US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Sept. 13, 2021: End surcharges

Sales of commemorative coins have been used to raise funds for third parties since 1892, sometimes leading to abuses and the selection of unpopular themes. Should we end the use of surcharges?

Original images courtesy of the United States Mint.

Has the time come for tradition to be abandoned by ending the practice of using commemorative coins as a means of raising funds for third parties?

Since the first U.S. commemorative coins were struck and issued in 1892, they have been used as a means to raise funds for third parties. From 1892 to 1954, the coins struck by the Mint were turned over to the sponsoring agency or proxy to be sold directly, with the proceeds retained by the seller; since 1982, the Mint has sold the coins to the public, with funds collected from a surcharge added to price of the each coin turned over to legislated recipient entities.

Under both approaches, the desire to raise funds for memorials, foundations and other organizations and in some cases, private coin dealers, became more important than the theme selected to be commemorated by the coinage.

The 1930s were dominated by multiple programs with multiple coins, all struck to be sold to raise money for a designated party, with abuses galore. One coin, the 1936 Cincinnati  Music Center half dollar, commemorated a nonexistent anniversary with no historical connection to city history, with the profits going into the pockets of numismatist Thomas Melish, who conceived the program and had the power to get Congress to pass the necessary legislation.

Today as in the classic commemorative coin era, all too often themes are selected not for their historical significance but because they drew enough support from members of Congress to become law. Look at the host of programs honoring sports — are the halls of fame for baseball, basketball and football really deserving of official commemorative coins struck by the U.S. Mint and the resulting surcharges?

I think it is time to end the use of commemorative coins as fund-raisers. Stop the collection of surcharges; require that the themes selected be of truly national significance. Going this direction will mean that we end the profit motive.

Or, Congress could take an even bolder step and authorize commemorative coins only when a truly worthwhile theme arises. If a year or two or five pass with no commemorative coins, no harm is done.

What do you think?
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