US Coins

Deadly virus upending hobby events is a top story from 2020

When the 2020 American Numismatic Association National Money Show ended in late February near Atlanta, few would have thought it would be the last major numismatic gathering of the calendar year.

A global pandemic of a new disease named COVID-19, caused by a new strain of coronavirus soon identified as SARS-CoV-2, eventually led reluctant officials to limit public gatherings, with impacts cascading to all aspects of life. As concerns mounted across the world, precautions were urged in hygiene, personal interactions and travel, with abatement of the little-known condition in the forefront of everyone’s minds, while sickness numbers and death tolls increased.

A first inkling of trouble for coin shows was found in a report by Jeff Starck in the March 16 issue of Coin World, when shows in Singapore and Hong Kong were delayed. The next week, Arthur L. Friedberg reported on suggested guidelines by the World Health Organization for handling bank notes, which were seen as a possible transmission route for the virus.

By mid-March, the impact was beginning to be realized in the U.S. The Whitman Baltimore Spring Expo was canceled, leading Editor William T. Gibbs to offer a March 30 editorial about the outside world intruding into coin collecting. The decision by the NCAA to cancel activities around its annual “March Madness” basketball tournament left U.S. Mint officials scrambling for a Plan B for introducing its first colorized coins, commemoratives celebrating the National Basketball Hall of Fame. The program was originally scheduled for an April 4 launch to coincide with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final 4 Weekend in Atlanta, but that launch was canceled; sales of the coin began in June with no public ceremony.

Bank notes from China, the believed origin of the virus, were quarantined. European shows were being canceled, with the decision by Numismata Munich made the night before the show’s opening.

Government orders began to impact business operations; some businesses were ordered to close, deemed nonessential, including the ANA headquarters and museum in Colorado Springs. Grading services were temporarily unable to return product during the service interruptions, leading collectors to hold off on submissions.

In a search for a silver lining, Editor-at-Large Steve Roach and others suggested using any unexpected spare time as an opportunity to become more familiar with your collection.

The U.S. Mint experienced production disruptions. An extended shutdown for the San Francisco facility was ordered early on, as the disease spread was recognized first on that coast. Short term closures of the West Point Mint also occurred, with increasing community spread and a positive COVID case in its workforce. Resumed production was also affected, as social distancing required that fewer workers occupy the same area.

Telephone ordering for Mint products was halted because of security concerns as order-taking employees began working from home. Shipping was also affected as new processes were implemented, and as illness spread among employees of shipping companies.

Concerns about handling money led to some increase in cashless transactions among consumers. A resulting shortages of circulating coins developed; businesses began requesting exact change, warning they would be unable to provide change after a purchase. The Federal Reserve established the U.S. Coin Task Force, encouraging Americans to turn in coins held in reserve in their households.

As conditions intensified, uncertainty about the economy drove precious metals prices higher. Gold prices hit a record high, eclipsing $2,000 per ounce at one point in August, before dropping back somewhat. Silver surged to its highest level in years, but did not set new records.

Cancellations of in-person coin shows forced major auction companies to increasingly implement alternative ways to offer their consignments, leading to rising popularity for online buying and selling.

Seminars normally presented at events were diverted to virtual platforms, as the ANA led in offering experiences such as the Sundman Lecture Series and Money Talks through the newly developed ANA eLearning Academy. These formats will continue to offer courses in 2021 at a nominal fee. With travel restrictions and apprehension among potential travelers, hobby groups turned to video-conferencing services to hold meetings. Dealers, forced to close storefronts as “nonessential,” turned resources toward their web stores.

Marking the occasion

Powercoin, an Italian dealer, offered as a commemorative a special edition 2020 Panda silver 10-yuan coin with an overlying application depicting an example of the virus; it sold out quickly. Some nations, including Russia, France and San Marino, minted special coins honoring frontline healthcare workers, often with proceeds from sales going toward healthcare for these workers.

While top shows such as the New York International Numismatic Convention, Florida United Numismatists Convention and the ANA’s National Money Show were among 2021 programs canceled in late 2020, the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists did successfully hold a gathering in October. The reduced scale show was deemed a success and provided some standard for organizations wishing to resume in-person activities. The PAN show necessarily followed mandates by venue and government officials; such mandates vary across the country due to varying conditions.

Late in 2020, vaccines against the virus were beginning to be distributed, leading to optimism and renewed hope for the year ahead. Many collectors indicate in forum posts that they would be unwilling to return to public gatherings without an abatement in the disease, possibly in the form of a vaccine or, at least, improved statistics.

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