By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …….
With so many important issues facing the country, it’s almost a tad impolitic to analyze and discuss Congressional proposals for commemorative coinage. But Hubert and I look back at another period in American numismatic history - the “great commemorative coin boom” of the 1930s - and realize that even in tough times, America’s desire to celebrate its culture and history remain central to our way of life. While what passes for national dialogue today seems like an ideological version of World War I-style trench warfare, there are still lighter moments of bipartisan support to valorize our national identity - in this case, through the issuing of commemorative coins.
Our goal is to examine the proposed commemorative coin programs of the 112th Congress. We’ve listed the basic details of each bill, but since we’re talking about coins that may or may not see production in the future, we’ve also taken the opportunity for some speculation and opinion about each program’s merit and chances for success. Some programs we’re all in favor of. Some make us scratch our heads. And some are clearly uncalled for.
We break these proposals up into three tiers: programs signed into law, programs that are likely to become law, and programs that have little or no chance to make it through the legislative process (at least right now ).
The 112th Congress began on January 3, 2011, and will end on January 3, 2013. So far, sixteen coin programs have been introduced. Of these bills, only the United States Marshals Service 225th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act and the National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act have been signed into law.
This leaves us with fourteen bills to speculate about. Based on bipartisanship and the number of cosponsors, the second tier of “Likely” coin programs has the kind of broad-based support necessary to get through Washington’s partisan gridlock. Some of these bills have sufficient support to pass if they get brought up for a vote. While it’s possible that some of these coins may never see the light of day, or may be reconfigured in some way, we believe that these are the most likely of the forthcoming commemoratives as proposed by this Congress.
Finally, we get to the long shots. Some programs are too esoteric to garner widespread support. In other instances, programs may not get full consideration due to the governing schedule of each of the chambers. It is our opinion that many of these programs are equally worthy of consideration, and as Congress works for YOU, then bringing these proposals to your attention is the best way for YOU to determine which coins YOU’D like to see.
112th Congress Commemorative Coin Programs by Denomination and Mintage Limits
|2014||Baseball Hall of Fame||Rep. Hanna R-NY24 / Sen. Gillibrand D-NY||296 / 70||X||50,000||X||400,000||X||750,000|
|2015||US Marshalls||Rep. Womack R-AR3 / Sen. Pryor D-AR||301||X||100,000||X||500,000||X||750,000|
The United States Marshalls 225th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Program
The 2015 United States Marshals 225th Anniversary Commemorative coin program was signed into law by President Barack Obama on April 12th of this year. The House bill had over three hundred sponsors and passed with a vote of 409-2. The commemorative series is authorized to mint up to 100,000 $5 gold coins, 500,000 $1 silver coins, and 750,000 clad half dollars. The purpose of the Act is to commemorate the Nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency and raise five million dollars for the United States Marshals’ Museum. It also allows for the preservation, maintenance, and display of related artifacts and documents. Any remaining revenue from the program will be split three ways, with parts going to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation, and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (to support the construction of the National Law Enforcement Museum).
The coins will bear the inscription 1789-2014 with a mint date of 2015, and the bill calls for the designs of the coins to be reminiscent of the dramatic coin art of early 20th century masters like James Earle Fraser, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Victor David Brenner, and Adolph Weinman. A limited number of coins will be presented to members of the United States Marshals Service during their 225th Anniversary ceremonies.
Charles: If the artwork is truly reminiscent of classic designs, it’s possible that this series will sell well. Having said that, I can’t help but think of the unsatisfying design of the 1997 National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial dollar.
Hubert: I agree, though I wonder which designer is really up to the task.
Charles: Good point. But I think the real culprit behind the blandness of modern coin design is the low relief of most issues. Consider that not one modern commemorative has the curvature or depth of field (to borrow a cinematic term) as the Connecticut, Oregon, or Vermont half dollars and you begin to see just how much of a challenge it will be to have any of the current class of mint engravers emulate such classic fare.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Program
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Program, authorizes the following coins and mintages: up to 50,000 $5 gold coins, up to 400,000 silver dollars, and up to three quarters of a million half dollars. The bill passed the House with a 416-3 vote and passed the Senate through a parliamentary procedure known as Unanimous Consent (no Senator objected to its passing). Much of the talk behind it involves a section in the legislation that urges the mint, “to the extent possible”, to produce the coins “in a fashion similar to the 2009 International Year of Astronomy coins issued by Monnaie de Paris”.
