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Ron Drzewucki


Ron Drzewucki

Ron Drzewucki has been a professional numismatist since 1984 and a member of Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) since 1995. He has for years been a dealer "known as having a superb eye for coins" and "has the experience and discriminating eye to make those important distinctions between grades", according to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation's newsletter. Ron ran a successful company dealing in certified rare coins and modern coins before joining Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) in January of 2005.. Grading rare, silver, and gold vintage coins are Ron's specialty. Ron was with NGC for 7 years, and was a shareholder for 6 years before selling his shares in May, 2012.

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Archive for 'July 2015'

    It’s Never Too Late

    July 31, 2015 7:27 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    Ask anyone about an investment opportunity that passed them by, and they will probably relate how they “missed the boat.” Remember when Facebook crashed after their IPO, dropping to less than half of the original offering, and doomsayers said it was going to go lower? Well now it’s over $40. You probably missed that boat (so did I). Do you remember when China issued it’s first Panda 1 oz. pure silver coins in 1983 for under $50? If you can find this coin for sale anywhere, it will set you back at least $2,000! You probably missed the boat on that as well (me too).

    But boats sale more than one time. You could have bought the 1983 silver Panda coin for $100, $300, or $1000 in the intervening years. If you moaned each time that you had “missed the boat,” then indeed you missed it again and again.

    Today, many of the silver Panda coins, issued almost every year since 1983, sell at large (sometimes huge) premiums over the original issue price. So you can look at these prices and bemoan that you again “missed the boat,” or you can think that maybe you can catch the next boat!

    If you go into almost any bank in China, you will find the new 2013 silver Pandas for sale at under $50. The mintage of 6 million may sound like a lot, but it’s minuscule compared with the population of China of over 1.3 BILLION. That means that only one Chinese citizen out of 200 can possibly own the new silver Panda coin! There are reports of Chinese collectors and investors travelling to other countries to purchase silver Panda coins when they can’t get them locally.

    Many purchasers of the new 2013 silver Panda coins will try to locate the older, much rarer, issues—and this means continued pressure for prices to rise according to the ageless Law of Supply and Demand. Take a look at the wide selection of silver Panda coins from Modern Coin Wholesale by clicking here, and don’t miss another boat.  

    Are “Raw” Coins a Raw Deal?

    July 30, 2015 10:08 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    The change in your pocket going ching-a-ling-a-ling.

    The roll of “unsearched” Ike dollars you bought on eBay.

    A mint set still in its blister pack.

    That 1909-S VDB Lincoln Wheat cent in a 2” x 2” flip at the coin shop, with “MS-69” written on it with a blue ballpoint pen.

    These are all what we call “raw” coins.

    If you’re new to the hobby, you may wonder why we refer to certain coins as “raw”, like they were fresh meat (I guess they can be, if you’re a particularly ravenous collector).

    I can’t speak for how the word was used before I started collecting, or if it was used at all. If you know, feel free to share. But a little over a generation ago, in the late 1970s through the mid to late ‘80s, the hobby changed radically with the rise of encapsulation and third party grading.

    ANACS, PCGS, NGC - you know the names. I used to work for NGC myself as a finalizer at NGC. The “finalizer” is the man or woman who makes the final call on what grade a coin gets, usually after two or sometimes three other graders have given their opinions. Whatever the finalizer says is the grade that goes on the label.

    And maybe that gives you a hint as to why third party grading services came to dominate the industry. Think back to that 1909-S VDB with the grade written on it. Who wrote that? Who gave it that grade (MS-69 in our case) - the dealer you’re buying it from? Maybe. But if you think about it, you don’t really know. YOU didn’t witness the very moment that the coin was “graded”, did you?

    Those are a lot of questions for what can sometimes be an expensive proposition. If you’re an investor, then you know the difference between risk and uncertainty. You can buy a rare coin and take the risk that the market will tank. The greater the risk, the bigger the potential payoff. Uncertainty, however, is when you don’t even know what risks you’re taking. You might get lucky, but that’s no way to “invest”, right?

