NO FEDERAL bureaucrat will be watched as closely by coin collectors this coming year as David Pickens.
Named this year as the director of marketing for the U.S. Mint, Pickens, a former coin collector, has the task of overseeing the five, and possibly six, coin sales programs that the federal government will launch next year. The new coins will be hitting the marketplace so rapidly that Pickens, a former aide to drug czar William Bennett, has quipped, "It's almost like a coin-of-the month club."
Both Congress and collectors will be closely monitoring Pickens's efforts next year to see whether the Mint is able to market successfully multiple commemorative sets in a single year. Mint officials have been skeptical of their ability to sell more than one coin program a year, but with Congress ordering three commemorative coin programs in 1991, Pickens may be facing an uphill battle.
"We feel optimistic that we'll have a good year," Pickens said in an interview earlier this month. "We'll learn something this year."
According to the timetable on a large green chart in Pickens's office, Mint officials will probably learn early in the year how successful the 1991 coin program will be. Most commemorative coins -- typically 75 to 80 percent of an issue -- are sold in the 45-day discount period the Mint stages prior to any minting.
With sales of the three-coin set marking the 50th anniversary of Mount Rushmore National Memorial beginning in mid-February and the Korean War silver dollar in mid-April, the Mint will know by early spring how the first two programs are selling. Sales of the third commemorative, a silver dollar honoring the United Service Organization Inc. (USO), will begin in mid-June.
The Mint's offerings of proof and uncirculated coin sets will be made simultaneously in early May and the proof gold and silver Eagle coins will be made in late August. Still unsettled, much to the distress of retiring Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), is whether the Mint will offer a set of silver nickels, dimes, quarters and half dollars next year. Mint officials have been hinting that these coins, which McClure sponsored, may not hit the market until 1992.
"The marketing challenge is really to create awareness of the coins and generate a broad spectrum of interests," Pickens said. Each of the 1991 coins will have its own ad agency and advertising campaign, he said.
The campaigns should not pit one coin program against another, but should seek to pull people who are normally regarded as collectors into the market, Pickens said. The Korean War coin, for example, will be heavily marketed at veterans, he said. Sales of bullion gold coins are being touted in some ads as "the ultimate gift" and they are being suggested as graduation and wedding presents.
The introductions are staggered for two reasons. "We're trying to give some breathing room to folks," said Pickens. "And we want to let the coins stand for themselves."
Some advertising will be aimed at luring back "a large population of folks who have fallen away from the hobby," he said. Pickens has hit the road as well, touting the sales of coins at some unlikely places, such as the New York State Fair. But the results there, and the Mint's sales booth at Washington's Union Station, are showing that given high visibility, the coins will sell to the general public.
"Everyone need not be a collector to want one of these coins," Pickens said.
TREASURY Secretary James Brady has selected the six designs for the Mount Rushmore commemorative coins and, not surprisingly, the monument is featured on the face of each of the three coins.
John Mercanti of Philadelphia, the Mint's chief engraver-designate, designed the face of the $5 gold coin, featuring a descending eagle with the monument in the background. Mercanti's eagle has a sculptor's chisel and hammer in its talons and a streamer bearing the words "In God We Trust" clutched in its beak.
The face of the $1 silver coin features a head-on view of the four presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln -- above a garland and the wording "Mount Rushmore National Memorial Golden Anniversary." It was designed by Marika Somogyi of Berkeley, Calif., and is described as her first coin.
The clad half dollar was designed by Marcel Jovine of Closter, N.J., and it features a closer head-on view of the sculpture. All three coins carry the lettering "Liberty 1991" on the face.
Robert Lamb of Lincoln, R.I., did the reverse of the $5 gold, the only side in the set that consists entirely of lettering. It carries the wording: "Mount Rushmore National Memorial" in script and "United States of America, Five Dollars, E Pluribus Unum" around the edge.
Frank Gasparro of Havertown, Pa., former chief engraver of the Mint, did the reverse on the $1 silver and it features the presidential seal superimposed above a map of the United States that outlines South Dakota and the site of the national monument.
James Ferrell, a Mint engraver in Philadelphia, did the reverse of the half-dollar, which features a buffalo. The Mint can produce up to 500,000 of the gold coins, 2.5 million of the silver dollars and 2.5 million of the half dollars.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.