By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for PCGS ……
 

[Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the PCGS E-Collector newsletter on May 7, 2013 and has been updated to its current form. —CoinWeek]
 

While the pomp and circumstance surrounding the launch of the 50 State Quarters program is over two decades behind us, it is hard to conceive of any future program that will have as large an impact on American coin collecting.

As children of the 1970s and ’80s, the coin that brought us into the hobby was the 1776-1976 Bicentennial quarter, with the famous reverse designed by Jack Ahr. And without that quarter and the lessons learned from its production, the 50 State Quarters program would never have existed. But that coin (along with the Bicentennial Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar) was chump change compared to the State Quarter program.

The program was born with the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee and didn’t become law until United States Mint Director Philip Diehl (a former CCCAC Chair) was able to convince Congressional leaders to back the plan. Diehl points to Mike Castle, the U.S. representative from Delaware, as one of the bill’s key supporters. Castle stood to benefit from the program as his state would be the first one commemorated since the states would be honored at a rate of five per year in order of their admittance into the Union.

So in 1997, one year after it was initially proposed, the House and the Senate passed the bill into law. The first quarters were released in 1999* to great fanfare and the immediate frenzy of speculators.

Necessary Change

When Diehl was nominated to direct the Mint in 1994 by President William Jefferson Clinton, he saw the need to transform the Mint bureaucracy on a management level and to streamline the means of production. All of this was necessary, Diehl told us in a phone interview, to give the Mint the capacity to pull off the ambitious quarter program. The Denver Mint needed a die shop and the Mint, in general, needed more efficiency from the presses – efficiency made possible by the Schuler press, which produced more coins using fewer dies.

The Mint also had to get on board with creating a circulating product that fostered collecting. Something like the 50 State Quarters program would have been unthinkable just 30 years prior when U.S. Mint leadership was sure that collectors were causing a nationwide coin shortage. Besides threatening to pursue anti-collector legislation, the Mint of the 1960s stopped production of Proof and Mint sets, eliminated mint marks, and delivered lasting damage to the hobby by instituting a date freeze.

Contrast that with a program that saw the release of 240 different coins (including circulation strikes, satin finish strikes, and clad and silver Proofs) over a period of 10 years.

The finite striking window and the constant new releases meant that the Mint was continuously creating buzz and drawing attention to coins. This, along with myriad forms of promotion used by coin dealers and the rest of the industry, elevated coin collecting to the forefront of American consciousness. The State Quarters effort was a huge success, and seven additional circulating commemorative programs have followed in the years since.

The Program Made Cents

From a design perspective, the coins were a mixed bag.

The Treasury Department famously worried about the “Disneyfication” of American coinage, and one could argue that John Flanagan’s 60-year-old design was compromised by moving the inscriptions from the reverse to the obverse to make room for the rotating reverse designs. Also, the aesthetic qualities of the designs that came out of 50 disparate design processes are more miss than hit.

Nevertheless, these complaints are highly subjective, and the passage of time has a curious tendency to change the way artistic objects are considered.

What’s not in doubt is the excitement the series brought to everyday Americans and how the quarters “planted the seed” of coin collecting in the minds of both young and old. Sophisticated collectors may disdain paying much attention to a series with production runs in the hundreds of millions, but the fact remains that the same 50 State Quarters program that brought millions of people into the hobby – if even just for a short time – will bring many of them back in the decades to come.

In the current numismatic market, we think so much about value, rarity, and condition. Is a coin going to be worth more tomorrow than what we paid for it today? Will the demand be there in the future? Am I buying this coin at the right price?

All of these are worthwhile considerations, but we’d like to add one more: importance.

The 50 State Quarters program may not be worth a whole lot for the time being, and paying significant premiums in order to own a high-grade specimen may be a dubious proposition. But are the coins important? You bet they are. No coin series produced in the past 50 years will prove to be as important for the hobby as this one.

What’s the value of a State Quarter? Generations of great collectors to come.

*Interestingly, the legislation also authorized transitional coinage using the old design to be produced in 1999 bearing the 1998 date: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/105/s1228/text.

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