Ironically the 1982 George Washington and 1983 to 1984 Los Angeles
Olympic Coin commemorative programs launched a collector campaign for
new designs for circulating coins.
During congressional hearings in 1981, the resumption of
commemorative coins after a 28-year hiatus was hailed as the
much-needed stimulus to bring new collectors into the market. But
after the highly successful first two programs were completed, Coin
World’s analysis of sales uncovered a surprise.
More than 90 percent of all of the commemorative coins had been
purchased by collectors. Precious few were reaching the general
public; thus, the hoped-for boost in coin collecting was proving to be
a pipe dream.
It was time for a new approach.
Collectors and hobby leaders began the conversation in a very public
way through educational forums at major coin shows and in editorials
and letters to the editor columns of the weekly numismatic publications.
Their thesis — that more people would become interested in coin
collecting if they began seeing new designs in their pocket change —
was rooted in their own collecting experiences and historical
evidence. The U.S. Mint historically had produced much larger mintages
of denominations with new designs the first year of issue because the
public saved the new designs.
On paper, it appeared to be logical and tantalizingly simple. By
1985 the Washington quarter dollar, Roosevelt dime, Jefferson 5-cent
coin, and Lincoln cent designs all had been in circulation more than
25 years, the threshold established by law at which the secretary of
the Treasury has the authority to order new designs. The Kennedy half
dollar was only four years away from meeting the requirement.
Although the Mint would have to create new designs and manufacture
new dies to produce them, costs could be recouped through seigniorage
and sales of numismatic products containing the new designs. The Mint
could even make substantial profits.
James A. Baker III was President Reagan’s chief of staff during the
first term and became secretary of the Treasury Feb. 2, 1985. When
Commissioner of Fine Arts Diane Wolf broached the idea of new designs
for circulating coins with Baker, he was cautious because he perceived
it as controversial.
He saw the minefield: All five designs were portraits of presidents,
each with political constituencies. Would removing or modifying their
portraits on the coins create a public backlash and a firestorm in the
Congress? He was not anxious to pick a fight with Congress over