Foreign strategy may alienate some collectors

As I read through the Royal Canadian Mint’s 2012 annual report, I was struck by the number of times numismatic performance was addressed, and even boasted about, in the document. Now I use “numismatic” here in the context used by the folks at the Circle M Ranch. To me, and I suspect to the vast majority of my readers, all coins are numismatic. However, the Mint uses that phrase to specifically designate coins produced for collectors.

Believe me, in recent years the Mint has been encouraging people to collect circulating coins, and some of the recent bullion products have been sold at too high a premium over melt to attract traditional bullion investors, but the old labels stick. I can accept that, since I still prefer the term “master of the Mint” to the catchy “president and CEO” used in official Mint communications.

There have been years when the annual report was about foreign markets, or bullion, the sort of cool stuff that makes the production of coins for a bunch of collectors seem dull. More recently, the numismatic department was dominated by one-offs, limited-interest coin issues that do not necessarily build a long-term collector. As an example, there was a plethora of sports-themed 25-cent coins, but none of them turned hockey or football fans into coin collectors.

Now, however, we are seeing more interesting series that offer the potential of starting a collecting habit. Coins festooned with crystals and glass bugs, or that show dinosaur skeletons when the lights are turned off, may look a bit funny alongside a superb collection of Victoria large cents, but if they start people assembling sets of coins, who are we to judge? The 2012 report also pulls back the curtain a bit on the rest of this year. For one thing, the number of products will go up from 110 to 200; that’s a lot more stuff, and much of that will be aimed at non-Canadian collectors.

Personally, I’m not so sure that this is a good thing. At this time the vast majority of collectors spending money on Mint issues are Canadians, and what’s more, more than 75 cents of out every dollar the Mint makes in numismatic issues comes from this country. That means that Canadians, as a group, easily spend more than $100 million a year on collector coins. That’s not counting collector purchases of bullion issues, or the value of circulating coins culled by numismatists each year. That’s a huge market, with a very large profit margin. What the Mint may not realize is that many of those collectors want to make their collections as complete as possible.

When the Mint rolled out a bullion-based War of 1812 piece, with the vast majority of the production being sold in the U.S., many Canadians were left scrambling, and some of them were not happy to see a Canadian coin essentially being produced for a foreign marketing partner. At the same time, it would be a safe bet to say that the Canadian market is probably near saturation and probably can’t indefinitely sustain the kind of growth rate it has shown in recent years.

Forced to find new customers, the Mint has to reach out to the millions of potential customers around the world. That means more and different issues, some of which may not appeal to the typical Canadian collector who grew up filling Whitman folders out of pocket change. It will take tact and sensitivity to build overseas markets without alienating the Canadian customers the Mint is so proud to have at this time. I sure hope they are up to the task.

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