US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for June 21, 2021: Restore a tradition

Gilroy Roberts and Frank Gasparro’s design work, the 1952 Assay Commission medal, was presented to participants in the 1952 event.

Original images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.

Our news article this week about the 2021 edition (see the July monthly digital edition) of the annual tradition in the United Kingdom of the Trial of the Pyx is a reminder of what the United States lost more than 40 years ago — its own independent forensic analysis of the nation’s coinage under the auspices of the annual Assay Commission meeting.

The UK’s Trial of the Pyx and the Assay Commission meeting in the United States both had the same goal — to ensure that the respective nation’s coinage met the standards of weight and fineness.

The Act of April 2, 1792, which established both a federal coinage and a federal Mint to strike it, also established an annual Assay Commission. At that time, coinage had intrinsic value: a gold $5 coin contained gold valued at that amount and a silver dollar contained 100 cents worth of silver; even the copper half cent and cent contained copper worth the equivalent of their face value. Issuing coins of a lower weight and content would have been a serious violation of the law.

The Assay Commission was established by the Founding Fathers to serve as an impartial check upon the nation’s coinage, additional to that routinely performed by Mint employees.

As noted in the Coin World Almanac, the duty of the Assay Commission was to test the weight and fineness of the coins reserved by the operating Mints during the preceding calendar year, in order to assure that they conformed to their respective legal standards. During each calendar year, coins were selected at random from each Mint’s coinage and shipped quarterly to the Philadelphia Mint, where they were preserved for delivery, with the selected Philadelphia coins, to the Assay Commission when it met the following February.

The Assay Commission was established by the Founding Fathers to serve as an impartial check upon the nation’s coinage, additional to that routinely performed by Mint employees.

Initially, the assaying was conducted by government officials, but in 1837, members of the public were first appointed; starting in 1874, the commission’s members always included members of the public.

By 1970, however, all U.S. coinage struck for circulation was made of base metals, and by 1971, no silver or gold coins of any kind were being struck. Production of silver-copper clad Bicentennial coinage in 1975 and 1976 was a temporary respite from a coinage devoid of intrinsic value. That fact led to the abandonment of the Assay Commission a few years later.

First, the 1977 meeting was conducted without the participation of any public members. The Mint had named a slate of citizens late in the final months of the Gerald Ford administration, but the new administration under President Jimmy Carter declined to appoint members from that list. Annual meetings continued to be held, all without the public, with the 1980 event being the last. The Assay Commission was killed as unnecessary.

The numismatic community had already protested the lack of public participation. Candidates in the annual event often included prominent collectors and dealers. All participants received a specially struck Assay Commission medal, which was prized by its recipients.

The decision to cancel the Assay Commission was based in part on a belief in the Carter administration that it was unnecessary. A funny thing happened about the same time, though — the Mint resumed striking medals and coins made of precious metals. In recent years, the Mint has struck coins made of silver, gold, platinum and palladium.

Older collectors and dealers who were around when the Assay Commission operated cherished the tradition, and most would welcome its return.

With the Mint now making millions of precious metals coins every year, re-establishing the Assay Commission, with a provision of public participation, would be an independent check that the nation’s coins meet the standards set by law. This is a tradition that should return.


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