A coin dealer's article on Double Mint Sets leads to the discovery of 1942-1946 Double Mint Sets...
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ....
This is a story about five tiny cloth sacks, a numismatic mystery 70 years in the making, and a coin industry veteran, whose recollection of one particular missed opportunity led to one of the most interesting discoveries in recent years.
Leo Frese may not be a household name yet, but he has worked as a professional numismatist for more than 30 years. He is also one of the foremost experts on double mint sets, a subject that you’ll know much more about by the time you get to the end of this article.
Like many in the hobby, Frese was born a collector. He first started combing through pocket change at the age of 12, looking for valuable silver coins and Indian cents. His grandfather, a stamp collector, guided him in the first legs of his collector’s journey.
Frese, like most boys of the era, worked throughout his teenage years. He held a number of different jobs, from grocery store clerk to busboy and waiter. Along the way, he continued to sniff out interesting coins in change, filling holes in his Whitman coin boards. By the time he entered college, he was making money as a vest pocket dealer. You could say it was his first profession.
After college, Frese became an elementary school teacher. If you know him today, you can get a sense of his educator’s temperament. “He’s a businessman,” one colleague told us, “but he likes to teach people about the coins and the craft.”
Frese’s first coin job came in 1983, when he took a position with Steve Ivy Rare Coins. This was an important time for the firm, as it transitioned from a regional coin business into a national powerhouse in the rare coin and auction business. Frese would spend the next 28 years with the company, serving in various capacities.
While at Heritage, Frese was exposed to all manner of numismatic material, from humble coins and modest collections to the great pedigreed rarities that would be the star of any of the company’s world-class sales.
But there’s one encounter that Frese remembers from his time taking consignments for the Dallas-based firm that has stuck with him over the years. His ability to recall “the one that got away” ultimately would lead to the discovery of United States double mint sets that, for 70 years, had gone unnoticed.
The 1990 ANA
“A curious thing showed up at the consignment table,” Frese recalls, “It was 1990, at the American Numismatic Association Convention in Seattle. A fellow came up with a little sealed canvas bag with a Treasury tag attached to it and asked if I was interested in purchasing it. He wanted more than a thousand dollars for it.”
Frese didn’t know what to make of the sack of coins. The man claimed that it was a 1946 mint set, but neither Frese nor anyone working at the Heritage booth had seen such a thing or even heard of mint sets made in 1946.
“At first we thought he misspoke, but after he assured us he had brought a 1946 Mint Set, we told him that the Mint didn’t make sets in 1946. The bag was sealed so we couldn’t look inside to verify his story. I asked him how much he wanted for it and he said $1,000.”
After hearing the man’s price, Frese decided not to make an offer on the coins.
“That was way too much money for a canvas bag with no documentation,” Frese said, “and no way of knowing what was inside.”
So the man with the only known 1946 mint set left the Heritage table and disappeared into the annals of numismatic history.
That set, as far as anybody knows, has not appeared in a public auction.
“It’s a mystery to me… what happened to that sack of coins.”
Double Mint Sets
What has passed as accepted knowledge for more than 50 years is that the Mint began issuing double mint sets in the year 1947.
The Red Book, which didn’t begin to regularly include mint sets in its pricing coverage until the early 1980s, describes double mint sets this way:
“Uncirculated mint sets sold by the Treasury from 1947 through 1958 contained two examples of each regular-issue coin. These were packaged in cardboard holders that did not protect the coins from tarnish.”
The Mint struck approximately 5,000 sets in 1947. That number, more or less, held steady through 1949. In 1951, after a one year break in production, 8,654 sets were made. Demand for the sets grew annually and, in 1959, the Mint began to ship mint sets containing only one coin of each issue, having replaced the cardboard holders with thin plastic pouches.
By 1964, the last year of circulating silver, orders for mint sets exceeded one million. Still, post-1958 mint sets seldom arouse collector excitement like the double mint sets that came before.
It’s the double mint set’s propensity for beautifully-toned coins that makes it a favorite with collectors. Many decide to keep the sets intact. Others break out the coins in order to have them encapsulated by the grading services.
For speculators and dealers, the high prices that toned, high quality mint set coins bring on the market make going through the sets in search of potentially valuable pieces a logical business proposition.
