Americans have a seemingly insatiable demand for memorabilia, no matter how cheaply it is made or how cheesy it looks. Some are preparing for their nostalgic years; some think they are making smart investments in collectibles that become more valuable as time passes.
The problem with “investing” in collectibles is that an investment’s intrinsic value depends on how much income it generates. Stocks, bonds, rental properties, and profitable businesses all have intrinsic value. Mementos don’t. They rely on the Greater Fool Theory. If fools don’t appear, memento collectors are stuck with cheap and cheesy trinkets.
This sobering reality does little to discourage people intoxicated by dreams of riches. For example, the White House Gift Shop sells a large collection of presidential memorabilia, including a coin commemorating “President Trump Defeats COVID,” which is advertised as the “last coin in the historic moments series chronicling President Trump.” (No need to list the other coins in this series.) The price is $100, but shipping is free and a velvet presentation case is included.
The coin looks tacky but that may be intentional since the designer explained that, “President Trump, as you know, is a fan of boxing, and the new design includes more than a hint of superhero qualities in history’s most fascinating president.”
The Gift Shop’s logo is a picture of the White House and its website prominently displays the label USA.gov along with plenty of references to the federal government, including this statement:
The White House Gift Shop is the only entity of its kind in White House history originating from a permanent memorandum by President Harry S. Truman to members of the U.S. Secret Service….In recognition of its unique 70 year history of service to government, diplomats, and patriotic Americans, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the White House Gift Shop federally registered trademark protections that add value, integrity, and meaning to your gifts and collectibles.The White House Gift Shop FAQs
Things are not always what they seem. Yes, the gift shop was established by President Truman in 1946, though originally named the White House Flower Fund and later renamed the White House Benefit Fund, and was intended to send flowers when someone in the Secret Service died. Yes, gift shop items are trademarked, but trademarks do not require any affiliation with the government. In fact, items made by government employees as part of their jobs generally cannot be trademarked.
The reality is that the White House Gift Shop is privately owned, located in Pennsylvania, has no connection with the White House or the federal government, and has been given an F rating by the Better Business Bureau.
With the aid of the internet, deceitful memorabilia hawkers can now be based anywhere in the world. A salient example is the Trump Coin shown below, which was clearly modeled after the Kennedy half-dollar. The Kennedy Coin is legal tender and made of 90 percent silver; the Trump Coin is commemorative and said to be gold-plated.
The Trump Coin is marketed online on sites denouncing the 2020 election, warning of the dangers of vaccines, and touting the coin as an “Authentic Presidential Re-Election Commemorative Coin.” Some sites suggest that the Trump Coin may become a cryptocurrency, especially if Trump becomes president again. As I write this, the price on Amazon is $7.95. On one site, the coin is free (plus $9.99 shipping and handling).
One advertisement boasts:
QUALITY CRAFTSMANSHIP: Each coin is gold plated and made to exacting standards to ensure your coin will last for many years to come.
What kind of coin would not last for many years to come? Among the customer reviews is this 3-star recommendation:
If you decide to get these, I recommend getting multiple and keep the one with the least amount of defects. I bought 4. One has bubbles on the side of his face, another has what looks almost like rust on the edge, and another has a clearly visible scratch on the back and a glob of gunk near the signature.
(I wonder what it would take to get fewer than 3 stars.)
An investigation by The New York Times followed a labyrinth of clues:
What became clear was not just the coin’s unusual origins, but an entire disinformation supply chain that relied on falsehoods and misinformation at nearly every step. Fueling the coin’s success were fake social media accounts that pushed false ads and a fleet of misleading news websites that preyed on partisan discontent.Stuart A. Thompson, “How Trump Coins Became an Internet Sensation” at The New York Times
Among the falsehoods were fake celebrity accounts, including one named RealDenzelWashington that purports to be actor Denzel Washington slamming Democrats:
Democrats are liars! I couldn’t handle their agenda and constant lies, so I decided to help team Trump! I turned my attention in the right direction! To the one who deserves it the most, the one who looks after our People and our country. The truth will set us free, and the truth is that President Trump is the best leader for our Country.Stuart A. Thompson, “How Trump Coins Became an Internet Sensation” at The New York Times
After the ranting, the account predicts that the Trump Coin will soon replace government money.
The Times gives another example of the depth of the disinformation:
In one post, a fake account for Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican closely aligned with Mr. Trump, shared a fake story on a fake Fox News website about a fake tweet by a fake Elon Musk, falsely claiming that Tesla’s chief executive would soon accept Trump coins as payment.Stuart A. Thompson, “How Trump Coins Became an Internet Sensation” at The New York Times
Following lead after lead, the Times traced the fountainhead of the coin to a Romanian internet marketing company, Stone Force Media, that, despite all the political ranting and raving, is clearly just in it for the money.
The Times also found a coin expert with equipment for detecting precious metals in coins:
He found no gold or silver. The coin was also magnetic, suggesting it was mostly made of iron. [Another expert] tested the coin using a nitric acid solution. After he applied a blob to Mr. Trump’s gold-colored image, the area darkened, bubbled and then turned green.
“It’s paint,” he concluded.
What was it worth?
“Nothing,” he said.Stuart A. Thompson, “How Trump Coins Became an Internet Sensation” at The New York Times
Exactly. Yet, our collective addiction to collecting fuels our relentless accumulation of worthless mementos. The future generations who inherit our trinkets will smile and scratch their heads.