CoinWeek Podcast #147: Numismatics of the Trump Years
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Every Presidential administration has its own personality and influence on American policy. The Trump Administration did not fail to deliver in this regard.
In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, editor Charles Morgan is joined by CoinWeek staff writer Chris Bulfinch to discuss the administration’s policies and enacted legislation as they pertain to numismatics.
Together, we discuss the new circulating commemorative coin programs that began in the past four years, discuss design changes to the American Silver Eagle, consider the impact of the ongoing coin shortage and what it might signal for the future of circulating coins, and revisit the decision to cancel or at least delay the issuing of the “Tubman” $20 Federal Reserve Note.
It’s an informed and informative 40-minute program that recaps the last four years and we hope you enjoy it.
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The following is a transcript of Charles and Chris’ conversation:
Charles Morgan: On this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, I’m joined by new CoinWeek staff writer Chris Bulfinch. If you listen to podcasts or read numismatic content on a regular basis, you’ll be familiar with Chris’ work as he was previously the co-host of the Coin World podcast with our friend, writer Jeff Starck. He did a great job with Coin World and we’re excited to have him on board here at CoinWeek where he will become a regular fixture, not only in the CoinWeek Podcast, but also in articles that we present to you, feature writing, news pieces, and also some of our multimedia content, which we plan to produce together. We’re excited to welcome him on board and we’re going to have a conversation about basically the numismatic developments of the last four years, as we close out this administration and open the timetable to the next one. We’re going to talk about various things, from changes of coin composition to the delay of the $20 redesign, the circulating commemorative coin program and where we think it stands, the redesign of the Silver Eagle, and also the introduction of the Palladium bullion coins.
Chris and I all have a lot to say about what has been a very impactful four years in the history of our coin collecting hobby. All this is next on the CoinWeek Podcast. Hi, Chris, how are you doing?
Chris Bulfinch: Hey, Charles, I’m doing well.
Charles: Been a busy and altogether surreal week we’ve had.
Chris: “Surreal” is a word for it.
Charles: As we’re wrapping up a period of American history, every presidency has a lasting and enduring impact on, not only America but the numismatic hobby. I was interested in looking back and seeing what has been policy-driven versus what has been inside of the mint’s creative decisions that have set this last four years apart from the previous eight. Just noodling around, I came up with a couple of things that I thought were important that coin collectors would probably be interested in hearing us discuss, these changes will be relevant for years to come, and they open the door for us to have some really interesting conversations about what the future of the modern hobby should look like. Let’s start that conversation and go into these in order of what I think are precedents.
The first thing is we saw a composition change of our silver and gold commemorative coins from 0.900 to 0.999 fine. Do you have any insights as to why this occurred?
Chris: Truthfully, I don’t. I remember seeing coverage of the legislation as it passed, and I’ve been reading for a couple of projects that I’m working on. I’ve been reading some coverage dating back a number of years, to actually even before the Trump administration. I’ve been reading coverage from the past five, six years from the beginning of 2015 to the present. The sense that I got was that they were trying– and I think I can understand it that they’re trying to standardize the– this was the sense that I got, was that they were trying to standardize the production process and that a lot of the legislation for commemorative coins, for example, mandates that they shouldn’t be less than a certain fineness. Normally, like you said, it was 0.900, 0.900 for a long time for commemorative coinage, where for silver bullion, for example, it was 0.999 fine, one ounce of silver in the American Eagle Silver bullion coins. They did change the composition, or, my understanding of the change that you’re referring to was that it allowed the Mint more latitude, a greater degree of discretion in determining the fineness of commemorative coins.
As you said, that opens the door to the Mint increasing the fineness of commemorative coinage. That’s the change as I understood it. I think that it probably had to do with trying to streamline the production process.
