Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coin Monday on a Tuesday: Collecting the Atlanta Commemoratives

May 4, 2010
Written by John Dale

The Central States auction is in the books, though Post Auction Buys are still available for a limited time. The catalogers’ attention has been focused on the next auction, coming up in June at Long Beach.

One of the most interesting and unusual lots I have handled for Long Beach is of recent vintage: a complete set of U.S. commemorative coins struck for the Atlanta Olympics. (There aren’t any pictures yet for the set, but an example of the design—offered as a different lot in the same auction—illustrates this post.)

The Summer Olympics of 1996, held in Atlanta, Georgia, were the site of many personal and team successes, but from a numismatic perspective, they were also the inspiration for one of the most ambitious failures in recent U.S. Mint history: the Games’ commemorative coin program.

The modern era of commemorative coinage had begun in 1982. Before the 1980s, two separate eras had caused scandals that led to a suspension of commemorative coins. First, the 1930s saw some commemoratives struck on flimsy pretenses, and other designs were struck for several years, changing only the date. A change in law put a temporary stop to the latter abuse.

There were no commemoratives made from 1940 to 1945. From 1946 to 1954, a new sequence of commemorative issues came out. One, honoring the centennial of Iowa’s statehood, was a well-run success, but the other major program dragged out from 1946 to 1954, honoring first Booker T. Washington alone and then alongside George Washington Carver. That experience led to a 28-year moratorium on new issues.

U.S. commemoratives designed to honor the Olympic Games had tempted fate before: the Los Angeles Olympics were honored with three different designs in 13 different date, mintmark, and proof/Mint State combinations, and this profusion was puny compared to at least one of the original proposals! The Seoul and Barcelona Games were honored with more basic programs, but for Atlanta, the authorizing legislation pulled out all the stops.

Coins were struck in two years, 1995 and 1996; for each year, there were eight different designs, two of them in gold; and for each design, there were two different formats, proof and Mint State. Multiplied out, that makes 32 distinct coins to collect, and eight of them were gold!

Credit is due for ambition if nothing else, but the organizers’ sales projections were wildly off-target. Two coins—the 1996-W Flag Bearer and Cauldron five dollar gold coins in Mint State—had net mintages in the four-figure range, and other coins also had embarrassingly low mintages. What’s worse, the Atlanta Olympics coins affected collector purchases of other commemorative coins in 1995 and 1996, so that none of the campaigns was particularly successful.

In the wake of the Atlanta commemoratives, new rules were laid down to limit the number of commemorative programs and design types that could be struck in any one year, and the post-1996 commemoratives have been much easier to collect on a year-to-year basis.

For collectors looking to the past, the Atlanta coins offer an interesting challenge if collected one at a time. Then again, Long Beach will offer the opportunity to just buy the whole set at once. For potential bidders with deep pockets, it’s all a matter of ambition.

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-John Dale Beety

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