    Not that you have to be an investor to appreciate what third party grading did, but it’s probably no coincidence that TPGs (third party graders) came around right when Wall Street got really interested in coins. At any rate, TPGs performed a real service for the hobby by taking uncertainty out of the picture - or at least making it a much smaller part of the picture.

    Of course, there are those who object to putting coins in plastic or even the way the TPGs grade. Take ancient coins, for example. Lots of collectors of ancient coins believe that literally holding history in your hand is what it’s all about, so putting that history in holders defeats the purpose.

    Other people, in some foreign markets, are still unfamiliar with the very idea of encapsulation, so “market penetration” is far less extensive than in the United States.

    And yes, more casual collectors--including kids and other budding numismatists--may not have the money to submit coins for grading or even care.

    So if you don’t happen to belong to one of these groups, are there any good reasons to buy a “raw” coin over an “encapsulated” one?


    One thing to keep in mind is that ALL coins start out “raw”. It’s an absurdity to think of coins leaving the various branch mints in hard plastic holders. If you could, in fact, spend them that way, it’s really a different form of money. Ever hear of encased postage stamps? During the Civil War, there was a shortage of coins in the Union. One enterprising major in the Kentucky infantry named John Gault (really!) came up with the idea of encasing postage stamps (which had been monetized by the federal government) in brass. The resulting encased postage looked like a coin and could be used like one.

    That’s kinda what using encapsulated coins as money reminds me of.

    Anyway, when you receive change or buy coins from the Mint, they come to you raw. Even when they come dressed up in beautiful, sturdy crushed velvet cases that open and shut with a crisp little “snap”, that original government packaging still counts as “raw”. For one thing, the coin’s not graded (it came to you regardless of condition). For another, you can touch it with your bare hands. These seem to be the key to “rawness”.

    As a matter of fact, while the Treasury Department and the U.S. Mint took forever to warm up to the secondary (collector) market for their products, other mints around the world are even less welcoming of encapsulation. A foreign producer like the Austrian Mint, for example, ships their coins in exquisite, sophisticated packaging, replete with cases and slipcovers. They put a lot of care and effort into the design of a total package, and don’t understand why anyone would want to remove a coin from that setting and lock it up in generic plastic.

    So that would be the most outstanding reason to buy (or keep) your coins raw: original government packaging has an aesthetic value all its own.

    And in the case of, say, GSA Hoard Morgan dollars, original government packaging may have real rarity, as people buy the coins and remove them from their original holders. Luckily, the top TPGs will grade Morgans in their original GSA cases, though they go out of their way to make sure you know they aren’t responsible for whatever happens to your coins if the coins stay in them.

    Also, collectors of ancients aren’t the only ones who can appreciate history or how it feels when your skin touches metal. Collectors of classic and modern United States coinage can also get a charge off of holding a coin in hand. Remember that charge? It’s probably part of the reason you started collecting, I bet.

    Finally, and there’s no avoiding it, there’s the issue of uncertainty that started the whole rigamarole in the first place. Are raw coins a “raw” deal? No, they’re not. Don’t be afraid of an “unholdered” coin. Buy that 1909-S VDB in a flip if you like the coin (just ignore the grade). If you don’t like the price of a coin--raw or encapsulated--don’t buy it. The whole coin market depends on such corrections. Dealers who insist on overcharging you eventually go out of business.

    So be brave, and be confident. “Raw” coins are where it all started.

    A Brief History (and Explanation) of the Coin Grading Scale

    July 29, 2015 6:35 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    When you were going to school and received a grade of 70, that was barely passing.  But when a coin receives a grade of 70 from PCGS, NGC, etc. that means it is absolutely perfect. How come?

    We have Dr. William Herbert Sheldon, Jr. (1898 - 1977) to blame for that. In 1948, Dr. Sheldon published “Early American Cents” which contained a novel numerical equivalency system for grades, upon which one could supposedly determine the monetary worth of the coins.

    In developing his system, Dr. Sheldon was attempting to find multipliers of a base value for each grade, with a coin in “Poor” condition assigned a base value of “1.” Thus a coin in Fair condition was assigned a multiplying value of 2, and was therefore thought to be worth twice the value of a coin in Poor condition. Similarly, Sheldon decided that a Fine coin was worth 12 times the value of a Poor example, and so on up to a perfect Mint State specimen, which Sheldon decided was worth 70 times the value of the same coin in Poor quality. So, actually, the Sheldon numbers were not meant to define the quality of coins—but rather to indicate the dollar-value in various grades. 

