By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ….
As reported recently in CoinWeek, a bill (H.R. 4592) was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 23 that proposes issuing a set of three coins (half dollar, silver dollar, and $5 gold coin) in 2019 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.
The legislation calls for the minting of these coins in a domed, i.e., concave/convex shape, as was done in 2014 with the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins, which were a hit with coin collectors. The plan is to mint a maximum of 750,000 clad half dollars, 400,000 silver dollars, and 50,000 gold coins, depending on demand levels, using a common obverse and reverse design–as was also done in 2014.
Early reaction to this proposal from collectors has not been very positive, which is something the bill’s author, Rep. Richard Neal (Democrat, MA) would do well to take note of before moving further with this program.
This reaction may seem surprising given the success of the baseball coins, but there is a clear consensus at the moment against these coins among collectors, and there are several reasons they seem not to be very interested in them.
No longer unique
Perhaps the key reason is that the success of the baseball coins had a lot to do with their novelty and uniqueness as the first U.S. coins ever issued in the domed shape, and as the first coins from the United States Mint struck in a non-traditional format (at least since the 1915 Panama-Pacific $50 commemorative octagonal gold coin). Collectors often said about the baseball coins that if the shape were used again, it would reduce the appeal of those coins.
A February 24 statement from Rep. Neal refers to “these unique dome-shaped coins,” but of course they would not be unique as American coins, not to mention the dozens and dozens of non-U.S. domed coins issued since 2009 when this shape was first used by the Paris Mint (Monnaie de Paris) to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Collectors are not opposed in principle to any additional curved and domed coins, but they appear not to be very enthusiastic about more sport-themed coins of this type, and feel it is too soon to use this approach again. This sentiment was reflected in reactions to a legislative proposal for a football-shaped coin over the last couple years, which were also not very positive, and the legislation never moved forward. Moreover, it is not even clear if it would have been feasible to strike a coin in the shape of a football.
There was a quote in Numismatic News on March 3 from one dealer saying he did not “remember the Mint having any issues with producing the baseball coins, so it should be a smooth process for the basketball coins.”
In fact, the Mint did encounter a number of issues when working on the baseball issues, as was well-documented in the numismatic and technological press, and they had to consult extensively with the French and Australian mints, which have experience issuing curved coins. For example Steve Antonucci of the U.S. Mint was quoted in Wired magazine saying that making the coins was so challenging it was their equivalent of the moon shoot. In particular, the clad half dollar was especially hard to produce because it was difficult to keep the two metals together in the concave/convex shape and that he was worried the copper and nickel would separate during the production process.
Another key issue, which plays a major role in why so many collectors have told me and said in a wide range coin forums that they are not interested in a domed basketball series, has to do with timing.
2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, one of the most significant achievements not only of the U.S. but also of the human race, which collectors believe is a topic that is overdue for commemoration on U.S. coins. Many other countries have already issued such coins, which are popular with collectors. In fact, space and astronomy-themed coins are one of the most popular areas of modern world numismatics but represent a significant gap in modern U.S. numismatics.
On the other hand, the United States has issued a number of sports-related coins since 1982.
The legislation that proposes the Apollo 11 50th anniversary coins for 2019 includes plans for a series of either three or four domed coins, including the usual three sizes as well as possibly a five-ounce silver coin–the first coin of that size in the concave/convex format ever issued.
Since only two commemorative programs are allowed by law to be released per year, and since it wouldn’t make sense to strike all the coins for both 2019 programs in the domed shape, collectors have expressed a strong preference for the moon landing coins over the basketball issues.
In addition, collectors say they have grown tired of three-coin sets in which each coin bears the exact same design as opposed to sets of coins with different designs, which they find much more interesting.
Thomas Uram, who is a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN), is a fan of domed coins. He has written widely about them and has exhibited his extensive collection at many major national coin shows, earning several awards for those exhibits.
I asked Tom about the proposed basketball coins, and he agreed that issuing them would make the baseball coins less special and that it would not be a good idea to release them in 2019. He is not necessarily opposed to issuing them altogether and suggested that there is no particular reason to mark the 60th anniversary of the Basketball Hall of Fame as opposed to another anniversary. So why not issue the coins in a different year such as 2024, which has the additional benefit of putting more time between the two sports-themed domed coin programs?
A final important consideration, which has been an issue of interest to collectors and to the legislators who authorize U.S. commemorative coin programs for years, is the matter of surcharges. They have even been the subject of several bills recently that seek to end the practice.
For the proposed basketball coins the surcharges would be $5, $10, and $35 respectively for the half dollar, dollar, and $5 gold piece.
Collectors have never been happy about the surcharges, which, when added to the additional premiums the Mint charges for production and related costs, make our commemoratives rather expensive and reduce their aftermarket potential.
But an even more important issue is whether third-party organizations and groups should be subsidized by coin collectors in the first place.
This is another reason collectors are not enthused about the basketball coins.
Of course, if they are made, and the designs are good, there will be a certain level of interest and sales. And opinions could change, especially once the coins are seen in hand, as has happened in the past.
But as Congress considers whether to move forward with this program, it would be highly advisable to consult with the numismatic community to get a sense of how collectors feel about the proposed coins.