By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
Editor’s Note: A complete rundown of designs considered by the CCAC are included at the bottom of this article.
On April 8, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (www.ccac.gov) held a two-hour telephone meeting to discuss what design should replace the Heraldic eagle that currently appears on the reverse of the American Silver Eagle coin, having previously agreed that design should change. The meeting, which was marked by spirited and passionate debate by committee members, eventually resulted in unanimous agreement to recommend a new eagle design favored by most of the members present, which included 10 of the group’s eleven members. United States Mint staff members and six media representatives, including your columnist, also listened in on the discussion, which provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the coinage design process and of participatory democracy at work.
Chairman Gary Marks began by explaining that a March 11 media report (which he did not name, and which I can confirm was not by this author) made some inaccurate points about this issue. First, it claimed that the reverse design change would only apply to bullion silver eagles, when in fact it would apply to both bullion and proof versions, said Mr. Marks. That presumably also means it would apply to the burnished uncirculated coins as well. Second, the report said that a CCAC design change recommendation “would put pressure” on those involved in this process to move forward. Marks made clear that it is not his style to pressure anyone, and that is not the intent of this exercise, which is only to make recommendations, as that is the committee’s mandate.
Contacted for this article, modern coin expert Eric Jordan explained that the design can be changed every 25 years, that both the obverse and reverse design can be changed, and that it would apply to all versions of the coin, bullion and collector.
Impetus for Design Change
Discussion then moved to the impetus behind this effort, which goes back several years since the committee has recommended a design change in its last three annual reports. Committee members clearly understand the significance of a change to the design of the silver eagle, which holds such a special place in modern American coinage. They also are well aware of the importance of the symbolism of the design as a representation of American ideals. As Committee member Mike Olson said the silver eagle is “a flagship coin that needs to demonstrate the strength and majesty of the U.S.”
Member Erik Jansen noted that “the design is what people will remember” about silver eagles and asked if the current design is the best image. He then explained that while considering other coin programs, some very good eagle designs that were not selected were put aside for future consideration. The Mint’s staff has been keeping a binder of these designs, and prior to the meeting, it released 44 images to the media that the group considered.
Many collectors have expressed concerns that this process means the designs being considered are basically rejects that were not good enough for other programs, but that really overlooks the fact that it is not unusual for there to be more than one compelling design considered for a coin. Just because a design was not selected for another program hardly means it is not a good design in itself, especially for a different program.
Jansen also pointed out that this effort is “not a done deal” but rather is a “responsible revisiting of the issue” and that because the coin is so iconic, its design must be of very high caliber. Marks also stressed that the design would still need to be reviewed by the Mint, the Commission on Fine Arts, and ultimately go to the Treasury Secretary for approval. He also said the group would revisit this after the Mint changed the inscriptions in the selected design to adapt it to the silver eagle.
The first order of business was to come up with a “cold list” to narrow down the design selection process. The 16 they decided to focus on were: 1, 10, 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41, and 44, which will be posted in CoinWeek.
Numismatist Dr. Michael Bugeja explained that there are four types of eagles that have appeared on U.S. coinage since 1792, including stylized eagles like the one on the 1936 Bridgeport commemorative half dollar; personified eagles, which he thinks are “an embarrassment”; a bird flying, which would not be appropriate in his view; and symbolic eagles, which often appear on the reverse of coins. They are not animals but are symbols of power and peace. His favorite designs were 40 and 41, which are clearly both very symbolic images.
Mike Olson said that designs 40 and 41 really “jump off the page,” and that 41 reminded him of the old Gobrecht silver dollars from the 1830s.
Train #41 Has Left the Station
It quickly became apparent that designs 40 and 41 were favored by most, though not all, members, and Marks said in an initial vote before the meeting six members chose 40, and eight selected 41. But as Don Everhart, a sculptor-engraver for the Mint, explained, design 40 is the one the committee chose as the reverse of the $5 gold U.S. Marshall Service commemorative coin for 2015, and as several members later agreed, a different and unique design needs to appear on the silver eagle reverse.
