By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………
On January 2 U.S. Mint official Tom Jurkowsky, who is director of the Office of Corporate Communications, told numismatic media sources that the Girl Scouts of the USA will not be receiving any surcharges from the sale of Girl Scouts of the USA Centennial commemorative silver dollars. The reason is that sales of the coins, which only reached about a third of the congressionally-authorized maximum mintage, or 123,814 out of 350,000 (as of January 5 unaudited data), were insufficient to cover program costs. By the law organizations cannot receive funds from the sales of commemoratives unless all costs associated with the coin program are first covered. In this case, that meant forfeiting $1.23 million dollars as each proof and uncirculated coin comes with a $10 surcharge. This was the first time that has happened.
Many collectors said they did not buy the coins because they did not like its design. Others were still smarting from the 2010 Boy Scouts commemorative that included a female venturer, which rubbed a lot of male coin collectors the wrong way. And Coin World editor Stephen Roach said in the January 20 issue of his publication that the GSUSA did not do enough to promote sales of the coins, arguing that the “burden cannot rest solely on the U.S. Mint to promote commemorative coin programs.”
But I know that organizations work closely with the Mint to promote sales of commemorative coins, which was explained to me in 2012 by Michele Coiron, who was then director of sales for Star Spangled 200, which promoted sales of the 2012 Star Spangled dollars through many different venues. I suspect the sluggish sales of the Girl Scouts coins had more to do with the unhappiness of collectors with the design, and also with the fact that the coins may not have had great appeal for Girl Scouts. As I explained in 2012, their organization does have some programs related to coin collecting , but that is very different from the situation with Boy Scouts, as so many coin collectors were once Boy Scouts. As Anna Maria Chavez, the CEO of the GSUSA explained in her interview with me, her organization worked to promote the coin through its web site and other venues such as local Girl Scout council partners, who sold the coins in Girl Scout shops. And yet that was not enough.
In September 2012, as I explained in this column , legislation was introduced that would have required any revenues from sales of commemorative coin programs beyond what is needed to recoup production costs go towards deficit reduction rather than to organizations whose work is honored by the coins. At the time I argued against this proposal, which was never enacted.
But after giving the issue more thought and witnessing the poor performance of commemorative coin sales in the past couple years, which I believe is largely driven by weak designs, high prices, and to a certain extent themes that fail to reflect the diversity of the American experience, I believe it is time to revamp the commemorative coin program.
First, as suggested by Numismatic News editor David Harper, it is time to do away with the surcharges. The main reason, as he notes, is the fact that it makes the coins more expensive, but there are also other issues surrounding the surcharges. During the Olympic coin programs of the 1980’s and 1990’s, as well as the during the era of classic commemoratives (1892-1954), too many coins were issued. The coins were not being minted in response to collector demand but rather because organizations saw them as easy money. In addition, some groups do not seem especially worthy of assistance from coin collectors. For example, why is it appropriate for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a private organization operated by private interests, to receive money through the sale of the 2014 baseball commemorative coins?
The 2014 civil rights coins have gotten off to slow start, though they have only been available since January 2. If their cost was $10 lower per coin, that would likely boost sales quite a bit. And under existing law after costs are recouped, most Mint profits already go to reduce the deficit.
Second, the maximum authorized mintages should be reduced substantially in most cases. Very few modern commemoratives sell out of their maximum mintages, and mintage levels should be set more realistically than they have been in the past. Congressional officials drawing up legislation for coin programs should consult with Mint officials and outside numismatic experts who can advise them that no $5 gold coin today is going to sell 100,000 units. For example, the Five Star Generals gold coins, which are quite popular with collectors, sold about 20,000 including proof and uncirculated coins.
This issue is important because if maximum mintages are lower, then the Mint’s production levels would be lower too, and fewer coins would be need to be melted when left unsold at the end of the year. The Mint bases production levels on anticipated demand, which they base on how a previous year’s coins sold. But that fails to account for wide differences in the appeal of certain coins and themes compared to others, which in fairness is not easy to estimate. In the case of the Girl Scout coins, I would have recommended lower levels, if I had been consulted, especially after the reactions of collectors to the design.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the art work on commemoratives needs to be improved and made much more compelling. Many collectors agree on what a good coin design is and what a bad one is. Reading the comments made online and in letters to the editor of various publications, it is easy to see how many collectors did not like the Girl Scouts coin, the 2011 Infantry dollar, or the new Civil Rights Act commemoratives, and how many did like the 2012 Star Spangled Banner coins or the 2010 Boy Scouts coins, which sold out of 350,000 units quickly.
