Volume 50, Number 9, September 2013
Chipping away THE recent announcement by the Royal Canadian Mint (RCM) that they are going ahead with a plan to produce the MintChip, an electronic alternative to cash for transactions under $10, marks an interesting move by a Mint. After all, banks have been doing this sort of thing for a while with mobile phone apps, contactless cards, etc., but a mint? Aren’t they the ones who make the coins? If they stop making coins what will they do? After all banks don’t mint but they do offer electronic payment forms so surely the RCM are taking themselves out of a small pond where they are the big, indeed only, fish into a lake where they are a small swimmer. It has been argued that the world is going electronic so this is a natural move for any mint — if the product that they manufacture will one day disappear then surely they must move into new products. That’s a fine business rationale if you buy into the assumption that coins will indeed one day disappear, but personally I don’t; coins are convenient, useful and just because the latest fad means everyone is rushing to find an electronic alternative to everything, that doesn’t mean that that version will automatically prevail. Let us, however, assume that coins will one day vanish from normal usage, that the mints of the world will one day only produce commemoratives and bullion, precious metal versions of mugs and tea towels for Royal Weddings, The Olympics and the Chinese New Year. What then for our hobby? After all, cigarette cards were once collected by thousands, now the market is very much reduced. Matchbooks were hoarded in their million but when was the last time you saw a book of matches or met someone who collected them? Phonecards, the darling of the 1990s collecting scene, are hardly ever mentioned these days and so on and so forth. I can think of a hundred or more collectables that once attracted a vast following but, as their use in the everyday world declined, so did the interest in collecting them. Is the same fate going to one day befall coins? If the answer to that question is yes, then one supposes that coin collectors only collect because of ready availability or because they see the things they collect in their pockets and purses every day, but that clearly isn’t the case. A collector of Greek, Roman, Celtic, hammered, early milled, etc., etc., isn’t collecting because they find such delights in their change—you don’t find Athenian owls after a trip to Tesco and Gothic Florins aren’t readily given as prizes from fruit machines! Collectors of such things do not treasure them because they use coins all the time, they want them because they are part of history/pieces of art/intrinsically valuable/rare and so on. Such a desire for ownership, a desire to build a collection of such objects, therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with the metal “tokens” we use to buy bread and milk on a daily basis. Yes, new issue, counterfeit or error collectors may seem to face a problem (by the very fact there won’t be any!) but there will still be commemoratives and many new issues collectors concentrate solely on that area of the hobby, so essentially there will be little difference for them. Few of us these days collect coins directly from our change. The uniformity of production, the paucity of errors and the sheer volume of coins produced (meaning there are no “special” dates to look out for) means that the average collector doesn’t bother with circulating new issues at all and so any move to get rid of them won’t affect the hobby that much, although I do concede that it will leave some out in the cold. Yes, it is true that younger collectors in particular may start by completing date runs from their pocket money or try to complete a full set of Olympic 50 pences or £1 coin reverses, etc., but their number is small and after they have been bitten by the collecting bug they soon seem to move on to other areas of numismatics. Don’t get me wrong, new issues is a huge part of the hobby but these are rarely the standard coins you find in everyday life, collectors of such things like sets, proofs, precious metals, limited edition strikings and so on —and those sort of things continue to make the mints money. This being the case it is hardly likely that such programmes will be dropped. So, yes, we may well one day see the death of the circulating coin, one day we may not have pockets full of “shrapnel” (although, as I said, I do doubt that) but even if that is the case I don’t see it as the death of numismatics. Not at all. Although I suppose if it is then we can all start collecting MintChips can’t we! SDCard News anybody?
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