If the mint carries out that request, then the baseball commemoratives will sport a convex reverse intended to emulate the curve of a baseball. This is an intriguing concept for an American coin, and a rare one anywhere in modern times, period. We like to think of this proposed design as a postmodern re-imagining of Byzantine “scyphate“ coinage.
Such an initiative (or gimmick, if you will) shows a certain self-consciousness on the part of its sponsors in Congress and perhaps some MLB executives, who think such a drastic departure from U.S. coining tradition is necessary to keep up with world mints or to separate this product from other commercially-available MLB-licensed baseball “coins”. Coins like this. Or these. Or even these.
Yet the law doesn’t stop there. It also sets up a design competition, run by the Treasury Secretary, for the obverse of the coins. Artists will need to provide a plaster model and stick to baseball themes. A note to any potential entrants out there: Remember, the Secretary of the Treasury has final say, and your design will be nitpicked and altered by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the United States Commission of Fine Arts, and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. Also, the Mint itself reserves the right to make changes to your design if they decide that changes will make the actual minting process easier.
The baseball bill was introduced in the House by Representative Richard Hanna, a Republican from New York’s 24th District where Cooperstown is located. He was assisted by New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), whose Senate bill S-2036 garnered the support of sixty-nine of her colleagues.
For Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the coin program is a good deal. It’s prestige marketing using the imprimatur of the United States government. For an operation that has obvious access to generous support outside of the public trough, however, it seems greedy. If the coin program sells through, the National Baseball Hall of Fame stands to receive up to nine million dollars in surcharge money from the Treasury. That’s about the amount of money it takes to sign a journeyman pitcher to a one year contract. However, if the coin performs anything like another Major League Baseball coin - the 1997 Jackie Robinson Commemorative - then they will likely see only a fraction of that.
The Baseball Hall of Fame’s press release can be read here.
Hubert: What’s the difference between a gimmick and innovation? Does innovation have to be useful, or solve a problem? Or can we still talk about artistic innovation when it comes to coins? Or is that only allowed in medals? How this coin sells might answer those questions for a while.
Charles: Robert Aitken’s beautiful $50 gold octagonal Pan-Pacific commemorative was the last commemorative coin minted in a shape that didn’t represent standard circulating U.S. coinage. (We’ll talk more about this coin in a moment). Of course the high cost of the coins ($100 in 1915) put the piece out of the range of most people. If we start heading in the direction of foreign mints, however, we’ll have to have a discussion as to whether we’ve crossed the Rubicon into total design anarchy.
Also, one has to wonder if baseball fans are conditioned to buy whatever’s licensed by Major League Baseball, whenever it comes out. Sure, they didn’t answer the call in 1997. This will also be the fourth commemorative coin program to feature the sport. Isn’t it enough?
|2014||March of Dimes||Rep. Dold R-IL10 & Rep. Lowey D-NY18/ Sen. Kay Hagan D-NC & Sen. Collins R-ME||305 / 72||X||500,000|
|2016||Mark Twain||Rep. Luetkemeyer R-MO9 / Sen. Blumenthal D-CT||298 / 68||X||100,000||X||350,000|
|2016||Pro Football Hall of Fame||Rep. Renacci R-OH16 / Sen. Rob Portman R-OH||294 / 2||X||50,000||X||400,000||X||750,000|
|2017||Lions Club||Sen. Moran R-Kansas/ Rep. Peter Roskam R-IL6||69/ 290||X||400,000|
All four programs in this group are sponsored by Representatives who have a parochial interest in the production of the coin.
In the “Likely” category we have the March of Dimes, Mark Twain, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Lions Clubs commemorative coin programs. Let’s tackle the March of Dimes and Mark Twain first.
The March of Dimes Commemorative Coin Program
S. 1935 March of Dimes Commemorative Coin Act (in committee); H.R. 3187 March of Dimes Commemorative Coin Act (Passed House August 1, 2012)
To celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the March of Dimes Foundation, Congressmen Bob Dold (R-IL10) and Nita Lowey (D-NY18), and Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) introduced legislation that would authorize the production of up to 500,000 commemorative dollar coins. The March of Dimes is headquartered in White Plains, New York, which is located in Representative Lowey’s district.
