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Mint defends its secrecy as a marketing ploy

At a time when the U.S. Mint is trying to get more people involved in its commemorative coin program, the agency has moved to cloak its biggest coin program in secrecy.

Last Sept. 30, Philip N. Diehl, executive deputy Mint director, urged the Commission of Fine Arts to review in secret the designs for the 16 coins celebrating the 1996 Olympic Games. The commission, a federal agency charged with reviewing plans for federal buildings, memorials and coins, agreed.

The unusual agreement, disclosed by Coin World, a numismatic newspaper, comes as the Mint and its newly formed citizens commemorative coin advisory committee have been making efforts to widen public involvement in coin design issues. Diehl, nominated by President Clinton to be Mint director, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on whether the secrecy was at odds with the president's pledge of more openness in government.

In his letter to the Fine Arts commission, Diehl said he wanted to keep the designs secret "to build excitement for the coin program." Designs for the 16 coins will be selected about a year in advance of the release of the first eight coins, sometime next year, he said.

Some of the Olympic sponsors will be shown the designs, but, by keeping the designs secret from the public, Diehl said the Mint may be able to sell more of the coins. "The magnitude of the program makes timing of the coin design release a major factor in the program's success," he said.

In a brief letter to Diehl, Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown agreed to the closed-door session "in view of the importance of marketing the coins and the critical differences this makes in the financial support to be derived by the U.S. Olympic team." Atlanta and the U.S. Olympic Committee hopes to make $147.5-million to underwrite the games from sale of the coins in the largest commemorative coin program ever undertaken by the Mint.

Until now, Mint officials have never suggested that coin sales have been hurt by the long-established practice of revealing preliminary designs at the commission's meetings. Members of the presidentially appointed panel have not hesitated to criticize sharply the drawings in public, and the Mint, on more than one occasion, has been pressured to redesign some of its coins.

Coverage of these confrontations, however, has been largely limited to the numismatic press and has not detracted from the publicity generated by the later unveilings of the finished designs.

Charles Atherton, the commission's executive secretary, said this week that the commission would prefer to review the coins in public but expressed doubt that the Mint would agree. As a result, the commission will meet behind closed doors.

Officials of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games have balked at the Mint's proposed designs for the Atlanta coins, forcing Mint officials to return to the drawing boards before heading to their closed-door session with the Fine Arts panel.