Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar

The original bit coin.

The original bit coin.

Let’s not put the cart before the horse. We all have used adages. Some are centuries old when it was really something special when a penny saved was a penny earned. For some adages, things are not always what they seem which makes appearances deceiving.

In a comment about a technical issue, I was trying to explain that something would not work and exclaimed, “That isn’t worth two-bits.”

To the few people in the room within my age group, they understood what I said. Those younger than being eligible for AARP and those born outside of the United States did not understand. Since it is more blessed to give rather than receive, it gave me the opportunity to teach someone about the origin of money in the United States.

When the colonies were settled, George I was the King of England. Although the king ruled from an ocean away, the governors sent to manage the colonies on his behalf were under strict orders to not allow the colonists to coin money. An exception was made during a small period in the 17th century, colonists had to make due with the low-value copper coinage the king and his governors allowed.

Even with a standing army in the colonies, the governors could not control the commerce. Instead, they applied duties and fees for allowing the colonists to trade with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Notice that there were no taxes because only the king could tax the royal subjects. Governors could levy duties to run the colonies. They also took kickbacks and bribes in order to get their way.

Although the Pound Sterling was the coin of the realm it was not available to the colonies. Instead, trading posts accepted the 8 reales coin, also known as the Thaler or Spanish Milled Dollar, as payment for goods and services. With the trade of high-cost goods like tobacco, cotton, and hides caught in the Appalachian Mountains the colonies relied more on the Spanish Milled Dollar than on the copper British coins.

Colonial governors ignored the growing economy, as they were able to satisfy the companies that sponsored the settlements and paid the taxes while lining their pockets. Colonists were able to make do with what was left.

A problem came about that everything could not be worth 8 reales and without subsidiary coinage, it was impossible to give change. Using the silver value of the coin, people would cut the coin into pieces in order to make subsidiary coinage. A milled dollar cut in half was a half-dollar. That half-dollar cut in half was a quarter-dollar and the quarter-dollar cut in half was called a bit.

The bit was the basic unit of commerce since prices were based on the bit. Of course, this was not a perfect solution. It was difficult to cut the quarter-dollars in half with great consistency which created problems when the bit was too small, called a short bit. Sometimes, goods or services would be adjusted to accommodate the short bit. Other times, short bits were supplemented with the English pennies that were allowed to circulate in the colonies.

Getting back to our adage, two bits were made from a quarter-dollar. Saying something was not worth two bits was either a negotiating tactic or someone wanted to use a short bit to pay for an item. Like many adages that have origins in the 17th and 18th centuries, the reason for their existence has been lost with time.

But arguing about its origin would be rocking the boat. We do know that some of our colonial ancestors should have measured twice and cut once to avoid the problem. But alas, there is no sense crying over spilled milk.

From my collection

Bit coin image courtesy of The Dreamer Comic by Laura Innes.

What do you think it’s worth?

1809 Madison Indian Peace MedalFinding coins in pocket change can be a lot of fun. Then there are those who find hoards of coins buried in the ground or just stored somewhere that people forgot. From shipwrecks to treasure hunts, we all dream of finding the next jackpot somewhere.

On your great grandfather’s farm, a worker was plowing the field and found a silver medal. It has the image of President James Madison on one side and what looks like a peace medal on the other. Rather than letting go, great grandpa traded three hogs for the medal.

The medal gets handed down from generation to generation until one of his ancestors takes the medal to Antiques Roadshow to find out what it is worth.

You are told that it is a silver James Madison Indian Peace Medal. The 1809 medal was designed by assistant engraver John Reich and struck at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. It is not the largest of the medals but at 2½-inches, it is a fairly significant medal.

What is it worth? See what Jason Preston of Jason Preston Art Advisory & Appraisals of Los Angeles said about the medal on Antiques Roadshow:

Did you guess right?

Image and video courtesy of WGBH and the Antiques Roadshow

125 Year Celebration

Dr. George HeathIt has been 125 years since Michigan physicist Dr. George Heath founded the American Numismatic Association in 1891. Heath, who operated a coin business on the side, began this journey by publishing his own magazine in 1888 called The Numismatist. He used the magazine as a call to other collectors to create the ANA.

The ANA will celebrate this milestone at the upcoming World’s Fair of Money. In an interesting coincidence, or maybe planning, the celebration will be help practically next door to the place called “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Irrespective of whatever issues anyone sees or perceives with regard to the ANA, you have to admit that an organization like the ANA to survive 125 years is pretty amazing.

If you are interested in a long-form history of the ANA, I recommend reading “125 Years of Collecting with the American Numismatic Association” written by Q. David Bowers. It is not a quick read, but 125 years of history was not easy to create. The current page is in seven parts with an eighth promised for next month. There is no indication if that will be the last part. Still, it is a recommended article.

