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What Are Commemorative Coins Actually Worth?

Sometimes, you’re better off holding onto the coins you already have in your pocket

Its St. Patrick’s Day, which means a tide of green-clad frat bros have probably already kicked down your front door and puked in your shoes. This survival guide is designed to get you through the worst day of the year in as few pieces as possible.

Maybe you’ll find gold coins at the end of a leprechaun’s rainbow this St. Patrick’s Day. But who needs to go to those lengths? They’re all over the place! Specifically, those ones minted specifically to commemorate major sporting events, historical moments, worldwide spectacles or even dead celebrities.

But who are these commemorative coins for? How much are they actually worth? And are they even legal tender? Along with Chad Martin, a coin dealer in San Diego of 30 years, we’re figuring out the worth of these classic grandparent-scammers.

First off, can I buy regular stuff in a store with these?

Some of them (the ones produced by the U.S. Mint) are legal tender, but most others aren’t. You couldn’t spend your commemorative Elvis coin, for example, unless it’s part of some bizarre barter transaction. But the price of real commemorative coins will probably sway you not to spend them anyway. Why spend hundreds of dollars collecting a special, beautiful “dollar” (made of solid — or pretty much solid — gold or silver, and printed in a small run) only to buy part of a loaf of bread with it, since its legal-tender purchasing power only equals one lowly dollar?

Well, this already sounds like bullshit. Are these things ever really going to be valuable?

First of all, let’s be clear: Coin collecting isn’t some get-rich-quick scheme. “I truly believe coins are a fantastic hobby and a great collectible,” Martin says. “That doesn’t make them a great investment all the time. The idea that they’re oftentimes sold as an investment is a bit of a stretch.” Just like with baseball cards and stamps, he says there’s an overproduction problem in the collectible-coin industry as well.

But it’s also crucial to differentiate where the coins are coming from. First, there’s the U.S. Mint, which, in addition to producing all our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, regularly issues special-edition coins, too. These are simply a revenue stream for the mint, catered mainly to hobbyists or anyone interested in the specific special edition (women’s history month, for example). They’re a reputable producer, and they pump out a lot of different products.

The flip side of the coin, you might say, are other actors. These range from benign tchotchke purveyors like the Franklin Mint or the Bradford Exchange, to shady operations espousing the benefits of investing in gold and bullion to the vulnerable and/or paranoid. This latter group advertises in the sorts of places you might expect to find the eyes and ears of libertarian retirees: TV news, AM radio, Infowars and other places even further down the rabbit hole of wingnut and conspiracy-minded media.

Is any of it worth putting your money into?

If you enjoy having it around, sure. But if you’re anticipating it getting more value? Sometimes they will, but mostly they don’t. “Oftentimes you can buy these products in the secondary market for less than they were issued,” Martin says of the U.S. Mint coins. But every once in a while, a coin will get hot, he explains. One example, he says, is the U.S. Mint’s recently issued 5-ounce Apollo 11 50th anniversary silver dollar, which he says is selling for double what it was originally issued at. But he also says this often happens in the short term with a limited-issue coin for a popular product (like anything to do with space exploration), and it’s anyone’s guess whether that product will hold up over time.

Beyond the U.S. Mint coins, some may possibly appreciate, but don’t get your hopes up. “There are numerous world mints and private mints that are putting out massive amounts of different collectibles,” Martin says. “Some will do just fine — there are some themes that tend to hold up. Others will sink into obscurity.”

Like what?

“Olympic coin issues are probably the most well-known,” Martin says. “They’re very popular around those Olympics, and usually within a year or two, you can buy them for 30 cents on the dollar. I wouldn’t want to generalize about any one in particular, but there are pitfalls when looking at some of these.”

Let’s be real here: Are commemorative coins mainly a way to separate well-meaning retirees from their fixed income?

Some coins, no. Others… sigh, hell yes. Again, of the mints that make honest products, some may be aimed at serious collectors, while others make products more likely aimed at people who don’t know what else to get their English royal family-loving relative for Christmas, or at a sports fan caught up in the rush of their team winning the Super Bowl. Those are at least legit operations, even if their claims of value and rarity are pretty overblown.

The truly insidious operations specifically target people who, crucially, don’t know squat about collecting, and are likely to be persuaded that buying gold is some kind of safe investment (whether or not they believe the world order is about to disintegrate, the Federal Reserve is a vast conspiracy or the apocalypse is nigh).

Stories abound of boiler-room operations like Merit Gold & Silver, which, before it was busted several years ago, got customers to call in to buy bullion close to market value, then pulled a bait-and-switch and sold customers vastly inflated coins instead.

It worked like this: Commonly, a customer calls in, interested in buying bullion. But the salesperson will talk them into coins instead (which are marked up, oh, 35 percent — a fact that a novice coin collector would be unaware of, but that the salesperson is of course keenly aware of). The coins are sold to the customer with a buy-back guarantee, and fake claims that coins are untraceable by the IRS and the government in general (neither of which are true). Then, when the customer calls back after taking their coins to a real expert who tells them what they’re worth (i.e., fuck all), all they get is an answering machine.

The scams aren’t enormous — customers can end up being overcharged several thousand dollars — but that’s a lot of money to many people. There are even stories of companies that hound and harass vulnerable seniors into buying more, and more, and more of this stuff. Hopefully there’s a very painful place in hell for these salespeople. Inflated values and dishonest sales tactics give the entire industry — including real experts like Martin — a bad name, he says. People will come in and get angry at him when he explains that their coins aren’t worth what they thought. “I turn into the bad guy, so it’s really, really hard for those of us on the ground level that have to deal with this,” he says.

It also sours people on the joys of coin collecting, which normally has little to do with the coins’ monetary value. Basically, the commemorative coin industry is very much a buyer-beware world.