    Using the original Sheldon system, if a particular year and variety of a Large Cent had a retail value of $50 in Poor quality, it should be worth $600 in Fine or $3,500 in perfect MS-70. Obviously these relative values have no validity today. However, the Sheldon numbers are used by the various grading services to denote the quality of all coins, as follows:

    Sheldon Number Traditional Grade Brief Description
    P-1 Poor Extremely worn with most of design missing
    AG-3 About Good Very heavily worn with portions of design visible
    G-4 Good Heavily worn with most of design visible
    VG-8 Very Good Well worn with main features clear
    F-12 Fine Moderate wear with bold design
    VF-20 to 30 Very Fine Light wear on high points of design
    EF-40 to 45 Extremely Fine Very light wear with all design elements sharp
    AU-50 to 55 About Uncirculated Traces of slight wear
    MS-60 to 70 Mint State Uncirculated, with varying degrees of imperfections

    Who’s Who of Coin Certification Services

    July 28, 2015 8:42 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    The American Numismatic Association Certification Service (ANACS) was launched on June 15, 1972 in order to solve the problem of counterfeit and altered coins that were plaguing the coin community. In addition, ANACS assigned a numeric grade of 1-70 (based on the Sheldon scale) to each side of the coin. Also, a photograph of both sides of the coin was returned to the owner.

    Rare coin certifications were greatly improved when the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) began serving the coin-buying public on February 3, 1986. PCGS pioneered the tamper-evident, sonically-sealed, high-security capsule (aka “slab”) as a method of reinforcing its guarantee of grade and authenticity. In addition, there is a unique certification number permanently sealed inside each coin capsule, that may be utilized by the coin's owner as a reliable means of identification after the PCGS coin re-enters the marketplace. PCGS's durable plastic holder also provides protection for safe, long-term storage of rare coins.

    The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation introduced a similar service competing with PCGS in 1987, and in 1989 ANACS discontinued issuing photo certificates and began encapsulating coins in tamper evident plastic holders. A year later, the ANA board of governors sold ANACS.

    Today, most dealers and collectors consider PCGS and NGC in the first tier of certification services, with ANACS in the second tier, and the many other certification services that have sprouted up in the third tier or even below that. For this reason, Modern Coin Wholesale handles almost exclusively PCGS and NGC certified coins.

    What is ‘Numismatics’?

    July 27, 2015 9:43 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    If you’re new to the hobby or just starting to get serious about coin collecting, some of the lingo can sound pretty strange. One word in particular, however, may be the strangest of them all:


    It looks funny, and it’s kind of funny to say. “NOO-miz-MAT-tiks”... reminds me of when Seinfeld would hiss the name of his neighborly nemesis “Newman” on his old sitcom.

    But that’s not why it’s weird. No, it’s “weird” because while it’s the very name of the hobby, it’s hard to say what “Numismatics” is or what it means.

    According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the word “numismatic” ultimately comes from Greek via Latin and French. The Greek root word nomisma, says Webster, means “custom, usage, currency, coin” - and, if you think about it, that’s more or less how we use the word “coin” today.

    And without getting too deep into the definition of money, I think it’s clear that all these different uses of the word center around coins because, for most of the time since they were invented around 600 B.C., coins were money. Studying coins was studying money, and so the study of less common forms of money was just folded into what eventually came to be called Numismatics.

    There was simply no need to call the study of less common forms of money anything else.

    So, in a way, questions or confusion about what “Numismatics” is was deferred until fairly recently, when cash (and fiat money) became king.

    Part of that confusion comes from the fact that we tend to use the term rather casually. Sometimes a dealer, writer or collector will say “Numismatics” and mean the scholarly study of coins: their history and provenance, manufacturing techniques, etc. Then the same dealer, writer or collector will turn around and use the word to mean coin collecting as a hobby. Make no mistake, a word like “Numismatics” doesn’t get derived from the Greek just to mean collecting cool coins; It did originally have more to do with the academic side of things. But that’s not how common usage treats it.

