By Bullion Shark LLC ……
If you collect American coins, then you’ve likely heard of Laura Gardin Fraser. She was an acclaimed and prolific early 20th-century sculptor and coin designer. One of her most famous coin designs is a bust of George Washington that was recommended as the obverse design for the Washington quarter dollar in 1932 but was not selected. Those coins were made of 90% silver until 1964.
But in January 2022, when the American Women quarter series debuts with new circulating quarters that will also be issued for collectors in Proof and Uncirculated versions, the common obverse for that entire four-year series that runs through 2025 will feature this superb neo-classical work.
Born in 1899 in a Chicago suburb to a mother who was a well-known artist at the time, Gardin Fraser showed an early aptitude for drawing the human figure and began studying art. Later, she attended the Art Students’ League from 1907 to 1911 where she was instructed by James Earle Fraser, best known as the designer of the Buffalo nickel that debuted in 1913.
The same year that coin was launched, she and Fraser got married and worked together in a studio. In 1921 she became the first woman to design an American coin – the Alabama Centennial commemorative half dollar – and would go on to design the 1922 Grant Memorial gold dollar and silver half dollar, the 1925 Vancouver Centennial half dollar, and coins issued by the Philippines in 1947.
The one coin on which the couple collaborated also happens to be one of the most beloved designs for most collectors of classic American commemoratives: the Oregon Trail half dollar, issued from 1926 all the way to 1939. She designed the especially popular obverse with an image of a Native American male, while her husband designed the reverse with a settler wagon.
Gardin Fraser’s sculptural works include life-sized pieces such as a double statue of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both on horseback that won a competition to be used in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2016, a task force looking at Confederate monuments recommended the removal of that statue, and in 2017 following the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, the statue was removed by the City of Baltimore.
She also designed many well-regarded medals, such as congressional medals and medals for the Army, Navy Chaplains, the National Geographic Society, and the American Bar Association, among others, and a medal with a profile of Washington in 1931 for the Washington Bicentennial Committee that was based on a famous 1785 bust of the president by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon. That bust was already well-known to coin collectors, of course, with versions of it having appeared on the 1900 Lafayette dollar, the 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar, and the famous Washington Before Boston medal from the late 18th century that was restruck this year by the French Mint.
After issuing that medal, the Bicentennial Committee –- which was working to issue a half dollar in 1932 for the bicentennial – and the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) voted for the design to appear on the coin that was intended to accompany that medal.
Congress decided not to issue a commemorative half dollar, especially since no coins of that denomination were being issued because of the difficult economic conditions of the time, and instead voted to replace the Standing Liberty quarter, which featured a popular design but was difficult to strike, with a new quarter that would feature Washington on the obverse. The Treasury Department held a design competition, and the CFA again recommended her bust for the obverse of the new quarter that would be an ongoing program.
In a 1932 letter to the Treasury Secretary, the CFA said:
“This bust is regarded by artists who have studied it as the most authentic likeness of Washington. Such was the skill of the artist in making this life-mask that it embodies those high qualities of the man’s character which have given him a place among the great of the world … Simplicity, directness, and nobility characterize it. The design has style and elegance…The Commission believes that this design would present to the people of this country the Washington whom they revere.”
But despite such high praise, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon decided instead to use a design by John Flanagan with a left-facing bust of Washington that is not as well regarded artistically by many modern scholars but has been used in one form or another since 1932. However, Fraser’s design was used in 1999 for a $5 gold commemorative coin for the bicentennial of Washington’s death paired with an eagle reverse she also created.
Some have argued that her design was not selected because she was a woman, but that is hard to square with the fact that many of her designs had been approved for other coins.
This year when the CFA and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), were reviewing possible design candidates in the spring for the American Women quarter dollar series that begins in January, they wanted to recommend a design by a woman for the obverse of the new coins. After considering Fraser’s 90-year-old design and 10 others by artists in the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program, both design committees recommended that Fraser’s design be revived for this program.
In June, current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen agreed with that recommendation, and Fraser’s design will finally take its place on American quarters soon.
While reviewing the designs, CCAC member Dr. Dean Kotlowski, who is an American historian, praised Fraser’s design for this program:
“She’s able to create a sense of his seriousness of purpose. The cheek muscles, you see the strength, the strength of character. The looking ahead, straight ahead, the sense of vision. All of these come together with a sense of statesmanship and a commanding presence that she is able to achieve with remarkable ease.”
In January, Laura Gardin Fraser will join a select group of great American coin designers whose work spans multiple centuries of coinage.