In December 2008, as the 11-year State quarters program that ran from 1999 to 2008 was nearing its end, the U.S. Congress passed the America the Beautiful National Parks Quarter Dollar Coin Act. This legislation authorized the issuance of 56 circulating quarters and accompanying 5-oz silver bullion coins to honor America’s national parks and historic sites and stipulated that they be issued in the order in which the sites were established, starting with the 2010 Hot Springs quarter.
The large silver coins, which by law had to be three inches in diameter with edge inscriptions for their weight and fineness, had to contain five ounces of .999 silver. This was the first time the U.S. Mint produced silver coins weighing more than an ounce, but other mints at the time had been issuing silver coins weighing from two ounces to a kilo for years. Unlike the foreign coins of the same weight, which had a smaller diameter and were thick, the America the Beautiful coins, as they have come to be known, were much thinner.
The larger coin size and the required edge lettering resulted in considerable production challenges for the Mint. To strike these pieces the Mint had to purchase a German-made Gräbener press housed at the Philadelphia Mint, which strikes 22 coins per minute at 450 to 500 metric tons of pressure per strike, and which at full capacity can strike 40 coins per minute with 1,000 tons of pressure.
In addition to the bullion versions of these coins, Congress also authorized the issuance of another version of these coins, which the Mint calls “uncirculated” and which the grading companies refer to as Specimen strikes (SP on grading slabs). These coins, unlike the bullion pieces, carry a “P” mintmark and have a different finish. The dies used to make them are more highly polished, and the coins receive a post-striking treatment after being struck on the Gräbener press. Another machine uses water vapor and fine ceramic media to give the coins their matte finish, whereas the bullion coins have highly polished and mirror finishes that in many cases qualify as Proof-like and Deep Mirror Proof-like when submitted for grading.
The vapor-blasting process has also, in a limited number of instances, resulted in coins that have either no vapor-blasting or a differing level of it on their surfaces, producing valuable error coins such as the “Light Finish” and “Light Satin” versions of the 2010-P Hot Springs National Park Coin.
In addition, on May 15 NGC announced that four of the 2014-P Great Smoky Mountain coins submitted to the company for grading by MCM lacked the “P” mintmark they should have. David Camire of NGC said he believes these error pieces were the result of accidental mixing of mint state bullion coins with those that were intended to receive the post-strike vapor-blasting treatment.
Mintages for the America the Beautiful coins started off rather low for the 2010 bullion coins at 33,000 each due to production issues with the new equipment at the Mint. The following year production was ramped up, but since then sales have generally been in the 30-40,000-coin range for this version with the exception of the 2012 Volcanoes and Denali issues and the 2017 Ozark and Frederick Douglass coins, which each have mintages of 20,000 coins.
As far as the specimen coins, for 2010 the mintage limit was 27,000 coins, which was increased to 35,000 in 2011. Then in 2015 a cap of 65,000 for both versions was instituted. Currently, the specimen coins have a cap of 20,000 coins per issue, plus an overall limit of 150,000 per issue including both versions, though actual sales have been much lower in recent years.
The program will end with the final coin issued in 2021, as discussed below. The Secretary of the Treasury has the discretion to request that another round of 56-coins be issued after that if he notifies the Congress before the end of 2018. Most experts do not expect that to happen.
By law the designs of these coins cannot include a bust or portrait of any person, living or dead and must be neither frivolous or inappropriate.
The process of producing and selecting designs of the America the Beautiful coins involves the US Mint, its artists and those part of the Artistic Infusion Program, the Secretary of the Interior, the federal official who runs each park or site, and the two design review committees – the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and Commission on Fine Arts (CFA). The Treasury Secretary makes the final selection after considering input from all these people and entities.
On June 12 the CCAC met to consider 63 designs prepared for the last six coins of the series to be issued in 2020 and 2021.
According to press reports, the committee was extremely pleased with the designs for all but one of these coins, which contrasts with many previous meetings when there was much less agreement on which designs were best.
For the 2020 coins, the committee recommended a design showing a red mangrove emerging from the sea for the Salt River Bay National Historical Park coin; a design of a fritillary butterfly as its flutters amid grass for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve coin; a design of a Samoan Fruit Bat Mother and Pup for the National Park of American Samoa; a design of hands planting a sugar maple sapling for the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park coin; and a design of a young pilot strapping his helmet on with P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft in the background for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site coin, the final coin that will be released in early 2021.
The one coin for which the committee was not able to make a recommendation was the 2020 Weir Farm National Historic Site. The Committee liked two designs that showed a painter’s easel with a painting on it that blends into the background showing the site, but they were concerned it would be hard to translate into a coin. They asked the Mint to prepare new designs for that coin.The final coin design is a compromise that shows an artist painting the site, but the painting does not blend into the surroundings.
Hopefully collectors will be as excited with the final designs selected for these coins as the CCAC was with the designs it reviewed.
Author Name: Louis Golino
Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst,” and in August 2021 the column received the NLG award for best column on modern U.S. coins. He has also received other awards for his writing. He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and and other publications. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.