By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
The United States Mint has released hundreds of products for coin collectors over the last four decades. Yet four of the scarcest, most popular items to come out of the U.S. Mint since the 1960s aren’t products hobbyists could originally order by mail or online.
The 1982 and 1983 Philadelphia and Denver Mint souvenir sets weren’t supposed to become sought-after numismatic rarities. Yet these sets, which could be bought only at the gift shops of their respective mints, have risen in prominence as scarce collector items over the last 30 years.
They are the only official U.S. Mint products to include uncirculated business-strike coinage from the years 1982 and 1983.
The Mint had halted production of its annual uncirculated sets in 1982 and 1983 due to federal budget cuts, and a gripping economic recession that peaked in late 1982 meant few Americans were hanging on to rolls of new coins.
What Are Souvenir Sets?
Souvenir sets changed little over the quarter-century they were sold by the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. The first souvenir sets were issued in 1972; the last were sold in 1998. They were sold in virtually the same type of cellophane packaging from year to year and offered the same variety of coins – with minor differences between sets as designs were modified or metallic compositions changed.
Each set contains a single one-cent coin, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar. No dollar coin is included in the regular souvenir set, even in years during which a dollar coin was produced. None of the sets come with a Certificate of Authenticity, but the small bronze mint medals included within each one essentially serves the same purpose.
Philadelphia sets are packaged in a light-blue outer envelope, whereas Denver sets come in a darker blue envelope. Philadelphia and Denver Mint gift shops offered the sets for $4 each.
Numismatics in the Early ’80s
Understanding the circumstances behind the absence of mint sets in 1982 and 1983 requires a glimpse of the greater backstory for the period.
The nation was still trapped within the grim confines of the economic recession and “stagflation” that began in the early 1970s. Interest rates were soaring. Unemployment hit the double digits and prices for everything from stamps to meat were seemingly out of control.
The early 1980s was also a colorful period in the American theater of the numismatic world. The Susan B. Anthony (SBA) dollar, originally released in 1979 with much fanfare, proved itself as a circulation flop by the end of 1980. The Mint struck SBA dollars in 1981 for collectors only and they are included in the 1981 uncirculated set, 1981 proof set and a special 1981 Susan B. Anthony dollar souvenir set, the last of which includes only the three dollar coins from each of the three mint that made them (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco).
In the early 1980s, collectors could also still purchase surplus quantities of 40-percent silver clad Bicentennial (1776-1976) three-coin uncirculated sets and proof sets directly from the United States Mint. At their lowest price during that period, the three-piece uncirculated and proof sets could be obtained for $12 and $15, respectively. From August 1980 through September 1981, however, the proof sets sold for the higher amount of $20 while the uncirculated sets were offered for $15, reflecting a dramatic increase in bullion prices during the 1979-1981 period. From September 1979 through August 1980, sales of the Bicentennial three-coin sets were suspended due to an unpredictable spike in silver prices.
Bullion prices spiraled to lofty record highs on the heels of massive silver purchases by billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brothers William Herbert and Lamar Hunt. At one point they held 100 million troy ounces of silver, or roughly one-third of all non-government silver at the time. The silver panic caused silver to rise from $6.08 on January 1, 1979 to a new record high of $49.45 on January 18, 1980.
Meanwhile, investments in gold were primarily propelled by socio-political concerns about Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, and ballooning oil prices, all of which helped caused the price of the yellow metal to increase from $220 in ounce in the spring of 1979 to $850 in early 1980.
There were also important administrative and legislative events happening in the first months of President Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. In July of 1981, just months after Reagan’s arrival in the Oval Office on January 20 of that year, Donna Pope became the new Director of the United States Mint, replacing Stella Hackel Sims.
There was a concurrent administrative shuffle happening with the Mint’s coveted Chief Designer and Engraver position. Longtime Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro, whose many works include the then-contemporary Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars, retired in January 1981. Following a flurry of applications from artists all around the country, President Reagan selected Elizabeth Jones, an artist who had risen in numismatic prominence with significant commissions from the Franklin Mint and the Medallic Art Company.
Jones was sworn in by Pope on September 28, 1981, becoming the Mint’s 11th Chief Engraver and first woman to hold the post. She hit the ground running in her new job, designing the 1982 George Washington 250th Anniversary half dollar, the first United States commemorative coin since 1954.
While Congress authorized the George Washington half dollar and considered legislation for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games commemorative coins in 1981, there was another coin event playing out on Capitol Hill: what to do about the rising price of making Lincoln cents. Following aggravating spikes in the price of copper that began in the early 1970s (and lead to the creation of the experimental 1974 aluminum cent), officials at the United States Treasury settled on making copper-plated zinc cents in late 1981, much to chagrin of the copper and brass industry.
The Copper & Brass Fabricators Council attempted to sue the Treasury Department on the grounds that it lacked the authority to change the compositional profile of the one-cent coin, but the United States District Court rebutted the charges, claiming the council had no authority to file the lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the suit, and the transitional cents of 1982 were produced without any further litigious hitches.