The end result, according to Frese, is that more than 70% of the sets offered for sale today are not fully original. That is to say, the coins in the sets are not the same coins originally shipped to customers from the Mint.
“A dealer friend of mine routinely sends back almost three fourths of the sets he gets in the mail because they are not original. Original sets with nice toning can sell for 20-30% over bid. Premium toned coins, if found in original sets, will bring much more,” says Frese, “People don’t realize that most of the original sets are gone. But the truth is, most of them have been broken up over the years.”
Frese points to three great periods of mint set destruction:
- 1980, when the run up of silver caused by the Hunt Brothers caused thousands of sets to be melted;
- 1983, when the release of Jack Ehrmantraut’s An Analysis of Gem Franklin Half Dollars spurred market interest in FBL (Full Bell Line) Franklin halves; and
- the present day, when dealers and collectors are breaking up sets in order to send nice coins in to the grading services.
The Existence of 1942-1946 Mint Sets Confirmed?
Earlier this year, Leo Frese wrote an article for CoinWeek on the double mint sets of 1947-1958.
The piece, which can be found here, explained the popularity of double mint sets and offered guidance to collectors on what to avoid and how to identify truly original sets.
A man from Ohio found the article and decided to give Frese a call. He explained that his grandfather was a coin collector who died in a tragic car accident in 1958. Each year, the man said, his grandfather would buy six of that year’s double mint sets, keeping one for himself, giving one to his wife, and the rest to his children.
What was unusual about the man’s story was that he claimed the sets were dated 1942 through 1946. The man also explained that the sets would be offered in April at the Central States Numismatic Society’s 75thAnniversary Convention at the Heritage Auction.
“I remembered the gentleman from 1990,” Frese said, “…and so I thanked the man on the phone and went to my computer to take a look at the lots at the Heritage Auction. Sure enough, he was telling the truth.”
Heritage listed the sets as “Uncertified Double Mint Sets” and included photographs of the coins of the two sets that were opened and the unopened sacks for those that weren’t. The sets were addressed to John Ray Paul and his wife Patricia Lou Paul of Waterloo, Iowa.
The 1942 set included a letter from the Treasury dated February 1, 1943. The unopened 1943 set was postmarked November 12, 1943. The unopened 1944 set was postmarked November 24, 1944. The 1945 set was postmarked December 20, 1945. The 1946 set was postmarked November 27, 1946. The coins were shipped from Washington, DC.
Frese won each of the auctions, and though the sets received significant interest, few dealers at the show were aware of their existence until after the coins sold.
“I was prepared to pay more than I did for each of these sets,” Frese said, “I think they flew under the radar.”
Judging by the reaction of those on the bourse, whose first opportunity to review the sets came after the auction, we’re inclined to agree.
Frese set up an impromptu display at his booth to show off the sets. In reviewing the contents of the two sets that were opened, he was shocked at what he found.
“For the most part, these are premium coins. The packaging on the opened sets was very curious. The quarters and half dollars were put inside Treasury half dollar rolls and stapled shut. The nickels, dimes, and cents were put inside nickel rolls.”
The included paperwork told part of the story.
“The letter that accompanied the 1942 set is very revealing,” Frese states. “For starters, this doesn’t appear to be a one off correspondence. The letter is organized and efficient and the fact that “Nickels” is crossed off and replaced by “5 cents” tells you that this form was developed before the change in metal of the nickel.”
Frese’s analysis of the enclosed letter leads him to believe that collectors were able to purchase “double mint sets” before the Mint debuted the familiar packaging of 1947-1958.
“We’ll still have to find more of these to be sure, but what we have here is pretty strong evidence that these were in fact double mint sets,” Frese told us at Central States.
1942-1946 “Double Mint Set” Road Show
In the few months that Frese has owned the sets, he has taken them out on the road, exhibiting them at numerous coin shows across the country.
Frese explains how the former owner contacted him after reading his column on CoinWeek and that he’s showing the sets (which are not for sale) in order to learn more about them.
“I want to show these to as many people as possible, to educate them about the sets, and hopefully to find people that can tell me more about them as well,” Frese said.
In the past few months, two collectors have stopped by his booth to share some of their personal recollections about the sets and the period of numismatic history they come from.
One tantalizing yet unverified lead came to Frese at the summer FUN Show, when an 80-year-old man stopped by and told the dealer that he recognized the small canvas-sack mint sets.