Chairman Marks also said he was very favorable to 41, and that it would “pair up well with the Adolph Weinman obverse” on the coin now. He also said the silver eagles’ inscriptions for fineness, denomination, etc. were fairly simple, which should make the Mint’s job of adapting the chosen design easier.
Heidi Wastweet, a medallic artist, said the group was headed in the right direction with 41, but that she would like to see some variations. The beak was a little too close to the edge in her view, and she also wants to see arrows added to the olive branches in the eagle’s talons, conveying the classic American message of strength and peace. This is something several other members agreed with, and it influenced the final recommendation.
Jansen, who represents the public on the committee, voiced by far the strongest dissent with the emerging consensus for design 41, that the Chairman referred to as “a train that has left the station,” a metaphor many other members came back to in their comments. Jansen began by saying that instead of just one design recommendation, they needed a series of preferences, especially as this was not the end of the process. He then made a point that would make many collectors smile when he stated in strong terms that the design needed to be “sculpted with detail and relief,” adding that the Mint should not just “Photoshop it” in order to create a die that could be used for a long period because doing so “would be a misplacement of the country’s sacred ideals.” He said he likes 23 and 24, especially the idea of two eagles that conveys the implication of working together. He also noted that 41 is a good design, but not for this coin because “the eagle is struggling,” asking “Is that the message we want to send?”
Thomas Uram’s view can best be summed with his comment: “Why mess with the best bullion coin in the world?” He asked what the upside is to changing a successful design and that he only favors changing the design for the proof coin, not the bullion version. He also said that the upcoming 30th anniversary in 2016 could be marked with a high-relief coin that would complement the other anniversary coins. This is a suggestion your columnist has made several times here and in my February cover story for the Numismatist magazine on silver and gold eagles.
Bugeja again voiced his support for 41, and said the current reverse was too reminiscent of presidential seals, a point I have heard some collectors make as well.
There was also discussion about how a new reverse would bi-furcate the silver eagle series, which concerned Olson. Eric Jordan explained to CoinWeek that the new design would effectively create a Type 1 and Type 2 silver eagle and that this might increase the value of the type 1 coins. He compared it to the silver and gold coinage of the 1800s, which had very long-running series that were broken up into subsets, such as the various types of Seated Liberty coinage designs.
The committee then voted on all 16 of 44 designs considered. 41 was the clear winner with 23 votes (each member was able to vote for multiple designs), and the runners-up were 23 and 24 with eight and seven votes, respectively. This was followed by a lengthy discussion about whether to recommend only one design or several, and about whether the normal voting method of majority vote should be suspended for the purpose of recommending a series of designs, which was the preference of Jansen. His motion was rejected by a seven to three vote, and the committee ended its discussion of the issue by a unanimous voice vote to recommend design 41 with the proviso that the Mint produce several versions of the design in which some of the elements would be modified, including adding arrows to the olive branches or including neither device (arrows or olive branches), the orientation of the eagle, which some members felt needed to be raised upwards, and the place of the inscriptions.
The selection of some version of design 41 for the coin’s reverse is a good example of the committee’s preference for modern designs, and modern representations of classic American images and themes, as opposed to reissuing more classic American coin designs of the past.
The design selected is one of those that were considered but rejected for the $5 gold Marshall commemorative coin planned for next year.
It is interesting to note that in the blogosphere collectors also mostly picked design 41, which reinforces a point I have often made. Preference for particular coin designs is in theory very subjective, but in practice, most collectors very often agree on what is a good, compelling design, and what is not. That clearly bodes well for the recommended design change, if it is ultimately implemented.
I think that design 41 is one that most collectors and investors will agree is inspiring, represents American ideals, and is a suitable complement to the coin’s existing obverse. Provided the Mint’s artists and sculptors follow the advice of Eric Jansen and render the design with sufficient detail and relief, the possible new reverse should further increase interest in the silver eagle series, the king of modern American coins.