Charles: Well, a few years ago, Hubert [Walker] and I, we wrote an article based on an observation that we had where we felt like the modern coin era was over, and that we actually were living in a postmodern coin era, ultra-modern coin era. Those two words have completely different meanings to academics. But for the sake of what we’re talking about here, in the classic commemorative coin period, if somebody asked for a half dollar to be struck, then the half dollar would be made out of 0.900 silver, because that’s what half dollars are made out of. Therefore, there was no special concession given to the coinage composition, because they were just asking for a different design on the legal tender of whatever the denomination was.
When the modern commemorative coin period kicks off in 1982 with the Washington half dollar, this coin is struck in a composition that is not the current tenor of half dollars being produced by the Mint. After 1970, the Mint adopts completely clad composition for a half dollar. So, all circulating coins at that point contain no precious metal. You get to the Olympic program, a year later. Now you’re seeing the silver dollar 0.900, you’re seeing gold $10 coins. These coins look and feel like the coins that they’re referencing, these precious metal coins, but they really bear no direct relationship to the coins that are actually in production that Americans are spending. The argument I make, and Hubert made, in that article was that they were tributes to a type of coin that no longer existed and had real currency, and therefore they were not the same. Taking it a step farther, you come to 2020, and the Mint says that 0.900 standard, which was the classic standard, the pre-64 silver standard, the pre-33 gold standard, that 0.900 standard is a historical artifact, and doesn’t need to be preserved.
The coins go from essentially a legal standard, with a history to a bullion standard. I think that again removes these coins from the category that they were in before when they were merely tributes to our classic coin compositions. Now, they’re an entirely different thing. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just completely bullion coins with designs stamped on them. They’re not tributes to legal tender coin denominations of a prior period.
All right, so a second thing getting back to the 0.999 fineness is, there’s been a redesign of the American Silver Eagle. As we know, the American Silver Eagle features an adapted obverse from [Adolph] Weinman from the Walking Liberty half dollar. A coin that actually if you go back in history never struck up all too well. They had to make serious refinements so that the center mass of Liberty was not flatly struck. Then, it featured sort of a classic shield reverse. Designed by former chief engraver of the United States Mint, John Mercanti. Now, we’re seeing a new design for the reverse. Do you think it will stand the test of time and be as iconic as the Mercanti version?
Chris: I don’t know whether it will be as iconic. I do think that it’s time for a change. I like Mercanti’s design. One of the first coins that I ever added to my collection that was a gift from my uncle was a 2001 Silver Eagle. I think the new design is attractive. It’s more dynamic, the Heraldic design is more classic, I guess. It’s more in line with sort of traditional designs of US coinage, but whether it stands the test of time or not, I don’t know, and I’ll be curious to see how people respond to it and how well it strikes and how well it ultimately comes out. New coin designs often– a symptom of a transitional design is that like you mentioned with Weinman’s original Walking Liberty half dollar, it didn’t strike all that well and needed some modifications. I assume that in the 21st century, the Mint has tested the new design fairly extensively and they’ll be able to strike it fairly consistently, so I don’t imagine that there will be a ton of errors or that it will present any significant challenge. At the same time, it’s a new design and that does come with certain challenges. I’ll be interested to see the collector reception.
I personally like it. I think it’s a little bit more dynamic than Mercanti’s design, which, like I said, I like, but I think this new design is a little bit more… has a little more going on, the eagle’s kind of diving down. Yeah, I like it on the whole. Well, again, whether it stands the test of time or not, I think, will largely depend on public reaction. If people universally don’t like it, then they might be more apt to change it. Or if people gravitate towards it or respond positively to it, then they might hold on to it.
Charles: One thing people have to realize, and they may take this for granted, but John Mercanti was a hell of an engraver. He designed number of commemorative coins that have some of the most intricate detail on any coin struck by the United States Mint. Especially his architectural renderings and his profiles. If you consider how fine and delicate the reverse design was and how detailed it was, that design was executed before the day of laser engraving, and computer engraving. This was all in the plaster and then reduced, and then struck into dies. Of course, this changed in more recent years as the Mint began producing dies using laser technology. But yeah, Mercanti’s design was really a standout design and rightfully celebrated. I’m sad to see it go. Or, maybe the Mint not giving Mercanti a chance to create a new version of the reverse because I think this coin has been so intimately connected to him and his legacy that it seems weird to me that somebody else designed the reverse.
