The Price of Success Is Vigilance
ANA members deserve a big "thank you" for all they have done to help control unsavory advertising. In the past 12 years that this column has been published in The Numismatist, hundreds of questionable offerings have been brought to the attention of collectors. Members who scan advertising and share information deserve credit for accomplishing something that seemed almost impossible in the beginning. Concerned readers have effectively stopped buying from the worst advertisers and have spread the word to unsuspecting non-numismatists as well.
We sent a message, and advertisers listened. There has been a noticeable decline in the number of offensive ads, and even the marginal ones now use correct numismatic terms and descriptions. We no longer see medals called coins or oversized replicas called patterns. Of course, cents will always be referred to as "pennies," but even the Mint does that.
I have noticed that prices being charged by many national advertisers have become much more competitive. The timing for these changes is fortunate because they have happened just when the public is gearing up for what might be the biggest numismatic boom ever to hit the nation. Ads for coins, albums, maps and books are appearing everywhere. Millions of dollars are being spent for exposure on television, in newspapers and point-of-purchase displays. Suddenly, coin collecting is on its way to being the nation's number one hobby again, and newcomers are going to find it wholesome and entertaining because we have all fought hard to make it that way.
Now it is up to us to keep the hobby unblemished and safe for beginners. We can do that by continued vigilance and scrutiny of advertising and dealer practices. It is a responsibility all of us must share.
I noticed a curious addition to a current United States Mint ad for proof sets. In small type below a picture of the Sacagawea dollar were these words: "Obverse Copyright © 1999 U.S. Mint All Rights Reserved." This seems to be a major step toward putting an end to the practice of outsiders copying coinage designs and producing oversized or off-metal versions. Nothing has slowed them down in the past, and this seems like low-key muscle flexing. We will have to wait and see if this new assertion stops the abuses.
The best way to halt the sale of those copycat "paperweights" is simply to refrain from buying them. The Mint has plenty of real coins and sets to offer, so don't waste your money on replicas.
Morgan dollars are back in the news. A national advertiser claims that 3,264 of them have just been released, and you can buy up to 150 if you act fast. They cost $25 each, and if you believe this ad, you may think this is a low price. The promoter invites you to compare prices or check numismatic publications. I did, and I found that uncirculated coins can be purchased almost anywhere for about half their advertised price.
This ad did make the Morgan dollars sound exciting, and there is no denying that every collector should have one or more of these historic coins in their collection. The only questions I would pose are why are only 3,264 coins available, why are we limited to 150 pieces, and why is the price good for only 7 days?
Mixed in with the Statehood quarter maps and boards in this colorful ad found in my Sunday paper was something I didn't quite expect. It was a map called the "Statehood Lincoln Penny Collection." No, the Mint does not have a new product you did not know about - this board has spaces for Lincoln cents that have been counterstamped with an outline of each state.
These "Statehood" cents have been around for years. They are nothing more than normal cents that have been counterstamped with the shape and initials of each state. Unfortunately, they sometimes find their way into circulation and then to coin shops, where someone has to explain to the finder that these are altered coins having no special value.
In this case, if you want a set of all 50 cents and a map holder to put them in, it will cost you $27.50, plus $3 shipping.
Non-collectors often ask me about "coins" they cannot find in the Whitman Guide Book of United States Coins (the "Red Book"). Inevitably, the missing pieces turn out to be medals, tokens, foreign coins or replicas. Lately, the most common inquiries have been about oversized replicas of obsolete United States coins - you know, the things I call "paperweights," because that is what they look like and about all they are good for.
The latest such query came from Italy. The obverse of the item in question looked like an Indian Head cent with stars, rather than a date, below the bust. The reverse copied an 1851 gold dollar design. The whole thing was very unconvincing because it was about 4 inches in diameter. The owner wanted to know why it was not listed in the Red Book and what it was worth. Sadly, I had to explain that these are worthless tourist items, akin to the ancient coins often sold to unsuspecting visitors to his country.
It seemed unusual to find Barber half dollars offered for sale in a mass-market ad. They are somewhat scarcer than other 20th-century coins and usually not available in quantities sufficient for a national promotion. Someone accumulated enough coins to offer them in sets of four - one from each mint that struck them from 1892 to 1915.
According to the promotion, this is a rare opportunity to own not only a piece of American history, but also a complete, four-piece mintmark collection. Specifics are given about when the coins were made and that they are struck in .900 pure silver, but no mention is made of condition. Judging from the illustrations, they appear to be Very Good; as such, they would have a catalog value of about $10 each (even the New Orleans pieces they highlight as being rather special).
It is good to find obsolete collector coins like these offered for sale among the more common modern issues, or colored or gold-plated items. Unfortunately for some beginners, at $89.99 plus $4.95 shipping, these are an expensive introduction to the hobby.