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Is this any way to make a mint?

May 18, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS | CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

What if I offered to sell you an ordinary quarter for 60 cents? You'd tell me to . . . well, I can't print what you'd probably tell me to do.

So what are we to make of a company called World Reserve Monetary Exchange, which recently took out full-page ads in this paper and elsewhere offering rolls of 50 $1 coins for $124? That's about $2.50 for each $1 coin.

The ads, which could easily have been mistaken at first glance for news stories, are titled "Going, Going, Gone," and say that "free coins are being handed out" to anyone calling within 72 hours to order "never-before-seen Ballistic Rolls of the U.S. Government's dazzling new Presidential Dollar Coins."

"The U.S. Gov't barely got started minting these new coins and by law were required to stop production forever," the ads breathlessly (and ungrammatically) states. "There will never be any more."

Well, yeah. But that's not because a law was passed suddenly cutting off production. It's because the U.S. Mint makes millions of coins honoring each president and then moves on to other presidents.

"We're minting to demand," says Michael White, a Mint spokesman. As such, he says about 340 million George Washington coins were minted last year, followed by 224 million John Adams coins, 203 million Thomas Jeffersons, 172 million James Madisons and 124 million James Monroes.

At least 115 million John Quincy Adams coins are being introduced this month, with four additional presidents coming each year all the way up to Gerald Ford in 2016. (A president has to be dead at least two years before being put on a coin.)

So are these coins worth more than the $1 they represent?

"You can get them for face value at the bank," White says. "We're not marketing them as investment coins."

In other words, a roll of 50 presidential dollars is worth $50. And with hundreds of millions of the coins in circulation, it's a pretty safe bet that, a decade from now, they'll be worth, well, about $50.

"The mintage levels of these things are rather high," observes Jay Beeton, a spokesman for the American Numismatic Assn., the country's largest organization of coin collectors. "Right there it impacts their long-term value."

That's not the impression the World Reserve Monetary Exchange conveys, though. Its ads point out that 1973 coins commemorating Dwight Eisenhower "have already increased in value by an astonishing 1,200%."

"Just think if you had saved the Eisenhower Dollar Coins," it says. "Right now you'd be tempted to cash them in for a huge jackpot."

There are two problems with that claim. First, even though the "Red Book," a coin pricing guide, does indeed say the 1973 Eisenhower dollar is now worth about $13 (a 1,200% increase), two local coin dealers I spoke with say that the actual market value of the coin is closer to $5 (a 400% gain).

Moreover, it's not a fair comparison. While about 168 million Eisenhower dollars were put into circulation in 1972, the 1973 run was limited to about 4 million coins that were sold primarily in special sets.

"The '73 was not made for general circulation," says Jim Foster, owner of Liberty Coin Galleries in Long Beach. "It was made only for collectors."

And the current crop of presidential coins?

"There's no marketplace for them," Foster says. "No collector is interested in them."

He adds that there is no such thing in coin-collecting circles as a "Ballistic Roll." World Reserve Monetary Exchange just made that up.

Monica Wallace, a spokeswoman for World Reserve Monetary Exchange, says via e-mail that the company's ads aren't misleading because they state that "values always fluctuate and that examples of value increases presented from prior-issue coinage do not guarantee an increase in value of current issue coins."

Presidential dollars can indeed be obtained for face value at a bank, she says, but the condition of those may be inferior to those being offered by World Reserve Monetary Exchange.

"And there is no guarantee as to which president's portrait will be on those coins," she says.

That is, unless you specify to the teller which president you want, as I was able to do when I stopped by a local bank branch.

Wallace says that World Reserve Monetary Exchange charges $124 for each 50-coin roll, plus $11.88 in shipping costs. That's a total of $135.88 for $50 worth of money.

But when I called World Reserve Monetary Exchange's advertised number, a service rep told me I had to buy four rolls -- one each of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison -- and that an extra roll of Monroes would be thrown in for free along with five additional display coins representing each set.

The total cost for that, I was told, would be $543.52. In other words, you're getting $255 worth of money for more than twice what it's worth.

What else are you getting? Each roll of coins comes in a plastic tube and is packaged in a box designed to look like a bar of gold, although there's no gold in the coins. They're made of manganese brass.

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