Chris: He did retire over a decade ago though, so I don’t know that he would necessarily want to come out and do anything else for it. Reading the biographical historical section of Whitman’s book on American Eagle Silver dollars, Mercanti wrote that section and talks a lot about his work at the Mint, which I knew who he was having collected coins for a fairly long time, I was aware of Mercanti, but having him describe some of the changes at the Mint in his tenure was really interesting. I would encourage people to go look up some of the stuff that he’s written about his experience at the Mint. I found it interesting.
Charles: He’s one of the nicest guys. It reminds me a lot about a lot of Frank Gasparro, very giving of his time to the hobby. He [Mercanti] is still doing design work. He’s just not getting paid at government rate.
Chris: Well, that could be an improvement, I don’t know.
Charles: All right. This is going to be a hot potato. Let’s throw it around a little bit. There was a delay and cancelation of the $20 Federal Reserve Note. I think that the administration was very coy about their designs for the note. At least, the Mnuchin Treasury Department didn’t want to really come out and say that they had no plan to release $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman. This, of course, was put into motion in the last months of the Obama administration after a public campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. I had some firsthand interactions with people at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and I was basically led to believe that the design process for a new note was well underway at the time. Of course, there’s always a covert process that is undertaken when you redesign currency, to protect it against counterfeiting. I don’t know how far along that process was.
We just published a podcast last week with Karen Hill, the President and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home, and her organization was involved directly with the Treasury Department. They found a photograph of Harriet Tubman when she was in her 20s, which is about the time of the Civil War. They authenticated it and provided it to the Treasury so that they could put their staff to work using that version of Harriet for the redesign. I was told that they had an artist selected to do the engraving and that it was fairly far along before the Obama term ended. Do you think that we will see in light of all the things that are going on in the country that are certainly more important, the Treasury Department trying to take this issue back up? [Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack”] Lew as you know not only wanted to redesign the $20 bill, but also the back of the $10 bill, I believe this to celebrate the centennial women’s suffrage. Should we change that note? Or should we maybe consider changing all US currency to reflect sort of like different subjects?
Chris: I’m in favor of changing all US currency. I do think that Harriet Tubman replacing Jackson on the $20 Federal Reserve Note was appropriate, and the sense that I got, and you seem to have the inside track on it, so you’re probably better positioned to comment on it, or at least you can tell me whether my interpretation sounds right or not. The sense that I got reading the coverage, I read Arthur Friedberg’s coverage and Coin World, I read the New York Times published a piece fairly– I think I know, they published it in 2019. I’m not sure if they published it in 2020, as well. It attracted mainstream media attention.
The sense that I got was that the Treasury Department under President Trump was effectively punting. My interpretation of that which you can feel free to comment on its reasonableness was that President Trump had spoken out publicly against the measure. He had deemed it an act of “political correctness”. Since he’s on record being against it, it seems like the kind of small but symbolic issue that he would take to Twitter over, I suspect that the Treasury Department just didn’t want the headache of trying to bring the redesign through under Trump. I think they just kept punting because they didn’t feel like dealing with it, even though a lot of people in the Treasury Department or at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing might have wanted to go ahead with it and reading Friedberg supporting it, the sense that I got was that a lot of them were pretty excited to go ahead with it, that the under Trump, there was a sense that they couldn’t do it or that it was sort of being put on hold.
With Trump about to leave the White House extensively, it seems a lot more likely now, I think that the Biden administration is probably a lot more receptive to that kind of symbolic change. I don’t know whether or not we’ll see it during the Biden administration, or when exactly, we’ll see it, but I have a feeling that the Biden administration is a lot more receptive to the idea of changing it, which I happen to support. I guess we’ll see where it goes. I guess there’s a possibility now that it will happen, where I don’t think before there was much of a chance.
