By Louis Golino, special to CoinWeek …..
In the aftermath of the resignation October 1 of David J. Ryder as Director of the United States Mint, which was announced late on Friday, September 24, comments from many collectors in online forums and letters to editors of coin publications have been strongly critical of Ryder’s tenure.
The popular sport of Mint bashing had become more popular than usual over the past couple of years, which makes this a good time to take a step back from knee-jerk reactions–mostly driven by collectors who couldn’t order all the coins they wanted from the Mint–and assess what actually happened during the three years Ryder was in charge at the Mint and what his longer-term impact may be on the hobby.
It’s worth noting that selling collector coins is not the primary function of the Mint. Instead, its primary function is to provide a sufficient amount of circulating coinage for trade commerce, which has been especially challenging during the pandemic. After this, it may sell bullion and collector coins. And with the explosion of demand for bullion during the pandemic, that has also put a strain on the Mint’s resources and personnel, further complicating the collector coin and medal side of its operations since silver planchets have been in severe shortage.
And all of this happens without taxpayer funding because the United States Mint is self-funded through the seigniorage it earns on circulating coins and the profits from the other two types of coins.
Ongoing Problems and Improvement
There is no doubt that there were plenty of problems at the Mint before Ryder came along as far as how collector coins are distributed, and that these issues continued, and, in some cases–such as the online ordering system–got worse and will likely continue after Ryder is gone. In fact, I have it on good authority that Ryder was also unhappy about the ongoing problems in these areas and pushed the Mint staff to address them.
And to be fair, there has been improvement in recent months, particularly as a result of the apparently successful effort to stop scripted programs (“bots”) during the last couple of major product launches, though there were still glitches when checking out. That did not happen as quickly as many would have liked because the Mint had first to secure the legal authority to go after the bots, and government lawyers are not known for moving quickly.
In addition, the availability of the option to receive some of those high-demand items via enrollments – provided they were made well in advance of the actual release – also took a lot of the stress out of the buying process and allowed those with enrollment orders to purchase more coins than the household limit on launch day.
But it’s important to remember that prior to Ryder’s Mint tenure, there were not many products that were in as high a demand as some recent ones that saw their secondary market values rise immediately. The Mint’s order management system had never been tested as it was under Ryder. There were coins and sets here and there, about one or two every year or so, which contrasts sharply with the situation in the past couple of years.
Ryder’s approach was to address the Mint’s financial and other problems by adding new customers and creating more innovative, low-mintage products than had been released previously.
And as he admitted and took responsibility for in the media roundtable the Mint held on August 25, it has been very challenging trying to keep up with the sharp rise in demand for Mint products from bullion to collector coins and to do so in the midst of a pandemic that requires changes in production procedures and staffing that result in longer timeframes to make and distribute coins. Ryder said in the forum that the Mint has not always been able to handle that increased volume but that it has done better than other Mints, which is accurate.
Turning the Financial Situation Around
But from a “bigger picture” perspective, a few points are critical.
First, one often reads a letter from an unhappy Mint customer who tells the world he has sworn off Mint coins, but the reality is the Mint has added 100,000 new customers in the past couple of years.
Second, when Ryder got to the Mint it was losing $21.2 million a year in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 on collector coins, which he turned around to earning $9 million profit in FY 2020 and an estimated $20 million profit for FY 2021, according to an associate of mine who crunches those numbers regularly.
Another issue that features prominently in recent criticism of the Mint under Ryder’s tenure, as it has for as long as I have written about the Mint (since 2009), is the view that dealers get so much preferential treatment from the Mint, including sweetheart deals.
But every world mint that I am familiar with gives the dealers in their country and perhaps others far more preferential treatment than the U.S. Mint does. And, as one participant in the current authorized bulk-purchasing program that came forward to the press recently explained, in the past, they were able to obtain a larger amount of Mint products in bulk than they do now and received discounts compared to now when they receive 10% and have to pay a premium.
