The Olympics: A Great Excuse for Commemorative Coins

Here are some things that are almost always true of the modern Olympic Games:

  • They’re really expensive and end up costing the host city a fortune.
  • For two weeks, the Olympic Village turns into a scene from Caligula.
  • The host country will always issue commemorative coins.

As the 2020(1) Summer games wind down, I thought I’d show off some of my Olympic coins:

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To Err is Human — And Sometimes Lucrative

As someone who collected baseball cards during the late 80s/early 90s, there were a few players who were always in demand. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Ken Griffey Jr. Bo Jackson. Todd Van Poppel (no, seriously — one of my friends had a 1991 Upper Deck rookie card for the overhyped prospect who ended up with a career record of 40-52 and a 5.58 ERA and we all thought he had won Powerball).

But the guy everyone wanted a piece of was Gregg Jeffries. A can’t miss prospect for the New York Mets, Jeffries was the first player to win the Minor League Player of the Year Award from Baseball America twice (other players to have won the award include Dwight Gooden, Canseco, Frank Thomas, Derek Jeter, Mike Trout and the only other 2x winner: Andruw Jones). With his versatility in the field and undeniable talent at the plate, Jeffries started his pro career in 1987 with a bang and made an instant impact for the defending champion Mets. The hype train went into overdrive and his rookie cards became the hottest thing since Prometheus brought fire to the people.

So when I got the above Donruss card and noticed the coloring error, I thought I had hit the jackpot. Error cards can be extremely rare and valuable, so the fact that I had one for a player in such demand as Jeffries meant I’d never have to work a day in my life, right?

Obviously, things didn’t work out that way (for me or Gregg, who had a fine 14-year career, including some excellent seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-90s, but will never be voted into the Hall of Fame). The value of error cards, and baseball cards as a whole, depend on supply and demand. And once it was clear that Jeffries wasn’t the second coming, demand plummeted and everyone moved on to the next can’t miss kid (Jeter, Chipper Jones, A-Rod… there’s always someone).

Error coins are the same way. Whether or not you have a Griffey Jr. or a Jeffries depends on supply and demand. Here are a few of the error coins I’ve collected over the years:

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Barber Coins: Were They Really ‘Beneath Contempt’?

When an 1891 contest to determine new designs for the dime, quarter and half-dollar went bust, it played right into Charles Barber’s hands. The Chief Engraver for the U.S. Mint had wanted to design the coins himself, and when the contest failed to yield any worthy designs, he got his wish.

Unfortunately for Barber, his victory would prove to be Pyrrhic. Be careful what you wish for.

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George Washington Colonial Coins (UPDATED)

This won’t be one of my normal Coin Blog posts. I wanted to show off these coins but didn’t have too much to add that hasn’t already been written by others.

Anyway, I really like these George Washington colonial coins and I’m glad I made the investment in them. Understandably, Washington was a rock star after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War, and there was a huge demand for merchandise bearing his image — think Notorious RBG (R.I.P.) but for the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Bush v. Gore: The Coin

In general, I try to avoid coins issued by private mints. They tend to have very little numismatic value and can even be of dubious legality. In fact, they aren’t legally “coins” since they aren’t issued by a government. Instead, they are often marketed as “rounds.”

But when the private Washington Mint released this silver round in 2000 amidst the uncertainty over who won that year’s Presidential election, I jumped at the chance to buy it. For one thing, I’ve always been a sucker for political-themed exonumia – especially Hard Times Tokens.

For another, this unique two-headed coin with a bust of Al Gore on one side and George W. Bush on the other with each man named as the 43rd President of the United States really captures just how bizarre that entire period was. Between the retracted concessions, hanging chads, organized “riots,” court battles and hand recounts, it seemed like every day provided a new twist and turn as we tried to determine just who had actually won Florida – and therefore the election.