Charles: I’m kind of two minds about the whole issue. It’s going to be a political issue, no matter how you slice it. Let’s look at it this way. If Jackson’s removed from the note and someone’s put on that note, that means that three of your circulating currency denominations are going to have Civil War figures. You’re going to have Grant, you’re going to have Tubman, and then you’re going to have Lincoln. Then, you’ll have three founding fathers with Jefferson and Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Now we’re in the third century of the American Experiment. I feel like, at a certain point, we’re mythologizing people to where any historical revelation about them or consideration about them becomes sort of an attack on the state religion, if you will. Washington’s a complex guy, probably one of the greatest Presidents we ever had, but there’s plenty about Washington can be criticized. Same about Lincoln, even if you aren’t like someone who thinks he shouldn’t have pursued war against the southern states, there’s still a lot about Lincoln, which is controversial and should be. We should, as Americans be open and willing to go and look at these people and have the potential to reevaluate them over time. That’s what historians do.
[A]t a certain point, we’re mythologizing people to where any historical revelation about them … becomes an attack on the state religion
I think we’re getting to the point, though, where any sort of understanding about these people is always seen through some political lens. Either you have to support it, or you have to tear someone down. I think that we’re putting too much emphasis on these people, especially when it comes to the symbols of the state, which is what paper money is and what coins are. This is why I think you see a sentiment amongst a lot of coin collectors where they wanted Liberty to stay on the coins because Liberty’s an idea. It’s hard to criticize the basic idea from which our country was founded. With our paper money, we’ve basically kept these figures current on this money for much longer than they ever served in office– whatever impact they ever had as officeholders. They belong to the ages. By not changing all of it, if you only pick one person and say Well, this person was a bad guy, so doesn’t deserve to be on it. Let’s put this person on it. Then I can’t see how people start to say, “Well, when does it end? Is everybody a bad person?” At that point, I think that you’re basically opening a wound that doesn’t need to be opened when you can achieve the same thing by saying We want to redesign all of it to reflect whatever the concept is. The concept has to be a viable concept.
If you go to any of the other industrialized countries, the major leading currencies often get redesigned. They don’t have the most important figures of their history featured on their currency. They rotate around. They celebrate their achievements. I would like to see our currency reflect our achievements, especially our achievements in the last 100, 130 years, I think we have a lot to be proud of in the 20th century and onward. With the technology that can be brought to bear, we can have much more elegant-looking currency. I think as a collectible, it would be good for our hobby because more people would get into collecting paper money as these new designs would come into play. I just think that kicking the can down the road on this particular issue, is really kicking the can down the road on the larger issue, which is, it’s probably time to redesign all of it.
Chris: Yeah, I would agree with that. The use of any one individual person is almost inevitably problematic, because if you pick one person, no matter how influential or important or historical figure they are, if you select them for the sort of veneration of appearing on US paper money, then you do have to reckon with who they were as an individual. Jeff and I talked about this on the Coin World Podcast on a number of occasions, how we both favored allegorical representations of the values that unite us or that the values that we claim, whether we live out those values or not, the values that America claims to hold and then to stand for expressed allegorically would– not only does that offer more sort of imaginative and creative possibilities for how to represent those values, but it avoids, like you said, the kind of deification of specific American figures who, again, I’m glad for the debate that’s been happening over the last– I’ve haven’t been following it until the last few years, but I’m glad that in the last couple of decades or so, it has become a lot more possible to have a nuanced conversation about historical figures and to acknowledge the painful history that so many of them represent. I don’t know that continuing to select individual people for veneration is the right course.
