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In the Hunt for Commemorative Gold
By Mark Benvenuto

When the economy is tough, and precious metals rise, coin collectors concentrate on inexpensive coins. Well, that certainly doesnít seem like the time to go looking at gold coins to see if there are any bargains out there. But what happens when we look with some uncommon eyes at the mintages?

Gold is currently hovering at around $1,100 per ounce. So, if you are the type who has purchased gold bullion coins in the past, youíll know that the half ounce American Eagle gold coin should be worth $550, the quarter ounce should come in at $275, and the tenth ounce should carry a price tag of $110.

You would also know that there is always some form of premium on these coins, with the highest premium usually being on the lowest weight and denomination. When it comes to commemorative goldóor at least modern commemoratives in goldóyou might need a calculator for exact gold values, since the gold $10 pieces and the gold $5s of the past few decades have gold weights of 0.4837 ounces and 0.2418 ounces, respectively. At $1,100 per ounce, the gold in a $10 commemorative has a value of $532.07, and in a $5 it has $265.98.

Although the modern commemorative U.S. coin program started in 1982, with a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of President Washington, the first gold commemoratives are dated 1984. That was the first year the United States had hosted the Summer Olympic Games in decades. President Reagan was right in the middle of his two terms in office, and the Soviets chose to boycott these particular games. And a renewed commemorative program was in its infancy.

The gold $10 that commemorated the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles was minted at four different mints. West Point was now contributing, as well as the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints. The branch at West Point produced all the uncirculated pieces, 75,886 of them, and the lionís share of the proofs, 381,085 of those.

The Philadelphia and Denver mints each produced just less than 35,000 of the proofs, and the San Francisco facility anted up 48,551. All in all, the West Point mintmark on a proof $10 commemorating these Olympics is a far more common coin than any of the other four options. Yet, curiously, the price tags for these coins are all the same, at least in Mint State-65 and Proof-65. About $550 will do the trick for you for any of the four mintmarks and five options.

This set of prices, and the fact that the proofs of three mints are much rarer than those of the other, means we have some sleepers among the very first gold coins of the U.S. modern commemorative series. But before you rush out and plunk down a few thousand dollars for three proofs and one uncirculated piece, exercise two cautions.

First, be sure you are buying coins that have been certified by a third-party grading service. These coins at least come with a guarantee that a team of experts agrees on the grade of the coin in the plastic case. Nothing is worse than paying a premium for a coin you consider an MS-66, only to find that upon selling, it grades as an MS-64.

Second, be cautioned that just because four of the five possibilities for this gold $10 piece are sleepers is no indicator that they are poised to wake up and thus go up in price. The perfect example is the W-mintmarked uncirculated piece. Sure, itís far less common than the proof. But thatís because there was less demand for uncirculated than for proof coins when the orders were being placed.

There is no indication now that there is some new groundswell of collectors wanting uncirculated coins when they can choose proofs. Proofs are generally the desired option among the collecting fraternity. So, these sleepers may snooze on for years to come.

But, even with these caveats in mind, itís worth looking at other gold issues of the modern commemoratives. In 1986, the U.S. Mint was ordered to commemorate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, and in 1987, the bicentennial of the Constitution. These were honored with more than gold coins, but Iíll focus exclusively on the gold $5s that were produced, since these two coins have gone down in the books as having the highest proof and uncirculated mintages, by far.

The Statue of Liberty $5 is a beautiful piece of artwork by Elizabeth Jones, and was coined to the tune of 404,013 proofs and 95,248 uncirculated pieces. The next year, 1987, saw the Constitution gold $5 produced to a total of 651,659 proofs, and 214,225 uncirculateds. Both were parts of multi-coin sets, if a purchaser wanted that option. But sets or alone, the mintage totals of gold $5s have never again soared so high.

The key point in our search right now is that the price for each of these gold $5s, in PR-65 or MS-65, is the same, at about $260. Even though the mintage for the uncirculated version of the Statue of Liberty $5 is more than six times less than the total for the proof Constitution $5, the prices remain the same. It appears then that there is at least one sleeper among these first two $5 commemoratives, at least if you want the uncirculated piece preferentially to the proof.

I just mentioned that Mint totals never again reached the heights of those first two gold $5s, but that doesnít mean they immediately dropped through the floor, either. The next year, 1998, saw the Seoul Olympics honored, which made some collectors grumble that the Mint was now being used to milk collectors for pet causes. After all, this was the first time the United States had commemorated Olympic Games that were not on U.S. soil with coins.

The numbers reflect that grumbling, with a total of 281,645 proofs and only 62,913 uncirculated specimens. But the prices for these two coins are in perfect alignment with those two I just mentioned. Even though the uncirculated versions of the Seoul $5 total up to less than one tenth that of the proof Constitution $5, they are pegged with the same price. It seems we have another sleeper.

The continued decrease in $5 numbers went on into 1989, when Congress decided to honor its bicentennial with the release of a half dollar, dollar, and gold $5. The numbers for the gold piece were now: 164,690 proofs and a record-breaking low 46,899 for the uncirculated version. Yes, the uncirculated issue of the Congressional bicentennial is more than 13 times as scarce as the Constitution commemorative. And once again, the prices of the uncirculateds and the proofs are the same as every other gold $5 commemorative we have seen.

It doesnít take a rocket scientist to realize that the numbers I keep throwing out canít go down forever, at least not without a price increase.

In 1991, the Mount Rushmore gold $5 mustered six figures for proofs, but just barely. Perhaps Mint engraver John Mercantiís eagle flying over Mount Rushmore was powerful enough artwork to keep the sales at least that high. But by 1992, neither artwork and theme, nor the presence of the ultimate basketball ďDream TeamĒ could muster even 100,000 in sales, for either the uncirculated or proof versions of the gold $5 honoring the 25th Olympic Games. With a puny total of only 27,732 uncirculated pieces, some thought at the time that the commemorative program might be imploding, as it did back in 1936.

Of course, we know now that there were still many more commemoratives to come (and there are still some coming out this year), but the quincentenary of Columbusís landing in the New World wasnít a big enough theme at the time to bring the sales back to anything near those of the earliest two years of the modern commemorative program. No, sales seemed to bottom out here, and with the Bill of Rights coins, and the World War II commemoratives dated 1993.

Whatís most interesting here though, from a buyerís point of view, is that the only price increases from the $260 I have found to be the baseline price tag are those of the World War II pieces, and the uncirculated version of the Bill of Rights gold $5. Each costs about $50 more than the others. Even though the World War II proof is about 10 times less common than the Constitution $5, it costs just $50 more. Even though its uncirculated sibling is about eight times less common than the uncirculated version of the Constitution $5, it costs only $50 more.

Iíve only examined the earliest decade of the gold of the modern U.S. commemorative program, so thereís probably more for the savvy collector to find when it comes to low mintages and unexpectedly low prices. After all, we certainly have not run out of themes that some congressman or another thinks are worthy of commemoration.

But if you do choose to take a serious look at the gold $5s of this program, or any other gold for that matter, keep in mind one of the cautions I gave right at the outset. That is that all sleepers do not wake up. Or, perhaps, itís more technically correct to say that all sleepers do not jump up in value just because we suddenly realized they are undervalued.

Some of the designs we have just looked at are beautiful and that alone may be the deciding factor that wakes them up before others of similar rarity. Those others may continue to snooze for decades. Enjoy the hunt, but hunt wisely enough that you donít sink money you need now into coins that may remain in their beautiful slumber for decades yet to come.


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