By Louis Golino for CoinWeek
In numerous pieces for this column over the past couple years, I have been to a large extent an advocate for the series of First Spouse Gold Coins. I have always believed America’s First Ladies deserve a series honoring them, though a strong argument can be made that the coins should have either been minted of silver or made in quarter-ounce gold size, as I argued a couple years ago in another publication. The bronze medals do provide a low-cost alternative, but they are not very attractive artistically, a criticism also leveled at the gold coin coins.
I have tended to take a more positive view of the artwork on coins in the series, although the quality of the reverse designs has declined substantially in the past year or so with far too many generic floral designs that are barely distinguishable from each other. I prefer designs that showcase the contributions of the particular spouse.
And there is of course also the draw of low mintage coins. The fact remains that this series has produced the lowest mintage U.S. coins of the past 100 years. How much that ultimately matters to collectors if hardly anyone really wants the coins remains to be seen. But there should be solid long-term demand for the series keys and for the Liberty subset of coins issued for presidents who were not married while in office.
Finally, as many have noted, today’s sleepers can be high demand coins in the future after the series ends, and more collectors finally appreciate the coins. This remains a possibility, to be sure, but as the series begins its eighth year, I find myself increasingly doubting the likelihood that these coins, apart from those highlighted above, will ever be widely sought.* For one thing, likely higher gold prices in future years will continue to make the coins too expensive for many people, which in itself limits the market and demand for the coins.
I was speaking to my local dealer recently, an establishment with over 40 years in the business, and he told me that even when he offers First Spouse Gold Coins to customers for a lower premium than regular bullion American eagle gold coins, buyers want the eagles. He added that people “just don’t seem to connect to them.”
Even dealers who in the recent past did a fairly substantial amount of business in these coins seem to be largely uninterested in them now because of low demand from customers. If few dealers carry the coins, and few buyers want them, there is just not much of a market for the coins.
As we finally reach the post- World War II spouses that are more well-known, there may be something of a surge in interest for some issues, especially the coins for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and probably for Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton too. That is likely to solidify the status of the low mintage queens of the series, the Lucretia Garfield and Lucy Hayes coins, with mintages under 2200.
I have been trying to build a set of these coins since 2008 and recently decided that it made more sense to give up this pursuit and focus instead on the $5 gold commemorative series, which in my view has a brighter future. It is also a lot easier to collect since the coins are made of half as much gold as the First Spouse Gold Coins, just under a quarter-ounce instead of a half-ounce. And the $5 coins will always be widely collected, which means there is a well-established market for them. Plus the coins in the vast majority of cases have designs that most people find appealing, and though issued for over 30 years there are not that many coins in the series, making it much more realistic to complete than most gold coin series.
And yet, with all that it has going for itself, this series is largely undervalued with lots of coins with mintages under 10,000 that sell for a small premium over gold content. The 2013 Five Star General uncirculated coin is a new key coin with the second-lowest mintage in the series, but several other coins issued in the past couple years like the 2012 Star Spangled Banner uncirculated coin have mintages only a little higher, yet they do not carry much premium. This probably makes them good sleeper candidates.
Collectors need to give considerable thought to what they collect, and there is nothing wrong with changing course when it makes sense to do so. Higher gold prices, especially compared to the first couple years of the series, made finishing the spouse series a daunting prospect for me, and doing so would have meant giving up any other coin interests. Plus the $5 gold coins are not only half as expensive or less, but they are not issued every year, and no more than two different ones are ever issued in one year because of the two commemorative coin program limit Congress imposed in response to the over-abundance of commemoratives in the 1980’s.
Most of the earlier $5 coins, except a few that have very low mintages such as the series key, the 1997 Jackie Robinson coin in uncirculated condition, are available for close to melt, or as slabbed 70’s for just a little more.
I recommend building a set of the uncirculated coins if you want the ones with the best long-term potential for appreciation because they always have the lower mintage compared to the proofs, and you can always substitute the proof version for the uncirculated issues that are very expensive. Then later if you are able to, you can sell the proof and buy the uncirculated coins.
In addition, prices on many of the higher-premium $5 commemoratives have come down in the past couple years, and now is a good time to consider picking up some of those if your budget permits.
I admire those who have stuck with the First Spouse Gold Coins and plan to see it through to the end, but even if I could afford to do, which I can’t, I consider it too risky to invest so much on coins with such weak demand almost a decade into the series. Some coins just never catch on with collectors.
*An additional factor that decreases interest in the series is the production problems that delayed the release of the coins over the past two years. It appears that this year the coins may once again be issued later in the year, which frustrates people who want to buy the coins and stagger their purchases as well as those who would have liked to purchase while gold prices were lower.