Like you said, we do have a lot to be proud of, although the 20th century certainly was a mixed bag in terms of America’s achievements, although undeniably remarkable achievements. There’s a lot of painful history in the 20th century, both in America and our role in the world that we also have to reckon with. I think I would favor allegorical figures that represent the values that we claim, or the values that we aspire to, as opposed to any individual person. I thought that the Jack Lew and the Treasury’s idea of having vignettes on the back of the $10 Federal Reserve Note that celebrate the suffrage movement. I thought that that was a good idea, though, in celebrating the suffrage movement, which was undeniably women gaining the right to vote in 1920 was a great step forward, it’s also worth acknowledging that a lot of people were left out of that progress that Jim Crow, voter suppression laws and terror in the south are directed at black people, that denied a lot of people their franchise and didn’t allow them to exercise that newly gained right. Though the 19th amendment was a huge step forward, the benefits of that amendment were not universally shared. It would be really, really hard to create a vignette that acknowledges that complexity, that acknowledges the obvious progress, while conceding that progress did not lift everyone up.
I don’t envy anyone who is in the position of trying to figure out how to communicate that, but I do agree with you that the designs on our currency should change. I’d like to see the move in a more allegorical direction, or, like you said, trying to celebrate some of the positive steps in American life over the past 100 and some odd years.
Charles: Yeah. I could think of off the top of my head as to maybe half a dozen or so momentous things that could be celebrated on currency. From landing on the moon or the space program, to the development of the polio vaccine to, I don’t know, the Yankees coming back on the Red Sox in 1978. It’s all very important.
Chris: Let’s not be celebrating anything where the Red Sox aren’t succeeding. All right, if we’re going to celebrate anything relating to baseball, breaking the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004 is what we ought to be celebrating. Anyway, continue.
Charles: All right, so another topic is getting on to what we commemorate is the continued proliferation of circulating commemorative programs. The Mint changed the way it was able to produce coins, leading up to the release of the State Quarter program, which allowed it to release five different quarter designs per year. That program was meant to last for 10 years and result in 50 coins celebrating each of the states in the order in which they entered into the union. After the termination of that program, the law that authorized it called for the return of the Heraldic Eagle reverse on the Washington quarter and for the coin essentially revert back to the design that was introduced by John Flanagan, 1932.
Now, that did not turn out to be the case. We saw on Washington, D.C. and Territories quarters in 2009, and then 2010, until the Tuskegee quarters released in the beginning of this year. There was a 10-year-plus program for America the Beautiful national parks and that program continued. There was a presidential dollar program that was introduced in 2007, and that reached its terminus as coins were struck for every deceased president. There was a gold bullion program with first ladies that mirror that. Now, we see a new dollar coin program with American Innovation. I’m sure at a certain point, there will be further circulating coin programs, even as the Washington Crossing the Delaware design takes its place of the America the Beautiful quarters later this year.
Do you think that these circulating coin programs are in that positive for the hobby at this point? Or, do you think that they are too much?
Chris: I wonder how many more collectors are interested in seeing. I know that looking at comments under Coin World or CoinWeek articles, looking at online collector forums, a lot of people are expressing– it’s funny, in some ways, it’s analogous to the Star Wars movies, and that a lot of people– I think after Solo came out, people talked about franchise fatigue. “Well, if there’s new one of these movies every year, every two years, sooner or later people are going to burn out.” It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think that a similar dynamic is at play here, in that– I say this as someone who has tremendous affection for the original State Quarter program. I remember my dad– I’ve told the story on the Coin World Podcast, and I think it bears repeating just as one person’s experience who was fairly young when those coins came out and can attest to the positive impact that they had on my interest in coin collecting or the role that they played in helping to stimulate my own interest in coins and coin collecting.
I remember my dad coming home in 2000-2001, I was about four or five years old or so. He had little tin folders for that had the five slots each year for each of the quarters. My family and I had a really good time picking those coins out of circulation. It actually got to the point that my older brother and I were so competitive that we instituted a rule in the house that no one could add a new quarter to their folder until there was one for both brothers. It got to a point, we were at a Starbucks somewhere in Massachusetts, I seem to remember, my brother and I pestering my dad to the point that he asked a cashier working at a Starbucks if he could put 50 cents into the tip jar to pull out a Kansas. It was a Kansas quarter, I remember that very vividly.
