by Louis Golino for CoinWeek
The U.S. Congress frequently enacts legislation on coins that is misguided. One of the best recent examples is the provision in the legislation that created the First Spouse $10 gold coin series that specifically requires the issuance of a coin for Alice Paul, a suffragist and women’s rights leader, who became a national figure during the early part of the 20th century. Ms. Paul was instrumental in passage of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote.
The coin is intended to accompany the issuance of presidential dollar coins for President Chester Arthur (1881-1885), who came to office after President James Garfield was assassinated. Arthur was Vice President at the time.
But Ms. Paul was only born about two months before the Arthur presidency ended in 1885, which seems an odd reason to issue a coin for her as part of the first spouse series.
President Arthur’s wife, Ellen, died almost two years before he became president. Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, and Buchanan also served without first ladies. Gold coins were issued for their presidencies that carried iconic obverse images of Liberty from classic American coins that circulated during their terms, and reverses with images of life during their presidencies.
As anyone who collects these coins, or follows them, knows, the Liberty sub-set is very popular with collectors. They do not have the lowest mintages of the series so far, which remain for now the uncirculated coins for the two wives of President John Tyler, Julia and Letitia. But their attractiveness has helped propel secondary market values for some of them to levels comparable to those for the lowest mintage coins in the series.
Only the 2007 Jefferson’s Liberty coin carries a very small premium, and that is because too many of them were issued (40,000) when most spouse coins sell under 10,000 units. An interesting side note is that many of the 2007 coins were melted as gold prices rose, but I have not seem any estimates of how many met that fate.
Ms. Paul may well be deserving of a commemorative coin, and I strongly support the view recently expressed by Dr. Michael Bugeja in my interview with him that there are not enough real women on U.S. coins.
But Ms. Paul had no direct connection at all to the presidency of President Arthur, and it was only many years later that she undertook the activities that justifiably make her an important figure in our history. One wonders what other significant Americans were born during the Arthur presidency.
I have to agree with the view expressed by Ed Reiter, who wrote about coins for many years for the New York Times and who now writes for Coinage magazine. He makes the case in the February 2012 issue that the congressional requirement to issue the Alice Paul coin is “a misguided effort to curry feminists’ favor.” He also points out that the dominant issue of the Arthur presidency was civil service reform.
The Alice Paul coin will be the first 2012 spouse issue. The Mint has not yet announced a release date, but it should be sometime in March.
I continue to feel strongly that these coins should be issued because first ladies have never been represented on U.S. coins, and their roles in our nation’s history are largely unknown and much greater than many people realize.
Mr. Reiter argued, as he has before, that the coins should never have been issued. He wrote that it makes little sense to honor the presidents with base metal dollars and then issue half-ounce gold coins for their wives.
I disagree for several reasons. First, many presidents have already been honored with a coin of one type of another, while their spouses have not. Second, most American coins that feature females, with the exception of some commemoratives like those for Dolly Madison and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sport images of Liberty as represented by allegorical female figures, not real American women. Third, the coins help to encourage people to learn more about our country’s past, and they probably inspire women, especially young women.
It is worth mentioning here that the Morgan dollar obverse, which many probably think is another image of Miss Liberty, is actually based on a real American, a school teacher who was fired from her job because even a portrait of her likeness was considered too risque for late 18th century America. The coin is named for its designer, George Morgan.
The spouse coins are a 10-year or longer series, and their high gold content (a half ounce) is problematic for those interested in collecting the whole series or getting the last issues. As I have argued before, a long-term view of the gold market suggests that it would have made more sense to issue the coins in one-quarter ounce sizes because they are becoming unaffordable for most collectors as gold approaches $2,000.
The rising price of gold over the five years that the coins have been issued probably explains the dwindling level of sales rather better than lack of interest. There is a small core of a few thousand collectors who will do their best to stick with the series for the second half of the program. But if gold performs as most gold experts expect it to in the next five years, it is likely that new low mintages will be continue to be set, as more and more collectors abandon the series.
Nevertheless, at this point, it would not make sense to change the size or gold content of the coins.
Many have questioned the art work on the spouse coins and cite them as a prime example of the decline of artistic achievement in modern American coinage. This is a hotly debated issue among collectors.
There are some issues that definitely leave something to be desired, such as last year’s Eliza Johnson issues, particularly the reverse. But overall, I think the coins are mostly very attractive, and certainly not just the Liberty sub-set. Mr. Reiter goes too far in calling them “predicably pedestrian.” In most cases, the obverses are pretty accurate representations of the women being honored. It is many of the reverses that don’t always do it for me.
It is hardly a secret that there are far more male than female coin collectors, though this is changing with Generation X, and those even younger. I am mentoring a younger female cousin who has an interest in coins. The hobby could use more female collectors, to be sure.
I mention this because the first spouse coins have stirred up some not so enlightened views on women that some collectors seem to hold.
For example, while issuing the Paul coin is hard to explain other than the way Mr. Reiter does, as pandering to feminists’, it is hardly politically correct to believe that coins should be issued honoring American’s first ladies. Yet that view has been expressed often by male collectors and coin writers who oppose the series.
Virtually all first ladies were their husband’s closest advisors. One of the best examples is Abigail Adams, a gifted thinker and shrewd business woman who pushed her husband, John Adams, to be a better president. Surely, they are deserving of coins, not just bronze medals.
And those who have the funds to stick with the series are likely to be pleased with the value of their collections. Secondary values for most issues, except the 2007 coins that were overproduced, are doing very well, especially the uncirculated coins that consistently have lower mintages than the proof coins. Proofs often do look nicer, but they rarely have the long-term value of their more scarce uncirculated counterparts.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. 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.