By Donald Scarinci
Last week, after years of prodding by members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and the collector community, the United States Mint finally announced a medal program. Unfortunately, it is nothing more than a bullion sales program and is likely to do more to discourage future medal collectors than to encourage them.
The current plan is to reissue the bronze presidential medal series on proof silver Eagle dollar-size planchets. Then, the plan is to eventually honor each branch of the armed services with similar proof silver Eagle dollar-size medals. That’s the plan: more restrike medals and more military themes from the United States Mint.
While the Mint marketing team may have heard the CCAC’s plea for a medal program, they did not listen. The CCAC has been advocating an annual art medal program that is more like those offered by many other world mints.
A competition for a United States Mint medal, unencumbered by the directions and design restrictions that are usually placed on coins, would liberate and stimulate artistic excellence. Great artists have to labor through boring instructions for coin designs, only to listen to CCAC members complain about the designs.
A medal program would unleash new, contemporary designs. The artists would have the freedom to display their talent and create hand-held works of art that inspire and evoke emotion. They would most certainly win much-needed recognition for themselves and for the Mint. A medal program like this would then have a positive impact on the work that Congress asks these same artists to do with coins.
Medals should not be bullion products. The truth is that the U.S. Mint’s marketing team cannot project art medal sales. They can project bullion sales. So they went with what they know. The Mint’s marketing department completely understands the precious metals market, but they have no idea what collectors want or how collectors think. To expect them to design a program to encourage collectors and create a new market is far beyond their comfort zone.
Medals have historically had a stigma in the numismatic community. They can be reproduced over long periods of time without limit. U.S. Mint medals are available for decades after they are made, and there is no end date for reproducing them. That is certainly a factor that takes its toll on pricing in the secondary market.
Except for the early 19th century medals, the market places little to no premium for original patinas, even if the average collector had the ability to determine original patina. Fortunately, some numismatists make note of original patina and share data for the 20th and 21st century mint medals. Unfortunately, the market has not yet placed much of a premium on originality for 20th century U.S. Mint medals. There is little prospect that it ever will without adding more knowledgeable collectors for them.
It is easy to understand why the talented MBAs in the Mint’s marketing department think a bullion medal program is a good idea. It is also quite easy to understand why the bullion dealers think it is a good idea. The Mint’s MBAs see an opportunity to significantly mark up bullion and score profits. The dealers buy silver medals, send them to the grading services and mark up the MS- or PF-70 encapsulated medals five or six times the purchase price.
In the short term, the dealers win as long as they don’t get stuck with too many MS-69 or lower grade pieces and they can sell out their high-grade pieces before the true aftermarket prices kick in. The U.S. Mint wins because they are pushing bullion at a premium and the packaging options help them sell otherwise unpopular numismatic material. Medal collectors who do not specialize in U.S. Mint medals or any of the themes covered by the U.S Mint medal products are financially unaffected because they won’t buy medals like the ones proposed.
The people who lose are the average American end users; and, in the long term, the medal collector base and the reputation of the U.S. Mint.
The MBAs need look no further than the case study of the Franklin Mint. Private minting facilities seldom offer bullion products directly to the retail collecting community. Instead, they make products in volume for retailers who take the risk. Since the U.S. Mint is both a minting facility and a direct retail outlet with a large customer base, they likely will increase profits in the short term without concern for the damage in the long term. Unlike the business risk for private mints, the U.S. Mint has a superseding national interest.
The medal collecting specialty never recovered from Joel Siegel’s Franklin Mint marketing efforts. The stigma on medals that he caused still exists. The only good thing he did in addition to making short term profits for himself was to provide a training ground for sculptors to learn and grow. Don Everhart is an example of that. Don will tell you that he learned his craft at the Franklin Mint. Many other great artists who made those Franklin Mint medals would say the same thing.
It needs to be said that Franklin Mint medals will eventually have their comeback. However, their comeback will not be bullion-based. It will be numismatic. Much of the population of the 1960s and early 1970s Franklin Mint art medal sets have long ago been sold and melted for their precious metal content. The dies used to strike them, if they still exist, have been shelved for a long time and are probably unusable. A good many of the artists who designed the Franklin Mint medals were either already prominent or went on to become prominent. Some of them have even been honored with the Saltus Award, the most prestigious award for artistic excellence in the world.
The program that the Mint proposes will have only a nominal numismatic value. That value is entirely based upon the fact that it is a U.S. Mint product. Otherwise, the U.S. Mint is just making restrikes of images that have been reproduced dozens of times. The value of the U.S. Mint bullion medal program lies entirely in the bullion.
This “Viewpoint” was written by Donald Scarinci. He is a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, Chairman of the Saltus Award Committee of the American Numismatic Society, author of several books including “Krause Coin of the Year,” which has recently been released in a new, Chinese edition and he is a frequent speaker on the subject of coin and medal art. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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