Guest Column by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez…
One of the first things I did when I got into coin collecting was write to the U.S. Mint so I could order my first uncirculated coin set. You might remember placing U.S. Mint mail orders, too, and addressing them to the customer service center at 10001 Aerospace Drive, Lanham, Maryland 20706–where virtually all correspondence concerning Mint products was sent to and from in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Ah, those were the days… before buying coin sets from the U.S. Mint almost entirely relied on the Internet and we found Mint product brochures in our mailboxes, which came with a mail order form and an adhesive-backed customer number label.
I was 11 years old when I ordered my first mint set (a 1993 uncirculated set, in fact). I wanted the proof set, too, but at $12.50 it was too expensive given my small allowance. The $8 price for the U.S. Mint set was about all my meager funds could afford at the time. But I was pleased as peaches to open up that hunter green paper envelope and pull out those two crisp Mylar packages, one edge-striped red to denote the Denver-minted coins contained within and the other one edged with two blue strips to distinguish the Philadelphia-minted coins. The certificate of authenticity and specifications for the five different coins inside the set made the whole experience even more fascinating to this prepubescent numismatist.
I thought those little cent-sized “P” and “D” bronze tokens in their respective Philadelphia and Denver packages were pretty neat, too.
I had already dived into coin collecting after holding onto a 1941 Lincoln wheat cent I found a few months earlier as part of my allowance money. But the moment I opened that mint set up for the first time, still warm from sitting in my Florida mailbox for a few hours, I recall feeling like I had officially been anointed with numismatic oil. I was in.
Buying Mint Sets Was An Annual Tradition, Until…
I ordered a mint set the following year, and on a crisp autumn afternoon in 1995 I bought one at the U.S. Mint when my family and I toured the Philadelphia facility; I still have the souvenir set I also bought there that day. But as the ‘90s wore on, the annual U.S. Mint catalog I got in the mail each year started growing larger and larger. My attention was diverting away from the trusty mint set and settling on other products instead, even though my limited funds as a young teenager didn’t grow quickly enough to keep up with the increasingly numerous – and expensive – things the Mint was offering.
It seemed like Mint product catalogs exploded with offerings after production of the 50 States Quarters kicked off in 1999. Mint sets, at that time, physically grew in size to accommodate the Philadelphia and Denver business-strike quarters. The issue price jumped from $8 in 1998 to $14.95 the following year. The packaging changed, too – two white- and black-themed Mylar packages containing five Philadelphia and Denver statehood quarters, respectively, were added. The four total individual pouches were also divided among two paper envelopes – a bright red-colored one for the nine Denver coins and a deep bluish one containing an equal number of Philadelphia coins.
It was in 1999 that I started buying new U.S. proof sets. I even sprang for the navy-colored storage box from the U.S. Mint, specifically designed to contain the 10 proof sets that would be made through 2008 containing 50 State Quarters. I’d go on to dutifully fill every slot in that box with each of the 10 annual proof sets to come.
Dazzling New Mint Products Abound As Uncirculated Set Prices Inch Higher
Fast-forward to today.
Yes, the Mint still offers uncirculated sets, but they offer dozens of other products, too – and many more than we even had in 1999, when it seemed that the annual catalog at least doubled its product count. Beginning in 2005, the U.S. Mint had begun issuing satin-finish coins in uncirculated sets. Back then, the Mint insisted that the satin finish “is handsome and provides consistency for United States uncirculated products,” which included their uncirculated commemorative coins.
The move came much to the chagrin of some numismatist purists (including myself), who preferred standard uncirculated coins versus satin-finish coins made with burnished planchets and struck by sand-blasted dies. However, the satin-finish coins didn’t look as handsome as the U.S. Mint – and many coin collectors – had hoped. At the time, the Mint stated the following:
“The satin finish… highlights surface marks that inherently result from the coin handling systems. Although the United States Mint modified the process to improve the coin appearance, there is no cost-effective way to completely eliminate the coin-on-coin contact that causes surface nicks… This change will result in more aesthetically pleasing coins with a finish that does not highlight surface flaws.”
The U.S. Mint reinstated the pre-2005 brilliant finish on uncirculated coins in 2011, but by then the issue price of the uncirculated set had nearly doubled – rising from $16.95 to $31.95. Surely, the collector was getting more coins in their 2011 uncirculated sets than during the pre-satin finish years. 28 coins were coming to a set by 2011, which is the same number of coins in mint sets today. And, for the record, the issue price for a 2014 mint set was $27.95 – $4 lower than in 2011.
But it sure seems to be getting harder and harder to find many coin collectors who can pony up $30 each year for a brand-new uncirculated set. It was especially challenging for me to spend that much money on the annual sets a few years ago, when the effects of the Great Recession were helping to keep my paycheck to a bare minimum.
