Portlander Finds ‘Obama Coins’ Not All That Mint

Laura Gunderson, The Oregonian (Portland), February 13, 2009

Jerome Polk was so impressed with the special edition Obama coins he saw television star Montel Williams hawking in an infomercial, he ordered six sets for himself and some of his grandkids.

Instead of coins engraved with Obama’s face, as Polk thought he’d ordered at $18 a pop, the Northeast Portland retailer received four actual U.S. coins–a silver dollar, half dollar and two quarters–featuring painted-on Obama images.

“This isn’t an Obama coin, it’s a 50-cent piece with a picture glued on,” says Polk, who paid the U.S Coin Network $145.78 for five four-coin and one three-coin sets, including $25.98 in shipping.

The U.S. Mint doesn’t mind if companies decorate its coins and sell them–in this case–for nine times their worth. However, the federal agency doesn’t like it when companies offer authenticity certificates, as the Coin Network did, that may confuse consumers about who issued the coins.

The Coin Network’s certificate assures, “This is to certify and authenticate that the coins used in the Barack Obama Inaugural Collection are genuine and made by the United States Mint.”

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Painted coins, such as Polk’s set, which included a Silver Eagle dollar and a JFK half dollar, rarely hold value for collectors, said Paul Rigby, owner of Coin Cottage in Southwest Portland. In fact, he said, altering the otherwise sought-after Silver Eagle dollars detracts from their collectible value.

“Even with President Obama’s picture, it won’t help,” he said. “They usually end up sold as junk silver.”

Polk’s not surprised. “I knew it right away: I got bumped,” says Polk, whose mother also bought a few sets.

He’ll pay for what he’s got, but wants his $100 back for the sets he hasn’t received. He called up the Coin Network this week and says he asked for a refund on the sets he was told wouldn’t ship until Feb. 24. But, he says, the operator told him that wasn’t policy–even though the company’s various Web sites–USCoinNetwork.com, HistoricCoins.com and ObamaCoinReserve.com–all promise money-back guarantees.

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So you got yourself one of those widely advertised Obama coins from Franklin Mint that’s covered in 24-carat gold and depicts the president-elect.

With it came a “certificate of authenticity,” signed by the 36th director of the U.S. Mint, Jay W. Johnson.

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Also, although Johnson is a real person, he hasn’t been director of the U.S. Mint since 2001.

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Confusion over Obama commemorative coins–issued not only by Franklin Mint but also several other private companies–has become so widespread that the U.S. Mint has issued an alert.

“These items are not official United States Mint products,” says the statement.

The coins from Franklin Mint are real Kennedy half dollars upon which an image of the president-elect is superimposed.

But the U.S. Mint wants you to know, in no uncertain terms, that the agency had nothing to do with the altering or marketing.

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Michael White, a spokesman for the agency, said the Mint–which produces U.S. coins–has had a steady stream of calls about the coins. {snip}

“It’s not illegal to alter a coin,” White said. “The guidelines have to do with fraudulent intent. As long as you don’t represent the product as anything other than an altered coin, it’s within the law.”

For example, you can’t alter a coin or paper bill to make it appear to be a higher denomination. Just adding Barack Obama’s picture is allowed.

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It’s perfectly permissible to use the 50-cent altered coins in vending machines or in stores.

A merchant isn’t obligated to take it–or any other coin for that matter.

“It’s like someone trying to pay a $50 parking ticket with all pennies,” White said. “It doesn’t have to be accepted.”

Johnson, who served in Congress from Wisconsin for a term before being defeated and then was appointed in 2000 to head the Mint, is aware that there can be confusion between the U.S. Mint and Franklin Mint.

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Johnson, who is now chief numismatist for Franklin Mint, said he is careful to say he’s the former director of the U.S. Mint in television commercials and when he makes appearances on the Shop NBC channel, which hawks Franklin Mint products.

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Just what is it about the product that’s “authentic”?

“Basically, it says that it’s a genuine, uncirculated coin that has been enhanced by the Franklin Mint,” Johnson said.

Midway through the commercial, the announcer says, in time-honored fashion, “But wait, there’s more!”

The product included “free” with the coin is the “first-time postage stamp honoring our new president.” Shown is a sheet of stamps bearing the president-elect’s image.

But don’t expect to use them–the stamps were issued by Liberia and are good for postage only there.

Even though they’re included “free,” they add on to the cost because of shipping and handling. In fact, the total shipping and handling charges are startling: $6.95 for the coin and $4.95 more for the “free” stamps.

That brings the total charges to $11.90, or more than the listed price of the coin.

It makes the real outlay $21.85.

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Adkins [Gary, president of the Professional Numismatists Guild], who lives in suburban Minneapolis and has been a coin dealer for 43 years, said the altered Kennedy half dollar probably had little or no worth beyond the 50-cent face value.

“The coin is just a nickel-copper alloy, so they don’t have any gold or silver in them,” he said. “The 24-carat gold plating they advertise is really nothing. It’s like spray painting. It’s microscopic thin, so there’s no premium for that.”

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