The March of Dimes traces its roots back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose paralysis was a closely guarded secret. On January 3, 1938, at the height of the Polio epidemic, President Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The Foundation’s work not only netted a polio vaccine, but also led to 13 scientists winning the Nobel Prize, including Dr. James Watson for the discovery of the DNA double helix. Today, the March of Dimes promotes programs for newborn screening and researches ways to improve maternal and infantile health.
The House Bill, with 305 cosponsors, was referred to committee in October of 2011 and passed via voice vote on August 1, 2012, while the Senate Bill, which has 59 cosponsors, was referred to committee in December. The Bill sets a release date of 2014 and requires the proceeds to go directly to the March of Dimes to finance research, education, and services aimed at improving the health of women, infants, and children.
The March of Dimes set up this page dedicated to their advocacy of the commemorative program. It offers little in the way of revelatory information about the program or how it came about.
Hubert: I hope it’s not an ugly coin. I’m assuming it’ll have the March of Dimes logo. A worthy cause. I predict moderate sales in the hobby, but a potential market exists with non-collectors. Not as big as a breast cancer commemorative would have, but it’s there.
Charles: At one point the torch on the back of the Roosevelt dime carried a certain public connotation for the March of Dimes. The charity has rebranded itself over the years and though the visceral image of thousands of children stricken by polio seems inconceivable now, the scientific and charitable work of groups like the March of Dimes has a real impact on the public good. That being said, as someone with experience in sales and marketing, I don’t see the sizzle behind a concept like this, especially in a hobby that as of this writing is predominately made up of men.
The Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Program
S. 1929 Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Act (in committee); H.R. 2453 Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Act (Passed April 18, 2012, by a vote of 408-4)
Mark Twain was not only a quintessential American writer, he was a quintessential American. Adored abroad as much as he was revered at home, Twain was a friend to industry titans and presidents. He loved science and technology, and invested large sums of money in business startups and innovation (which at certain points in his life nearly bankrupted him.) But Twain’s true richness lays not in the commercial success of his books or his dazzling oratorical skill, or even his eyebrow-raising comedy routine. No, Twain’s true richness lays in the fact that he made America a richer place, that he elevated us.
The goal of the coin is to honor Mark Twain’s contribution to American history and literature of course, and also to raise money for the benefit of four non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving Twain’s legacy: The Mark Twain House & Museum in Connecticut; The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri; the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley; and The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, New York.
Both Senate and House versions of the bill won significant bipartisan support, with Missouri Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (his district contains the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum) proposing the House bill and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal pushing the Senate version. The House version passed by a vote of 408-4 and the Senate version, which now has 68 cosponsors, should have no problem passing if it gets out of committee.
Charles: I’m totally comfortable with the idea for this commemorative. It’s in line with the more or less recent series of what I like to call “Great American” commemoratives. Much of the proposed series’ salability depends on the quality of the coin’s design and the marketing. The four groups that would receive funding from the sale of the coins seem earnest and deserving. I wrote Beth Miller, of The Mark Twain House and Museum, about the coin. She pointed me to this website dedicated to the program.
Hubert: No problems here. I wonder, when it’s all said and done, if the sales for all these commemoratives we’re talking about will have a positive correlation to each bill’s vote margin…
Lions Clubs International Century of Service Commemorative Coin Program
S. 1299 Lions Clubs International Century of Service Commemorative Coin Act (Passed Senate July 26, 2012); H.R. 2139 Lions Clubs International Century of Service Commemorative Coin Act (Passed House September 10, 2012)
Lions Clubs International is a secular service organization founded in 1917 with the goal of uniting people towards the goal of helping others through health programs, sight programs, diabetes and hearing loss prevention, and numerous community volunteer projects. Lions Clubs International was one of the first nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) invited to help draft the United Nations Charter at the close of World War II, and it is their continued close relationship with the U.N. that facilitates their global giving.
More recently, the club’s international reach has brought hope and healing to communities in Asia devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, rebuilding thousands of homes in Indonesia. It also provided emergency relief after a devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province claimed over 300,000 lives and left 5 million people homeless.
The bill to authorize the production of up to 400,000 Lions Clubs commemorative dollars was sponsored by Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Representative Peter Roskam (R-IL6). Mr. Roskam, by the way, sits on the House Ways & Means Committee and has devoted a portion of his life to running a non-profit scholarship company for disadvantaged youth in Chicago.