Currently, if you become an ANA member or renew your membership for 3 years or donate $125, you can receive a 2016 American Silver Eagle graded MS-69 by Numismatic Guarantee Corporation with a special Anniversary Label. I there is a limit of 2,500 coins. If you become a life member or donate $500, you can receive one graded MS-70. There is a 250 limit on the higher graded coins.

There was also a set of coins created for the National Money Show with a special label. There was a renewal opportunity that allowed existing ANA members to renew and receive their coin with the National Money Show label. These were coins left over from the show in Dallas.

Not only did I take advantage of the renewal offer but added a donation to receive both versions of the coin in MS-65. Although I do not collect grading service labels, this was an opportunity to support the ANA. There may be a limited number of coins left. If you are not a member, you may want to consider joining. If you are a member, either consider a three-year renewal or donate $125 to help the ANA. I believe it is a good cause!

Image of Dr. George Heath courtesy of the ANA.

Batman v Superman: Dawn on Silver

2016 Canada Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $20 silver coin

2016 Canada Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $20 silver coin

I have said time and again that I do not like gimmick coins but I have purchased gimmicks like shaped coins.

I have said that I do not like painted coins then I admit to buying painted coins.

So far, I have stayed away from strictly screen printed and lenticular printed coins but I have lauded some painted coins and added them to my collection.

If there is something that I prefer over everything else is a coin whose design is based on the engraving. For that reason, I have complemented and purchased $20 for $20 coins from the Royal Canadian Mint. Their $20 for $20 program produces .9999 pure silver coins sold with the face value of $20 (in Canadian funds). They are available directly from the RCM to Canadian and United States buyers only.

Last year, I purchased the Bugs Bunny and the Superman “Man of Steel” coins directly from the Royal Canadian Mint. My final price was $16.46 each in U.S. dollars after the exchange rate and the credit card company’s conversion fee. Sure these are gimmick coins, but I like the themes.

This year, the RCM has issued a Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice $20 for $20 coin. With a mintage of 300,000 coins, numismatists who are also fans of the movie can add this silver coin to their collection. Based on the image, it appears that Superman is overpowering Batman.

Looking at the coin’s aesthetics, it is a good looking coin. The artists at the RCM are very capable and have come up with really nice designs. While the concept of the $20 for $20 (US$15.14 as I type this) may be somewhat of a gimmick for a coin with 7.96 grams of silver ($3.90 when silver is $15.32 per ounce), the design is engraved art struck into a silver planchet that is affordable for many collectors.

I have not had the opportunity to see the movie. I do enjoy comics and comic-related stories, but I am not a hardcore fan. I like both characters and have always been a fan of Wonder Woman now played by Gal Godot. But the coin intrigues me. I might buy the coin before seeing the movie!

Like any good movie, here is the “trailer” the Royal Canadian Mint produced for the coin:

Raging into March

2015 American Silver Eagle Bullion CoinWhat began as an English proverb as “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” may become a relic of history. Aside from the weather implications the markets are experiencing a lion-like robustness that even has the governors and branch presidents of the Federal Reserve issuing conflicting statements about the future of interest rates.

While the professionals are attempting to figure out what the economic numbers are saying, one thing is clear that the U.S. Mint is on pace to break its 2015 sales for American Silver Eagle bullion coins. March opens with the U.S. Mint announcing that it has another 1 million silver coins ready for sale. This is the fifth time in 2016 that the U.S. Mint has made this type of announcement.

Year to date, gold prices are up about 17-percent and silver prices are up 11-percent. This has not stopped the buying of bullion coins. One Canadian dealer recently informed me that they sold out of a specific silver issue from the Royal Canadian Mint because of high demand, especially from the United States.

This is reaching beyond collectors. While the numismatic world was focused on Dallas for the National Money Show, my business kept me in the D.C. area as a vendor at one of the largest antiques shows in the mid-Atlantic region. Although coins are a very minor part of the show, some dealers that were selling silver coins had high volumes of sales. One dealer reported that he sold out of the 30 American Silver Eagle bullion coins graded MS-70 by the middle of the show’s second day.

An informal poll of attendees to the National Money Show suggests similar sales performances.

Even though there may be areas of the economy that has not caught up to the current economic trends, it is difficult to find an analyst or pundit that does not believe that the current trends will end in the short term.

It is likely that March will go out like a raging bull, even if I could not find a one-armed economist to disagree!

Charging Bull by Arturo DiModica

Charging Bull by Arturo DiModica is a bronze sculpture that stands in Bowling Green Park just south of the Financial District in lower Manhattan.

Proof reading is one way to avoid errors

2016 Mark Twain Commemorative Silver Dollar

2016 Mark Twain Commemorative Silver Dollar

One of the greatest mysteries of 2016, so far, has been resolved! According to Dave Harper at Numismatic News, the delay in the release of the 2016 Mark Twain Silver Dollar commemorative coin was because the of the Certificate of Authenticity.