It is not realistic to expect a major mint not to give certain preferences to its distributors, but many of the views that collectors have about the relationship between the Mint and the so-called “big boys” are not based in fact.
Innovations and Initiatives
Then there are some other factors worth recalling, such as the substantial improvement in the quality of the art on our coins today compared to before Ryder’s second term. That is reflected perhaps most dramatically in the new reverse designs for the American Silver and Gold Eagles – designed respectively by Emily Damstra and Jennie Norris.
Those reverses would not exist if Ryder had not asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to give him the authority to implement those changes. The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) had been recommending a new reverse for the Silver Eagle for most of the past decade (by law, once any coin design is used for 25 years it can be changed with only Treasury approval), but only Ryder made the move.
Additionally, our designs are improving because Ryder appointed Joseph Menna as Chief Engraver in 2019 after the position had been vacant since the departure in 2010 of John Mercanti, which has enabled the Mint to put a greater focus on the designing and engraving component of its work.
And he brought in a lot of new artists with fresh perspectives, including experienced ones like Chris Costello and Heidi Wastweet, as part of his expansion of the Artistic Infusion Program. That’s why we have coins like the new American Liberty $100 high relief gold coin with a bucking mustang horse that is so popular or Heidi’s innovative 2021 National Law Enforcement Memorial half dollar reverse design and many others.
Moreover, it was Ryder who took a gamble on pushing for a new conception of Lady Liberty that for the first time would not be represented by an allegorical female. He saw how that had become divisive, as reflected in discussions about the race and ethnicity of the modern versions of Liberty that debuted in 2015. When the horse was first considered, many thought it would never work, yet the coin has been a very strong seller, even with the high premiums the Mint charges on such coins.
Plus, we would not have the new Morgan and Peace silver dollars without Ryder, who worked closely for years with Tom Uram and Michael Moran, the fathers of the program who also lobbied congress to get them approved, as well as with staff from the Mint and Congress to make this program a reality. The same is true of other popular coin programs and of certain products like some of the Apollo 11 coins and other coin sets, including the ones issued in conjunction with foreign mints in Australia, Spain, and Canada.
Ryder also made the most serious effort to date to address the problem of counterfeit coins not only by adding security features to the Eagle coins but also by working with the Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force, members of Congress, and the Secret Service.
He also made a strong effort to reach out to young collectors with products aimed at them and to reach out to the numismatic media, such as with the debut of bi-monthly roundtable meetings and agreed to let me interview him for almost an hour.
There is no doubt that some collectors are not crazy about a few of these initiatives (such as privy-marked or colorized coins), but one can’t deny that Ryder made a major effort working with Congress and using the Mint’s existing authority to put out products that appealed to all types of collectors, from those who look for coins in change like a 2017-P Lincoln cent or a West Point quarter to those who can afford expensive gold pieces.
Others are still upset they were not able to score a 2020-W V75 Gold Eagle and sell it for enough to buy a car. But where are the comments from all those collectors and flippers who made lots of money on Mint coins, or added some of the most interesting, low-mintage coins in their collections during the past couple of years–perhaps even at a reduced cost–by flipping some extra coins?
When the status quo gets shaken up, as it was at the Mint under Ryder, a lot of eggs get broken. Those changes have both the various positive impacts discussed above and negative repercussions. Some people miss out on certain releases; systems come under intense pressure; shipping gets delayed; etc.
But overall, I believe collectors are better off as a result of the changes Ryder made. And many of the problems they encountered are not likely to disappear with his absence and will take time – as well as collaboration from other numismatic stakeholders – to improve.
Hopefully, Alison Doone, the new Acting Director of the Mint, will build on the many positive legacies of Ryder’s time as director while also addressing those ongoing problems at the agency.
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Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.
His column “The Coin Analyst”, special to CoinWeek, won the 2021 Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) Award for Best Numismatic Column: United States Coins – Modern. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”. In 2015, “The Coin Analyst” received an NLG award for Best Website Column.
In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.