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The Year That Was: Winners and Losers at the US Mint in 2019

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
The United States Mint had a busy year in 2019, which isn’t surprising given the amazing pace at which it has been producing new collectible coins and other products in recent years. The Mint’s catalog has been growing in size for many years now, and it’s stuffed annually with a variety of coins, sets, and other items for virtually every collector taste imaginable. Many of these items sell with a respectable degree of success. Of course, some have performed much better than others, and several have failed miserably when it came to impressing collectors.

So what are the biggest winners and losers from the United States Mint in 2019? Using a combination of sales figures and general customer interest in the Mint’s various coins and products sold in 2019, let’s review a rundown of a few of the year’s highlights and lowlights.

WINNER: 2019 Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coins

Apollo 11 commemorative dollarIf you were alive on July 20, 1969 (and old enough to remember), then you probably recall being glued to your television set as astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the Moon.

“It’s one small set for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said upon making his way out of the Apollo 11 lunar module and onto the powdery grey terrain of the Moon, orbiting some 240,000 miles away from Earth. It’s a moment that tens of millions of Americans witnessed and still vividly remember. It was also a moment in time when much of the world watched with shared awe and wonder, regardless of their nation, creed, or color.

Perhaps the incredible staying power the Apollo 11 landing has is one reason the three commemoratives honoring that mission and the individuals behind it have performed so well. The three coins, including a clad half dollar, a silver dollar, and a gold $5 piece, are each struck on a curved planchet similar to the popular 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins. Also similar to those pieces, the Apollo 11 commemoratives have been heavily promoted, thus leading countless collectors and non-collectors to become aware of the coins and enthusiastic about buying them.

Since their release on January 24, a total of 31,643 proof and 11,776 uncirculated Apollo 11 $5 gold coins have been sold through November 3, with the silver dollar selling a whopping 204,398 Proofs and 57,577 Uncirculated specimens. The half dollars have also posted some astronomical numbers, with the Proof selling 63,384 units and the Uncirculated 40,449. What the final mintage figures will be for these pieces once sales have ended as of December 31 is anyone’s guess. But the current data already point to this being easily the US Mint’s most successful commemorative program since the aforementioned Baseball Hall of Fame coins in 2014.

Obviously, the Apollo 11 initiative struck an emotional chord with many folks – the strong numbers clearly suggest many of the people buying these coins are from outside the numismatic community. And while it’s always the mission of any commemorative program to reach people outside the hobby, the Apollo 11 coins are one of a rare few that seem to have actually met that goal. It’s unrealistic to expect every commemorative program to shoot the moon, but the subject matter and marketing of the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame and the 2019 Apollo 11 commemorative coins provide reliable models for future coin programs.

LOSER: American Legion Commemorative Coins

American Legion Commemorative Silver DollarFounded in 1919 and chartered by the United States Congress that same year, the American Legion is an organization founded in Paris, France, for United States war veterans. Presently boasting a membership of nearly two million, the American Legion has had a host of notable members over the years, including former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, and actors Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.

But star power wasn’t enough to inspire more collectors into buying commemorative coins honoring this organization that has been around since the days just after the conclusion of World War I.

The three-coin American Legion 100th Anniversary Commemorative Proof Set, which includes a clad half dollar, a silver dollar, and a $5 gold coin, has sold only 7,371 units since its release on March 14. The individual coins have fared no better. Fewer than 3,000 each of the Uncirculated and Proof American Legion 100th Anniversary $5 gold coins have been sold, with the Uncirculated finish selling 2,445 pieces and only 2,758 proofs making their way to collectors.

As expected given their lower prices, the halves and silver dollars inspired higher sales figures. The American Legion dollar moved a respectable number of units, including 33,082 Proofs and 12,680 Uncirculated pieces. Meanwhile, the halves sold 17,858 Proofs and 10,682 Uncirculated pieces. Though even the five-figure numbers for the half and the dollar coin still translate into anemic sales figures overall when compared to other commemorative offerings of late.

While the sales numbers listed above do not constitute final mintage numbers (those won’t be officially published until at least mid-2020), the American Legion coins are on track to become among the lowest-selling commems of the post-1981 modern commemorative coin era. There’s no way to prove this speculation, but it’s possible that the American Legion commemorative coins would have sold much better had they been produced a few decades ago. In the 1960s, ‘70s, and even into the ‘80s, the American Legion boasted far higher membership numbers, particularly as veterans from both World Wars were still alive and active in the organization.

Sadly, all WWI vets are now gone, and the number of surviving WWII vets is dwindling. Many people from those generations were avid coin collectors even in their younger years, and certainly more so than the younger generations of American Legion vets today who were involved in more recent conflicts. Although the American Legion endeavored on a massive marketing campaign to help sell the 2019 commemorative coins that financially benefit their organization through surcharges, drumming up stronger sales for these coins has been an uphill battle.

