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HomeUS CoinsCommemorative Stories: The 1983-84 LA Olympics Coins - Part IV

Commemorative Stories: The 1983-84 LA Olympics Coins – Part IV

By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
david provostAuthor’s Note: My intention for this series of “stories” is to present lesser-known information about the US commemorative coins series derived from my original research in the records of Congress and/or the reports and correspondence of the individual coin sponsors. The information presented will not simply be a reworking of the information presented in the standard reference works on the series. I sincerely hope you enjoy the backstories presented in this series and I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Part I of this article on Los Angeles Olympics Coins can be found here. Part II can be found here. And Part III can be found here.

* * *

The third session of the House hearings on the proposed commemorative coins for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games featured US Treasurer Angela “Bay” Buchanan as the primary witness. She dealt a blow to Representative Frank Annunzio’s (D-IL11) efforts to create a small program managed by the United States Mint by testifying that the Treasury Department supported Representative Fernand St. Germain’s (D-RI) HR.6058 rather than Annunzio’s bill (HR.6158). St. Germain’s bill outlined a program featuring 17 coin designs spread across a single copper-nickel dollar, 12 silver $10 coins, and two $50 and two $100 gold coins. It also called for the coins to be marketed by a private group rather than the Mint. For months, Annunzio had campaigned against such a large coinage program and against the turning over of US legal tender to private companies for their profit.

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Treasury Secretary Angela “Bay” Buchanan

Though it called for a larger commemorative program than the Mint had ever produced, Buchanan believed the Mint was capable of successfully producing the coins and that HR.6058’s provision for the program to be managed and promoted by a private marketing group would generate the greatest sales and produce the largest revenue stream for its beneficiaries – the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee (LAOOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

Between the close of the third session on April 29, 1982, and the start of the fourth on May 11, Annunzio worked to blunt the impact of the Treasury’s position by taking to the floor of the House to continue lobbying his colleagues for support of his legislation. On May 3, he called attention to letters he had received from the public voicing support for his bill and disdain for the private marketers. The letters he presented encouraged him to continue his fight and expressed hope that he could stop the “give-away schemes” designed to benefit the private marketers. The author of one letter wrote, “How can the US Mint even consider such nonsense?”

The next day, Annunzio was back before the House deploring the recent tactics used by the US Ski Association in their effort to gather support for HR.6058. He presented a letter the group had mailed to those living in Annunzio’s district, imploring them to contact Annunzio and urge him to change his course and lend his support to St. Germain’s bill. He was quick to point out the inaccuracy of statements in the letter, which alleged his bill would cost the Government money while St. Germain’s bill would use only private funds. He reminded his colleagues of the Government Accounting Office’s (GAO) report outlining how HR.6058 could lead to $210 in lost revenue for the Government while his bill had no such issue.

He further commented:

“Perhaps the US Ski Association thought its slick lobbying efforts would dazzle my constituents into a case of snow blindness and get them to ignore the facts, but it has not worked.” He then presented a letter of support he had received from a self-professed avid skier and US Ski Association member who found it “amazing that a private interest group is so worried about supplying money to see what country has the best ski team in the Olympics.”

Annunzio fired one more salvo in the battle on May 5, by recalling for the House the “fraud and scandals that seems to go hand in hand with the private marketing of [classic era] commemorative coins.” To illustrate his history lesson, he chose to review the case of the 1936 Rhode Island Tercentenary Commemorative half dollar – “coincidentally” a classic US commemorative coin from the state St. Germain represented.

He summarized the controversy regarding the sale and distribution of the coins, noting the apparent funneling of coins by the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee to local coin dealer Horace Grant to the detriment of collectors who had placed their orders directly with the Committee. Many collectors who had ordered the coins in good faith had their money refunded and were forced to seek the coins on the secondary market at quickly inflated prices.

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Representative Frank Annunzio

Annunzio further noted how the abuses seen with the Rhode Island coin were not unique among the early issues and how, as a group, they led Congress to take action to stop them. He recalled the efforts of Representative John J. Cochran (D-MI) who introduced legislation to prohibit the issuing of commemorative coins in 1937.

After discussing the Rhode Island coins, Cochran remarked:

“[T]here are many more cases that can be cited showing beyond question where the coins were issued and distributed, not for the purpose of really commemorating an event, but for the purpose, not only the cost of the celebrations, but to enable coin distributors to practically fleece the public … When coins are gathered up by dealers and offered at such absurd premiums, the profits do not go to the organizations but to the individual merchants.”

In concluding his remarks for the day, Annunzio tightly linked the abuses of the past to the potential for more of the same if St. Germain’s bill were to be passed:

“Given the fact that scandals, like the one in Rhode Island, seem to erupt whenever private marketers are involved, I see no reason to approve this approach. Yet, for some reason, the proponents of HR.6058 seem bent on courting disaster by ignoring the lessons of history. In my mind, one mistake is too many.”