    I’m fine with that. You probably are too. I don’t think anyone’s really flabbergasted by the dual usages, and so I will officially announce my neutrality on the subject of a strict definition.

    If only that were the end of it, however.

    Let’s get back to the idea that money = coins. That state of affairs has been changing for a long time, long enough for “less common” forms of money to become a lot more common. Common enough to be collected by the average joe. Once a hobby had an large enough audience, that hobby needed a name. And so within Numismatics, we have fields such as Notaphily, the study of bank notes and other paper money; Scripophily, the study of physical stocks and bond certificates; and Phaleristics, the study of military orders, medals, and decorations.

    People who collect medals are called medallists. Folks who collect transportation tokens are called vecturists. And all of these and all sorts of subcategories that don’t have official, one-word names yet, fall under the category of Exonumia.

    And Exonumia - a very large, vibrant and exciting part of Numismatics - means, of course, “outside of Numismatics”.

    This is reason number two the word “Numismatics” is so strange, and I for one think it’s the biggest.

    “Exonumia” itself, however, wasn’t around until about 1960, when token expert and soon-to-be Coin World editor Russ Rulau coined the phrase. The word has stuck since then. Obviously the post-war boom in coin collecting had something to do with the relatively recent need to distinguish the “numismatic” study of medals and tokens from the “numismatic” study of coins and paper money (which Rulau himself included under Numismatics).

    On the other hand, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the British had been calling the same field Paranumismatics. I’m assuming that the need for a new term arose in the United Kingdom earlier than in the United States because Numismatics itself was a more mature field in Britain and had had longer to develop.

    So if you’re a budding numismatist-slash-coin-collector and you’ve given it a second or third thought, where does this all leave us? Okay, I’ll try and throw my spin on it:

    “Numismatics” means coin collecting (the fun part) AND the study of coins (the slightly nerdy part, which is also fun but you know what I mean).

    Numismatics / Coin Collecting / the study of coins involves pretty much anything that’s either coin-shaped or can or has been used as money. I like to think it’s because numismatists-slash-coin-collectors are naturally curious, and one interesting coin always leads to another.

    Sometimes we need to talk about just medals and tokens, or just bank notes, etc. etc. In these cases, we have some words that do mark off certain subsets of Numismatics. If anything, it’s terms like “Exonumia” and “Paranumismatics” that need work. So ignore them.

    (The words, not tokens and medals. Tokens and medals are awesome and you should collect them.)

    Besides, whether you call it Numismatics or Coin Collecting - we all know what you mean. You’re free to pick one or the other, or both!

    Now, if only someone can tell me if it’s a “hobby” or an “industry”...

    The 2016 American Silver Eagle: A Modest Proposal

    July 26, 2015 7:06 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the American Silver Eagle bullion coin program, and I’m sure the U.S. Mint has something special lined up for collectors next year. But if I--and many other people--had our way, 2016 would be a landmark year for the series.

    And I know just how the Mint can get the biggest bang for its buck, too.

    Here’s what I’m thinking.

    For the 25th anniversary in 2011, we got the second P-Mint Reverse Proof of the series. It’s a worthy enough coin, hard to say bad things about it, but in hindsight I feel the Mint could have done something even bigger to celebrate the Silver Eagle’s quarter century. Besides, they’ve taken appropriate advantage of the Reverse Proof’s popularity and issued one every year since, though eventually this will also diminish the 2011-P’s impact.

    But there’s more.

    Beyond the cultural weight typically bestowed upon a 25th (silver!) anniversary, there’s another reason 2011 was something of a wasted opportunity. According to the commonly-accepted reading of federal law, the Secretary of the Treasury (in consultation with the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, or CCAC) can change a coin’s design only once every 25 years.

    In other words, the 25th anniversary of a coin series is the first and perfect time for a redesign.

    Now, on the one hand, who can blame them? I mean, the American Eagle silver bullion program is the Mint’s best seller, why fix what ain’t broke? Plus, I’m not familiar with the behind-the-scenes push and pull or any efforts made at the time to change things up, so the decision could’ve been a close call for all I know. The CCAC has recommended a change to the reverse for the last few years...