Apparently, the Washington Mint had already been working on an inauguration medallion and had prepared busts of both Gore and Bush. Not knowing which one they would get to use, and inspired by a Tonight Show sketch shortly after Election Day about ways to determine the winner, the Mint got the idea to make the two-headed coin. They even sent two coins on Nov. 13 to Jay Leno to use for a possible skit. Ultimately, after another month, Gore conceded following the Supreme Court’s decision stopping Florida’s recount.

I figured the coin was relevant now since this is the first time since 2000 where one major-party candidate challenged the outcome of a Presidential race. This time, however, enough states have certified their returns to give one candidate a clear majority in the Electoral College, and there have been multiple lawsuits filed in several states instead of just Florida. Those lawsuits aren’t going well, though, which probably explains why there haven’t been any two-headed Joe Biden/Donald Trump coins.

Good as Gold

When it comes to numismatics, one of my biggest regrets is not buying more gold coins in the early 2000s.

Counterpoint: For most of that time I was either a poor post-undergrad, a poor law student, or a poor post-JD. Buying gold probably wouldn’t have been a good use of my money — at least not compared to rent, utilities and food.

The price of gold tends to move inversely to the overall health of the economy — going up when the economy is poor as investors like to use it as a hedge against falling stock prices, weakened dollars, inflation, and all sorts of other economic markers, and going down when those markers are strong. Thanks to the 1990s economic boom, gold prices were low throughout most of that decade leading into the early 2000s. In fact, things were so great that the price of gold had cratered to around $253 per ounce in mid-July 1999 — the lowest it had been since 1979 (a year later, I nearly bought a beautiful Saint-Gaudens double eagle for $300, but decided I couldn’t spare it). But like any sustained period of economic euphoria, you never see the crash coming until it’s too late.

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Silver (Dollar) Anniversary

UPDATE (12/17/2020): The House bill was passed via unanimous consent in the Senate. Assuming the President signs it, looks like we’ll be getting those new Morgan and Peace Dollars after all.

UPDATE (01/05/2020): The President signed the bill into law.

I attended two coin conventions in 2019, and one thing they both had in common was that there was no shortage of Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars available from the many vendors on the bourse. There was such an abundance that Scrooge McDuck could have bought every single silver dollar with whatever pocket change he happened to have (assuming he wears pants – Donald doesn’t, so why should he?), loaded them into a wading pool and gone for a dip.

By this time next year, there could be even more Morgan and Peace dollars hitting the market — provided that Congress can get its act together.

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If I Had A Nickel…

… For every time I wrote about powerful individuals who played outsized roles in numismatic history, I’d have, like, a few nickels. Hey, I’ve only been doing The Coin Blog for a year or so.

We’ve seen how interest groups, U.S. Mint officials, Representatives, Senators (lots and lots and lots of Senators), and even a guy who wanted a paid vacation have willed certain coins into existence.

When it came to the creation of the nickel, we have a rich industrialist who had lots of powerful friends in Congress and wasn’t afraid to use his influence.

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(Re)-Strike it Up: The Continental Dollar Restrike

The Continental Dollar is one of the most significant coins in American history. Bearing brilliant and beautiful designs from one of the most accomplished and respected Founding Fathers, as well as the long-held belief that the 1776-minted coin was the first proposed national currency, the Continental Dollar is exceedingly rare and extremely valuable.

And way out of my price range.

Luckily for me, the restrike is much more affordable.

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The Class of 1916: The Standing Liberty Quarter, Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar

Theodore Roosevelt has long had a reputation as one of toughest, most badass Americans to ever serve as President. The guy who gave us “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Roosevelt epitomized the kind of alpha male mentality that so many Americans aspire to. Always on the look for action, the youngest man to ever become President fought in wars for fun, shrugged off assassination attempts with aplomb and even changed the rules of football for the better.

You’d think a guy like that would be the last person to complain about the lack of aesthetic beauty in our nation’s coinage and then do something about it.

You’d be wrong. And thanks to him, we ended up with some of the best looking coins in our nation’s history.

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