RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A Wall Street investment firm has paid a whole lot for a small but important piece of American history. An extremely rare gold coin from 1787 sold for $7.4 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for such an item.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's known as the Brasher doubloon, and it's considered the first American-made gold coin denominated in dollars. It was worth about $15 at the time. The U.S. Mint in Philadelphia did not start striking coins until the 1790s. And the Brasher coin was believed to be minted by George Washington's neighbor.
MONTAGNE: The buyer and seller of the doubloon were not disclosed. Now, more than 200 years after it was made, dollar coins just don't have the same kind of weight.
INSKEEP: Yesterday, the White House announced it would halt the minting of unwanted $1 coins. As NPR has reported, over 1 billion of the coins are sitting unused in government vaults.
MONTAGNE: The pile-up is due to a law passed in 2005 that requires the minting of new dollar coins honoring all the U.S. presidents one by one. David Kestenbaum, with our Planet Money team, reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: When we first reported on this, we calculated that the unwanted coins had cost taxpayers some $300 million to make. There were so many coins piling up, the Federal Reserve was redesigning a vault in Texas to help hold them all. We got to see a vault in Baltimore filled with coins.
AMY ESCHMAN: This is our coin vault. It's roughly the size of a soccer field.
KESTENBAUM: Amy Eschman gave us a tour - rows and rows of shelves loaded up with bags filled with dollar coins.
Can I try and lift it up? OK.
ESCHMAN: We actually have some posters in our breakroom that have proper lifting and stretching.
KESTENBAUM: You could see the presidents' faces on the coins - Andrew Jackson, John Adams, James Buchanan. And the mint today is only about halfway through the presidents.
The program hasn't been very popular, and the pile of dollar coins has been growing. The mint has been making enough of each new coin to satisfy initial demand. But about 40 percent of those coins then get returned to the Fed, where they sit.
NPR spoke with two of the lawmakers who wrote the dollar coin bill - a Democrat and a Republican. Both acknowledge the program was a flop. Mike Castle is the Republican. He was a congressman from Delaware.
MIKE CASTLE: It's hard to come by them. Good luck. You could spend an entire day in New York City, or another big city, trying to find a dollar coin in your change. And you'd be hard-pressed to do so.
KESTENBAUM: As NPR also reported, some people had been ordering coins from the mint just to rack up frequent flier miles on their credit cards.
Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden joked: As will shock you all, the call for Chester A. Arthur coins is not there. And I don't mean to comment on his presidency, but it is just not very high. Which is why the White House has now effectively put an end to the program. Here's Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
SECRETARY TIMOTHY GEITHNER: I have directed the U.S. Mint to suspend the production of new presidential dollar coins for circulation, effective immediately.
KESTENBAUM: Geithner said the Mint would continue to make coins, but only a small number, just enough for collectors who want to order them.
GEITHNER: We're going to save the taxpayers about $50 million a year. That's a meaningful chunk of money.
KESTENBAUM: The Treasury expects it will take about 10 years for the economy to absorb the coins that have piled up in vaults. The total number of dollar coins in storage is now roughly 1.4 billion.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.