For Sale: Last Gold Coins of Soviet Empire

WHEN the United States lifted its ban on importation of gold coins from the former Soviet Union last December, Alan Posnick of MTB Banking Corporation hoped that his firm would sell large quantities of the coins to American investors and collectors.

But sales have been slow. "To date, we haven't seen any significant amount of business in Soviet gold coinage," says Mr. Posnick, senior vice president of the New York bank.

One reason is that not many people realize the ban was lifted, Posnick says. The US Congress imposed the ban in 1986 as a human rights measure, including it in an anti-Apartheid bill barring South African gold coin imports. The Soviet Union is the third-largest gold producer in the world after South Africa and the US.

Also, the overall downturn of gold prices has discouraged sales to investors, Posnick says. "Gold itself hasn't been as attractive an investment as it has been in the past," he says.

The market for gold bullion coins is estimated at 1 million ounces last year, down from about 2 million ounces in 1990, says Murray Church of the Royal Canadian Mint.

American coin collectors also are showing "total disinterest" in the Soviet gold coins, says John Kleeberg of the American Numismatic Society in New York. They would rather buy cheap silver coins, he says. Because investor interest is low, MTB is marketing the coins to collectors, emphasizing that this is their big chance to buy the last gold coins of the Soviet empire.

The bank is pushing two different series of coins from the Soviet Union. One is called the Russian historical series that the country began to produce in 1988. The other is the Ballerina series, which consists of four gold coins weighing between .5 and .05 ounces. MTB sells the sets for $495 and $895 respectively.

Posnick adds that the Russian Federation is launching new gold coins at the end of next month. He hopes those coins will attract more American collectors.

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