Feds Frown on Altered Coins Exploiting 9/11 Attack

By Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - They look like American silver dollars, emblazoned with a color image of New York's World Trade Center Towers before they were destroyed last year, encouraging the coin's holder to "Remember our Heroes."

Problem is, they're an alteration by private companies, prompting concern by Treasury Department officials, who worry that consumers and collectors might be misled.

The coin is described as a pure silver 2001 September 11 commemorative silver dollar that is a "legal tender coin struck by the U.S. Mint."

While the original coin was indeed struck at the Mint and can be legally spent, its alteration to include the Twin Towers is not authorized by Congress or the Mint. Instead, there's a colorized image of the towers superimposed on one side of a legitimate U.S. Silver Eagle Dollar, leaving the other side in its original condition.

The coin's advertisement states, "This genuine 2001 Silver Eagle Dollar was authorized by an Act of Congress," but a Mint spokesman said the sales pitch might deceive some buyers.

"The Silver Eagle was authorized by Congress, but the colorized version with the World Trade Center was not," said U.S. Mint spokesman Michael White. "The Mint has no connection with their version of it."

White was reluctant to say whether the coin was illegal because of nuances in how a coin may be altered and marketed, but the practice has prompted the Mint to take action.

"We think there's enough variety in the marketplace out there that we felt like we had to create a specific website to give consumers guidance on these coins," said White. "If you're not an informed collector, it's very easy to be deceived by a product."

The practice of superimposing non-authorized images on legal coinage has resulted in numerous inquiries from collectors about other coins, including a commemorative Elvis Presley quarter dollar the Mint said is being marketed by a company in Owings Mills, Md.

In that case, the Mint said an image of Presley was superimposed on the obverse of a legal quarter dollar coin and re-sold to collectors.

Although the practice isn't necessarily against the law, the Mint "does not encourage, endorse or sponsor products that alter the fundamental images depicted on its coins," according to a statement from the Mint.

The sale of altered Silver Eagle Dollars, referred to as bullion pieces because of their silver content, doesn't seem to run afoul of the law, according to Stephen Bobbitt, public relations director for the American Numismatic Association, a congressionally chartered group that specializes in education about U.S. coinage and currency.

The bottom line, according to Bobbitt, is that if the original coin came from the U.S. Mint, it's legal money. "What someone does with it afterwards, it's their business," said Bobbitt. "If they want to sell it as art, they want to put some enamel on top of that, that's okay."

Altering U.S. coinage and reselling it for a profit dates back to the Great Depression according to Bobbitt, who said the practice today is "fairly common."

For instance, the private, colorized Sept. 11 commemorative sells for nearly $30, but an authentic Silver Eagle Dollar can be purchased from a commodities dealer for anywhere between $5 and $10, depending primarily on the current price of silver.

"It's been going on for a number of years," said Bobbitt. "When the technology allowed it to be done inexpensively, then companies picked this up and they created what they consider to be a special or collectors item."

But for buyers looking for an investment, Bobbitt said the altered coins often don't provide a good return as collectables. "From a numismatic standpoint, they lose their value," said Bobbitt. "They're not a numismatic item, they're more of a novelty item."

Even though the coins themselves often decrease in value once altered, Bobbitt said there is a legitimate market for World Trade Center pieces. "It is a nice way for some people to have a keepsake because there is no single coin produced for the 9/11 tragedy," said Bobbitt.

The newest silver dollar knock-off isn't a surprise to officials at the Mint, which has an advisory on its Internet website alerting consumers and collectors about "medallions and other coin-related products," particularly 9/11 commemoratives.

According to the Mint, "Only Congress can direct the minting of an official, legal tender U.S. commemorative coin or official United States Mint medal whose proceeds may be used to assist a particular cause or organization."

While some thought has been given to the creation of a 9/11 commemorative coin, Congress "has not authorized the United States Mint to produce an official coin or medal related to the September 11 events," according to the Mint.

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