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High Relief U.S. and World Coins


By Ron …..
Would you pay for lunch with Michelangelo’s David? Would you buy a car with Mount Rushmore?

Sounds strange, I know, but in a sense that’s what you do when you use coins as money.

Because no matter whatever else they are, coins are sculpture.

It’s easy to forget. They’re tiny, mass-produced metal objects that you stuff in your pockets or lose in your couch. Sure, they might have art on them, but the coins themselves? They’re practically invisible.

As collectors and dealers, obviously(?) we don’t take coins for granted like the general public does. We might even appreciate their beauty.

And for some of us, that’s why we became collectors in the first place.

But I’ve been thinking about the art of coins lately. Too often, other aspects of a coin can overshadow its beauty… how much it’s worth, for example.

Well, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I wanted to find a different way of appreciating coins.

Remembering that coins are sculpture seems like a good start.

It’s All in the Relief

More specifically, a coin is a good example of what’s called “relief sculpture”.

Relief sculpture is what you get when the objects you’re sculpting are attached to or set against a background. The contrast between the relative flatness of the background and the more vivid, three-dimensional presence of the object you’re supposed to focus on–along with the various ways the artist composes the scene and plays with that contrast–is what breathes life into the work.

On a coin, the motifs and inscriptions (the sculpted objects) are set against the field (or background).

There are a few kinds of relief relevant to coin art:

Low Relief

First, there’s “low relief” (or more artistically, “bas-relief”), where the image or design is only slightly raised. The artwork appears unambiguously attached to the surface.

That’s how most coins are made, and for good reason.

When a coin is going into heavy circulation, there’s not much point wasting time and money making something that’s only going to be worn down anyway. Not to mention how low relief designs make coins easier to carry, and use in vending machines, etc.

Low relief coins can be beautiful and well-designed and they can also be ugly, but practical considerations are a large part of the design process here.

Though if we’re honest, all coin art is a marriage of beauty and practicality, of aesthetics and engineering.

High Relief

Next, there’s “high relief”. High relief coins feature designs and mottos significantly raised from the flat field and may look almost free of the surface (even though they’re still attached). I’m tempted to say it’s more “sculptural”, but that’s not fair to all the low-relief masterpieces out there.

Artists and engravers have often viewed high relief as an ideal. This is because many were inspired by the striking coinage of Ancient Greece, which employed relatively high relief to good effect.

There is perhaps no better U.S. example than the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, especially his design for the $20 double eagle gold coin (1907-1933). It is widely revered and often called the most beautiful American coin ever produced.

But as it turned out the relief was too high, and this lead to difficulties and delays at the Mint. Chief Engraver Charles Barber–rival to Saint-Gaudens–had to lower the relief to make it easier to mint. Still, many people remembered Saint-Gaudens’ original plans, and, once technology had caught up to them, in 2009 the Mint issued an Ultra High Relief gold bullion version of his double eagle.


5_indiansFinally, as far as our discussion goes, there’s a third option.

Instead of a design sticking out from the surface of a coin, the motif and inscriptions may be carved into the surface, in a kind of negative or “sunken” relief. You may have also heard it called intaglio, incuse, or counter-relief.

Bela Lyon Pratt’s Indian Head quarter and half eagle designs are the prime examples of sunken relief United States coinage. Pratt, a student of Saint-Gaudens, took his inspiration from ancient coin techniques and went against over a century of Mint history when he created these controversial coins in 1908. Accepted for their exotic beauty today, they were rejected at the time, like much else when it’s new.

Special High Relief Issues

But as far as commemoratives, bullion coins and special releases go, the U.S. Mint often utilizes a higher relief in order to accentuate the coin’s devices. The style goes especially well with designs that commemorate the classic coins of the past.

One such coin is the American Silver Eagle.

The Mint has also issued high relief versions of the 2014 50th Anniversary Kennedy gold half dollar, too.

At any rate, and like I mentioned above, technology has finally caught up with the ambitions and grand visions of the greatest designers in American numismatic history. Expect to see more high relief coins come out of the Mint as time goes on.

High Relief World Coins

But, like many other techniques and technologies, the rest of the world seems to stay one or two steps ahead of the U.S. Mint. High relief world coinage is far from unknown.

One need only look North for a great example. The 2013 $5 Canadian Silver Maple Leaf is not only one whole ounce of .9999 fine silver, but it’s also what is called a “piedfort” coin. The word “piedfort” comes from French and means “strong foot”. It refers to a coin that is thicker than usual. In this case, the 2013 $5 Silver Maple Leaf is about twice as thick as its regular counterpart.

(Incidentally, the 2009 Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens gold bullion coin can also be called a piedfort.)

Australian Kangaroo Gold Coin SeriesAustralia’s Perth Mint makes a strong showing in the category as well, with the 2013 High Relief 1 oz Silver Kangaroo.


I hope this look at the sculptural essence of coinage and how various mints around the globe use these qualities to make beautiful coins has been insightful. It’s not just fancy bullion that benefits. All of the coins we use everyday, without even thinking about it, are sculpture.

Mull that over the next time you get change for your coffee or pay the toll on your way to work. You couldn’t do that with a bust by Houdon.


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