    But on the other hand, you and I both know collectors would go crazy for a well-crafted and well-conceived new variety of ASE. And I personally believe the United States can be a little too conservative when it comes to coin design. Let’s not go hog wild, but “striking” a nice balance between old and new is certainly possible and probably desirable.

    (Oh, you know you love the puns.)

    So I say it’s time. Time for the American Silver Eagle to get a makeover. What better way to commemorate its 30th anniversary is there?

    Granted, I’m talking about just the reverse. I’m not tired of Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty obverse design by any means; in fact, next year might be a really bad time to replace it since 2016 is also the 100th anniversary of both Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar AND his Mercury dime. It’s also the centennial of the release of the Standing Liberty quarter. Potentially, all of these classic American coins are to be honored next year with 24-karat gold coins, using the original artwork as Weinman and Aitken intended (and I hope we can all be adults about the Type 1 Standing Liberty).

    Then again, and considering the special centennial issues, maybe next year would be a great time to change the obverse on the Silver Eagle. My opinion is that it would be too risky, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that only the reverse is up for grabs.

    There were several compelling reverse eagle designs squirreled away for future use after John Mercanti’s now-classic ASE reverse won the vote in the mid-1980s. Odds are one of them would be selected this time around, with perhaps some alterations made according to the taste of the current CCAC lineup. But you never know. If the Mint commits to this change, we may see a very competitive field of vibrant new entries on the committee’s agenda.

    Choosing a new reverse, whether it be a smooth or laborious process, is only half of what I have in mind, however. Want collectors to really go nuts? Want to rake in the dough hand over fist?

    Don’t worry, United States Mint, Ron’s got your back: announce the design change in January.

    Why does that matter, you might ask? Well, the regular run of 2016--the run of 2016 American Silver Eagles that we can safely assume we’re getting at this moment--will be produced later this year (December), using past performance as a guide to production volume. Only if the Mint had everything ready for a reverse change by then would they make an announcement this year. This, I somehow doubt will happen. So when production starts in December, it will be of Mercanti reverse type (is it too early to call this the Type 1 Silver Eagle?).

    Okay, so when orders for the 2016 ASE open up in January, this is what Mint customer’s are ordering. Then a week or two later the Mint makes the announcement that 2016 will see the beginning of a new era in the American Eagle Silver bullion program with a brand new reverse. It won’t catch anyone who reads the numismatic media (or my blog, hint hint) off guard, we’ll all be at least vaguely aware that the CCAC has approved a new reverse design for the Silver Eagle and that it’s happening next year, but official pronouncements still carry a sway and so this hypothetical announcement sometime in mid-January will serve as a strong stimulus to an already booming speculators’ market.

    How could the serious investor or even collector resist the urge to double dip? You’d have two types for the year, not to mention mint marks, finishes, special sets, etc. The aftermarket would be especially active, since I can see the regular 2016 run selling out very quickly upon hearing the news.

    Our friends over at the TPGs (third-party grading services) would have a field day.

    Everybody wins, but the Mint benefits the most of all. And a flagship product gets the celebration it deserves.

    Anyway, that’s my proposal. Feel free to take me up on it, guys. This one’s on me.


    Pamp Suisse and Good Delivery: Profiles in Bullion

    July 25, 2015 9:30 AM by Ron Drzewucki
    Not every nation has its own mint. Many do, but it’s a surprising minority of the world’s countries.

    Not quite as numerous as national mints but certainly more common than you might expect are the number of private mints and bullion manufacturers in the world. And they didn’t all spring up because of the recent boom in gold prices, either. Some of them have been around a good long time.

    Today I wanted to look at one bullion manufacturer in particular: PAMP Suisse. Sure, they’re not the only bullion manufacturer in Switzerland, and they’re certainly not the oldest (Argor-Heraeus is older), but they are one of the world’s elite producers of gold bullion and I’m always impressed with the extra care they give to their products. The world of bullion can be such a matter-of-fact, no-frills place sometimes, and if you’re one of the leaders in your industry AND you care enough about design to stand out from the crowd, then I want to know what makes you tick.

