By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………
On January 2 U.S. Mint official Tom Jurkowsky, who is director of the Office of Corporate Communications, told numismatic media sources that the Girl Scouts of the USA will not be receiving any surcharges from the sale of Girl Scouts of the USA Centennial commemorative silver dollars. The reason is that sales of the coins, which only reached about a third of the congressionally-authorized maximum mintage, or 123,814 out of 350,000 (as of January 5 unaudited data), were insufficient to cover program costs. By the law organizations cannot receive funds from the sales of commemoratives unless all costs associated with the coin program are first covered. In this case, that meant forfeiting $1.23 million dollars as each proof and uncirculated coin comes with a $10 surcharge. This was the first time that has happened.
Many collectors said they did not buy the coins because they did not like its design. Others were still smarting from the 2010 Boy Scouts commemorative that included a female venturer, which rubbed a lot of male coin collectors the wrong way. And Coin World editor Stephen Roach said in the January 20 issue of his publication that the GSUSA did not do enough to promote sales of the coins, arguing that the “burden cannot rest solely on the U.S. Mint to promote commemorative coin programs.”
But I know that organizations work closely with the Mint to promote sales of commemorative coins, which was explained to me in 2012 by Michele Coiron, who was then director of sales for Star Spangled 200, which promoted sales of the 2012 Star Spangled dollars through many different venues. I suspect the sluggish sales of the Girl Scouts coins had more to do with the unhappiness of collectors with the design, and also with the fact that the coins may not have had great appeal for Girl Scouts. As I explained in 2012, their organization does have some programs related to coin collecting , but that is very different from the situation with Boy Scouts, as so many coin collectors were once Boy Scouts. As Anna Maria Chavez, the CEO of the GSUSA explained in her interview with me, her organization worked to promote the coin through its web site and other venues such as local Girl Scout council partners, who sold the coins in Girl Scout shops. And yet that was not enough.
In September 2012, as I explained in this column , legislation was introduced that would have required any revenues from sales of commemorative coin programs beyond what is needed to recoup production costs go towards deficit reduction rather than to organizations whose work is honored by the coins. At the time I argued against this proposal, which was never enacted.
But after giving the issue more thought and witnessing the poor performance of commemorative coin sales in the past couple years, which I believe is largely driven by weak designs, high prices, and to a certain extent themes that fail to reflect the diversity of the American experience, I believe it is time to revamp the commemorative coin program.
First, as suggested by Numismatic News editor David Harper, it is time to do away with the surcharges. The main reason, as he notes, is the fact that it makes the coins more expensive, but there are also other issues surrounding the surcharges. During the Olympic coin programs of the 1980’s and 1990’s, as well as the during the era of classic commemoratives (1892-1954), too many coins were issued. The coins were not being minted in response to collector demand but rather because organizations saw them as easy money. In addition, some groups do not seem especially worthy of assistance from coin collectors. For example, why is it appropriate for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a private organization operated by private interests, to receive money through the sale of the 2014 baseball commemorative coins?
The 2014 civil rights coins have gotten off to slow start, though they have only been available since January 2. If their cost was $10 lower per coin, that would likely boost sales quite a bit. And under existing law after costs are recouped, most Mint profits already go to reduce the deficit.
Second, the maximum authorized mintages should be reduced substantially in most cases. Very few modern commemoratives sell out of their maximum mintages, and mintage levels should be set more realistically than they have been in the past. Congressional officials drawing up legislation for coin programs should consult with Mint officials and outside numismatic experts who can advise them that no $5 gold coin today is going to sell 100,000 units. For example, the Five Star Generals gold coins, which are quite popular with collectors, sold about 20,000 including proof and uncirculated coins.
This issue is important because if maximum mintages are lower, then the Mint’s production levels would be lower too, and fewer coins would be need to be melted when left unsold at the end of the year. The Mint bases production levels on anticipated demand, which they base on how a previous year’s coins sold. But that fails to account for wide differences in the appeal of certain coins and themes compared to others, which in fairness is not easy to estimate. In the case of the Girl Scout coins, I would have recommended lower levels, if I had been consulted, especially after the reactions of collectors to the design.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the art work on commemoratives needs to be improved and made much more compelling. Many collectors agree on what a good coin design is and what a bad one is. Reading the comments made online and in letters to the editor of various publications, it is easy to see how many collectors did not like the Girl Scouts coin, the 2011 Infantry dollar, or the new Civil Rights Act commemoratives, and how many did like the 2012 Star Spangled Banner coins or the 2010 Boy Scouts coins, which sold out of 350,000 units quickly.
I admire the tireless work of the committees that make recommendations on coin designs to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, the Commission on Fine Arts and Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission, but if you look at the designs they reviewed for a given coin and the ones they ended up recommending, you will frequently note that coin collectors posted numerous online comments saying they would have chosen a different design. Of course, different people will often not agree on designs, but this is a largely consistent pattern in which potential buyers find the designs chosen by the committees to be unappealing. A good example is the designs recommended for the 2013 American platinum eagle that depict a young girl on the obverse, and a plant on the reverse. Most people do not even know what the design is supposed to represent.
In part this reflects a preference among coin buyers for more classic designs over modern ones, and for more symbolic than literal representations of the themes on coins. Classic designs do not only consist of those that have appeared on previous American coinage but rather also include coin designs like those which appeared on the 2011 American platinum eagle or the 2012 Star Spangled Banner silver dollars, which are modern images of Liberty.
Finally, while most modern commemoratives do honor significant people, events, and causes, the range of subject represented is rather narrow in the view of many collectors, including myself. There are tons of commemorative coins with sports and military themes, but not enough on major national themes that really evoke the overall American experience such as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the NASA space program, Martin Luther King, and so forth, which would probably have a lot more appeal than many recent commemoratives. The baseball coins are different as baseball plays a large part in American culture.
Collectors today are overwhelmed with choices from the Mint and from other world mints. But U.S. commemoratives, unlike those issued by other countries, rarely sell-out and tend to underperform on the secondary market, where buyers can often obtain them cheaper than issue price if they wait. The recommendations made here, if followed, should help to make the U.S. commemorative coin program more successful in the future for the Mint and collectors.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, a number of different coin web sites in addition to being a contributor to “American Hard Assets magazine”. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.