A presidential inauguration is like the Super Bowl or Olympics — an event people want to remember with a souvenir, even if they don’t attend. That’s especially true for the inauguration of Barack Obama, and marketers know it.
You can find all sorts of souvenirs for sale, including T-shirts, hats, buttons, pens, cuff links, key chains, porcelain plates, even throw rugs.
And of course, there are those Barack Obama commemorative coins. Maybe you’ve seen the ads on TV or in your Sunday paper. These colorful, “limited edition” coins have a picture of the 44th president on them.
The Franklin Mint and the New England Mint are just two of the many companies selling inaugural coins. Their price is $9.95, plus shipping and handling. They take a genuine uncirculated U.S. coin (a presidential dollar or 50-cent piece) and cover it with a thin layer of 24 karat gold. Then the picture of President-elect Obama is applied to one side.
The ad for the Franklin Mint describes this commemorative coin as “an incredible work.” Gwynne Gorr, the company’s chief of marketing, tells me they are "very proud" of this coin. She says it is selling very well.
Brian Dunn, director of marketing at the New England Mint, tells me collectors have been very happy with the coins. “There’s been an overwhelming response,” he says.
The Franklin Mint and the New England Mint are not affiliated with the federal government and they say so in their ads — even if it is in the fine print. But not every company does that.
The Treasury Department has received a lot of questions about these coins. The U.S. Mint does not issue inaugural coins, and it wants to make sure everyone knows that.
In a recent consumer alert, the government reminds potential buyers these coins are “not official United States Mint products. Furthermore, these products, businesses, and advertisements are not approved, endorsed, sponsored or authorized by the United States Mint, the Department of the Treasury or the United States Government.”
Is it legal to do this?
The federal government does not encourage anyone to alter the images on U.S. coins. But the companies producing the Obama mementos are not breaking the law. Greg Hernandez, acting public affairs director for the Mint, tells me it is legal to paint or print on coins as long as the image is not a commercial advertisement.
So are these inaugural coins a good investment?
"No, they are not an investment coin,” says Gary Adkins, president of the Professional Numismatists Guild, a group that represents rare coin dealers.
“The Obama coins are basically a memento piece and should not be considered anything more than that.” In fact, he says, collectors usually consider such artwork to be defacing of the coin.
“These are overpriced trinkets,” says Scott Travers, a New York City coin dealer and author of "The Coin Collectors Survival Manual." He says people need to realize they are paying $15 (including shipping) or more for something that is only worth the face value of the coin.
“I cannot see that these coins will have any more value than the face value in my lifetime, your lifetime, or in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren,” Travers says.
Many companies advertise that their inaugural coins come with a certificate of authenticity. That sounds good, but it doesn’t really mean much. At the Franklin Mint, that certificate is signed by Jay W. Johnson, the 36th director of the U.S. Mint. It certifies that the base coin used to make the medallion is an authentic U.S. coin. That’s it.
Do the ads oversell the value of the Obama coins? “We make no stipulation whatsoever as to what their market value will be in the future,” says Gwynne Gorr at the Franklin Mint. “There is no way we could possibly know that.” The New England Mint does not comment on the value of their coins.
The bottom line
The Obama inauguration is a significant milestone in the history of this country. The colorful Obama medallions might be the way you want to save this memory. Just don’t get swept away by the patriotic hype.
If you do decide to buy, realize what you’ll get: an unofficial coin that has no intrinsic or investment value. It’s purely sentimental. And for some that may fine.