“He told me that his father used to work for the Treasury Department and it was his job to put these sets together. He said he had a photograph of his father at work doing just that,” Frese said. “He told me that he’d dig it out and send me a copy. I gave him my information.”
Unfortunately, the photo has yet to arrive.
At another show, a collector brought Frese a slip of paper that he claimed was a remittance form for the mint sets.
“This is the closest thing I’ve seen to an actual order form,” says Frese.
The proof is a small slip that can only be described as instructions on how to order coins from the Treasury. It reads:
“Remittance must accompany each order and should be made by Postal Money Order or Certified Check, payable to Treasurer, U.S., or cash, sent by registered mail.
Mail order patrons must allow for return postage at the rate of three cents per ounce or fraction thereof. In addition, it is recommended that provision be made for registration. The fee on orders valued at $5.00 or less is $0.20; $5.01 to $25, 25 cents.
Do not send a self-addressed envelope for the return of your purchases. Such envelopes are frequently found unsuited for the purposes. Small balances due to the purchaser will be returned in 1 cent, 2 cent, or 3 cent stamps.
Treasury cannot undertake to furnish coins that are free from tarnish or scratches. Coins becomes scratched in the necessary counting and stacking at the mints, and they become tarnished after being stored away at the mint for a short time.”
But does this form prove that the sets Frese bought at Central States are in fact double mint sets? It says nothing specific about the coins being ordered other than that the Treasury cannot guarantee their specific quality.
“The way the form is written,” Frese says, “tells me that the Treasury was filling multiple orders for these things, and that they produced this document to try to streamline the process.”
Indeed. But is it the smoking gun that proves that these are double mint sets (as opposed to special orders for two of each coin?)
Thanks to saved letters from numismatists of the period, we do know that collectors of the period did correspond directly with the Mint to order individual coins.
Q. David Bowers detailed this in his book An Inside View of the Coin Hobby in the 1930s: The Walter P. Nichols File (1984).
That book, which is simply (and brilliantly) a collection of written correspondence from and to Walter P. Nichols--with added Bowers commentary--illustrates quite clearly the way coin collectors acquired coinage from the Treasury.
At the time, the Treasury accommodated requests on a one-by-one basis. Payment (generally overpayment) was made in cash, requests for specific coins were filled as available, and the remaining balance was sent back to the collector in cash.
But these sets, although crudely packaged, look “put together”, their makeup purposeful. Collectors like Nichols were simply hassling the Treasury for coins that they could not find in circulation in their locality. Nichols even inquired about fractional currency in a letter he wrote to the Treasury in 1931!
Whatever conclusions one draws from Frese’s newly-found document, the fact that he’ll be taking the sets on the road for the next two years is bound to turn up more clues. It’s the process of discovery that makes numismatics so exciting.
Frese even hopes more sets turn up.
Growing Appreciation for Mint Sets
Double mint sets were thought of as little more than bullion when the Hunt Brothers ran up the price of silver in 1980. Today, the market treats them with much more respect.
One thing is for sure, the herd has thinned out tremendously and the chances of finding remarkable intact double mint sets are getting slimmer by the day. The incentive to keep the sets together is lessened by the potential for huge profits on the individual coins.
It’s possible that the 1942-1946 “double mint sets” that Frese purchased at the CSNS represent the first attempt made by the Mint to sate collector demand for modern coins. If this turns out to be true, and hundreds or even a few thousand of these sacks were made, it’s no wonder that most would have been lost to time.
Collectors don’t usually buy coins and never look at them. The cloth sacks of the Paul Sets are simply shipping containers. The stapled rolls, improvised and inelegant coin containers.
The biggest questions about these sets remain unsolved. How many were made? How did collectors know to order them? And why did no one write about them?
Two years from now, perhaps we’ll know more.
Frese gets significant offers for the sets everywhere he takes them. He hopes to get a lot more than money for them - he hopes to unlock their many mysteries first.
And to think, some people say modern coins are boring!
Charles Morgan is a member of the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, the Numismatic Literary Guild, Central States Numismatic Society, and the Richmond Coin Club. Hubert Walker is a member of the American Numismatic Association and the Numismatic Literary Guild. Together, they have written numerous articles for publication online and in print, including two 2013 NLG award-winning articles for CoinWeek.com.
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