House Hearing: Session 4

Chairman Annunzio called the fourth session of the House’s hearings on Olympic coinage to order on May 11, 1982. It was primarily given over to witnesses from the numismatic field, with dealer and ANA Vice President Q. David Bowers, dealer Neil Berman, ANA President Adna Wilde, Coin World editor Margo Russell and Chester “Chet” Krause, publisher of Numismatic News, in attendance.

Mary Brooks, the former Director of the US Mint, was also present and the first to speak. She had overseen the Mint during the large Bicentennial coin and medal programs, as well as during the Eisenhower silver dollar program, and came before the Subcommittee to offer her perspective on the proposed Olympic coins based on that experience.

Brooks offered that the Occidental Petroleum-Lazard Freres “Coin Group” and the two Olympic committees together made up “probably the most high-powered group ever unleashed upon Congress.” A bit of hyperbole, no doubt, but she was there to oppose the large coin programs they desired and to give support to Annunzio’s more conservative plan. She continued, “The spectacle of the greatest Nation in the world with the strongest currency allowing its money to be consigned to a private group for sale and profit is outrageous.”

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Mint Director Mary Brooks

Brooks supported Annunzio’s proposal for two silver dollars and a gold half eagle, believing that the Mint had the capabilities to produce and market the coins to meet their projected demand. She also believed the 17-coin program favored by the Olympic committees would be “confusing” and that the number of collectors or investors willing and able to purchase the entire set “might be very few.”

She also commented on the testimony previously offered at the hearings regarding Canada’s privately marketed 1976 Olympics coin program. She disagreed with those that presented it as a “paragon of virtue and success,” noting that it netted less than $24 million for the Olympics on gross sales of $388 million. She opined that it was a program “run by so-called experts who didn’t do it well.” Though she didn’t mention them by name, her comments were clearly aimed at discrediting the Coin Group and its touting of current team members who had previously worked on the Canadian coin program.

Brooks then countered the critics of the Mint’s handling of the Eisenhower and Bicentennial coinage program by reviewing their actual sales data. She noted that the Mint successfully struck and delivered more than 20 million 40% silver Eisenhower dollars. Regarding the Bicentennial program, she reviewed how the Mint delivered more than 8.3 million Proof and Uncirculated Bicentennial sets in addition to six million of the regular annual Proof and Uncirculated sets. She also noted how the Mint successfully delivered over eight million pewter, bronze, silver, and gold medals for the benefit of the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Commission. Brooks made it clear she believed the Mint could successfully deliver a large Olympic coin program for Los Angeles.

She concluded her remarks by stating, “Long after the 1984 Olympics fade into history, I hope we will still have a worldwide respect for the U.S. dollar. We should maintain the integrity and control of our national coinage.”

In thanking Brooks, Annunzio commented:

“I only wish that all of the Members of the Congress could have been here today to hear you. My fight would be much easier. In fact, there would be no fight at all.”

When asked if she believed Congress should authorize a coin program to raise money for the LA Olympics, Brooks replied:

“I believe the concept of the commemorative coins for the Olympics would be a proper use of the Nation’s coinage. What I object to is it being turned over to private companies for their own profit.”

Annunzio could not have had a better ally in his fight to defeat the program favored by the Olympic committees. He was certainly aware of the fact that Brooks’ position and comments so closely aligned with his that some might believe that they had coordinated her testimony. To proactively diffuse the potential issue, he took the time to confirm for the Subcommittee that the two had not formally met before and had not discussed her testimony in any fashion before it was presented.

Annunzio then called the panel of numismatists forward.

Neil Berman of First Federal Coin Corp. (FFCC) was the first to speak. He spoke in favor of a program featuring one or two silver dollars and recommended that if a gold coin were to be included that it only be struck in an Uncirculated version as “Gold proofs have historically been expensive items, and should continue to be regarded as such. There is nothing to be gained by mass-producing gold proofs, which will tend to lessen the historical importance of their predecessors.”

FFCC agreed with Mary Brooks and supported the direct sale and distribution of the coins by the US Mint. Berman believed that “a private marketing plan would tend to lessen the importance of the coins and add unnecessarily to their cost.” He also stated that FFCC was “against any marketing plan that would demean or question the basic integrity of our national coinage. We are against fancy packaging, flashy advertising campaigns, etc. The coins should be sold plainly and professionally, with the least amount of unprofessional fanfare.”

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Q. David Bowers

Q. David Bowers, then Vice President of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), was next to make a statement.

Bowers offered his support for Annunzio’s HR.6158, believing it to be “the best compromise I have seen” and consistent with the ANA’s position; the ANA did not support the private marketing of the Olympic coins. He provided the historical context for the ANA’s position by suggesting “that anyone interested in studying commemoratives has nothing but to go back in history where there are ample situations, illustrations and examples of commemorative coinage, mostly on behalf of vested interests … There were tremendous abuses … anyone who feels that we should [follow the same path in 1982] should study the lessons of history and come to their own conclusions.”

Bowers also reflected on the cost of a large, 17-coin (or more) program. He noted the desire of coin collectors to assemble complete sets and believed that if it would cost $7000 or more to complete a set of US Olympic coins, a large segment of the collecting community would be left out.

