First Read, a continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…
Review by Charles Morgan for CoinWeek …..
The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt by Allan Schein
The period of our nation’s monetary history that began shortly after the turn of the century and ran until about 1932 or ’33 is often called the Golden Age of American coinage. It is a period renowned for the high aesthetic merit of its design, and it’s easy to see why.
The coin art of Augustus Saint-Gaudens exudes sculptural magnificence. Adolph Weinman’s Winged Liberty dime and Liberty Walking half dollar designs (now rendered in postmodern pastiche) are iconic. Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter, which, with bare breast exposed, drew the ire of prudes but remains a collector favorite. James Fraser’s Indian Head nickel, a favorite canvas of hobo artists, is quintessential rustic Americana.
And while the cheapness of its current low relief state and lack of present value has robbed Victor David Brenner’s Lincoln cent of much of its original charm, there is little doubt that no coin in the history of American coinage has spurred more youngsters to enter the numismatic hobby.
Indeed, while collectors celebrate the moment when the nation’s Chief Executive wrestled control of America’s coin design from the generally competent but highly unimaginative Charles Barber and George T. Morgan, the simple fact is that the United States Mint, in its role as a coin manufacturer, shed no tears at the eradication of each of these coins from its production line.
The two coins that I’ve left out of my list of Golden Age coins are described in Allan Schein’s newest book – Bela Lyon Pratt’s $2.50 quarter eagle and $5.00 half eagle gold coins, more commonly known as the $2.50 and $5.00 Indians.
Upon release, the two incuse coins were reviled by collectors. Bela Lyon Pratt’s Indian chief was called emaciated. The reverse – borrowed from Saint-Gaudens’ $10 design – was ridiculed. For years, the coins languished under this prejudice.
But time, and the perspective it allows, has a way of reframing the narrative and it is this author’s opinion that the $2.50 and $5.00 Indian designs are an elevation of American coin art, not a diminishment of it.
Enter author Allan Schein’s new book, The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt (2016). Schein shares my love for the design and offers an imminently readable history and collector overview of the series. In depth and feel, the volume shows significant growth on the part of the author. While his Un Caballito Peso (2014) broke new ground in terms of an English-language treatment of the popular Mexican coin, virtually every U.S. coin series has seen at least one or two standard reference treatments.
Before this work, collectors had Garrett and Guth, Fuljenz and Winter, and of course the seminal 1970s treatment by Akers for history and date-by-date analysis.
None of these works cover the breadth or depth of the ground covered here. And oh, what ground it is.
“This biography of Pratt,” Schein writes, “is probably the most extensive ever published, yet it includes only a small portion of the materials that were available to me while researching his life.”(15)
What is included is insightful, in that it reveals to those readers who more familiar with Pratt’s numismatic work that he was also a great talent in the classical style. Schein includes many examples of the young artist’s work, such as his earliest collaborations with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and student work from his time at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Pratt’s Library of Congress medallions are majestic, as was his “Winged Victory” gun turret ornament that adorned the 13” forward guns of USS Massachusetts.
But the book’s big reveal comes from Schein’s original research into Pratt’s personal letters and effects.
For instance, the back-and-forth between Pratt and Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a renowned collector of Japanese Art and a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, show the latter’s influence in giving Pratt his big national commission. Bigelow was such a champion of Pratt’s work that his name was, for a time, attached to the coins, which were called the Bigelow-Pratt coins.
Schein’s turn through the Pratt archives provided a number of insights into the design process of the coins. They also revealed much about Pratt, a modest man, whose modest success limited to the financial gains from his art and the quality of his work.
Revealed, too, are the Indian gold coin galvanos, master hubs and dies, along with photographs of Sioux Indian Chief Hollow Horn Bear, the model for Pratt’s design.
The remainder of the book deals specifically with the coin as a collectible.
Strike characteristics, absolute rarity, conditional rarity and coin varieties are detailed. The date-by-date write-ups extend beyond the stock writing that is all too often passed off as “analysis” in today’s numismatic literature. Full-color photography and Schein’s copious attention to the subject provide a road map for variety hunters and cherry-pickers.
Mint mark variations are even covered, as are general guidelines for grading and counterfeit detection (much appreciated, as the $2.50 and $5.00 Indians are among the most counterfeited of all U.S. coins).
In his closing remarks, Schein writes that “[even] today there are individuals that relegate Pratt and his design to a lesser prominence than is actually the case.”(401)
That the Indian $2.50 and $5.00 coins were released in the shadows of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ $10 eagle and $20 double eagle gold coins played no small part in the public’s lack of appreciation for the Pratt designs–as did the coins’ radical departure from traditional elevated relief. To see how much the numismatic community hated the coins, all one has to do is log into the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) digital archives of The Numismatist and read how the self-righteous collectors of the day badgered the Treasury about their distaste for the coins (early ANA members were trolls when it came to new design).
With time, collector enthusiasm for the two series has grown, and continues to grow.
It’s been 83 years since gold coins last circulated in the United States. Many Americans have never heard of a $2.50 or $5 gold coin, much less seen or held one. The denominations have slipped into the realms of curiosity and esotericism, or (for lesser specimens of the coins, at least) the realm of investment-grade bullion. But it’s difficult to imagine a true coin collector being left wanting after giving a close read of Schein’s book.
And while a professional company from the mainstream book publishing industry might have seen fit to tone down some of the author’s enthusiasm (a questionable tactic in the Age of the Internet), a book like this shows real dedication, and is a real revelation.
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The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt
By Allan Schein
416 PP. Self Published. Color, Softcover. $39.95 MSRP (A hardback edition is forthcoming).
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CoinWeek will be giving away two signed copies of Allan Schein’s book as part of our weekly silver coin giveaway. Stay tuned for details!