We place this coin in the likely category as it seems to be a lock to clear the king of gridlock that has ground most other Congressional business to a halt. It’s even possible that the president could sign this legislation into law as early as October 2nd, when the White House will recognize select Lions Club members for their global humanitarian outreach.
Charles: There’s no doubt that the Lions Club organization is a great global citizen. One wonders how a design emblematic of their work would transfer to a coin and how marketable such a coin would be to a numismatic market. Of course, with over 1.3 million members in the organization, it’s not hard to imagine that the program would be a success in terms of sales. I wonder if the obverse will depict Lions Clubs International founder Melvin Jones.
Hubert: I would love to see the Lions Clubs logo on a coin. The two-headed lion symbol goes back to before ancient Egypt. And yes, they are great global citizens. Did you know that their work with the blind started with a speech delivered by Helen Keller? June 1 is Helen Keller Day for all Lions clubs.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Program
S. 3077 Pro Football Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act (in committee); H.R. 4104 Pro Football Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act (Passed House Aug 1, 2012)
Continuing the theme of highly lucrative professional sports feeding at the trough of public finance, we have the proposed Pro Football Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Program. Not to beat a dead horse, but did you realize that, between 1992 and 2010, 23 National Football League stadiums were built or renovated, many of which required some degree of public funding? The 1996 deal between Hamilton County, OH and the Cincinnati Bengals to pay for the construction of Paul Brown Stadium may go down in history as one of the greatest taxpayer swindles of all time.
Thanks to the Great Recession, public subsidies and tax abatements for sports teams may be running dry, but thankfully they can still get the Mint to make a commemorative coin to advertise their product. As we mentioned earlier in reference to baseball, these two sports are cash rich and enjoy endorsement deals in excess of any revenue they’d bring in selling a couple hundred thousand legal tender coins.
If anything, programs like this, while possibly flattering to fans of the sports, are prestige programs that stroke the egos of the respective leagues more than they serve any public good. And if commemorative programs don’t support the public good, then why is the public subsidizing it with the use of Mint personnel, machinery, and prestige? In 1936, Tom Melish convinced Congress to strike a fraudulent coin with a Cincinnati connection. I think if you asked a Cincinnati resident whether the NFL deserved more government money, you’d get a resounding “no”.
Hubert: Speaking of the Cincinnati Music Center commemorative, I’m interested in it because of the back story. It may have been a crooked deal but the coin exists, and it’s collectible. If anything, I’d say the monkey business behind it gives you a good story to tell. And if you think about it, so many coins throughout history portray corrupt or downright evil men and celebrate dubious “accomplishments”. It’s easier to look at a coin objectively and not care why it exists the further out of time we are from it. Coin collecting is amoral like that. Me personally, I’m waiting for the Nixon presidential dollar…
Charles: These two sport commemorative programs are a sort of banal exploitation of the government on the part of these two rather lucrative businesses. Think about it: we’ve had a stalemate in the national debate about how the government should deal with pressing issues regarding monetary policy - but two huge sports industries have no problem at all pushing coin programs for their benefit through Congress.
|2013||Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Battlefields||Rep. Hold D-NJ12||1||X||300,000||X||1,000,000||X||2,000,000|
|2014||Future Farmers for America||Sen. Grassley R-IA||23||X||100,000||X||500,000|
|2014||Mother’s Day||Rep. McKinley R-WV1/ Sen. Rockefeller, IV D-WV||21/6||X||400,000|
|2015||Marine Corps Aviation||Rep. Kline R-MN2||60||$10*||100,000|
|2015||Panama-Pacific International Exposition and Panama Canal||Sen. Feinstein D-CA/ Rep. Michael Honda D-CA15||1/6||Octagonal & Round||50,000||X||500,000||X||500,000|
|2016||U.S.S. Olympia||Rep. Brady D-PA1||20||X||500,000|
|2016||National Park Service||Rep. Duncan R-TN2||54||X||100,000||X||500,000||X||750,000|
|2016||James Monroe||Rep. Witman R-VA1||0||X||20,000||X||275,000||X||500,000|
|2017||Ronald Reagan||Rep. Latta R-OH5||40||X||50,000||X||300,000|
|2017||World War 1 American Veterans||Rep. Lamborn R-CO5||11||X||350,000|
The ten commemorative programs listed above aren’t likely to make it through Congress, at least not this session. Most, if not all, of the bill sponsors have some sort of local stake in the coins; some, like the World War I American Veterans coin, are overdue (since there are no living doughboys left to witness the commemoration).