Adna Wilde, the President of the ANA, then came forward and quickly made it be known that he, on behalf of the 40,000+ members of the ANA, could not endorse a large coinage program for the Olympics. He presented the resolution the ANA Board of Governors had passed on February 18, 1982:

“Resolve that the members of the American Numismatic Association recommend to the Members of the US Congress that the Olympic commemorative coin issue be limited to uncirculated and proof specimens of one gold and one silver and that the sale thereof be conducted by the United States Mint or other appropriate governmental agency.”

He went on to cite the successful two-coin commemorative programs for the 1952 Helsinki and 1964 Tokyo Olympics, along with the one-coin issue for the 1968 Mexico City Games. Wilde then contrasted them against the unsuccessful, large-scale coinage programs for the 1972 Olympics held in Munich (48 different coins), the 1976 Montreal Games (58 coins), and the 1980 Moscow Games (84 coins).

It was his belief that a limited number of designs coupled with smaller mintages, relatively short sales windows, and reasonable selling prices are the drivers for success, and argued that the unsuccessful programs he listed failed because they did not meet these criteria. He concluded by recommending the passage of Annunzio’s HR.6158.

Next up was Coin World editor Margo Russell. Like the others before her, she quickly voiced her support for HR.6158 and noted that the results of her magazine’s poll showed clear support for a Los Angeles Olympic commemorative coin program along the lines of what Annunzio had proposed. She also commented on how US collectors had unsuccessfully advocated for a 1980 coin in support of the Lake Placid games. Had a “sensible” program been enacted, she believed, the profits from its sale would have already been helping US Olympic athletes.

Russell expressed surprise and disappointment regarding the Treasury’s and Mint’s recent support for the large Olympic coin programs considering that they each had indicated that they were “hard put to produce coinage for the transaction of the Nation’s business” due to its 16% budget cut. It was a reason why collectors had been told that no 1982 uncirculated coin sets were going to be produced.

In introducing the poll results, Russell urged that the advice of coin collectors not be ignored. She reported that over 96% of Coin World’s readers – predominantly well-educated males – supported an Olympic coin program but that less than 5% wanted a large 17-coin program. Support for silver Olympic coins was voiced by 90% of respondents, but just over 36% indicated that they would consider purchasing a gold coin – a likely reflection of available collecting budgets. Regarding the marketing of the coins, less than 10% supported sales via a private marketer; 91% wanted to purchase the coins directly from the US Mint.

Russell concluded her statement by commenting, “Seventeen coins and 33 editions will disillusion the coin collector, but he will support strongly a modest program with all his heart and his dollars. Of this you can be certain.”

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Chester Krause

Chester Krause, accompanied by Dave Harper, was the next to testify before the Subcommittee. As he had done during his testimony at the July 1981 Senate hearings, Krause expressed his backing for the sale of US commemorative coins as a means to financially support the LA Olympics. His purpose for testifying at the hearing was to “point out the pitfalls encountered by previous Olympic coinage programs … that were conducted on behalf of Canada and the Soviet Union by a private marketing organization that is … essentially the same one that could be given the same responsibility for the United States.”

Krause characterized both programs as “out and out failures, littered with unmet projections” and noted that he didn’t want to see “the US Olympic movement crippled for lack of delivery of promised funds.” He expressed his belief that HR.6158 would “show the world how a commemorative coinage program can ideally work.”

He also took the opportunity to take the US Congress to task for not giving appropriate consideration to the views and recommendations given to them by the coin collecting community.

“When Congress needs expert testimony on law, it consults lawyers. When it needs financial data, it consults economists and bankers. Why, then, in matters of national coinage would the opinions of those who have worked and studied in the area for decades seems to count so little, when the opinions of marketers mean so much?”

Krause and his team believed that 90% of the sales of the Olympic coins would come from US buyers and that the US Mint knew how to cost-effectively reach this audience and deliver to them. For this reason, he believed that the arguments put forth by the private marketing groups regarding the value of their expertise in foreign markets (vs. that of the US Mint) were only of minor consequence. He completed his testimony by urging the passage of Annunzio’s HR.6158.

Up next was a panel of collectors (vs. the preceding panel of professional numismatists) who all expressed their support for an Olympic coinage program in the form of HR.6158. They believed the smaller program would be more manageable for the majority of collectors who desired to have complete sets yet still provide the desired funding for the US Olympic athletes.

Live testimony for the fourth session of the hearing concluded after the collector panel. In contrast to the previous session, it was a day of complete support for Chairman Annunzio and his proposed coinage legislation. The hearings would have one more session, however, and it would afford St. Germain and the Coin Group one last opportunity to present its case to Annunzio and the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage.

To be continued…

 

© Copyright D. Provost 2021. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

David Provost
David Provost
David Provost is a numismatic writer and commemorative coin specialist. Among other roles, Provost has served as President of the North Carolina Numismatic Association (NCNA) and Editor of the club's quarterly NCNA Journal.

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