This analysis of the coin hobby in the early 1980s now takes us to yet another numismatic episode of the period: the temporary moratorium on selling uncirculated sets. Republican President Reagan won a landslide victory in 1980 over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter with promises of creating a smaller government and limiting Federal hiring. He upheld his position after winning the election, and within months of Reagan’s ascension to the White House, Treasurer Angela “Bay” Buchanan informed Congress that the Mint would trim funding for more than 175 full-time positions. Fewer hands on deck would require a lighter product line at the United States Mint.
1982 and ’83 Mint Sets
Mint sets hit the chopping block because Mint officials figured that collectors could obtain the same uncirculated coins through bankrolls and mint bags. The decision did not sit well with coin collectors, who enjoyed buying the annual sets containing one example of each business-strike coin made at each of the mints during a given year. Never mind the fact that sales of uncirculated sets had been growing since the early 1970s, improving from 1,767,691 sets sold in 1973 to 2,908,145 in 1981.
Still, the uncirculated set program drew to a close at the end of 1981, with no further sets ever scheduled. Mint officials believed that private entrepreneurs would step in and offer their own variations of uncirculated coins sets. They did.
Several major players in the numismatic industry offered their own 1982 mint sets, with Krause Publications becoming one of the largest sources for privately assembled 1982 and 1983 uncirculated coin sets. Another popular supplier of 1982 and 1983 uncirculated coin sets was an Illinois coin dealer known as Paul & Judy’s Coins.
Today, the 1982 and 1983 coin sets packaged by Krause and Paul & Judy’s are actively traded among those who collect modern U.S. coins, though values of these private mint sets are largely based on the quality of the individual coins contained within. Many of these sets are mined by hobbyists who want gem-quality 1982 and 1983 business-strike coinage, either for filling holes in albums or for third-party certification. The quality of the coins packaged in the privately minted 1982 and 1983 coin sets are indeed superior to the coins that were offered in the government’s 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets. Presumably this is due to the fact that the assemblers of the private mint sets wanted their customers to enjoy the highest-quality coins that could be located among mint bags and bankrolls of 1982 and 1983 coinage.
Another popular, if unrelated, private numismatic offering from the same period is the seven-piece 1982 Lincoln cent set, which includes all the different varieties of pennies from that year. Such a set includes the different Philadelphia and Denver cent combinations of the traditional 95-percent copper, composition, copper-plated zinc motif, and large and small date varieties.
One wonders what official 1982 and 1983 mint sets would have looked like if the government carried on production of the popular annual coin offering throughout that period. Would the 1982 mint set have included the seven different Lincoln cent varieties? To accommodate those extra coins, would there have been a third cellophane package, in addition to the usual two that traditionally separated Philadelphia-minted coins from Denver coins?
Would the Mint have introduced a new mint token in 1982 or 1983 to fill a packaging void left in the absence of the Susan B. Anthony dollar? Would we have seen the introduction of full-color outer envelopes or Certificate of Authenticity inserts in 1982 or 1983, instead of in 1984, when an act of Congress revived the abandoned U.S. Mint uncirculated set program?
These are questions for which we will most certainly never receive answers, but they’re fun to think about.
Collecting 1982 and ’83 Souvenir Sets
1982 and 1983 souvenir sets have enjoyed steady demand over the past several years. A survey of the topic on various online hobby discussion boards suggests that, if anything, there has been increased interest in these sets in recent years, as more coin collectors focus on collecting issues from the late 20th century and registry set collectors scrounge for high-end examples of 1982 and 1983 coins. Even the venerable Guide Book of United States Coins, an annual publication more widely known as the “Red Book” (Whitman, R.S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett), has added price listings for the 1982 and 1983 Philadelphia and Denver souvenir sets among the regular price data for proof sets, mint sets, and special mint sets.
The 2017 edition of the Red Book lists the values of the 1982-P and 1982-D souvenir sets at $60 each, while the 1983-P and 1983-D souvenir sets are listed in the price guide for $80 each. In reality, the going prices of these sets are slightly lower on auction sites such as eBay, where buyers can typically pick up the 1982 souvenir sets for $40 to $50 each; 1983 souvenir sets are generally sold for prices between $45 and $70, depending on the quality of the coins and the luck of the buyer. Differences in prices between the 1982 and 1983 sets can also be explained by the relatively high demand for 1983-P and 1983-D quarters (which widely sell for $25 and $15, respectively, in MS-63) and the general scarceness of the souvenir sets.
As compared to the annually issued official U.S. Mint uncirculated sets–sold by the millions in most years since the 1960s and can be purchased from the Mint by mail–relatively little is known about U.S. Mint souvenir sets. Mintage figures are largely unsubstantiated and vary from year to year. However, it is numismatically agreed that Denver assembled about 20,000 sets in each 1982 and 1983, while Philadelphia produced an estimated 10,000 sets in ‘82 and 15,000 in ‘83.