I admire the tireless work of the committees that make recommendations on coin designs to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, the Commission on Fine Arts and Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission, but if you look at the designs they reviewed for a given coin and the ones they ended up recommending, you will frequently note that coin collectors posted numerous online comments saying they would have chosen a different design. Of course, different people will often not agree on designs, but this is a largely consistent pattern in which potential buyers find the designs chosen by the committees to be unappealing. A good example is the designs recommended for the 2013 American platinum eagle that depict a young girl on the obverse, and a plant on the reverse. Most people do not even know what the design is supposed to represent.
In part this reflects a preference among coin buyers for more classic designs over modern ones, and for more symbolic than literal representations of the themes on coins. Classic designs do not only consist of those that have appeared on previous American coinage but rather also include coin designs like those which appeared on the 2011 American platinum eagle or the 2012 Star Spangled Banner silver dollars, which are modern images of Liberty.
Finally, while most modern commemoratives do honor significant people, events, and causes, the range of subject represented is rather narrow in the view of many collectors, including myself. There are tons of commemorative coins with sports and military themes, but not enough on major national themes that really evoke the overall American experience such as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the NASA space program, Martin Luther King, and so forth, which would probably have a lot more appeal than many recent commemoratives. The baseball coins are different as baseball plays a large part in American culture.
Collectors today are overwhelmed with choices from the Mint and from other world mints. But U.S. commemoratives, unlike those issued by other countries, rarely sell-out and tend to underperform on the secondary market, where buyers can often obtain them cheaper than issue price if they wait. The recommendations made here, if followed, should help to make the U.S. commemorative coin program more successful in the future for the Mint and collectors.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, a number of different coin web sites in addition to being a contributor to “American Hard Assets magazine”. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.
Thanks, Hubert. I finally saw the light.
Thanks for representing the majority, Louis. This was well organized, well said, and a long time coming!!
I think one of the very biggest stumbling blocks for our US Commemorative Coins is the fact that they are legislated. With that, the coin criteria and design requirements are dictated by the legislators well before any concepts have been been considered, let alone formalized. As such, we lose the potential for great, allegorical designs from some of our very best artists and sculptors.
Similarly, as the current program is intended to support fund raising for the “organization” being recognized, those same guidelines make it nearly impossible to commemorate some of the very same highly worthy, yet non-charitable, events and organizations you listed within your article. E.G., something for NASA has been long overdue.
If and when the US Mint gets a new Director (3 years now), I would like to see him or her, and their staff, have the lattitude to identify and develop their own limited edition and/or multi-coin programs. They would not necessarily have to commemorate any specific event, although they could when appropriate, and could create additional numismatic revenue streams for the US Mint – leading back to the Treasury and payments against the Nat’l Debt.
I see opportunities to showcase the artistic and manufacturing talents the Mint has at its disposal. Let’s realize their full potential and reinvigorate interest in our US Mint and the next generations of classic American – and World – coinage our institution has the ability to produce.
Thanks so much Chris for your kind words and eloquent statement.
One area that I did not cover, and which I may in the future, is the obstacles to making the kind of changes we both propose. Chief among them would be that Congress is not likely to give up its role in legislating coin programs. But I agree with you that the Mint has some latitude as seen in the past.
On many occasions, the authorizing legislation contains mandates with respect to the designs on the coins. The mandates may be the personal tastes of the sponsoring legislators or in deference to the benefitting organization. If the congressional legislators would at least confer with the CCAC before submitting their bills it might result in improved designs and more salable coins for collectors.
Great suggestion, Gary, which would help a lot. Thank you.
Great article that contains insightful considerations regarding the commemorative coin program. I could not agree more with your thoughts on what would make the program more attractive to collectors. One can only hope that the ‘three points’ that you reference will be established as guidelines for future commemorative coinage.
Thanks so much, Eric.
I hope the poor sales of the GSUSA coins and probably of the new civil rights coins too serves as a wake-up call for change.
A silver dollar for a coin commemorating a childhood endeavor is almost certainly the main culprit here. Why not make it a Girl Scouts $10 Gold coin while they were at it. A program like this could succeed if it was a clad half dollar commemorative. This way the Girl Scouts could market them to the girls and their families. It would cut the cost of ownership down tremendously.
I was a coin collector as a Boy Scout and I couldn’t afford my first silver dollar until I was an adult- and that’s when spot price was much lower than it is now.
Thanks, Charles. Very good points.
I just wonder why the Girl Scouts got a coin, or why any coin collector would find it appealing. Other than the fact the US Mint created the coin, I don’t see any other reason to get this coin. When I think of the Girl Scouts, I think of those girls and parents selling unhealthy cookies outside supermarkets. What else do they do? I have no idea