Will coin costs push completist collectors to specialize?

Published : 12/07/11
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The lead headline in our Dec. 12 issue reporting that issue-price costs to purchase one of every 2011 coin produced by the U.S. Mint is nearly $23,500 elicits the question: How many “completist coin collectors” are there today?

When Coin World was founded in April 1960, virtually anyone who called himself/herself a coin collector proudly sought to acquire one of each new U.S. coin bearing the year’s date and the entire range of Mint marks available. Some took on the challenge of finding the coins in circulation and raced to be the first to report finding a certain denomination and Mint mark combination. For those who wanted pristine examples, the threshold for completeness was not high: $4.50 would earn you “completist” bragging rights. The Mint’s issue price for the 1960 Proof set was $2.10; for the 1960 Uncirculated Mint set, $2.40.

The “big change” occurred in 1982, when the United States resumed issuance of noncirculating commemorative coins. However, 1982 was not really a strain on the pocketbook. Collectors were afforded the opportunity to buy the silver Uncirculated George Washington half dollar struck at the Denver Mint for the pre-issue price $8.50 and the Proof version struck at the San Francisco for $10. The U.S. Mint did not offer Uncirculated Mint sets in 1982 and 1983 but did sell Proof sets for $11 both years. Allowing $4.82 for the face value of all circulating coins issued plus the purchases directly from the Mint, a collector’s outlay to be complete in 1982 was $34.32.

Costs for completeness doubled in 1983 and escalated rapidly in 1984, a result of the commemorative coins produced to honor and support the Los Angles Olympic Games.

Completeness cost $68.77 in 1983 but soared to $2,086 in 1984 due to the different Mint marks and versions of five $10 LA Olympic gold eagles.

Depending on the number of commemorative coins issued in a given year, completeness settled into an average of about $1,500 per year for about a decade until the Olympic Games returned to the United States in 1996. The multi-year 1995-1996 Atlanta Olympic Games issues generated protests from collectors and resulted in a significant drop in sales when the cost of completeness reached $3,100 in 1996.

Congressional action to limit the number of commemorative coin programs to two per year helped to throttle cost escalations for a few years.

The 10-year, 50 State quarter dollar program, launched in 1999, ushered in an explosion of packaging options and coin-related products (coin spoons, canceled dies, philatelic-numismatic combinations, coin bears and more).

In 2006 when Coin World calculated the lowest possible cost to acquire one of each circulating, numismatic, bullion and commemorative coin issued by the Mint, the price tag was $14,804.

In 2010 the U.S. Mint struck 109 different coins with legal tender status. Just collecting one of each as it was issued cost a minimum of $18,000. This total did not include items such as the First Spouse medals or the bronze duplicates of national medals.

None of the totals cited include shipping and handling charges. Nor do they include grading and encapsulation by third-party grading services, a reality in today’s numismatic marketplace.

While the record price of gold and near-record price of silver are factors in the total outlay for a complete collection of U.S. Mint issued coins in 2011, just focusing on precious metals prices does not tell the full story. The U.S. Mint today offers many collector products and a multitude of packaging options.

Unless a collector has significant disposable income to devote to staying complete, he or she may be forced to adopt a different approach to collecting. Will costs force most collectors to specialize? ■

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