Shades of the 1976 Olympic Coin Controversy as CBC turns spotlight on Mint’s mothballed “$20 for $20” Program

CBC Television’s “The National” recently consulted us on the Royal Canadian Mint’s cancelled “$20 for $20” program.

An interesting piece, although in our opinion incorrectly grounded from the outset on the assumption that the falling price of Silver was the prime motivator for the mass return of the coins by the public over the past few years (and hence the Mint’s heavy profit-hit from having to write-down the returned material).

This is simply incorrect. While the significant decline in Silver values during the two-year or so period since the series inception certainly helped to impair the Mint’s bottom line, the actual motivation for the coins being returned to the Mint had little to do with this. Indeed, ask any 100 random public buyers of these coins, and I doubt you will find a person among them who would have had the foggiest idea what the actual Silver value of these coins were at any given time while they continued to take advantage of the Mint’s “no-risk” offer of having three coins show up in their mailboxes, tax and shipping-free. In actuality, the Mint’s $20 for $20 coins contained .255 oz of pure Silver, which meant that even during the record-high Silver price surge of March and October, 2012, the net precious-metal of these coins at their very highest was never more than $12. Thus, with a Silver value of never more than 60% of actual cost, these coins were never a good precious-metal investment. Nor, frankly, were they actually intended to be.

Before I continue, however, let me be unequivocal in expressing my original take on the $20 for $20 program. In a nutshell, I liked the program, or at least appreciated the void (or niche) it was attempting to satisfy. The odd inspirationally-challenged design aside, the concept of striking thematic collector coins in pure Silver with a budget-friendly tax-exempt price of $20 was a nice idea – certainly compared to the average issue price of the Mint’s multitude of other Fine Silver Numismatic issues, which averaged double or more this reasonable price-point. To me, as both a dealer and collector, the fact that the “face-value” of the series happened to correspond with this issue price was less relevant, although obviously critical to the Mint’s juggernaut marketing program for the series (an important note: recall that the tax-exempt status of the series is neither a product of the particular face-value chosen or the Mint’s benevolence, but rather how our current HST laws treat any Silver or Gold coins or bars with fineness of .999 or greater).

So – as a fine-Silver collectible coin with $8, $10 or $12 worth of Silver contained within, it always to me represented quite fair value, based on two critical assumptions:

a) You actually liked what you were purchasing, and
b) You were buying the coins as a collector/gift-giver, and not as an investor

And herein lies the crux of the issue, and – most regrettably – it invokes a powerful sense of deja vu from that public relations atomic stink-bomb of 25 years ago, namely the legacy of the Montreal Olympic coin program.

Here, succinctly, are the Mint’s two greatest “Achilles heals” of programming and marketing, both of which they seem incapable of drawing life-lessons from.

The first (and admittedly least significant of the two), involves the timeless issue of market saturation. As expressed above, I liked the original concept of a $20 for $20 program, mainly based on issues of pricing and concept. And, had they made this an annual series of thoughtfully-designed coins, it very likely would have continued on ad infinitum. The Mint, however, invoked their all-too-familiar “Ex-lax” marketing philosophy: “this seems to have worked well, let’s quadruple the program”. Or, to put it more succinctly: this was essentially a five-year program, and yet we have 18 different $20 for $20 coins on the board, not including the creeping absurdity of the “$50 for $50” and “$100 for $100” issues.

