By Chris Bulfinch for CoinWeek …..
With the release of the United States Mint’s first colorized coins imminent, the debate over the merits of colorized coins is energized.
“Woe to all of us,” begins the top post at the time of writing on a CoinTalk thread entitled “Colorized Coins from the U.S. Mint” that began on July 11. The post, from user tommyc03, continues: “[R]uining coins before they are released and likely taking a cue from Canada. Sorry, but I have no use for colorized coins no matter how attractive they may be.”
Other posters down the thread echo these sentiments, with some speculating that younger people might be interested in the colorized coins. Others balk at the $95 price tag. Discussion on a number of numismatic forums points to controversy about the Mint’s decision to colorize U.S. coins.
The first splash of color to appear on U.S. coinage is being applied to the 2020 National Basketball Hall of Fame commemorative coins, issued to recognize the 60th anniversary of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The enabling legislation for the Basketball Hall of Fame commemorative coins was promulgated in the 115th Congress, introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on February 27, 2017, by Rep. Richard Neal (D–MA1). It passed the House on September 25, 2017, and the Senate on December 18, 2018. President Donald J. Trump signed the bill into law three days later.
A parallel version of the Act was introduced to the Senate by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D–MA) on June 29, 2017. That bill never saw any significant legislative action.
Neither version of the authorizing legislation made any reference to colorization.
H.R. 1235 stipulated that the Treasury, through the Mint, would strike 50,000 $5 gold coins, 400,000 silver dollars, and 750,000 clad half dollars with an obverse design “emblematic of the game of basketball” and a reverse design featuring an actual basketball.
The possibility of colorization was floated in the summer of 2019, and in February of 2020, the Mint announced a contract with an outside vendor to apply colorization to a number of the commemorative coins.
Not all of the commemoratives in the program will be colorized; none of the $5 gold coins will feature color. A portion of the maximum mintage of the other two denominations, the silver dollar and the clad half dollar, will have their reverses colorized. The silver dollar features a colorized rim and net, and on the clad half dollar the ball, rim, and net are all colorized. The silver dollars will be struck at Philadelphia, and the half dollars will be struck at the San Francisco facility. A maximum of 75,000 of each of the two denominations will be colorized.
Debate about the Mint’s foray into colorization dates back more than a year.
An article published on CoinNews.net on July 17, 2019, announcing the Mint’s consideration of colorization was met with uniformly negative comments, while a thread on the subreddit r/coins published in March was similarly negative. Many comments expressed dismay at the Mint’s decision, describing colorized coins as cheap and a step backward.
Some posters on forums did show interest in the coins. Critics and proponents of colorization on forums alike speculated on the potential appeal of colorized coins for younger folks, collectors and noncollectors alike. The U.S. Mint released a set of Enhanced Uncirculated coins geared towards children, underscoring the sentiment expressed by many in the collecting industry that the coins will appeal to a broad audience.
Some support the decision of mints around the world to colorize coins, as it lends some creative latitude to designers and makes the coins visually distinctive. Others feel that colorized coins are a cheap gimmick. Some observers liken the Mint’s decision to colorize the Basketball Hall of Fame commemorative coins to Canada’s penchant for colorized material.
Canada’s myriad collector coin programs and frequent use of new and unconventional minting practices have drawn some criticism from parts of the U.S. numismatic community, and some fear that the U.S. Mint is opening the floodgates with colorized coins. Many collectors seem concerned about the possibility of the Mint’s practices becoming too similar to those of the Royal Canadian Mint, which is often characterized by collectors in the United States as too eager to commemorate and too liberal with its use of color.
Controversial as they seem to be among American collectors, colorized coins started appearing in large numbers in the last 20 years or so. Many mints around the world have issued colorized coins for a number of countries, from China to the Cook Islands. The explosion of colorized coins runs parallel to the rise of non-circulating legal tender coins.
Marketing materials from the United States Mint and third-party grading services underscore the “crossover potential” of basketball-themed coins, and their potential to reach folks outside of the hobby. How colorization fits into that appeal is not immediately clear.
But the Mint’s decision to colorize the basketball coins is not wholly surprising.
With a declining customer base, and basketball popular in America and overseas markets, being able to advertise the Basketball Hall of Fame coins as a groundbreaking artifact, a “first” for the Mint, is undeniably a boon. Consideration was given to cross-promotions with sports cards companies, and the design review process included a discussion of marketing in China and the Philippines, owing to the sport’s popularity. PCGS advertised its partnership with its “sister company” Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) to “reach an even wider audience of collectors around the globe.” Coin World reported on a proposal from the Citizen Coinage Advisory Committee’s (CCAC) Chair Thomas Uram to “salt” autographs from famous basketball players randomly into some of the sets from the Mint, adding a treasure hunt aspect that could drive sales.
This does not seem to have come to pass, though the original plan for the coins’ release would have presented collectors who bought coins at the Final Four Fest in Atlanta on April 4 with the opportunity for exclusive PCGS holders with certificates of authenticity signed by U.S. Mint Director David Ryder, the coins’ designers, and members of the Hall of Fame. The Final Four Fest release event was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, scuppering that in-person autograph signing opportunity, and the coins were released on June 4.
Nonetheless, third-party grading services are evidently interested in creating a broad selection of products and see the marketing potential of the coins, including colorization. PCGS advertised its exclusive partnership with the Hall of Fame, a range of holders, and even an orange storage box for slabs.
NGC’s marketing explicitly appealed to claims that both basketball and coin collecting are “loved across ages and demographics.” It is selling a range of holders, has Donna Weaver exclusively autographing some of the holders and Naismith’s grandson will sign “heartwarming” certification labels for the service.
The Basketball Hall of Fame coins seem to have generated some interest independently of the controversy surrounding their colorization. The Massachusetts-based news site masslive.com reported that the release ceremony at the Hall of Fame was well-attended, and quoted a couple of collectors at the scene who were excited to acquire the coins. Internet forums are only one barometer.
U.S. commemorative coins have always had a fundraising aspect, though they have not historically been as blatantly commercial as, say, Niue putting Darth Vader or the Simpsons on its coinage – including colorized coins, no less. Causes with less national relevance than basketball have been honored with commemorative coins, and some truly unattractive designs have been featured on the resulting material issued by the U.S. Mint.
Whether the 60th anniversary of the Basketball Hall of Fame was a sensible one to commemorate, whether colorization enhances or detracts from the coin’s design, and which Mint products if any should be colorized going forward are all valid questions. One could even ask if Congress should have been consulted about the initiative. However, to suggest that the Mint is out of line in its approach, taking a broad view of colorization internationally, is a harder case to make.
Colorization is undeniably an expansion of what the Mint deems appropriate for coinage. Whether one considers it a marketing tactic or a numismatic innovation is in the eye of the beholder.
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