By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
Next January, an important new chapter will open in American numismatic history.
Two of the most iconic modern American coins – the American Silver Eagle and the American Gold Eagle – will see new reverse designs on their bullion versions for the first time since both coins debuted in 1986. The new designs will be introduced later on collector versions of the coins. This redesign also includes new overt and covert anti-counterfeiting features intended to make it harder to produce fake versions, which have been proliferating in recent years.
On June 23, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) reviewed a diverse portfolio of 38 eagle designs prepared by the United States Mint – including some more traditional ones of eagles in flight, landing, or posing, and heraldic eagles similar to the current reverse of the Silver Eagle created by former Chief Engraver John Mercanti. