Money as Art: Does Artistic Merit Enter into Coin Design ?

The Newman Money Museum features some coins that are quite artistic and visually appealing while others seek out only their functionality as money. This post speaks to the question: Does the United States government even try to make the coins artistically appealing? The short answer is sometimes. The early part of the 20th century saw an intense effort to make coins as artistic as they were utilitarian. At the turn of the century, it would be fair to characterize US coinage as monotonous.  The nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar all featured the same bust designed by U.S. Mint engraver Charles Barber. While views about the design varied, there was certainly a lack of variety among our coins. President Theodore Roosevelt, not one to mince words, expressed himself on the matter in a private letter to his secretary of the Treasury Leslie M. Shaw on December 27, 1904 “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness”.  He goes on to suggest that a prominent artist, rather than a government employee should be enlisted and he asked his secretary of the Treasury if “someone like Augustus Saint-Gaudens (could) redesign the coinage”.  (The Barber liberty head design which Roosevelt so harshly condemned can be viewed as well in our Not Just A Pretty Face display).

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Surprisingly, coins and sculpture have a great deal in common. Coin designs begin on paper and proceed through a modeling process in which a large scale model of the final design is produced in plaster (sometimes coated with metal) or epoxy. This model is called a galvano.  It can be many times the size of the final coin. The galvano for the Kennedy half dollar was over two feet in diameter.  A Janvier reducing lathe is the equipment that was used to turn a large model into a master coin die. The lathe reduces the design while keeping the proportions intact.

Normally, the U.S. Mint employs engravers and artists who execute the designs for new coins based on the act passed by Congress, their talent and approval of the Treasury Secretary. Custom and (occasionally) rules have prevented other artists from actively submitting designs for coins. Additionally, the Mint has been known to make changes to designs without permission, for instance removing design elements entirely to improve production of the coins. Those drawbacks deter many and frustrate even the artists who have designs accepted by the U.S. Mint. In fact, the Missouri State quarter designer suffered such an indignity, and he responded by creating adhesive patches to cover the Mint alteration of his design which he distributed. The coin and its intended design are both on display in the Newman Money Museum.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was already a renowned sculptor by 1907, so it might seem unlikely he would accede to Roosevelt’s request. However, Saint-Gaudens had produced many medallions and relief medals among his earlier works. In addition, he had designed the World’s Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation medal in the early 1890s, which Roosevelt admired and they developed a correspondence. Saint-Gaudens produced both the $20 double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head gold coins for the U.S. Mint. On the $20 coin, Liberty is striding forward with an olive branch in one hand and a torch leading the way in the other hand. Prominent rays of sun and a small rendition of the Capitol building in the background further suggest the magnificence of America.

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The $10 gold coin features a simpler design of a Native American woman in headdress.  The coins continued to be struck until 1933, although the design relief was flattened and the numerals were redrawn as Arabic numerals to correspond with the rest of the coinage on the $20 coin.  Numismatists consider these two coins to be among the most beautiful coins the US Mint has produced and both are on display at the Newman Money Museum.   I encourage you to come by the Newman Money Museum and see the art of money for yourself.

By Tom Serfass (Friday, September 27, 2013)

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One response to “Money as Art: Does Artistic Merit Enter into Coin Design ?

  1. Pingback: Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design | Past & Present·

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