By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ….
Perhaps few topics are more central to numismatics than the designs that appear on the coins we collect. Some people like to study mintage levels, the physical characteristics of coins and other issues, but at the end of the day it is really all, or at least mostly, about the art, as I have argued many times in this column.
Coin designs are especially important when it comes to postmodern U.S. coins because most collectors and numismatists believe something is fundamentally lacking in most of the designs that have appeared on U.S. coins since 1965, when copper-nickel replaced the silver in our coinage.
Back in 2012 I wrote about the effort of Edmund Moy (and really also John Mercanti, who served as Chief Sculptor-Engraver at the U.S. Mint from 2006 to 2011 though he was never confirmed by the U.S. Senate) to promote a “new golden age” in U.S. coin design.
That effort was ultimately successful (if only moderately), but nonetheless failed to have a lasting impact for two reasons.
First, in the years after Moy and Mercanti’s departure, there has been no real sustained effort by the Mint’s leadership to promote true excellence in coin design–though there has been some progress, which mostly comes from other actors, as I will explain.
Second, the so-called new golden age was less than fully successful because its major achievements–especially the 2009 Ultra High Relief gold double eagle—were based on reusing the classic designs of our past and failed to develop new designs that are of comparable artistic quality to the old designs.
The efforts of Moy and Mercanti include the introduction of many of the ongoing numismatic coin series that continue to this day such as the American Buffalo Gold coin series, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. In fact, the failure to do anything special in terms of design or finish for the 2016 Gold Buffalo is emblematic of the problem with U.S. coin design today.
Most new coin designs don’t excite collectors (with certain exceptions). This is especially true of modern commemoratives issued since Mercanti left the Mint, many of which have had rather dismal sales largely because collectors were not very pleased with their designs.
So the Mint often returns to the classic designs, which makes sense up to a certain point, but we need new classics that are superb and inspiring in their own way, and very few coins issued in recent years come anywhere close.
If we don’t – and perhaps can’t at the moment, because of the attachment of many collectors to the old designs – move beyond the classics, we will never reach the full artistic potential of our coinage.
As Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) member Donald Scarinci succinctly noted at the March meeting of this group, “Saint-Gaudens and Weinman are dead – get over it.”
So what’s happened since 2012?
There have certainly been a number of solid designs, even among the commemoratives, such as the 2016 National Park Service centennial $5 gold coin designed by the Mint’s current lead sculptor-engraver, Don Everhart – or the designs of the 2015 three-coin series for the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service.
In addition, the American Platinum Eagle proof coins with changing reverse designs, which includes the half-ounce coins issued from 1998 to 2008 and the one-ounce coins issued from 1998 to present, are graced with some of the best recent designs, especially those prepared by Joel Iskowitz of the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program, which seeks to encourage outside artists to design coins for the Mint.
But for every coin with a great design issued in the past few years, there are far more that are mediocre at best.
And the same problems I identified back in 2012 mostly continue to prevent our coin designs from being as good as they could and should be.
They are also not as good as a lot of the impressive designs that appear on coins issued by other world mints, such as the terrific designs of Royal Mint artist Jody Clark, who manages to create modern designs inspired by classic themes but that also incorporate modern elements and motifs in ways appealing to a large number of collectors.
Another problem I didn’t mention in the previous article is that the U.S. Mint seems to be rather hesitant to change designs on coins that have been very successful like its flagship American Silver and Gold Eagle programs, which could at least see their reverses designs changed after using the same images for 30 years.
The Mint undoubtedly has more experience than any other major mint in the world with designs depicting bald eagles because of the central role the bird has played in the iconography of our country as the symbol of American strength. So why not use a different eagle reverse, either for all versions or just the proof coins?
The latter is what the Royal Mint started doing in 2013 with its Britannia series.
Returning to the obstacles to better designs on U.S. coins, it isn’t just the lack of an art director at the Mint, as Heidi Wastweet suggested four years ago, but probably even more importantly the lack of a congressionally-approved Chief Sculptor-Engraver since Mercanti left in 2011 has been a major hindrance to producing coins with more compelling designs.
Arguably, the main players in this process that have been specifically focused on promoting greater artistic excellence in recent years are the members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee–especially under Chairman Gary Marks from 2010 to 2015.
The CCAC has been working to promote the goal of better coin designs in part through its proposal for an American Liberty high relief gold coin and silver medal series that began in 2015. Central to this effort is the idea of representing the the ethnic and racial diversity of 21st century America.
But every time an image of Liberty that’s not based on Greco-Roman artistic convention is recommended by the CCAC and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), these groups encounter a barrage of criticism from collectors, who see the use of non-Caucasian Lady Liberties as being inspired by political correctness, or at a minimum as being artistically uninspired (if not simply unappealing).
It is certainly understandable that some people simply do not find the designs proposed appealing, like, for example, the proposed design for the 2017 issue in this series, but what’s troubling is the fact that so many collectors believe it is fundamentally wrong to depict Liberty in any other way than the way she has appeared in the past.
That view makes it especially difficult to create modern coins that use the allegorical depiction of Liberty as a representation of American ideals. It is reminiscent in some ways of those people like former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who believed that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted in a literal way, as opposed to the view that it is a living document that must be adapted to the modern world.
All collectors of U.S. coins appreciate the great Liberty designs of the past, but our coinage should reflect not only timeless ideals but also the ways in which the country has changed. Otherwise, our coinage will continue to appear static.
The state of U.S. coin design in 2016 is certainly not terrible, and there are encouraging signs. But it’s a far cry from what it should be. We certainly have artists who can produce great designs*, but many of the obstacles to better designs have existed for years, including the U.S. Mint’s current structure and leadership and the excessive attachment of many mostly white and middle-aged coin collectors to the classic designs.
Perhaps as the demographics of the hobby change over time, as the old timers pass away and newer generations of collectors emerge, there will be greater receptivity to bold new designs, and the United States will finally issue (on a consistent basis, anyway) modern coins with designs that reflect the greatness of our nation.
*In an upcoming column I will discuss the neglected area within the numismatic media of collectible silver art rounds. Some of the best are designed by former CCAC Chairman Gary Marks and current CCAC member Heidi Wastweet, among others. Both Gary and Heidi have produced designs with Liberty themes that are widely admired.
National Park Service Commemorative Coins Currently Available on eBay