Most recently, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Michael Hanna (D-CA15) introduced legislation to authorize a commemorative coin program commemorating the 1915 Panama-Pacific Commemorative Coin program, complete with $5 octagonal and round gold coins that, at 8.359 grams, will pale in size to the $50 gold slugs from the original set. Also included in this program are a silver dollar resembling the Roosevelt Medal given to every U. S. citizen who worked for two years on the Panama Canal, and a clad half dollar made to resemble the silver half dollar from the 1915 set.
The proposed 2015 Marine Corps Aviation $10 gold piece is probably destined to sell poorly (due to the price of gold, not the subject being commemorated), and nothing is quite as inspiring as the design possibilities of a Mother’s Day silver dollar should West Virginia Rep. McKinley’s bill become law.
We have two programs to honor past presidents - a Virginia Representative trying to commemorate “Era of Good Feelings” President James Monroe, and Ohio Representative Latta’s bill to finally enshrine President Ronald Wilson Reagan on a U.S. Coin [side note: if certain members of Congress get their way, the Presidential Coin series won’t make it to number 40]. And the National Park Service (which, if memory serves, is already being recognized by the America the Beautiful quarter series), seems redundant and unnecessary*.
And the National Park Service (which, if memory serves, is being recognized vis-à-vis the America the Beautiful Quarter series), seems redundant and unnecessary.
Hubert and I like the idea of the U.S.S. Olympia dollar coin - as the commemorative series is awash in great ship motifs - but we’re not quite sure how a coin would depict all of the many different Revolutionary War AND War of 1812 battlefields.
And sadly, the World War I American Veterans coin comes a little too late, since there are no living doughboys left to witness it.
The good news is that we all have a say in OUR commemorative coin series. We each have two senators and a representative and if any of these coins appeal to you, then contact your senators and representative and ask them to lend their support.
Who knows? You could win one for the Gipper.
*But wait! The National Park Service Commemorative bill seems to add more and more cosponsors by the week, which makes sense considering how many national parks there are across the country. In these rough economic times, our national parks are hurting for revenue, so in that light we don’t have as much of a problem with the bill as we did when we originally wrote this article. -C & H
U.S. Marshalls - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr886
Baseball Hall of Fame - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2527
March of Dimes - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr3187
Mark Twain - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2453
Football Hall of Fame - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4104
Revolutionary War / War of 1812 - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr3818
Future Farmers of America – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s1181
Mother’s Day – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr1736
Marine Corps Aviation Centennial – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr1621
U.S.S. Olympia – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr3180
Nat. Park Service – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr5840
James Monroe – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2968
Ronald Reagan – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr497
World War I Veterans – http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4107
Lions Club - http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s1299
FLIP OF A COIN:
Coin Brokers have existed in the United States throughout its history. In the mid-19th century, coin brokers were one way that people could rid themselves of unwanted copper cents and half cents, and purchase silver coins (at a premium, of course). This was necessary because copper coins were not legal tender and merchants didn’t have to accept stacks and stacks of them. Coin Brokers are still with us, though we don't think of them as such. Take the CoinStar™ machine at your local grocery store. The machine accepts your unwanted change and gives you a receipt that you redeem for cash... minus a tidy fee.
The 1964-D Peace dollar was authorized to be struck the same month that dollar designer Anthony di Francisci passed away at the age of 77. His wife Teresa, who modeled for the "piece", survived Anthony by 26 years, and lived long enough to see a balding president and a stern suffragette replace her comely countenance on the obverse of America's dollar coin.
The legal tender status of cents (continued): Like we said, the lowly cent wasn’t always legal tender. Over the labyrinthine arc of American coin legislation, the debt-paying power of certain coins has evolved over time. But it was the Coinage Act of 1965 (the law that finalized the debasement of American coins) that ultimately established cents as legal tender. Still, that isn’t the last word on the matter. The courts have long upheld a business’ right to not accept payment remitted in forms inconvenient to the merchant. Remember that next time you try to pay your mortgage in rolled coin.