    PAMP S.A.

    The “PAMP” in PAMP Suisse is an acronym and stands for Produits Artistiques Métaux Précieux. That translates into English as “Precious Metal Artistic Products”, so it’s clear that they focus on artistry and design. No boring blocks of bullion here. What the name doesn’t do, however, is convey just how good they are at refining pure gold and manufacturing the bullion they get so creative with.

    Three guesses what Suisse means.

    PAMP Suisse started out in 1977, in Ticino, Switzerland. Ticino borders Italy, and is the only province (canton) in Switzerland where the Italian language is predominant (Switzerland is multilingual, speaking German and French elsewhere).

    The company is actually part of a larger Swiss precious metals and financial company, MKS (Switzerland) S.A. Oh, by the way (and you might have caught this already), S.A. is like Inc. or LLC in the United States, or GmbH in Germany - a way of designating a certain kind of company or corporation as it operates under Swiss law. I do not know the details.

    Besides offering physical gold, silver, platinum and palladium bullion products through PAMP Suisse, MKS is also involved in precious metals trading on the open market, with services for its institutional clients including unallocated margin trading, physical trading, location swaps, purity swaps, precious metal options trading and hedge trading.

    PAMP Suisse of course doesn’t handle the financial side of things but balances out its parent company with the actual refinement of gold and other precious metals and the production of a variety of bullion products -- by no means limited to gold bars though they do that very well. These products include industrial use materials and customized bullion items for companies, banks and governments.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some legal tender from the Pacific Island nation of Palau in their catalog, if I may return briefly to a recurring thread in my blogs.

    They were the first bullion refinery to decorate the “reverse” of their bars with what has become the company’s calling card: Lady Fortuna. She’s usually the first thing you notice about their bullion. When you see her, you know you’re dealing with PAMP Suisse.

    And as far as I know, they were among the first to apply holograms to their bullion for security purposes.

    Good Delivery

    Now, for the nitty-gritty.

    If you’ve ever found yourself interested in learning more about the bullion market or precious metals trading, you’ve probably encountered a daunting amount of terminology and information. It definitely works a little differently than the numismatic market. Well, writing about PAMP Suisse is as good a place as any to touch on one of the major facets of the bullion market: Good Delivery Accreditation.

    “Good Delivery” accreditation means that one of the major world bullion and precious metals trading associations finds that the bullion you produce meets certain high standards, known as Good Delivery specifications.

    Always makes me think of people carrying wheelbarrows full of gold bars to some bank and some guy in a suit looking it over with a clipboard and saying “good delivery”.

    According to the London Bullion Market Association (LMBA), the group that all traders in the London wholesale bullion market must belong to, the specifications for gold include a minimum of 995.0 fine gold, 350-430 troy ounces, and the inscription of several required markings (the fineness, the refiner’s mark, the year of production and a serial number.

    Silver is held to a minimum fineness of 999.0 and a weight of 750-1,100 troy ounces. The same markings are mandatory.

    Besides meeting or exceeding Good Delivery specs for the LMBA, PAMP Suisse is also certified with the London Platinum and Palladium Market, COMEX and the Shanghai Gold exchange, among other more obscure entities.

    In the world of bullion, such accreditation is vital, and helps business flow at a steady pace as it allows for the innumerable “sight unseen” transactions (to borrow from the numismatic auction industry) that must take place every day in the precious metals markets.

    With bullion as a numismatic purchase, Good Delivery is still a good thing but less essential, perhaps. Couple it with a beautiful motif like Lady Fortuna, however, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Just like PAMP Suisse.

    Remembering the Vietnam War and Those Who Served with Coins

    July 24, 2015 12:48 PM by Ron Drzewucki

    I wrote about the Pacific island nation of Niue not too long ago, and a one-ounce, 99.9% pure silver coin it had issued commemorating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. What I didn’t mention in that blog post was the fact the the Lincoln Memorial coin is part of a series of coins issued by Niue honoring America’s Monuments. Each one consists of one ounce of 99.9% pure silver and features a design by the American artist Michael Glass. The Jefferson Memorial in D.C. is also on one of the coins, but the most recent release is the most powerful so far: the 2015 Vietnam Memorial commemorative.

