By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
When it comes to producing commemorative coinage in the bureaucratic realm of the U.S. government, officials at the United States Mint have relatively little wiggle room. While many world mints have a degree of operational autonomy and the liberty to produce creative, outside-the-box coinage – such as the colored and superhero-themed coins of the Royal Canadian Mint or the Perth Mint’s line of coins featuring actual crystals and gems visibly mounted in the planchets, the U.S. Mint must stick to making the coins approved by Congress – a place filled mostly with individuals who, regardless of political affiliation, favor the status quo.
While Capitol Hill tends to approve coinage of conventional proportions – flat planchets of standard shapes, sizes, and colors – there have been a few recent United States commemorative coin releases with more audacious minting specifications. Consider the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame coins, featuring curved planchets with a concave field on one side and a convex canvas on the other. The 2018 Breast Cancer Awareness $5 gold coin was struck with an alloy providing a rose-gold color, similar to the color of the iconic pink ribbon symbolizing breast cancer causes. And during the third annual United States Mint Numismatic Forum in 2018, Mint Director David Ryder hinted at the possibility of colored coinage in the near future.
United States commemorative coins have come a long way since the first, the Isabella quarter honoring the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the “New World”, was issued in 1892. Following a series of financial abuses and other scandals, the commemorative program was shut down in 1954 and didn’t resume until 1982, when a 90% silver half dollar was issued honoring the 250th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. By the early 1990s, several commemorative programs were being approved each year, causing many collectors to feel overwhelmed by the number of new coins coming out on an annual basis – including the 32 different issues associated with the 1996 Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta.
Since 1998, federal law limits the release of only two commemorative coin initiatives each year.
But how do these commemorative coins get made in the first place? What is the process for taking an idea and turning it into a legal-tender commemorative? Some of the lengthy procedure is spelled out in great detail in a recently updated report by the Congressional Research Service entitled “Commemorative Coins: Background, Legislative-Process, and Issues for Congress.” The 33-page document, intended for members and committees of Congress, is a remarkably breezy read for a virtually all-text legislative publication.
However, for those who would like a more condensed version of this Congressional report, what follows is a rundown of the steps involved in taking the idea for a commemorative coin from paper to planchet.
Authorizing Commemorative Coins
This part of the process begins after the conception of an idea for a specific type of commemorative coin. Formally introducing the call for a new commemorative coin before Congress is far from the abstract floating of an idea such as “wouldn’t it be nice to have a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of such-and-such?” Rather, commemorative coin proposals are very specific, denoting minute legal details right down to the physical characteristics of the coin or coins involved in the initiative and how the surcharges raised from the sale of the coin(s) are to be distributed and used by the recipient organization(s).
Below are the features and points that must be spelled out in legislation proposing a commemorative coin:
- Findings that summarize the commemorative subject’s history and importance
- Specifications for denominations, weight, and metallic makeup
- Design requirements, including required dates, words, and images
- Start and end dates for minting coins and any other limitations
- Requirements for selling coins
- Coin surcharges and distribution to designated groups
- Assurances that costs of the coin program are recouped by the U.S. Mint
Issues Congress must consider when debating a commemorative coin bill include:
Groups and events honored – With just two commemorative coin initiatives to be approved each year, Congress must prioritize which people, places, or events are of top importance and most likely to attract high sales figures.
Disbursement of surcharges – Who receives the charitable fees raised by the sale of a commemorative coin? A single organization? Multiple? How will the surcharges be used? Organizations slated to receive surcharges from the sale of commemorative coins must be able to raise sufficient matching funds from private sources and will be subject to annual audits on the use of surcharge payments.
Specification of design elements – While United States commemorative coins generally must include requisite elements–such as the inscriptions “LIBERTY”, “E PLURIBUS UNUM”, and the coin’s denomination–there may be other design considerations that must be included and are specific to the subject being honored on the coin. Such specifications include the curvature of planchets for the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins, which emulate the physical shape of a baseball.
Designing & Minting Commemorative Coins
“He signed you, Bill! Now you’re a law!” The preceding lyric is from the famous 1975 Schoolhouse Rock cartoon “I’m Just A Bill”. As the anthropomorphic legislative proposal named “Bill” explains in his educational song, getting a bill through Congress is indeed a long and lengthy journey. But for commemorative coin initiatives that make it through committee, receive Congressional authorization and are signed by the president, the next step is creating designs for the new coin.
This part of the process involves the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), the United States Mint, and the Secretary of the Treasury. The Mint will submit designs to the CFA and CCAC for suggestions and advice, and both the CFA and the CCAC serve consultative roles in making recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury, who makes the final decision on a coin’s design through the U.S. Mint.
The CFA, established in 1910 to advise on artistic matters concerning public projects ranging from fountains and statues to monuments and coins, does not list a formulaic rubric of considerations when advising the U.S. Mint on commemorative coin designs or making such recommendations to the Treasury secretary. But the CCAC does list several elements it looks for:
- Texture and pattern
- Thoughtfully balanced negative spaces
- Ethnic diversity
- Details rather than overcrowding
- Creative perspective
- Atmospheric perspective
- Integrated text
- Clear typestyles
- Clarity of message
- Subtlety, not literalism or storyboard
- Relevancy of obverse to reverse
- Designs, not pictures
- Fluidity of line
- Edge variety
The CCAC estimates it takes 56 to 60 weeks to take a commemorative coin from authorization to official launch by the United States Mint. That timeframe includes everything from the coin design process and engraving to distributing marketing materials and striking the coins. But that’s not a fixed timeframe, and many commemorative coins have taken far more than 60 weeks to hit the streets following Congressional authorization, especially for coins planned many years out from their release. Once the final obverse and reverse designs have been chosen and approved by the Treasury Secretary, the coin then begins its journey into production at the U.S. Mint.
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