Sets with mintages of 10,000 to 20,000 are remarkably scarce in the context of modern U.S. coins, especially when considering that conventional mint sets of the contemporary era were made in far greater numbers. For example, 2.9 million 1981 uncirculated sets were distributed and a respectable 1.8 million mint sets were sold in 1984. To put the tiny mintage figures of the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets in perspective, one must look all the way back to the mint sets of the early 1950s to find a time when equally tiny numbers of official sets containing business-strike, regular-issue U.S. coinage were made.
Merely 11,459 uncirculated sets were produced in 1952, just 15,538 were released in 1953, and only 25,599 mint sets were sold in 1954. The values for these sets today are approximately $1,500, $1,100, and $575, respectively – far more than the $40 to $60 each of the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets cost in the secondary market.
Of course, mint sets of the 1950s are decidedly scarcer than their original mintage figures would suggest, as most have been broken up over the years to submit individual coins to grading services or to fill holes in albums. 1950s mint sets are also more widely popular among more collectors because they contain several classic coins, not to mention the Lincoln wheat cent and the 90-percent silver Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter, and Franklin half dollar.
Yet the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets are worthy collectibles in their own rights. Like their 1950s mint set counterparts, many have been broken up to plunder their individual coins. Souvenir sets also represent more of a niche market, as they are much more obscure than the “regular” mint sets. Furthermore, neither the 1982 nor 1983 souvenir sets are even technically necessary from the standpoint of completing a run of official mint sets, as mint sets and souvenir sets are very distinct products.
Still, many collectors who pursue the objective of assembling an entire run of United States mint sets will include the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets in their collections to fill the two-year chronological gap. In that way, the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets do bridge two different periods in the history of the U.S. mint set.
The 1981 uncirculated set, with its plain white outer envelope and absence of any Certificate of Authenticity, seamlessly fits right in with its 1970s-era uncirculated set counterparts. Whereas the 1984 uncirculated set is a thoroughly modern U.S. Mint product, featuring a full-color outer envelope and richly illustrated inner information card (the latter serving as both as a Certificate of Authenticity and coin specification chart). Also, small Philadelphia and Denver Mint tokens that were struck on one-cent planchets were included in their respective cellophane packages beginning with the 1984 mint set.
In this brief study of the mint sets from 1981 and 1984, it should be noted that 1981 mint sets do contain one signature feature more in keeping with the mint sets that came later in the 1980s: the six-pocket cellophane pack containing the Philadelphia coins in the 1981 set is marked along its two longer, outer edges with navy blue stripes. This represents a visually significant difference from the turquoise stripes that were used from 1963 through 1980 to denote the packages containing the Philadelphia Mint coins.
Interestingly, navy stripes had been used on Philadelphia Mint uncirculated set packages prior to 1981. The plastic Philadelphia envelopes packaged with the early cellophane-era mint sets from 1959 through 1962 also donned navy blue striping.
The Future of 1982 and ’83 Souvenir Sets
It’s safe to say that the remaining supply of 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets will only get smaller over time through continued attrition, as collectors and investment-minded individuals break up the sets for individual coins. Whether or not this will lead to an increase in value for the four souvenir sets in question remains to be seen. Nor can it rule out that collectors may gravitate more to collecting Philadelphia and Denver souvenir sets from other years if interest in this area of hobby grows.
What can certainly be said about the 1982 and 1983 Philadelphia and Denver souvenir sets is that their price performance thus far has well rewarded the individuals who bought them for $4 at the two respective Mint locations in the early 1980s.
The only conceivable reason prices could potentially drop on the 1982 and 1983 souvenir sets is in the unlikely scenario that a hoard of bankrolls or mint bags of uncirculated 1982 or 1983 Philadelphia and Denver coins is discovered. After more than three decades, roll quantities of 1982 and 1983 coins–especially nickels, dimes, and quarters–remain very scarce. This fact can be illustrated in sales data.
For example, a set of two original 1982-P and 1982-D quarter rolls recently sold on eBay for $237.51. Another eBay member’s original bankrolls of 1983-P and 1983-D Washington quarters sold together as a lot for $392.
Uncirculated rolls of other nickels and dimes from the period are equally difficult to find and turn up only on occasion. Two 40-coin rolls of uncirculated 1982-D Jefferson nickels sold on eBay for $72.59, or approximately $36.25 each, while a 50-coin roll of 1983-D Roosevelt dimes, also uncirculated, traded hands for $85. 1982 and 1983 cents and half dollars are relatively easier to find but still sell for multiples over their respective face values.
It goes without saying that anyone with 1982 or 1983 souvenir sets would be well advised to keep them in their original government packaging. Just as well, any collector who has these sets and is willing to part with them is sure to find a quick buyer if the price is right.