Tens years ago my dad picked up the phone and made the conscious decision to purchase a Princess Diana commemorative coin from a television infomercial for the (very reasonable) price of $19.99. In the ten years that have elapsed since the purchase, the coin has found its way into my possession.
My parents have maintained the belief that objects linked to dead celebrities are of special value. Examples include the Princess Diana coin, the Les Paul (a model of guitar) signed by Les Paul, and “Joker” memorabilia that shares Heath Ledger’s likeness. This is not to portray them as vultures attempting to find monetary gain in the death of others, but rather as sentimentalists who become attached to public figures to such a degree that even the objects that signify those subjects are deemed significant.
The coin has been colorized and altered to have Princess Diana’s face in place of John F. Kennedy on the heads side of the coin. The coin is legal U.S tender; in holding the coin, one can see and feel Kennedy’s embossed face underneath the alterations. In addition to Princess Diana’s face, a blue background and text reading “PRINCESS DIANA 1961-1997” have been added to the heads side of the coin. The tails side of the coin is unaltered. The coin was released in 2007 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death. It was marketed on television and online as a commemorative coin designed for collectors and fans of Diana. The coin was packaged with a certificate of authenticity as well as a plastic capsule to protect the coin from scratches.
The irony of pasting the face of a former member of the royal family—a family that represents monarchy, empire, colonial rule, etc—over an American president’s face on U.S currency cannot be ignored (though you could make an argument that an American president’s face also represents empire). The idea here is that the construction of boundaries between countries/states/etc creates a symbolic order in which our leaders, our country, and our symbols maintain greater significance than those outside our imaginary lines. Because we live within reality of differentiated states with defined boundaries, we must assume that if the coin had been printed on a British coin, rather than a Kennedy half-dollar, the symbolic gesture would have a different impact. What then do we make of the currency of a place such as the Cayman Islands, in which Queen Elizabeth’s face appears? These examples are different in that the Princess Diana coin is commemorative in nature whereas the Cayman Island currency reflects the colonization of the islands by the British, yet both can be described as non-British currency in which a member of the royal family is depicted.
Though the coin is legal tender—as every outlet attempting to sell you the coin points out—how can one be expected to use the coin? In researching the coin, the lowest price I could find was $5; one could say that the $0.50 that the coin represents really means that the coin is only $4.50, or, because spending the coin results in spending $4.50 more than its value as a U.S half-dollar, it is nonsensical to use the coin as a coin. If the coin invalidates its function as a coin, what purpose does it serve? Perhaps those who purchase the coin are not buying it based on its coin-ness, but rather its Diana-ness. This hypothesis begins to take on a surreal nature when examined closely: the coin is U.S tender (the princess resided in a different hemisphere), it was released for purchase ten years after her death (the term anniversary is used on many webpages for the coin—why does the coin manufacturer deem a decade of being dead worthy of a commemorative coin release?), and the arbitrary nature of the material itself (a coin is mass produced, as are posters/prints, so what is special about producing a coin to remember this person if their identity was not linked to coins in any significant way?). If it is strictly the Diana-ness that drives consumer x to make a purchase, why not something with more utility such as a t-shirt, a tote-bag, or even a key-chain? The fact that coins are placed within a framework of collectibility leads me to believe that the potential for the coin’s value to increase makes it more desirable than a poster/print, even though the poster/print serves the same symbolic function of evoking Diana-ness. Perhaps the tactile nature of a coin (in that one can hold it, flip it, spin it, put it in a pocket and carry it around) also contributes to the coin’s success as a form of celebrity memorabilia.
Eric Zimmerman’s “Play as Research: The Iterative Design Process” was an interesting framework for the artifact I chose. At first I began taking pictures of the coin in order to demonstrate the angles in which you could see John F. Kennedy’s face suffocating under the added paint:
This then led me to assemble several of these pictures into a slideshow using iMovie. After researching the coin online, I began taking screenshots of webpages that were still selling this coin (as well as the newer model—the 20th anniversary commemorative coin):
This process led to an increased awareness of the language used in describing the coin. Phrases such as “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” “Certificate of Authenticity Included,” and other staples of sales-language guide us further into the surreality of this artifact.
Adding screenshots of webpages selling the coin to the pictures I took extended the slideshow to a length in which I felt that music could contribute something to the viewing experience. I recorded some guitar, piano, and added field recordings using my iPhone and Logic. My idea for the music was to connect with the surreal nature of this implosion process.
I also used iMovie to speed up the music, which served a practical purpose of fitting it to the already assembled slideshow as well as making it a little less generic.
What are we to make of this coin’s existence? The evolution of media technologies has allowed for the phenomenon of celebrity to evolve to the point in which we have the circumstances of Diana’s death; is the mass production of commemorative coins just another piece to this puzzle? There are commemorative coins for celebrities who are still alive, but will their value change when they die?