A Coin Dealer’s Take
Reflecting upon the changes in the uncirculated set market over recent years, I decided to speak to Michael Jacobs at Jake’s Marketplace, a popular coin dealership near Chicago, Illinois that’s been in business for more than 50 years. Jake’s was one of the first dealers I ever ordered coins from, and the staff there continue to focus their product offerings around traditional numismatists – the people who would usually order uncirculated sets. As it turns out, Jacobs has also observed the declining interest in mint sets, and he has a few explanations as to what may be behind the diminishing popularity of the traditional uncirculated set.
“The collector is overwhelmed by modern commemoratives and other offerings,” Jacobs says. “The attention span for U.S. Mint products has changed over the years.”
The veteran dealer recalls a time when he and other professionals would order several mint sets as a way of gathering uncirculated specimens that would otherwise be difficult to find in quantity through the standard channels, such as fresh bank rolls.
Mint sets equally appealed to the collector.
“Back in the 1970s or ‘80s, collectors would buy a mint set for each member of the family and buy several more to stash away for investment. Often, they would be rewarded for their efforts by finding that some annual sets were significantly scarcer than others, increasing the value of their sets and signaling an immediate profit if they sold their sets to a coin dealer,” recalls Jacobs.
He thinks the price of an uncirculated set alone is enough to turn some numismatists away from buying the traditional mint offering. “I think many collectors suffer from sticker shock with the price of a mint set today, let alone the prices of other U.S. Mint products,” he says. “Certainly, some die-hard collectors still order mint sets every year as they have always been doing, but we’re seeing fewer collectors in general order mint sets simply because of the cost or the numerous other products they have to choose from now.” He owes the price increase of mint sets, in part, to the larger number of coins that are included in modern sets.
Another reason he feels mint sets have lagged is that fewer collectors view most mint products, including uncirculated sets, as monetarily profitable.
“You might get lucky now and then and find that one out of every 10 or 15 years during which there is a particularly good return on an uncirculated set,” he said. “But, most modern uncirculated sets fall in value, as is often the case with other U.S. Mint products today.”
Jacobs, who likens mint sets as the coattail-riding sister to proof sets, says that packaging changes to the uncirculated set in recent years may be a lesser, though still noticeable, reason that mint set buying habits have changed.
“Years ago, uncirculated sets were sent in a simple, small envelope that could be tucked away just about anywhere,” Jacobs comments. “Now, the coins are sent in two large folders, which are nice and durable, but aren’t as easy to stash away as the older uncirculated sets that came in a single envelope. But the packaging change alone didn’t turn off the collector,” he declares.
In the end, he reaffirms that rising prices are a critical factor behind the falling sales. “The poor economy in ’07 and ’08 really hurt the coin market, and it hit all areas, including mint sets,” he states. “That, coupled with the higher prices and growing field of other mint products, has siphoned money – and attention – away from the traditional uncirculated set.”
Jacobs noted one more thing that dealt a major blow to the uncirculated set – the end of the 50 State Quarters series.
“When the statehood quarters ended, so, too, did widespread interest in acquiring the uncirculated set. Perhaps if the Presidential $1 coin series had the same widespread appeal that the [50 State] quarters did, we would’ve seen strong sales for the mint set continue,” Jacobs believes. “Right now though, there’s just not enough enthusiasm for the uncirculated set, and for their part, the U.S. Mint hasn’t created much excitement around the traditional mint set, either.”
A Bright Future Ahead?
Do dropping sales numbers mean the mint set, a product offered on an annual basis with few exceptions since 1947, is quietly riding off into the sunset?
The U.S. Mint reveals no such plans for ending the production of traditional mint sets anytime soon. In fact, the 2015 uncirculated set is on track to be released in April, according to the Mint’s product schedule. At $28.95, the 2015 uncirculated set will cost one dollar more than last year’s mint set. On top of that, we’ve got the lesser-priced America the Beautiful quarters and Presidential $1 coin uncirculated sets to choose from – not to mention the Birth set, Congratulations set, Happy Birthday set, multiple proof sets, rolls, boxes, and myriad commemorative coin offerings.
I know the days of having to decide only between an uncirculated set or a proof set will probably never return. But, it’s pretty hard to see a day when mint sets won’t be offered at all. They’re too basic a staple to forego, even if collected only in relatively small numbers as compared to years ago.
Perhaps therein lay the silver lining of the situation. If so few coin collectors are buying mint sets, the number of these sets may eventually drop to the point where they become extremely scarce in the aftermarket; the relatively low-mintage 2008 and 2012 U.S. uncirculated sets may be a precursor of what’s to come, as they are priced at $50 and $70, respectively. Maybe, if these trends continue and increased values for late-date mint sets hold, huge numbers of numismatists once more will begin paying greater attention to the uncirculated sets sitting quietly over in the corner of the U.S. Mint product website.