I also remember looking at the year 2008 and thinking, Wow. 2008, this is going to be crazy, the future. This was like 2003 or 2004. It’s fine, however, in 2021, and I’m starting to feel old. I share that anecdote to explain that I have a lot of positive memories associated with that. I think that circulating commemoratives can stimulate interest. Having gone through 20 years of State quarters though, I don’t know how many more are necessary. I think that if those coins were going to create a renaissance of American coin collecting, I think they probably would have done it by now across all of the different programs and all of the different product options. I think it exhausts collectors because people who are completionists and who want to buy all of them in sets and all of the Proof sets and the silver Proof sets, and all of the different products that the Mint releases, these coins eventually are just adding more and more entries that people have to check off. They’re increasing the costs for people who want to have complete sets of modern mint products.
Again, I say this as someone who has a lot of fond memories and a very positive association with the original State Quarter program. Even I thought that a number of the American the Beautiful quarters were really pretty, and I had some fun. I’ve been picking them out and trying to fill I have a P and D folder now a slightly better folder than the one I had in the early aughts. I don’t know who made it, that I’ve been filling with the America the Beautiful quarters that I picked out of change and I’ve been filling it since probably– I think I got it in 2013 or so, sometime in the last 10 years. That’s enjoyable, but I would also understand that a lot of collectors are probably tired of it. I think there are a number of other interesting avenues through which the hobby could attract new people. If the goal is to attract new people or younger people– because the rationale is that I’ve heard articulated for things like the State Quarter program, or, “Oh, this’ll engage a broader variety of folks.” “There’ll be a history lesson in your pocket,” or “It’ll engage younger folks.” I’ve heard a whole bunch of different explanations trotted out. I think that there’s some truth in all of them in some sense, I don’t think that any of them are wrong.
But I also think that if circulating commemorative– circulating commemoratives are far from the only way to try to raise coin, the sort of profile of coin collecting. I don’t know that I would continue where I working at the Mint or where I in a position where I could make any decisions about this, I don’t know that I would continue with more of these programs. I guess if it’s a money-spinner for the Mint, they might continue doing it. I honestly don’t know.
Charles: First of all, I mean, if you go back to just the product bloat that we’re dealing with now, you have pretty much before the State Quarter program came out, and before the Mint started creating two types of Proof sets, they created essentially a mint set and a clad Proof set, and then you have the coins they made for circulation and the occasional commemorative as they would be authorized by Congress. In the mid-’90s, they started to produce silver Proof sets alongside with the clad Proof sets, so now you had a silver version and a clad version. Then when you get to the State Quarter program, that just makes the Proof sets all that much more expensive, then that sets that much more expensive. Then now we’re dealing with special finishes, and God knows what else is going to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised at a certain point if we get colorized Proof coins or whatever.
Chris: I mean the Mint already crossed that Rubicon with the Basketball Hall of Fame coin this year, or this past year.
Charles: Yeah. The very thing that like when the State quarters are out, and people are colorizing them and selling them in the secondary market may actually end up being a mint produce thing at some point in the future. I just think that there’s just so many products right now that just becomes chaos. Somebody who just thinks about the way collectors– that they sort of want discrete collections that are easy to understand. We’ve just made modern numismatics so complex by all of the different ways that mint is trying to monetize these programs. Even about the American the Beautiful quarter program, you have those large five-ounce disks, which are probably the best way to look at the design, but even those disks have two versions. You have the bullion version, and then you have the collector version. Even with that, it’s almost to the point where it’s just so many different ways to collect something. I just wonder in the long term, if there’s just ever going to be a sustainable demand.