    Which got me thinking. This means the tiny island nation of Niue has produced at least two coins honoring Vietnam War vets (a 2012 release commemorated Australian veterans of the war), while the United States has produced only one. Now there’s a lot that’s unfair with such a simple comparison, but if you grew up when I did, the Vietnam War was a large presence in the emotional life of the country. For or against, civilian or draftee, it affected you and was always somehow there in the background. It still is for many.

    Nevertheless, as of April 30, 2015 it’s been 40 years since the official end of the war. A lot has changed since then--especially in the last 20 or so years--and I’ve noticed the memory of that feeling, the weight Vietnam left on our shoulders for so long, has started to fade.

    Is it a cultural thing? Is it historical? Generational? Simply what happens with the passage of time? I’m not sure. Whatever it is, I hope it’s healthy.

    I hope we’re not just forgetting.

    But 21 years ago, the United States did honor Vietnam’s veterans with a commemorative silver dollar. Designed by John Mercanti, the obverse of the 1994 Vietnam Veterans Memorial coin captured the poignancy of the memorial and the nation’s quite different reaction to this war as opposed to others it had fought.

    A hand touches the wall. Is it touching a particular name, or is it pressing against the wall for support as the visitor collapses in grief? And whose hand is it? A fellow veteran’s, a survivor perhaps of the same action that took the lives of the comrade or comrades his hand now reaches out to? A brother’s? A father’s? A son’s? Much like the stark beauty and reflective surface of the memorial itself, we are encouraged to put ourselves in the place of the visitor, to see ourselves as we are today mingled together with the names of an increasingly distant past.

    It’s hard to understand now, but at the time Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial was a controversial choice. Many people thought it was too cold, too stark, too distant, inhuman. That it was depressing. That it was a memorial of defeat. And yes, some people took offense at the ethnicity of the designer, even though she’s as American as the rest of us.

    The veterans themselves were the ones who really turned public opinion around on the matter. Big, burly ex-marines and infantrymen, reduced to tears by a wall and a list of names. They were the ones who got it first. Over time, the Wall has become something of a pilgrimage site for those whose lives were touched by the war, and I can’t imagine this memorial to this war being in any way different.

    A fitting choice for a coin commemorating America’s veterans of the Vietnam War.

    It wasn’t the only military-themed commemorative from that year. 1994 also saw the release of the Prisoner of War Memorial commemorative silver dollar and the Women in Military Service Memorial silver dollar. Both of these coins share an affinity with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative in that P.O.W.’s and women’s roles in the conflict were and still are significant aspects of our nation’s experience in Vietnam, though neither coin is strictly limited to honoring the servicemen and women of just the Vietnam War.

    Now in 2015 we have another representation of the Wall on a coin. Michael Glass, its designer, has developed quite the portfolio in recent years, working with several foreign countries (such as Niue and Tuvalu) to produce legal tender Not-Intended-for-Circulation coinage. His take on the Memorial is simultaneously less abstract and less intimate. He provides us with a view of people visiting the Wall on what looks like a stormy day in Washington. The individual most prominent in the foreground stands in front of the Wall and salutes. We can’t tell if he’s saluting an individual name, a group of names or the entire Memorial. It’s a more formal and less emotional interaction with the monument, but equally valid and one that obviously deserves respect.

    I would also say that there are a thousand different ways to approach a subject like this on a coin so paying attention to the commonalities should tell you what is most important about the subject matter. A person, symbolizing the present, confronts a wall full of names, symbolizing the past. Each person performs a ritual of sorts to show their respect and living connection to the deceased. Little else is allowed to intrude on the moment, frozen forever in silver.

    About the only “issue” I have with the Niuean 2015 release is that it’s a bit strange to see one side of a coin honor the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and then to see the other side (the obverse, no less) honor the Queen of England. Strange, but ultimately not important.

    I just hope that in 10-years’ time Niue isn’t the only nation issuing a Vietnam War veterans commemorative coin, and that future coin designers will be as sensitive to the emotional heft of that war as Mercanti and even Lin were in their work. Or will we have forgotten too much about how it felt by then?

    Time will tell.