Ultimately, it was far less the tanking Silver value of these coins that motivated buyers to express their waning fondness for the coins through a tsunami of returns, but rather a saturation of the market – not insignificantly compounded, ironically, by the success of the Mint’s own marketing efforts. After all, it was so easy to have trios of the coins conveniently dropped into one’s mailbox (heck, you could even earn mileage points on your tax-free purchases if you used the right credit-card!). The inevitable problem was, even at just $20 each, they added up. A trio of each of the $20 issues squirrelled away, for example, and you suddenly find you’re sitting on $1,000+ of the coins. Add in the misguided “investor” interest in the series, and you had the recipe for an inevitable consumer regurgitation. In short, the Mint’s heady loss on the series, forced by very heavy returns and subsequent write-downs, was quite simply the result of people having been successfully persuaded to purchase unnecessary quantities of the $20 issues. After all, not everyone has thirty grand-children, and although the motivations of both greed and speculation can be said to have played a role, by no means would I burden the consumer with the bulk of responsibility here. After all, in being offered Silver coins “at face value”, how could there possibly be a down-side? Which leads us to the second and most critical naughty habit of the Mint, resurrected once again from the dark past.

The 1976 Montreal Olympic Silver coinage represented the largest and most successful Olympic marketing program in numismatic history. By my rough calculations, the Royal Canadian Mint used twelve tons of Silver in the production of their 28 different Five and Ten Dollars coins, which were made available by subscription starting a full three years before the Olympics. You could buy them individually, in series of four coins, complete sets of 28 coins, in various quantity rolls, and through the post, at Banks, directly from the Mint, and on automatic payroll deduction schemes. Gosh, if they could have found a way to liquefy the coins and safely blend them into infant formulas for greater saturation, they would have done so. In addition to the uniqueness of the issues (i.e. the first Sterling coins struck in Canada since 1919) as well as appealing to patriotic tendencies, one of the core marketing principle upon which the program was anchored was a now-familiar one: these coins were Legal-tender. Sure, both the Uncirculated and Proof strikings were marketed at somewhat of a premium, however this additional charge (as well as the intrinsic silver to face-value ratio) was quite moderate. Indeed, it seemed, there was little down-side to the extremely popular series, and at the end of the day, this face-value was “guaranteed by the Government of Canada”. And let us be clear – this understanding was far from being simply an implied assumption. Looking over the original Royal Canadian Mint marketing brochure for the series, it is not possible for this commitment to be more transparently clear. It is, in fact, specifically identified as one of the “Top 10 Reasons” for purchasing the coins.

Fast forward almost 20 years after the close of the Montreal Olympics (yes, they are still paying off the debt of the Games!), and I would facilitate a critical but little-known chapter in the history of modern Canadian numismatics.

A few years into my early career at Arctic Coin in Ottawa, I received one afternoon a young American who had driven up from New England in his dad’s SUV. Piled in the back of his vehicle was $100,000 face value in Montreal Olympic Silver coins. His father, a physician who had invested in the coins, grew tired of waiting for Silver values to rise enough to allow for an intrinsic profit on his hoard, and had dispatched his son to Toronto to cash in the coins at face-value at an affiliated bank. Said bank, it turned out, declined to accept the coins, so next to Montreal drove the hoard with the same intention. Once again, however, the coins were turned away, and so the knock came to our door to see if coin dealers could facilitate the redemption of the coins on the owner’s behalf. This was on a Friday, and I remember clear as mud helping to offload the approximately half ton of coins in the middle of a rainstorm into the basement vault of a bank on Wellington street for weekend safe-keeping, while we awaited an official response from the Mint on the procedure for redemption of the coins.

Monday came, and with it a bombshell declaration. We were informed that no, ultimately the Mint was not in fact obligated to redeem the coins due to some mumbo-jumbo technical loop-hole, the details of which I cannot recall. Back out came the half ton of coins from the bank’s basement vault, and back home to the U.S. went the owner’s son and the family booty. I was interviewed by the Ottawa press within 48 hours of the event, and the resulting story went “print viral” from one coast to the other. For not only had the Mint declined to honor their own very explicit marketing commitment on this particular series, but they had also, in effect, called into question the core underling “face-value” principal on their entire numismatic product line. The sad irony was, had they simply taken back the coins, melted them down, and flogged off (or more likely, simply reused) the reclaimed Silver bullion, their net loss due to the then difference between redeemed face-value and the intrinsic Silver value would have been perhaps ten grand or less. No small potatoes, but a corporate drop-in-the-bucket compared to the resulting damage-control they had to mobilize in order to shore up their impaired goodwill in the face of extremely poor optics.

