreshing, and with some low mintage dates?

I do understand that the historic coinage from prior to 1933 deserves the attention it does get and, for the rare coins, the prices they fetch. However, it is dispiriting to see some auction sites state flatly they go no farther than Eisenhower silver dollars for those seeking to submit their coins for consideration to be bought. It reflects what I sometimes see as a music composer: the music of the 18th and 19th century is played in concert halls and lauded in textbooks to the point of oversaturation with the consequence that contemporary music is ignored or not given sufficient chance to be heard to be properly considered its worth. I think the Masterpiece Syndrome with its overexposure, at times, of classic coinage feeds into the undervaluation of the aesthetic and monetary worth of ultra-modern coins. This may be one contributing factor to the explosive growth of bullion coins and manic speculation seen with recent coins such as the 2019 Reverse Proof American silver Eagle that is an artificially, highly overpriced issue.

Despite the challenges of being a coin collector whose main interests are ultra-modern and modern U.S. coins, I, myself, will continue to acquire them – while appreciating U.S. coinage’s rich, historic past (and, yes, obtain a few in the ensuing years).

Sometimes, we have to re-evaluate our past and its worth to make way for future masterpieces in order to keep the art and interest of numismatics alive and well –just as we allow ourselves to open our ears to new music and sounds, some of which may merit repeated hearings and study.

This Viewpoint was written by a collector from New York, N.Y. 

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