Originally, both the press release and apparently the COA from the U.S. Mint announced that the reverse design included Jim and Huck from the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This error seemed to pass a lot of people who read the books, including me. Jim, who was Miss Watson’s slave who befriended Huckleberry Finn, appeared in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Oops!

Apparently, someone forgot to proof read everything and the COAs were printed with the same information. Rather than distribute the wrong COA, which would have been interesting, the U.S. Mint had them reprinted. Citing an inventory issue, they delayed the sale of the silver dollar. It was not the inventory of coins that was the problem. It was the inventory of the complete package including the COA that caused the delay.

Packaging errors usually do not bring a premium. While they can be amusing, collectors have treated packaging errors as a nuisance. This would have been a fun error to keep around.

As an aside, I noticed that the 2016-W Mark Twain $5 Gold Proof Coin is listed as “Currently Unavailable” on the U.S. Mint’s website. The uncirculated coin is still available. Although there is a mintage limit of 100,000 gold coins regardless of strike type, there is no indication if this is the result of a sell out or a lack of inventory. Stay tuned.

2016-W Mark Twain $5 Commemorative Gold Coin

2016-W Mark Twain $5 Commemorative Gold Coin

Images courtesy of the U.S. Mint.

December 2015 Numismatic Legislation

Congress ended the calendar year with a proverbial bang. Aside from actually passing a budget, they passed a comprehensive transportation bill that not only has the possibility of raising our infrastructure grade from a D– to a D (hey… it’s an improvement), but in a few short words will have a big impact on the U.S. Mint.

H.R. 22: Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act
Sponsor: Sen. Rodney Davis (R-IL)
• Introduced: January 6, 2015
• Passed House of Representatives on January 6, 2015
• Passed Senate with amendments on July 30, 2015
• Conference report presented to Senate on November 5, 2015
• Conference committee convened November 18, 2015
• Conference report agreed on by the House and Senate on December 3, 2015
• Signed by the President on December 4, 2015 to become Public Law 114-94

Read the details of this law at

If you want to read my analysis of the impact to the U.S. Mint from this law, see the following four-part series:

  1. Transportation drives numismatic changes
  2. Now with more silver
  3. Palladium arcadium
  4. Transportation silver eagles

Transportation Silver Eagles

2015 American Silver Eagle Bullion CoinAt the end of my last report on how the recent transportation bill will have an effect on coin collectors, I said that I would discuss how the new law will impact American Silver Eagle collectors. After taking a little time off for holiday festivities, we are going to look at the impact and unintended consequences of congress.

To review, earlier this month congress passed and the president signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act or the “FAST Act” (H.R. 22; now Public Law 114-94). It is a comprehensive transportation bill that is over 490 pages long with one third of those paged dedicated to items other than transportation. Buried deep in the document is Title LXXIII, “Bullion and Collectible Coin Production Efficiency and Cost Savings” section. For today’s post, we look at Section 73002:

Sec. 73002. American Eagle Silver Bullion 30th Anniversary
Proof and uncirculated versions of coins issued by the Secretary of the Treasury pursuant to subsection (e) of section 5112 of title 31, United States Code, during calendar year 2016 shall have a smooth edge incused with a designation that notes the 30th anniversary of the first issue of coins under such subsection.

If you are not familiar with “subsection (e) of section 5112 of title 31, United States Code” (31 U.S.C. § 5112(e)), it is the part of the law that authorizes the American Silver Eagle program. It says that these coins are to 40.6 millimeters in diameter containing 31.103 grams (one troy ounce) of .999 fine silver with a symbolic design of Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse.

Along with the prescribed elements the coin will have a reeded edge. It is this reeded edge requirement that may be causing a problem.

As written, Section 73002 does not say that the 2016 coin with a smooth edge with an inscription designating as the 30th anniversary of the first issue is for a special collectible. It is written as a blanket statement for all coins issued in 2016. Because of the word issued, the U.S. Mint is going to cancel the 2015 Limited Edition Silver Proof set.

2014 Limited Edition Silver Set (LS3) will be on sale until December 30, 2015 at noon.

2014 Limited Edition Silver Set (LS3) will be on sale until December 30, 2015 at noon.

The Limited Edition Silver Proof set consists of a dime, all five quarters, and a Kennedy Half-dollar struck in 90-percent silver. The set also includes an American Silver Eagle packaged in a special case. Originally, the 2015 Limited Edition Silver Proof set was to be released on November 23. It was reported that issues with packaging has delayed the issuance of this set. Because of the delay, the U.S. Mint was supposed to start selling the set on December 30 in order to meet its legal requirement to sell the coins in the same year as issued. While they can carry over the sets to subsequent years, they have to start selling them in 2015.

