In 2020, the U.S. Mint will issue a $10 gold coin and accompanying silver medal to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in 1620. This program was not authorized by congressional legislation and is being issued using the Mint’s existing legal authority to strike bullion gold coins and silver medals at the discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury. It should prove to be a popular program if buyers embrace the designs, especially since over 10 million Americans can trace their heritage to the Mayflower.
In recent years, sales of U.S. Mint commemorative coins slumped sharply, except primarily for the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame 75th anniversary program, and to a lesser degree, this year’s Apollo 11 50th anniversary coins. With only two programs allowed by law per year, most collectors want to see coins about topics of broader, national interest such as major historic events and anniversaries rather than service groups the Lions Club or Boys Town.
Members of Congress have proposed a number of commemorative coin programs on issues more likely to appeal to a broader audience, but legislation on those programs often fails. A case in point is the upcoming 400th anniversary of the landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 of a group of religious and political separatists — more-often called pilgrims — who fled England, and before that, the Netherlands.
In 2016 and 2017 — during the 114th and 115th Congresses — bills were introduced to issue a commemorative coin program for the Mayflower anniversary, but those bills failed to garner enough support to move forward and died at the end of their respective Congresses.
2020 Basketball Coins
As of now, only one congressionally authorized commemorative program is in place for 2020 for the 60th anniversary of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The Mint recently announced the start of a design competition for the obverse of the coin, while the reverse will depict a basketball and will presumably be prepared by the Mint’s staff or Artistic Infusion program artists.
Like the baseball and Apollo coins, the basketball issue will also be concave on its obverse and convex on its reverse. Collectors have embraced this format with enthusiasm, which was reflected in strong sales for those programs. But with the novelty of the shape having worn off, it will be interesting to see what role the domed shape plays in the 2020 basketball coins.
Because of congressional inaction on the Mayflower program, U.S. Mint officials recently decided to issue such coins using the legal authority granted to the Secretary of the Treasury to issue bullion gold coins without congressional approval — a provision that is part of 31 U.S. Code 5112 (i) (4) (C). This authority has been used during the past decade to create a number of gold numismatic coins such as the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle, the 2014-W Kennedy gold half dollar, the 2016-W centennial Liberty gold coins and the 2015 and 2017 American Liberty gold coins.
The provision specifically grants authority to: “The [Treasury] Secretary in minting and issuing other bullion and proof gold coins under this subsection in accordance with such program procedures and coin specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time,” provided the “profits generated from the sale of gold to the United States Mint for this program shall be considered as a receipt to be deposited into the General Fund of the Treasury.”
Using this authority, the Mint plans to issue a 24 karat, one-quarter-ounce $10 gold coin and accompanying one-ounce silver medal to mark the quadricentennial of the Mayflower landing — an event that plays a major part in the narrative of American history.
Royal Mint Connection
In addition, the Mint is partnering with the Royal Mint of the United Kingdom to release a special set that will also include a UK coin. Mint officials say that this set will help “to more fully tell the story” of the Mayflower landing. The gold coin and silver medal from the U.S. Mint will be offered both individually and in the set with the Royal Mint coin, whose details remain unknown today.
Other specifics are also currently unavailable on the U.S. Mint coin and medal such as the fineness and planchet size of the silver medal (though if they follow the pattern followed several times, but not always in recent years, it will be the same size as an American Silver Eagle, or 40.6 millimeters).
The Mint’s spokesman Michael White told Coin World on April 9 that the gold coin would be .9167 fine, which is what is used for American Gold Eagles. But during an April 16 meeting of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee to review proposed designs for the Mayflower program, Mint officials said the gold coin would instead be 24 karats, or .999 fine, which is what is used for the American Gold Buffalo coins, and that it would be one-quarter ounce in weight.
“Not A Commemorative”
Mint officials also stated that the Mayflower program is not a commemorative coin program as such, with Mr. White telling Coin World’s Paul Gilkes on April 9:
This is not a commemorative coin program and has nothing to do with any proposed legislation.
He went on to cite the legal authority for the program specified above.
The program includes a silver medal rather than coin because a coin would require congressional approval. The silver medal’s legal authority is contained in 31 U.S. Code 5111 (a) (2), which allows the Secretary of the Treasury to strike medals provided they do not interfere with regular minting operations.
The Mint’s move to issue the program this way has sparked a degree of controversy within the numismatic community. For example, Bill Gibbs, editor of Coin World, penned an editorial dated April 29 that was published on April 13, in which he called it a “wrong-headed decision.” Noting that all the previous coins issued under the cited legal provision dealt in some way with Liberty, and that the Mint is acting to create a program which the Congress considered, but rejected. He concluded that the Mint “is taking that authority in a dangerous direction.”
