US Coins

Guest Commentary: U.S. Mint should sell metallurgical test pieces to collectors

With the United States Mint currently engaging in testing of alternative coinage compositions, why doesn’t the United States follow Royal Canadian Mint’s lead in offering for sale the experimental tokens used to test these alternative compositions?

The current testing of alternative coinage compositions and the token designs being utilized by the U.S. Mint is reminiscent of a unique series marketed by the Royal Canadian Mint: “test tokens” produced to test new metallic compositions, coin sizes and production techniques.

In the United States, the U.S. Mint has utilized several Martha Washington designs with no denomination since the 1960s. While current United States Mint policy prohibits it from selling pattern coins — which historically have denominations — these nondenominated Martha Washington test pieces are more similar to tokens or medals, which do not have a denomination. Thus the current legal prohibitions, dating back over a hundred years, against offering these tokens to U.S. collectors seemingly would not be present.

The U.S. Mint has utilized the generic Martha Washington designs to test various compositions, as well as to test things such as edge-lettering as used on the 1992 Olympic dollar. The Martha Washington designs, in addition to lacking a denomination, largely do not resemble traditional United States coinage designs in that they lack many of the required statutory inscriptions (IN GOD WE TRUST, LIBERTY, E PLURIBUS UNUM).

The pieces struck with these designs are known to the hobby through photos released by the Mint, as well as some actual examples that have escaped the Mint over the years. Pieces in the marketplace have traded in the thousand dollar range.

The question arises: Why not sell packaged sets of the Martha Washington design test strikes? They are technically not patterns, do not contain any reference to a denomination and cannot be confused with United States coinage, but they are important experimental pieces that tangibly document the evolution of U.S. coinage.

A limited mintage of say perhaps 100,000 sets of the experimental pieces, with a limited time period to order, would be popular for U.S. collectors interested in the history and evolution of United States coinage, and, at the same time, not only provide numismatists with a tangible historical artifact of the development of U.S. coinage, but serve to raise revenue for the Treasury Department.

Our Canadian friends, meanwhile, have used nondenominated “test tokens” to test machinery, as well as for mechanical testing of various production techniques. It has also struck test tokens to test new metallic compositions for Canadian coinage. Usually, the test tokens have been produced when a major coinage change is being contemplated, such as the new Canadian $1 and $2 coins.

At one time, the RCM produced test tokens that were subsequently destroyed. Invariably, examples of some of these issues would eventually make their way into the collector market. They have been avidly acquired by those interested in the unique nature of the issues and the history of coinage evolution that they so tangibly represent.

While earlier versions of different Canadian test tokens found their way into collectors cabinets via unofficial channels, more recent versions have been offered for sale by the RCM, thus ensuring a more widespread distribution and collector interest. For those interested in learning more about the Canadian test tokens, The Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Coins catalogs these historic issues.

Prior to 1996, Canadian test tokens were not officially sold by the RCM. However, in the wake of published accounts of high prices being paid for test tokens used in the determination of the $2 coin composition, the RCM decided to offer examples of the tokens, subsequently designated as TT-200.17, for sale to collectors. This particular token was used in the development of the 1996 $2 coin, North America’s first circulating ringed-bimetallic coin.

The token, like the coin, is 28 millimeters in diameter, weighs 7.3 grams and is composed of a ringed-bimetallic composition, with an nickel outer ring and a copper-aluminum-nickel core. This particular token is the most readily available in the series, with more than 20,000 produced and sold on the collector market.

Collectors of U.S. coins may wonder why the United States Mint has not offered similar test tokens for sale to collectors. As the U.S. Mint experiments with new compositions for its circulating coins, perhaps policy makers in Washington may wish to consider offering U.S. collectors a similar collecting option — a tangible one that documents the emergence of new metallic compositions of United States coinage.

Steven M. Bieda serves as a state senator in Mich­igan and is a life member of the American Numismatic Association. He is also the designer of the reverse of the 1992 Olympic half dollar.

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