However, that word “issued” causes a problem. If the coins are part of a packaging production, the coins may not have been struck in 2016 but the sets are being issued in 2016, then the 2015 could be violating the law. It is that ambiguity in a law passed by congress that will cause the 2015 Limited Edition Silver Proof set from being released.

Sausage making at its finest!

Images courtesy of the U.S. Mint

Now with more silver

2014 Kennedy Half-Dollar 50th Anniversary Silver SetIn our short saga of How the Congress Turns (our stomachs), we are going to look at the next and last provision of how the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act” or the “FAST Act” (H.R. 22) will impact collectors. Returning to Title LXXIII, Section 73001 we find:

Title 31, United States Code, is amended —

(1) in section 5112 —
. . .
(B) in subsection (t)(6)(B), by striking 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper and inserting not less than 90 percent silver; and
. . .
(2) in section 5132(a)(2)(B)(i), by striking 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper and inserting not less than 90 percent silver.

The result of the corrections is to change the requirement to strike silver coins with a composition that contains 90-percent silver, to the requirement that the coins must contain at a minimum 90-percent silver. By making these changes, it allows the U.S. Mint to use pure silver planchets to strike coins.

The U.S. Mint has been asking congress to end the practice of requiring silver coins to be 90-percent silver. Earlier, it was learned that pure silver planchets would be cheaper to produce than to find the few suppliers who would create “dirtied” blanks.

Congress finally listened (for a change).

2013 Mount Rushmore QuarterThe change in the law happens in two parts. Paragraph (B) makes the change for the balance of the America the Beautiful Quarters Program including the 5-ounce bullion coin. Section (2) changes the Administrative part of the code (31 U.S.C. § 5132(a)(2)(B)(i)) that covers all other coins. A problem with the way these corrections were written it does not affect commemorative coin programs unless the U.S. Mint’s general counsel feels that this law covers all coins. While the U.S. Mint is likely to interpret the law the way that benefits them, the wording does not cover commemoratives.

Missing from these corrections the similar language for gold coins. Unless the U.S. Mint will interpret the gold coin changes as permission to change the commemorative coin programs, gold coins will remain 90-percent gold.

As I write this I am reminded about famous quote by the first Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

Next, we introduce another collectible that congress has mandated to be produced by the U.S. Mint.

Mount Rushmore quarter image courtesy of the U.S. Mint.

Look… up in the sky! What’s up doc?

2015 Canada Bugs Bunny $20 Silver Coin

2015 Canada Bugs Bunny $20 Silver Coin

Back in October I wrote about the Royal Canadian Mint’s “$20 for $20” series of .9999 pure silver coins being sold with a face value of $20.00 in Canadian funds. A few weeks after that post I bought the Bugs Bunny and Superman silver coins.

Even though both coins were ordered at the same time, they were shipped separately. Packaged in plain envelopes with a nondescript United States address, the Bugs Bunny coin arrived four weeks later and the Superman coin arrived 10 days later. It appears like the Royal Canadian Mint is either mailing them from the United States or using a fulfillment center to do the mailing. In either case, shipping was free!

Coins are placed in a plastic capsule, which I hope is archival safe, with that capsule placed in a clear plastic envelope. The envelop is “sealed” with a sticker and then glued to the card. The card has the information about the coin in both English and French. All of the extra paperwork was added to the Superman coin, but that was inconsequential to the presentation.

2015 Canada Superman $20 Silver Coin

2015 Canada Superman $20 Silver Coin

Both coins are a little bigger than the U.S. quarter dollar. The quarter is 24.26 millimeters and the Canadian $20 coins are 27 millimeters. While the U.S. quarter contains 5.670 grams of a copper-nickel alloy, the Canadian $20 coins contain 7.96 grams of silver. At the current exchange rate (1 USD = 1.393 CAD), the coin’s face value is equivalent to 14.3584 USD. With the current silver value of $14.16, the melt value of these coins are $3.62.

Before you go unleash yourself on the costs, remember that the $10.74 “markup” also includes manufacturing and packaging costs, shipping, and license fees the Royal Canadian Mint has to pay to Warner Brothers.

Growing up watching Bugs Bunny on television on the weekends and the reruns of the The Adventures of Superman after school starring George Reeves makes these a special collectible.

These are also struck coins without color enhancements. Although the texture is similar to that of the U.S. Mint’s enhanced uncirculated coins, as sculptured works of art, they are very accurate images and beautifully made.

It may be too late to buy these for a holiday present, unless you put an “I.O.U.” in the box. Maybe if you are near the Royal Canadian Mint facility in Ottawa you can check out their physical storefront. You may want to call ahead before making the trip expecting to find these coins.

Packaging Images
2015 Canada Bugs Bunny $20 Silver Coin Packaging
2015 Canada Superman $20 Silver Coin Packaging

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