The other thing is, I can remember when the State quarters came out, I probably off the top of my head can remember the first 10 or 11 issues that came out because it was like a craze at the time. Maybe I remember that the Wyoming quarter came out in 2007. I know that the Mariana Islands came out in 2009 because it was a territory. Getting to the America the Beautiful ones, I’d be hard-pressed to say, what year was the Gettysburg one. I wouldn’t know. Then the other thing is, I just don’t know how often people look at their change at this point to see these coins. The dollars aren’t even struck for circulation. So, even to have those coins, you’re buying mint sets or Proof sets or the special packaging. All of these things exist only for collectors to spend money at the Mint store, I think.
Chris: The early presidential dollars– again, I might have the year wrong here, but I think it was in 2011 was only struck the last ones for circulation. The first number of presidential dollar issues were struck for circulation. I remember finding them in– getting them as change in vending machines or something. If you put a five in and you buy something, you might spit out a couple of– I mean, I was finding Susan B. Anthonys. I imagine some people going to vending machines that dispense $1 coins might still find Susan B. Anthonys, probably the ’79s, that being the most common year. I think the phrase ‘product bloat’ describes what’s going on fairly well.
Something that I’ve been meaning to do, especially with a pandemic, just haven’t had the time or the focus to bother trying to do it. But I’ve been wanting to put together an example of every coin that commemorates Massachusetts in any way that’s been issued since the State Quarter program. Massachusetts was commemorated in 2000 for the State quarters, 2019 commemorating the Lowell Mills for the American the Beautiful, the five-ounce bullion and collector versions of the America the Beautiful quarter, Massachusetts American Innovation dollar. I would like to get a full set of those just out of love and loyalty to my home state. But I wouldn’t personally go to the trouble of putting together a full set of all the different finishes and all the different coins that have been issued across all the different states and all these different programs, it’s just too much.
Then we get to the presidential dollars for a second. I don’t remember those coins faring particularly well in circulation, I seem to remember that they tarnished fairly darkly, fairly quickly in circulation. I’ve never talked to anyone who was really excited to get $1 coin and change. Some people were kind of curious about it, like, “Oh, I didn’t know they were putting all the different presidents on dollars.” I encountered a few people who had that reaction. I don’t think the presidential dollar program, whether as product for collectors or as coins for circulation, I don’t know that that’s something that I would continue. Also, I just wasn’t a huge fan of the coins to begin with.
Charles: I think the fact that they called it a golden dollar didn’t work in its favor, either. The same people who would buy a Buffalo Proof or 1995 off of the internet or a TV ad, and think that they’re buying an actual gold bullion coin are the same people who think that the golden dollar has gold in it, and is worth $1, so they shouldn’t spend it. I think that that worked against the coin beyond this, even though that was the effort they took to get people to actually not confuse it for a quarter.
Chris: Well, it just added confusion and I think probably traded down on any goodwill that the program might have had because if people– I’m not saying that anyone who thought that those coins contain gold was– I’m not saying that was necessarily a reasonable inference, but if people feel they’re being advertised too falsely, then they’re probably not going to have a positive reaction to that. Of course, that specific issue has many more impactful manifestations to me. I think public trust in collectible coins or public trust in numismatics is damaged a lot more by people hawking worthless sets of stickered State quarters or something at outrageous prices. I think that probably damages the credibility or the trustworthiness of the hobby more, but still, I agree with you. Applying the term “golden dollar” to them, so confusion. Yeah, I agree with you that didn’t work in the coins favor.
Charles: I guess the last issue about the last– it’s probably something that’s essentially just occurred in the last year. With the pandemic and many Americans withdrawing from their normal behavior in the economy, we’ve seen a prolonged coin shortage, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the 1960s. The Mint continues to make coins and distribute them but I think that the feedback loop that had existed in the past has been interrupted by people not returning coins or freely circulating them. I know my personal use of coins has precipitously declined, as I’ve become more accustomed to paying by debit card or credit card, or online, but I don’t think I’ve spent or exchanged a single coin in the past year, nor have I been offered a coin in change. Does this portend a future where coins become increasingly less relevant or does this hasten up the day where we actually have to have a serious discussion whether or not the Mint should continue to make coins or at least the coins in the denominations that we currently see in production?
