Commemorating the Sale of Coins

Posted on 8/5/2008

With a USA commemorative coin program in disrepute, David W. Lange wants to address the matter of which commemorative themes are the most desirable to represent our civilization in the long run.

While my column typically features some technical or historic aspect of our nation’s coinage, this month’s entry is more in the nature of an essay. It concerns the state of the USA’s commemorative coin program.

To someone who grew up in a world in which United States commemorative coins were solely a story from the past, it was with some surprise that I learned of Congress’ approval of the George Washington half dollar in 1981. When this coin was issued the following year, I was quite pleased with its artistry and with the simple, straightforward manner in which it was sold to collectors, with all proceeds going toward reduction of the national debt.

After this auspicious beginning, the USA commemorative coin program quickly slid into some disrepute, as greed and political maneuvering ultimately determined which themes became coins and how the funds raised from their sales were distributed. While some of the resulting coins were and still remain quite appealing to collectors, there was a certain taint of exploitation to the whole series. This, however, is not my gripe. Instead, I want to address the matter of which commemorative themes are the most desirable to represent our civilization in the long run. After all, coins will outlast most other aspects of American culture from our era, and commemorative issues should be limited to which events and individuals are the most reflective of our own time, rather than which will sell the most units.

The most common of all commemorative themes, within recent decades in this country and in others, have been anniversaries of one sort or another. We are repeatedly minting coins that honor the sesquicentennial of this event or the bicentennial of so-and-so’s birth. The fundamental problem I see with this is that it looks backward to our past achievements rather than recognizing what is worthy of celebration in our current civilization. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but in how many guises does he need to appear on a United States coin? The same may be said for Washington and Lincoln. While some of their achievements still affect our society in 2008, the men themselves are long gone. They don’t belong to our present day and would likely find America of the 21st century to be somewhat disturbing. If Jefferson could have looked ahead to our current culture, with its overemphasis on sports and entertainment at the expense of social and scientific achievements, he may have just set down his mighty pen and become a dry cleaner.

I have the same complaint with the anniversaries of important battles and other historic events. The time to honor these milestones with a commemorative coin is when they occur.
The end of World War II should have been celebrated with commemoratives in 1945, not 1993. Likewise, the completion of the Mount Rushmore Memorial should have resulted in a 1941 commemorative half dollar, but in both instances the abuses of the 1930s commemorative programs made such recognition politically impossible. Fifty years later, however, everyone including Congress saw dollar signs in the potential to sell non-circulating coins for these long-concluded events.

The Romans had it right; they issued circulating commemorative coins to mark their achievements as they occurred. While some of this was sheer propaganda to glorify the emperor, the notion of honoring present-day events is ultimately of much greater significance to future generations. All of the milestones of the space program during the 1960s, 70s and 80s were overlooked, though Congress did authorize a few medals. The closest we came to having a real commemorative coin recognizing these achievements was with the reverse design of the Eisenhower dollar in 1971 and again in 1976, but the meaning of these coins is not clearly expressed. The Apollo XI moon landing deserved a coin all its own.

A thousand years from now, people will assume that Americans were very disappointed with their own time and looked longingly toward a more glorious past. Our fundamental failure in selecting commemorative themes is one of wanting to sell the actual coins more than selling the message they present to current and future generations.

A glaring expression of this failing is found in most coin club medals. The axiom here is, if you want to sell medals, put on them a train, a car, a ship or a popular old coin design. All are guaranteed sell-outs, both literally and figuratively. I’ve been guilty of this myself. In my younger days, I was quite active in coin clubs, and I’ve designed a few club medals over the years. My very first honored the 1957 founding of our local club with the image of a ’57 Chevy convertible. It was a big seller, but what it says to future generations is that Americans of the late 20th century were stuck in the past. I’ve since come to prefer medals and coins that honor current events. In fact, I’d be more pleased with a simple medal that just carries the club’s logo and the date of that year’s coin show, but such simple themes don’t sell as well as a medal carrying a mediocre, computer generated replica of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle.

In both our commemorative and bullion coin programs, Congress is marching merrily down this same sad path.

David W. Lange's column, USA Coin Album, appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.