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Soccer commemoratives losing money

For the first time since the U.S. Mint resumed issuing commemorative coins in 1982, the agency is projecting a net loss on a set of commemorative coins.

The three World Cup Soccer coins, issued earlier this year at the urging of Rep. Esteban E. Torres, D-Calif., former chairman of the House subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage, are projected to lose $5.5-million, according to a report recently given to Congress. As of the end of August, the Mint said it had sold 1.4-million, about one-tenth of the 10.7-million coins that Torres' legislation authorized.

A spokesman for Torres suggested that the Mint had failed to properly market the coins. "That's terrible," said Roderic Young, Torres' press secretary. "It's their own fault."

Mint officials insisted that they had used every marketing ploy the agency knew but said American collectors just weren't interested.

Internationally, the coins were a hit, but domestic sales "have been disappointing," the Mint said. About 23 percent of the World Cup coins were sold overseas, the strongest international sales of any recent U.S. commemorative.

Sales covered all coins' "direct costs," and there were enough coins sold to make a $5.7-million contribution to the Mint's overhead costs, but that left $5.5-million more in additional costs uncovered, the Mint said.

The Mint said the 1990 Eisenhower Centennial silver dollar recorded a $1.1-million loss.

The Mint's report was a not-too-subtle reminder to Congress of the dangers of the coin market. It also may illustrate the problems that lie ahead for sponsors of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, who hope to raise $147.5-million with surcharges placed on the sale of 16 Olympic coins. Designs for the coins will be unveiled Oct. 27.

In its report on the World Cup coins, the Mint repeated its worries over the proliferation of coins. "The U.S. commemorative-coin program is saturated as a result of the enactment of too many coin programs with excess authorized mintage levels," it said. The Mint said its core customers _ the collectors who routinely purchase U.S. coins _ accounted for 93 percent of all domestic sales.

Mint sources say concern over commemorative sales has continued into the latest commemorative program, the set of three veterans silver dollars. While the agency is expecting to make money on these coins, one official said the early sales have been "disappointing."

The Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee is expected to issue its first report to Congress later this year with recommendations on how to cut the number of new coins. The panel has issued its recommendations for what ought to be considered, and the rules follow many of the guidelines that are used for selection of subjects on the nation's stamps.

Among the criteria:

All persons, places, events and themes should be "national or international in scope."

Coins should be issued in the anniversary year.

No living person should be placed on a coin.

Commemorative themes should not be repeated more than once in a decade.

No commercial enterprises or products should be honored.