New Medal Program
The committee also had a briefer, second discussion about creating a new national arts medal program, which the Mint can create through its own existing authority, as confirmed by lawyers from the Mint. The plan would be to issue one or two medals a year and to give the artists a much freer hand than in coin programs that come with very specific parameters. One member noted that “attractive designs sell and unattractive ones don’t” and used the example of the baseball coins as attractive ones, and the Civil Rights Act 50th and Girl Scouts of the USA coins as unattractive ones, another point that many collectors agree with. There was also optimism expressed during this discussion that this kind of program would really help stimulate our medallic artists to be more creative, which may eventually produce a “new liberty design in a 21st century way.” The group also voted unanimously by voice to move forward with this program.
Edited to correct an earlier version that misattributed two quotes to committee member Erik Jansen.
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Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His insightful retrospective on the American Silver Eagle was the cover feature of the February 2014 issue of The Numismatist. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.
I am commenting only as a reader of CoinWeek and not as a CCAC member. I also am commenting as director of a journalism school. Louis’ column is an accurate portrayal of the CCAC process in selecting Design 41 as a recommended reverse for the Silver Eagle. Thank you, Louis, for your journalistic expertise in giving your viewers a glimpse into how the CCAC operates.
Thank you very much, Michael. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a fly on the wall at such an interesting session.
My personal preference is for the selected design but either without the olive branches, which make it too busy, or with smaller branches and arrows.
I am curious how readers feel about the design selected. Was that your preference?
My personal preferences were either design 18 or design 41, so I am pretty pleased with the committee’s initial recommendation. I think the olive branches are not too large, but I agree there should be some arrows in there.
I also agree with the comment that the current design is reminiscent of a presidential seal; indeed, I always thought the similarity was deliberate. I was also confused by the comment that the eagle of design 41 is struggling. I didn’t understand where that idea was coming from and don’t see it myself in the design. Finally, I agree with the comment made in regards to a high relief design. Given the success of the baseball HoF, I think it is high time the mint attempt a high relief coin (whether for a silver eagle or for some other release).
Other than that, it was also interesting to note how closely the CCAC’s debate paralleled with what was said in the blogosphere and various message boards. I think nearly every major point brought up here was discussed in the blogs
I also want to add a thought on whether some variants (proof, bullion, burnished) should be changed while others are left the same. I don’t agree with this at all and I think if a change is made, it should be done across the board. If the mint wanted to continue to honor the current design, they could release a “classic” variant with the 30th anniversary set that will undoubtedly be coming in 2016.
Thanks, CO, for sharing your as always insightful comments.
While one member said he favored only a possible change for the proof reverse, now that they are moving forward, the law is clear it will apply to all versions, provided the CFA agrees with the design and the Secretary approves it. I don’t believe it is very common for the Secretary to go against the committees, so the next key hurdle will be what the CFA says.
I very much agree on the parallels between the online discussions and what the committee discussed, and I think that shows they are more in touch than many collectors give them credit for. Of course, people will always disagree with some decisions, and deciding by committee is tough though importantly also democratic, but if you think about a lot of the coins issued over the past few years, they have recommended a lot of very nice pieces. Check out the new 2014 proof quarters as an example. They are stunning and will look awesome in 5 oz format.
For a while, I was thinking of commenting that the $5 denomination should be the first thing to go, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. Maybe $5 makes more sense, considering the nominal denominations used by other countries with currencies near par with ours and who produce a one ounce Ag piece.
And then I remember also that I PAID about $5 each for a good many of them I still have.
Kurt- Not sure what you mean. The silver eagle has a $1 denomination.
By the way, Kurt, I think what threw you off is, as I mentioned in my piece, #41 was originally considered for the 2015 Marshall Service $5 gold eagle, which is why it has that denomination on it. But the Mint will be changing that to $1 and adding the other inscriptions that are on the ASE.
Ah, good, but I still think a new reverse (which I never thought was the equal of the obverse – sorry, John Mercanti, that’s no dig, just an opinion) is an opportunity to consider a re-denomination of the ASE. The false equivalence with the classic silver dollars is a stretch. Ottawa could see it, not Washington. Go figure. Neither the weight nor fineness matches the silver dollar, so why the nominal denomination?