A cobbled together, half-baked scheme was soon put forward whereby dealers in Canada would be supported in redeeming the coins from customers at face-value, on the understanding that we (dealers) could then “spend” the coins on Royal Canadian Mint inventory purchases with a 2% inconvenience fee offered to us. Even the Amazing Kreskin could have foretold that such a plan, with its intense cash-flow constipation, handling inconvenience, and obligation to in turn spend entirely on new retail product was not going to prove ultimately viable. A revised agreement with the Royal Bank to receive the Olympic coins for deposit to existing accounts proved more effective, however dealers such as ourselves – the ultimate receptacles for the coins in quantity – were forced by pure economics to purchase the coins at an average 10% discount off face-value, in order to cover the time and expense of facilitating the exchange. Thus, even in this new strategy of “accommodation”, former Olympic coin collectors still saw the integrity of the face-value of their coinage eroded. As complicated as this entire quagmire was, however, it would take only an appropriate increase in the market value of Silver – to the point where the intrinsic value of the Olympics coins would meet or exceed the face value – to quickly make the redemption controversy go away. This would take a further full decade to come to fruition, at which point Silver prices began a steady increase, enabling coin & bullion dealers to begin paying in excess of face-value for the 1976 Olympic coinage.

Thus, immediate problem resolved in the eyes of the average consumer just looking for a fair deal, though this came about entirely as a result of market forces happenstance, rather than through any committed and affective effort on the Mint’s part to both restore goodwill and reform their marketing practices.

Which brings us now full-circle to our present “déjà vu” parallel. When CBC first approached me last week with their request for an interview and comment, my initial reaction was one of surprise. Surprise that the Mint actually had the degree of loss that they were reporting, in that it implied (validly) that a sufficiently large number of customers had actually been successful in returning the coins in order to generate this write-down. On this the Mint actually deserves credit, in that it appears that whatever mechanism was put in place to facilitate returning the coins (i.e. “redemption”) actually served its purpose. So for this “golden window” I tip my hat. What really fuels my surprise, however, is my own professional experience that reveals these $20 for $20 coins are actually notoriously difficult to redeem currently, and have been so for at least the past year. Not only do I have first-hand experience of multiple customers being turned away from even their own banks, but my own recent single redemption transaction with one of my own banks (who, I must say, otherwise treats us very well) was extremely difficult, only being made possible after my pushing through multiple layers of front-line staff until getting a qualified okay from “head office”.

To anyone even thinking of espousing an official line of some form on the willingness of the Royal Canadian Mint to facilitate a hassle-free redemption process on these coins (which, after all, was once again the implied underlying pillar of the $20 for $20 program), I issue this simple challenge: take a handful of the coins to a bank branch – any bank branch – and see what loyal customers go through in trying to simply cash out of these “legal-tender” coins. Visit the coin businesses of any major Canadian City, and you will discover that very few (if any) continue to redeem these coins as a courtesy to their customers. This face-value floor, an undisputed covenant between the Royal Canadian Mint and their customers, has now fallen away, leaving most dealers in the economically-necessitated position of having to purchase these coins at heavy discounts off of face-value to avoid the alternative certainty of a money-losing transaction.

Crying about a financial kick in the shins on the $20 for $20 program evokes little sympathy from me. Marketing a numismatic program with a core emphasis on face-value viability without a clear, accessible, and easy reciprocal redemption process available at any time, whether currently or two decades down the road, makes two clear statements:

1) Any reference to “legal-tender” status is both frivolous, misleading and hollow, and;

2) As with any person or entity for whom history is simply relegated to the dust-bins of yester-year, the Royal Canadian Mint seems oblivious to the lessons afforded by the past.

Sean Isaacs

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