U.S. Mint Director Philip N. Diehl made a surprising confession to Congress this week: The commemorative coins his government agency sells by the thousands, often for hundreds of dollars apiece, are a poor investment.
“The record is absolutely clear: These are not good investments,” Diehl conceded to members of the House Banking subcommittee on domestic and international monetary policy. “… They are keepsakes … mementos…. We compete with T-shirts.”
“High-priced T-shirts,” suggested Rep. Sue W. Kelly, R-N.Y., voicing concern that many individuals who bought coins celebrating the Olympics, Statue of Liberty or the Constitution from the mint will be shocked to discover they can buy the same coins for far less from a coin dealer.
A 1986 gold Liberty coin that the mint sold for $170 now can be had for $125.
A 1990 Eisenhower silver dollar that was offered for $23 now sells for $13.
A 1991 Korean War silver dollar that was sold for $28 now sells for $15.95.
Diehl appeared Wednesday at a hearing at which he and a panel of numismatic experts agreed with subcommittee chairman Michael N. Castle, R-Del., that the mint’s 13-yearold commemorative coin program is in “a parlous state.”
Since the Reagan administration revived the mint’s moribund program in 1982 with a silver half dollar honoring George Washington, Congress has allowed charities to raise money through surcharges on the commemoratives.
“There is no question that all types of political shenanigans” give selected charities the right to earn millions of dollars in surcharges from the sale of commemorative coins, Castle said. Since proposals for new commemorative coins frequently are attached to other politically popular measures, he said it may be a difficult problem to correct.
Although commemorative coins have a face value, they are designed not for use as circulating coinage, but for sale to collectors. Unlike the mint gold and silver Eagle bullion coins, they are not designed for investments, though some collectors expect their value to grow.
But a recent surge in commemoratives has infuriated collectors and sent the prices for the coins plummeting. “These are not ‘rare coins,”’ New York coin dealer Harvey G. Stack told the House subcommittee. “The only thing ‘rarer’ than these modern commemoratives will be finding someone willing to give you a profit when you try to sell them.”
Stack, who has been buying and selling coins for nearly 50 years, said the mint issued 89 different commemorative coins between 1982 and 1994. If a collector who had purchased them from the mint tried to sell the coins today, he would “make a $1 or $2 profit on only 13 of those coins, break even on two of them and lose money on 74 others.”