Oh, not that you asked here, but they should NEVER change .900 silver proof sets to .999 blanks. The classic alloy is the whole point of having them. If we can’t get affordable .900 blanks from vendors, either bring blank production in-house (imagine that!), or shut down silver proof sets entirely.
When something so succesful is working like the ASE leave it alone.
Hi Louis, I recently posted a comment on your January 7 article on the Wedge-Tailed eagle coin. I’m not sure if you see these comments after so long a time. Let me know if you can’t see it anymore.
Thanks for the comment. I responded on the Jan. 7 article.
“I am curious how readers feel about the design selected. Was that your preference?”
#41 is a very good choice, but I would add thirteen stars around the perimeter.
Having nominated #41, I also like the close-up eagle design in #24 but would leave the flag out of the background
I know I’m going to be a minority voice on this, but darn it, if your going to steal the obverse from the 1916-1947 halves, why not steal the whole thing? In my opinion, the reverse of the Walking Lib half is about as good as design gets.
I agree! The Walking Liberty is arguably the most beautiful coin ever produced, and I mean both sides of the coin.
I don’t mind the current designs of our coins, and have nothing against presidents, but personally I feel it’s time for a change. Also, why does it have to be presidents on the front of every coin? “Liberty” used to be a common theme on American coinage in the early 20th century and before.. There have been some terrific designs based on Liberty: The Morgan & Peace Dollars, the Seated Liberty (IMO), etc.
Also look at the Buffalo Nickel.. Also one of the best designs IMO.
I hope that AT LEAST the 1916-1947 Walking Lib reverse is being reserved for use in case the Congress ever calls for a 1/2 ounce .999 silver bullion coin. Can you imagine it with the lettering “DOLLAR” changed to “OUNCE Ag”, with everything else unchanged? Wow, you even have not one, but two legacy places to slap a mintmark!
Thanks for the great coverage, Louis. Also very nice to see Dr. Mike chime in on your coverage of the event!!!
Of the offerings considered for the $1 ASE, I also am a big supporter of #41. And, like some, my very first thought was a UHR coin. Concur that a silver UHR product, ASE or other, is long overdue for our US Mint.
As you and I have discussed in other threads, I’m still kind of curious to know why the CCAC did not consider a full re-vamp that includes a new Obverse. I still think the 2013 Pt Liberty Obverse (without gears) would be a great place to start, while that design device also would look good on a UHR coin.
Thanks, as always, for your fine work!!
Thanks a lot, Chris. I appreciate your support and interest.
Interesting you should ask about the obverse as I am waiting to hear from the chairman on that very point!
I think it’s taking too long to get a new reverse. This should have been done after the first few years the ASE was introduced. I think Britain’s Britannia is a better issue because it has new artwork everyyear, not to mention smaller denominations. Maybe a new, orignial reverse every other year for the ASE would be great and spark more collector interest, and my second suggestion is at least a 1/2 oz bullion coin as well. That would be neat!
Joe- The law that created the ASE stipulates when the design can be changed- only once every 25 years. In theory that could be amended but that is very unlikely.
I’m excited by the idea of a new reverse. I’m a big fan of the obverse, so I’m even more glad it’s staying. Though if the new reverse is to receive notable relief, the obverse would have to follow suit. I like 41 first and 13 second, so I’m a happy camper. Though the current reverse sports “1 Oz Fine Silver”, so I very much hope this text is included on the new reverse. I consider that a staple of the Eagle in that it’s still considered a trusted medium of exchange should intrinsically worthless currency no longer be accepted.
I also hope we dont get a new coin until the 30th anniversary in 2016, at which point there would be a grand unveiling with a very special anniversary set akin to the 2011 set of five. This will also give me time to finish my collection, which I just know will cost notably more to round out when the new reverse releases :)
Roman- Thanks for your thoughts. The weight and purity and everything else in the text of the current reverse will all be included.