What you’ve heard is true. Quietly, and all unannounced, the Mint has slipped pennies with the Philadelphia Mint’s “P” mintmark into circulation.
Now, if you’re up to date with your U.S. penny history, you can skip to the next paragraph. If not, try this: Pick up a copy of the Red Book—doesn’t matter what edition—and flip to the beginning of the section on small cents. First page: Flying Eagles. Skim down the left column: 1856, 1857, 1858. See any coins with the P mintmark? No? Flip to the Indian Head cents: 1859, 1860, 1861—nope, still no letter P. Turn every page to the end of the denomination, and you won’t find a single penny with a P mintmark. Flip back to the large cents; you won’t find any there, either.
In other words, the only P-mintmarked cents in the U.S. Mint’s 225-year history have emerged in total secrecy. Released to banks in early January, the coins went unnoticed until a collector named Terry Granstaff found one in change on January 13 and posted it to a PCGS discussion board. Coin World was able to confirm the authenticity of the 2017-P coin soon afterward and brought the story to light.
The stated reasons for mintmarking the 2017 cents were that (1) the move is one of several planned events during the Mint’s 225th-anniversary celebrations, and that (2) it calls attention to the pride and hard work of the staff at the Philadelphia Mint. Perfectly legitimate reasons. As to why they kept it secret, Tom Jurkowsky, director of the Mint’s Office of Corporate Communication, told Coin World that the Mint wanted to see how long it would take the public to notice and bring the coins to the Mint’s attention. Again, that seems reasonable—and what better (and cheaper) way to stir up excitement about the anniversary program as a whole?
But when you compare the cent and the American Liberty gold coin, the extreme contrast between the two suggests there’s more to this than a bit of quasquibicentennial hijinks.
Consider the context. The Mint has been criticized for years for being, or at least appearing to be, out of touch with everyday collectors. Moreover, there’s a growing feeling in numismatics that the tail has begun to wag the dog. At the birth of the hobby, people studied and collected coins that were struck by the Mint in the course of its everyday business; today, collectors spend a lot of time and money pursuing Mint products that exist only for the purpose of being collected. Not that a healthy retail market for specially created coins is a bad thing—or that the Mint is to blame for changes in the culture or the economy. But (1) the situation exists, (2) collectors don’t like it, and (3) when collectors perceive that the Mint is glad to take their money but deaf to their concerns, it makes them angry.
The 2017 American Liberty high-relief gold coin is exactly the kind of high-ticket offering that elicits both cheers and groans from collectors. A penny from your pocket change, on the other hand, is literally the single cheapest U.S. Mint product in existence. The former is a catalog item with potential investor value; the latter is a nod to the hobbyist who collects for enjoyment. Quietly timing the release of the one amid the hoopla surrounding the other, aside from being a shrewd marketing tactic, has the feeling of making a statement. As if someone at the Mint might be saying, “We get it. And we’re trying.”
If so, collectors have reason to celebrate, and to be happy it’s only January. With hints at other surprises to come from the Mint as the anniversary celebrations roll along, this could be an interesting year for modern U.S. numismatics. ❑