How Commemorative Coins Can Save the U.S. Economy

Apparently we’re living in historic times. At least that’s what our pocket change keeps telling us. At no time has the American public seen more commemorative coins foisted upon it.

They don’t do much. They have little to no market value and plenty of them barely accrue value over the long term. But so long as there is a monumental event to celebrate, there will be coins to buy for $10 on the dollar. But to be clear, there is a major distinction between the government-issued coins and those issued by the other companies making up this bizarre industry.

The real buck starts and stops with the United States Mint, who have used surcharges from their commemorative coin program to raise more than $418 million since 1982, much of which has been used to help fund museums and monuments like the Vietnam War Memorial and historical sites like George Washington’s home. The U.S. Mint has been developing celebratory coins for over a century, but at no time has its commemorative coins program been more active. The two hottest coins at the moment are separate silver dollars celebrating the twin bicentennials of the births of President Abraham Lincoln and Louis Braille. Asking price for the either one of the odd couple: as much as $41.95.

With 2009 coins remembering presidents Harrison, Taylor, Polk, and Tyler as well as the 50-state quarter program and a special gold first-lady coin commemorating Anna Harrison [available for over $600], there are some serious coins going around. And these are the legitimate U.S.-certified coins. The surging coin industry has also seen an absolute deluge of infomercial-era coins courtesy of companies like Franklin Mint.

Inspired by a mad case of Obamania, Franklin Mint’s most prominent product was a gold coin featuring the new president. Price of the coin: $22. Guaranteed value of the coin: 50 cents. The launch of the coin, complimented by a special $29.95 “Road to the White House” set, was met with a surprising advertising push, including an infomercial hosted by TV host Montell Williams who with a straight face said “some people might try to say in some ways that this is nothing more than capitalizing on a historic event, but I think this is really capturing a historic event.” Hyped as the “coin of change,” the commercial features a disclaimer that reads “the United State Government does not endorse this feature product.”

In Franklin Mint’s defense, they do feature a number of dainty collectibles, like toy cars and dolls. China and the UK have also jumped into the commemorative coin game while the U.S. Mint recently made Duke Ellington the first African American to be featured on a coin and a proposed Mark Twain coin has been making the rounds in Congress.

For some time, coins have proven themselves a lucrative industry, but even they aren’t impervious to Wall Street scandal. The $8 billion scheme perpetrated by Allen Stanford included Stanford Coin & Bullion. The scandal saw the company’s stock of coins removed from collectibles circulation indefinitely. But it still isn’t expected to hurt a surging, if bizarre, industry. Which means the commemorative 9/11 silver-leaf $20 bill bearing the image of the World Trade Center is still available. It comes courtesy of the National Collector’s Mint and is “government-authorized, non-circulating Liberian legal tender.” That means it is indeed issued by the government; the Liberian government.

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