Chris: That’s a good question. I’ve heard it asked in a number of different places. I seem to remember early on in the pandemic, March, April, sometime in the spring, I remember writing a brief piece on the increased use of cashless payment methods, electronic payment methods. The pandemic has undoubtedly been a boon to the electronic payment industry, because people are ordering their groceries to their doorstep, and paying with a credit card or paying through some other electronic means. I haven’t had a cash transaction in going on a year, I think I was last patronizing businesses regularly or going into public space regularly, like maybe March. I certainly haven’t been using cash very much. It’s given the electronic payment services more power because they have greater market share now because they’re being used more. It’s undoubtedly increased their power, but I don’t think that this is a harbinger of a cashless society necessarily, because for as common as cashless and electronic transactions have become, so many people still rely on cash.
I remember one of the very first stories I covered at Coin World when I started working there in the late summer of 2018. The very first stories I covered was a testimony given in front of Congress by then-Mint director, although he still is the Mint director, David Ryder. One of the things that they talked about are the number of Americans who are unbanked or underbanked. It’s something like 45 million Americans are either unbanked or underbanked. Not having access to a traditional bank account often makes it harder, if not impossible, to have many forms of electronic payment or cashless payment. So not being able to access that infrastructure or people who don’t access that infrastructure for whatever reason, cash is still really, really important. I definitely think that the electronic payment services have gotten more powerful as a result of the COVID pandemic, and they certainly have made a lot of money. But I think cash is going to remain a very important part of the American economy for quite a while. Again, I think that the dynamic is changing, I see your point. I think cash is going to be a part of all of our lives and an important and a very, very important part of a lot of people’s lives for a while yet. At least that’s my impression.
Charles: Well, it’ll play out the way it does. As you know, the last four years have been part of history. Tt’s there in the books now. This administration, as we said is in the books. We’re about 10 days away from the changing of the guard. Count on numismatic books written years from now looking back at this time and pointing out all the remarkable and unbelievable things that we’ve lived through. I imagine that future collectors will have a different insight into the year 2020 that we could never even fathom. They’ll never understand what it was like to be basically under house arrest for most of the year, trying to avoid getting this virus and the coins that circulated or didn’t circulate during this time will certainly be memorable. I very much look forward to getting the 2021 coins in my pocket. It’s always one of the highlights of my year to see the new coins as they come off the press. I can’t wait to see the quarter. Although, like I said, as with the case with the currency, I’d like to see a complete redesign of circulating coins, but we can talk about that next time. What kind of coverage do you have going on this week? What should readers look for?
Chris: Yeah. Well, as you know, Charles, I’ve been working on a coin profile of the almost unique and incredibly rare and storied 1870-S $3 gold coin. It has a fascinating story that I’ve been digging into. I’d heard of it, but I hadn’t really gotten the sort of detailed history of it, so digging into that has been a lot of fun. People should be checking that out whenever that is ultimately published. Stack’s Bowers is having an auction January 15 to the 18th and I’m covering a lot of the paper money sale, so I’m picking out a few interesting paper money lots from that auction, and I’m going to be writing up some short treatments of few pieces in that auction. So, that’s what I’m working on for the immediate term. I’m also going to be looking forward to coming back onto the podcast and talking to you about all things coin related. I’m definitely excited for it. Thanks so much for having me, and I’m really excited to be here.
Charles: Cool. Thank you. We’ll also have new articles from Q. David Bowers, I’ll have a piece on the 1887 Morgan dollar that I’ve been working on and we’ll probably have a CoinWeek stream by the end of the week. Everybody, thank you for tuning in. I appreciate it. On behalf of me, Chris and Hubert, you guys have a great week and happy collecting.
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