An article by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker in CoinWeek February 18th discusses First Coinvestors and the Swiatek-Breen book, The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins: 1892-1954. Here's an excerpt.
What stands out in the minds of many readers is the peculiar way in which the book is laid out. Starting from the premise that every commemorative was created by swindlers and frauds, the coins are listed beside the Latin phrase Corpus Delicti, which means “the body of the crime” and refers to the facts necessary to the existence of a crime (as in the death of a victim in a murder case). The groups and individuals behind the pieces are identified as “Suspects” or “Accessories”, and Swiatek and Breen’s description of each coin’s design process comes under the header Modus Operandi. It gives the Encyclopedia a kind of True Crime atmosphere, and makes each story seem like an episode of Dragnet. While all along, the authoritative and collegial manner in which the authors write lulls you into a great sense of trust and camaraderie.
Little did I realize, in all the times I’ve read the book, that some of the fun and games had at the expense of the original purveyors of America’s commemorative coin series was also being had on me as well. It seems that the publishers had more at stake than just selling books.
Maybe I would’ve known better had I been in the game in 1981, when the book came out. It was published in part by First Coinvestors, Inc., a subscription-based, coin-of-the-month dealership (the Columbia House of the not-so-rare coin industry), and, despite winning the 1981 Numismatic Literary Guild Book of the Year Award, the Encyclopedia appears to have been viewed by the company simply as one large “advertorial” to promote their business.
First Coinvestors were one of the biggest distributors of coins to non-numismatists in the country, even hiring both Walter Breen and Don Taxay (Swiatek says he never had much to do with the firm).
For a time their ads could be found in high-powered magazines like Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. One ad circa 1980 offered a free gold Mexican 2 Peso coin (with a modest .0482 ounces of gold) when you subscribed to their $50 a year Rare Coin and Stamp Advisory. The company’s own ad copy described the periodical as something that “reports trends and special limited situations”, and “offers you a chance to buy rare coins and stamps on exceptionally favorable terms”.
The monthly Coinvestors advisory had some 30,000 subscribers in 1980, around the time the Encyclopedia was published. Most of these subscribers, we imagine, were also participating in the firm’s coin-of-the-month program.
And if that’s the case, then how difficult was it to fill orders? The very idea of a rare coin market presupposes that the coins are actually rare. By definition it’s impossible to expect 30,000 rare coins a month to be available. Therefore, despite their own claims, they (and firms like them) weren’t really dealing with rare coins, but readily available coins sold to collectors as “investment instruments”.
There was little to no interest in the Booker T. Washington and Carver Washington half dollars by 1980, despite their historical significance and interesting backstories. The coins were overproduced and undersold. An untold number were melted. Many of them went into circulation, while others gathered dust in clear plastic packaging.
In fact, hoards were being saved. The Guttag Brothers had many; their stash was dispersed only a few years ago. Others, too, stored these unwanted coins by the thousands. For all intents and purposes, once silver was removed from circulation, the Booker T. and Carver Washington halves were treated more like bullion than collectibles.
Yet, in a special section of the Encyclopedia (again, according to Swiatek, inserted without his permission), First Coinvestors President Stanley Apfelbaum named the Booker T. and Carver Washington sets as the first of the “Big Six”, the best commemorative coins of the 1980s.
Since it's Academy Award night I'll paraphrase the Casablanca script: I am shocked - SHOCKED - to discover marketing going on in the coin business!! Be sure to read the complete article online.
To read the complete article, see:
Booker T. on the Tarmac: A story about First Coinvestors
Wayne Homren, Editor
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