Interview with Dr. Michael Bugeja Part II: “Coins Are Art You Can Hold and Experience History in the Process”
by Louis Golino for CoinWeek
This is the second part of the interview I did with Dr. Michael Bugeja, who serves on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC). The first part is available here:
LG: 4.) What do you think of the artistic level of recent U.S. circulating and collector coins? Do you agree with the view that we need better coin designs? Do you think the concept of changing reverses has been overused in recent years?
MB: Designs are improving. I think the world-class engravers, sculptors and artists at the U.S. Mint deal with a lot of technical and legislated issues that sometimes stifle their creative muses. But that’s the nature of art. A sonnet is much more restrictive than Congressional coin legislation, and the best poets manage to rise above the challenges to express something new in verse. The same happens in design. And when it doesn’t, as happened with the 2013 Ohio Perry commemorative designs, we have to be courageous enough to reject the designs. That happens infrequently, however.
LG: 5.) What do you think of the idea of using classic images of Liberty and re-using 18th and 19th century coin designs on modern coins, which seems to be wildly popular with coin collectors? I know this will be done for the American palladium eagle, but I have the sense that collectors would like to see more such coins.
MB: Well, I like that. How can one not as some of those designs are universal, using archetypes to inspire us about the values we as Americans hold dear. I won’t advocate for this, as it is too political and controversial; but I often wonder how our coinage would look if we removed past great presidents from circulating coinage–cent, nickel, dime, quarter, half, etc.–and reverted again to icons that will ennoble, empower and encourage citizens now and in the future. I think George Washington, who never wanted his face on a coin, might approve. John Adams, on the other hand, would not.
LG: 6.) You have described yourself as a lifelong coin collector. Is there anything in particular that really stimulated your interest in coins such as an interest in history?
MB: Well, my uncle gave me silver dollars every time he visited. My favorite childhood book was titled, Case of the Counterfeit Coin. And my father paid my allowance in cent rolls from the bank. A little known fact is that I am a National Endowment for the Arts fellow. I won the award with others in 1990. My manuscript in part dealt with a boy collector.
LG: 7.) How did you get into writing about coins?
MB: I’m a journalist. I worked for United Press International as a national correspondent and state editor. I’m also a published author across nonfiction and creative genres. If you love coins, and know how to write, well, the two just go hand-in-hand.
LG: 8.) Do you think the obsession with graded coins, especially modern coins that grade MS or PF70, is ultimately harmful for the hobby?
MB: I think graded coins–especially MS/PF70 modern ones–can addict collectors like numismatic drugs. Think about it. Collectors like orderly things. They do not want a series of silver eagles in different denominations. They’ll take all MS69 or MS70, and if they had to choose, MS70. And if they had to choose those, First Strike. And so on. That’s our nature. And it has been helpful, not harmful, to the hobby from a financial and marketing perspective. But I don’t think it is good for the pocketbook or the psyche. After all, you used the word obsession. Are obsessions healthy? Well, usually not for the addicted. But this also has to do with how we define the hobby.
Many serious collectors overlook modern coins because they will not increase in value as some of the more classic coinage, such as Morgan dollars, might. If you define the hobby as someday having a return on investment, then sure–the obsession with graded coins and set registries and labels, what have you, can be harmful. But if you’re having fun, and you are learning about numismatic history or coin design or art, then that really is a private hobby decision. I learned this after buying estate coins from people who purchased from TV vendors. What we would call junk coins. The heirs knew that their loved one overpaid for coins. But they also knew how the loved one found it fulfilling in some way. So all this boils down to is how we define hobby and harmful.
LG: 9.) What is your view on the current state of the U.S. coin market?
MB: I think it is healthy. But like journalism, it is gravitating to the web, especially online auctions. Dealers and auctioneers who cannot make the transition are going to suffer, but the hobby will reinvent itself for younger generations. Why? Because coins are museums in your pocket. Just like fashion is art that you wear, coins are art you can hold and experience history in the process.
LG: 10.) Do you have any advice for coin collectors, and for individuals with a strong interest in numismatics and coinage who may have an interest in serving on the CCAC in the future?
MB: I think the open process for seats on the CCAC was very fair. And the people at the U.S. Mint, especially the interim director Richard Peterson and sculptor-engraver Don Everhart, are terrific. My colleagues on the CCAC come from different backgrounds, and I respect their viewpoints. Heidi Wastweet, in particular, has insightful observations. This is an important committee, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
LG: I think coin collectors are truly indebted to Dr. Bugeja for providing a fascinating insider’s perspective on the work of the CCAC and American coinage and numismatics. CoinWeek is grateful for his participation in this discussion.
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.