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Collectors: Rich Market or Mints Last Stop
By David C. Harper

The question as to whether coins are becoming obsolete is one that has been on the minds of many collectors. A rapid decline and elimination of the use of coins in everyday commercial transactions would be followed a generation later by a group of people of prime collecting age who would have no real memories of coins.

It is these individual memories that most often provide an initial basis, or the initial impulse, to go and collect coins.

With ever increasing use of debit and credit cards, it is easy to see the theoretical possibilities of a disappearance of coins, but practical considerations mean that coins should endure a long time beyond the point they become theoretically obsolete.

My question here is are the world's mints accelerating the trend to coinage obsolescence by their own collector coin policies?

Coins caught on 2,700 years ago in Asia Minor because they are a convenient way of valuing transactions because they provide a standard size and weight of a metal of commonly recognized value.

Their utility hinged on their familiarity and the trust people placed in issuing authorities.

Money changers arrived because over time there became so many issues of varying weights and fineness that they could take a piece of the action due to their greater familiarity with coins that a farmer, shepherd, fisherman or even estate owner could never hope to match.

Advances in world trade and well being often followed attempts to standardize issues or when one particular issue swept all others aside and became the common monetary unit of measure. Successful coins were widely used and recognized. The most recent example of this phenomenon was the creation and growth in the use of the South African Krugerrand, which reigned in the 1970s as the World's Best Way to Own Gold.

It was made of a recognizable metal of standard, design, weight and fineness. It offered owners convenience and peace of mind. Their numbers exploded. This created the paradox. Money only has value if it is scarce. Nations like Zimbabwe that make money common launch inflationary cycles. However, within this overall scarcity, successful coin issues are common enough to become widely recognized.

In the last 30 to 40 years, coins produced for collectors have become completely divorced from commercial transactions and the average population. The impetus of novelty pushed mints to proliferate sizes, metals, finenesses, face values and designs that even professionals cannot keep up with them all. Editors of the Standard Catalog more and more find issues from years ago that somehow nobody noticed for incorporation in the reference guides.

Coins sold to collectors, in say, Germany, are offered nowhere else, but even most Germans would not recognize the issues because they are not used by them at a transactional level.

If the world's collector population is confronted with coins that have declining utility in everyday life and designs that have become so numerous that most are not recognized when they are encountered, are not mints contributing to their own eventual downfall?

Rather than a lucrative market, collectors may be the last link in coins' relevance. How long before the link breaks?


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