On the other hand, CoinWeek applauded the Mint’s move, saying:
We wholeheartedly support the Mint’s decision to expand its numismatic portfolio and feel that they should continue to be aggressive in this regard.
As for collectors, few have chimed in specifically on this matter, but one poster on the Collectors Universe U.S. Coin Forum said:
I am glad that the mint director stepped in to make this happen where Congress failed to act, but gold is a bit pricey for most people, especially non-collectors, and the organizations that would have benefitted from the surcharges in a commemorative coin program will lose out. But it is better than nothing, and good for Mr. Ryder for getting it done.
Overall, there seems to be a lot more support than opposition to the move. The real test will be whether the Mayflower program is successful in terms of sales, especially since the legal authority for programs without congressional authority says they are intended to generate funds sent to the General Fund of the Treasury, which help reduce the federal debt.
And sales should be helped by the fact that the coins do not come with the usual surcharges attached to commemorative issues that are later sent to recipient organizations once costs are covered. This should result in a lower price point for the Mayflower coin and medal than would be the case if they were commemoratives.
On April 16, the CCAC reviewed an extensive portfolio of designs for the 2020 Mayflower program. At the beginning of the discussion, Ms. Stafford of the Mint staff said:
To develop the design portfolio, the Mint worked with a panel of subject matter experts who helped identify the concepts as well as the impact the Mayflower voyage had on the pilgrims, the Wampanoag Indians, and the history of our country.
This statement draws attention to the importance of developing designs that are historically accurate and culturally sensitive, especially with respect to the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims establish their colony.
Relations between the two groups later deteriorated sharply. Not to mention that the way the Thanksgiving story is typically recounted, as is also true of the overall story of the Pilgrims and how they interacted with the Indians, bears little resemblance to what really happened.
The issues raised by that complex history were on full display during the meeting — most notably in comments from CCAC members about the historic inaccuracy of many of the designs, and from comments from the Wampanoag 400 Committee representative, who said she would request government to government consultations about the program.
In the end, the design review committee did not reach a consensus on any designs, though a couple of them did garner a substantial number of votes. They then voted to have the staff of the Mint select those designs they feel will best pair with the UK coin, while specifying this should not constitute a precedent.
During the meeting, one member brought up the silver half dollar issued in 1920 and 1921 for the 300th anniversary of the Mayflower — the Pilgrim Tercentenary coins — which is among the more popular classic issues. He pointed out that unlike that coin, the 2020 issues will also depict the Wampanoag Indians, which was reflected in many of the designs considered at the meeting.
For some collectors, doing that is acting in a “politically correct” manner. Yet not including them in the artwork would do a major disservice to the complex history of these events and the important role the Indians played in the eventual success of Plymouth Colony.
The 1920 Pilgrim half dollar, which was struck again in 1921, even though a quarter of the 1920 mintage was sent back to the Mint to be melted, featured a depiction on its obverse of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford sporting the cone-shaped hats pilgrims wore and holding a Bible in his left hand. The reverse showed the Mayflower ship with its large sails.
For most coin collectors, it is the subject matter and designs, as well as mintages, that matter to them — not whether the coin is a commemorative or another numismatic issue, irrespective of whether the program was authorized by Congress.
Commemorative coin programs created through the traditional route primarily benefit recipient organizations through the potential for surcharges sent to them. But the decline in sales of such coins in recent years has decreased that potential with some programs like the 2013 Girl Scouts of the USA centennial silver dollar failing to even recoup its costs, which resulted in no funds going to the GSUSA.
There have, in fact, been several legislative efforts in recent years to end the practice of surcharges such as a 2012 bill that was not passed, which would have required any profits to go towards deficit reduction. That move, as Michael Zielinski wrote in Mint News Blog on September 27, 2012: “Would reduce the incentive for private organizations to pursue topics for commemorative coins that “might not be the most nationally significant for a particular year” and that if passed it may result in “a more even handed selection and a broader range of topics for future commemorative coin programs.”
The Mint’s move to create a Mayflower 400th anniversary program on its own is different from past uses of the Treasury Secretary’s existing authority as far as its theme, but the U.S. code language does not say only Liberty-themed gold coins may be produced under this authority. The language is intentionally broad.
Hopefully, this experience will serve as a wake-up call for the Congress to move towards creating more commemorative programs of national interest and away from those rooted in more narrow special interests.
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, CoinWeek, The Greysheet and CPG Market Review, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, FUN Topics, The Clarion and COINage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column, “The Coin Analyst,” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild for best website column. By 2017, he received an NLG award for best article in a non-numismatic publication with his “Liberty Centennial Designs,” which was published in Elemetal Direct. In October 2018 he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif,” that appeared in The Clarion in 2017.