WINNER: 2019 Pride of Two Nations Coin Set

Pride of Two Nations Coin Set

US Mint Director David Ryder hinted at the 2018 United States Mint Numismatic Forum and in interviews conducted shortly thereafter that the mint would work with other mints around the world to offer new and exciting collaborative products. As it turns out, the first manifestation of that plan was an attractive mashup of silver bullion coins from the US Mint and the Royal Canadian Mint.

The 2019 Pride of Two Nations Coin Set brings together a 2019-W American Silver Eagle and a 2019 Silver Maple Leaf, both attractive one-ounce silver coins that have individually been popular bullion offerings for many years. The two coins were sold as a set contained within a handsome blue velvet clamshell case. The set also marked a historic moment for the US Mint, which for the first time issued a bilingual certificate of authenticity in both English and French.

A total of 110,000 sets were produced, with 100,000 being offered by the United States Mint and 10,000 distributed through the Royal Canadian Mint. A few small variations in packaging persuaded some collectors on both sides of the border to order examples from both mints so they could acquire the two similar but not quite identical sets. The US and Royal Canadian Mints reported sellouts of their respective sets in a matter of days, with the November 3, 2019, tally from the United States Mint reporting 99,911 units sold. The Royal Canadian Mint publishes sales data on a more sporadic basis than does the US, so exact distribution figures for their offering of the two-coin set are not yet available.

Presumably, the US-Canadian Pride of Two Nations Coin Set is just the first of many such sets to come. If so, it’s likely those products will enjoy similar success, especially given the crossover appeal these sets have with both numismatists and bullion investors. Even if the $139.95 USD price tag did scare away some silver stackers, there were obviously plenty of others in line just waiting to snap up this unprecedented offering.

LOSER: Annual Proof & Uncirculated Coin Sets

2019 Proof Set

The other two biggest losers can be analyzed in tandem here because their plight is intertwined and caused by common forces.

Prior to the launch of the 50 State Quarters program in 1999, there were two products virtually every serious coin collector was guaranteed to buy from the US Mint each year: an Uncirculated set and a Proof set. Even into the late 1990s, about $20 would cover the purchase of both sets. The Uncirculated and Proof sets were an affordable way to keep one’s collection up to date with virtually all the regular-issue offerings struck by the Mint in a given year. Collectors loved these sets, and the US Mint made a tidy profit from the reliably strong sales of the mint and Proof sets.

But, at a time when the Mint continues increasing the number of its yearly offerings, Proof sets and Uncirculated sets are getting lost in the shuffle. Besides, the prices of Proof and Uncirculated sets have risen beyond affordability for some collectors. The 2019 Uncirculated Set is offered by the US Mint for $21.95, while the 2019 Proof Set goes for $27.95. Add in shipping and handling charges, and it now costs more than $50 to buy them both.

So far, the Mint has managed to sell only 281,836 of the 2019-dated Uncirculated sets through November 3 and 467,213 Proof sets through that same period. Though some might think these six-figure sales numbers are strong, they are quite small compared to the final distribution counts from a couple of decades ago and reflect a marked decline in sales over recent years. A period of sustained all-time sales highs was seen for these products in the 1970s and early ‘80s. That’s when Uncirculated sets were regularly selling around two to three million units per year. Proof sets had seen typical sales figures of three million or more during most years of the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, with notable drop-offs in distribution beginning in the ’90s, as was the case for Uncirculated sets.

Save for a short spike in sales during the 50 State Quarters hysteria in 1999 and into the early 2000s, the long-term sales trends for these sets have not been very good in recent years. In the last decade, only the 2010-S and 2011-S 14-Coin Proof Sets sold more than one million units each, with the vast majority of Proof sets made in the 2010s selling well below 500,000 sets apiece.

Meanwhile, the last time an Uncirculated set sold more than one million units was in 2005, and none made since 2011 have eclipsed 400,000, with numbers falling virtually year over year.

WINNER: 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle

Hands down, the most successful product sold by the United States Mint this year was the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle. Only 30,000 were made, and with an issue price of $65.95 it sold out within 15 minutes upon its release on November 14. Even before jammed phone lines and website malfunctions plagued the ordering process and caused much frustration, the numismatic community knew this coin would sell out fast.

Its mintage is even lower than the 1995-W Proof American Silver Eagle, which saw only 30,125 pieces made – all issued as part of that year’s 10th Anniversary American Gold Eagle Proof Sets.

Part of the frenzy behind this coin came in how challenging it was to obtain. Not only did many online shoppers and phone customers encounter major issues in placing their orders, but with a household limit of only one, this coin prompted many coin dealers to utilize proxies (employees, family members, and others) to circumvent the ordering limit and buy these coins for them. This helped lead to long lines at the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo in Baltimore, where the Mint had set up a temporary physical store on the bourse floor.

Whether or not the hype around the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle eventually cools down is really of little importance in this particular analysis. It was by far the most successful product offered by the United States Mint in 2019. It got people talking like no other mint product of the year. For this reason alone – not to mention its sellout performance – we must crown the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle the biggest winner of 2019 from the US Mint.

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