By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………
Probably no modern U.S. coin series divides collectors as much as the gold First Spouse coins issued by the U.S. Mint since 2007.
The debate over these coins focuses on two main issues: whether the coins should have been issued in the first place and their long-term outlook.
Some people love them and believe their low mintages bode very well for future price appreciation with an additional boost coming from higher gold prices. They also feel that the first ladies of our nation deserve to be honored with their own coin series with many having played important behind-the-scenes roles in our nation’s history such as Abigail Adams and Mary Todd Lincoln.
And then there is the more commonly-expressed view, which is they never should have been made because the wives of U.S. presidents are not significant historical figures. Many such people believe the spouse coins will trade close to their melt value in the future. The 2007 coins, which had mintages about seven times those of more recent issues, have traded at bullion values unless graded MS or PF-70.
But so far almost every spouse coin other than the 2007 issues that is no longer available from the U.S. Mint sells for a premium over issue price on the secondary market, a substantial one in many cases. The 2012 releases currently sell for less than their initial prices from the Mint last year, and that is because spot gold has declined substantially since then. But those coins except for the Alice Paul proof coin are still available from the Mint.
Those who collect this series have been waiting all year for the 2013 coins to be released. These coins have been delayed by differences of opinion between the two bodies that review U.S. coin designs, the Commission on Fine Arts and the Citizens Advisory Coinage Commission.
On August 6 the Mint announced that the designs for this year’s coins had all been approved by the Treasury Secretary, and that the first coin for Ida Saxton McKinley will be released in the early fall and release date for all the new spouse coins will be listed on the Mint’s online schedule once the dates have been determined.
This year five, rather than the usual four coins, will be issued because President Woodrow Wilson had two different wives while in office. In addition to the Ida Saxton McKinley coin, the other four will honor Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft, Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson.
So like last year the 2013 coins will all be released during the last couple months of the year. Some buyers feel the need to buy them as soon as they come out either because they want first strike coins, or because they worry they will get someone else’s return. But with gold prices so volatile this year it may pay to wait and buy them later, which has been the case with the 2012 coins.
A big part of the appeal of this series for those who collect them is the ultra low mintages of many coins in the series, especially a number of the uncirculated coins. So far the Lucy Hayes and Lucretia Garfield coins are the key date coins. Those coins are the lowest mintage modern U.S. coins minted in the past century.
But skeptics of the series point out that if low mintages are the only thing driving demand, the long-term outlook for the series is probably not good. To be a success on the secondary market over time coins need to be both scarce and in demand. A good example of low mintages not mattering so much are some world coins that have incredibly low mintages but that are not widely collected because they only appeal to a small number of people, or they are prohibitively expensive.
Contacted for this article, Eric Jordan, an expert on modern U.S. coins and co-author with John Maben of Top 50 Most Popular Modern Coins, said: “If there was contest for the title of ‘The most problematic series in US history,’ the First Spouse Series would certainly be one of the front runners for the title, and the reasons are many.”
“First, those contemplating taking up the series are faced with the prospect of having to buy about 40 half once gold coins whose metal content alone is well over $25,000, thus discouraging much of the broad middle class from taking an interest.
Second, the series has poor cohesion because of the complete lack of consistent design elements present in traditional series or the more recent changing reverse/stable obverse issues.
Third, beautiful and inspiring designs with natural magnetism are a blessing to any series, and while this set has some bright spots like Julia Tyler and the Liberty short sets, many of the issues are so ugly people just simply don’t want them.
Fourth, dealers both small and large have largely abandoned buying first spouses as carry forward inventory due to the abundance of faster moving and more popular series like gold buffalos, silver & gold eagles etc.”
Finally, to be successful “series need strong key dates that have much lower populations than their common date siblings. Pronounced staggering of the mintage chart is what causes most established series top 3 keys to acquire about 50 percent of the entire sets value by the time it reaches maturity. Unfortunately first spouse gold issues appear to have fallen into a very tight sales range of 2200 to 2900 uncirculated coins and about 3500 proofs this year and last year. There is no reason to believe the Mint is going to adjust its anticipated demand assumptions on these coins any time soon. If a single country has 8 equal kings, then they are all weak monarchs.
All these problems are very real, lasting and structural, but they may also be the reason that they become serious coinage in the out years. Troubled infants can rise up to become tomorrow’s kings. Buying these coins at or close to Mint issue price is a very low risk proposition in their current mintage range.”
There are certainly plenty of modern Mint coins that have followed that trajectory, from coins that were in low demand when issued to coins that years later sold for a major premium because of their scarcity. Examples includes the Jackie Robinson mint state $5 gold and the mint state Library of Congress $10 bi-metal gold and platinum coin.
But for this to apply to the spouse coins, something more than low mintages will need to support long-term demand. Basically, the series will need more people collecting it.
Potential bright spots include the 2013 designs that have generally received more positive reviews than many other recent issues, although it remains to be seen how they will look when executed on actual coins.
Finally, as the series gets closer to the coins that will be issued for modern first ladies, interest in the series should pick up. The Jackie Kennedy coin is one that is often cited as a likely high demand issue.
Those who are collecting this series either like the coins and their themes enough to stick with it through so many years, or they are hedging their bets that buying them today will pay off down the road when this series establishes itself as the likely lowest mintage modern U.S. gold coin series.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.