Are Some Obama Coins Wooden Nickles?

There are plenty of people selling something with Barack Obama's picture on it. Things like posters, plates and plaques. There are also coins. But some of the coins are regular quarters with stickers on them. Collectors think those coins will never be worth more than 25 cents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an industry that's not going out of business. It's the business of selling Barack Obama's image, which is available on just about everything. If you walk along the streets of Washington, D.C., in preparation for the inauguration here, there are plenty of people selling something with his picture on it and plenty of things to buy - posters, bracelets, plates and, as Nate DiMeo reports, coins.

NATE DIMEO: The founding fathers were against the British practice of putting their leaders on currency, so Americans had to wait 133 years, until the Lincoln penny of 1909, to see one of their presidents on a coin. Barack Obama didn't have to wait so long.

(Soundbite of infomercial)

Unidentified Man: You're going to get, from the state quarter program, two quarters: one from Illinois, one from Hawaii.

DIMEO: Which you may have noticed if you've watched TV lately, particularly after midnight. At 1 in the morning the other day, this infomercial.

Mr. MONTEL WILLIAMS (Emmy Award-Winning Actor): We have the Barack Obama commemorative coin set.

DIMEO: Featuring multiple Emmy award-winner Montel Williams in full how-the-mighty-have-fallen mode, was on two different stations on my dial at the same time.

(Soundbite of infomercial)

Unidentified Man: When these are gone, they are going to be gone.

DIMEO: The set includes a dollar coin, a half dollar, and two state quarters with full-color pictures of the president-elect adhered to the front of each. There are similar sets, some of them dipped in gold, sold through cable and newspaper ads in bad web videos.

Unidentified Man: At 29.95 value, yours for just 9.95.

DIMEO: They come from companies with official sounding names like the New England Mint, the National Mint and the U.S. Coin Network.

Mr. RUDY FRANCHI (Appraiser, "Antiques Roadshow"): It's a masterpiece of copyrighting.

DIMEO: Rudy Franchi appraises collectibles and presidential ephemera on the "Antiques Roadshow."

Mr. FRANCHI: It hits all the right notes, you know, it makes it seem like it's officially from the government. It implies that it will go up in value.

(Soundbite of infomercial)

Unidentified Man: I mean, this is backed by the full faith of our federal government. You got to understand that. That's why it always will have value.

DIMEO: Which is true, it is just a U.S. coin with a sticker. Assuming the paint doesn't chip or the adhesive doesn't come off, you can make a phone call with it. And though they dance around the truth, the ads don't seem to lie. And in the Montel infomercial, they make sure they get their legal cover out of the way at the top of the program.

(Soundbite of infomercial)

Unidentified Man: The U.S. Coin Network is not affiliated with the United States government in any way.

DIMEO: That doesn't mean that people don't get fooled. The U.S. Mint issues advisories distancing itself from the work of the non-Mint mints. Larry Shepherd is the head of the American Numismatic Association, which makes him sort of like the chief coin collector.

Mr. SHEPHERD: They really don't have a value, either for as a bullion coin or for numismatic purposes.

DIMEO: But how about purposes non-numismatic? If you've ever watched the "Antiques Roadshow," you may very well have seen Rudy Franchi tell someone that her thrift-store McKinley button or yard sale Calvin Coolidge cuff links are worth a bundle. But he says there's simply too much Barack Obama stuff to guarantee that any of it is going to be worth anything.

Mr. FRANCHI: It's like trying to stuff a whale into an aquarium. Because there's going to be millions of these out there, but there's only a handful, in the low thousands, of people who collect political memorabilia.

DIMEO: So, no. Maybe someday, President Obama will find himself on a real coin, with numisma-tacular value. But these aren't it. However, faced with a choice of investing in a painted quarter or underwear, or any number of the many, many objets d'Obama out there, maybe you should take the coin. At least it's worth a quarter. For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

INSKEEP: Numismatacular? Is that a word?

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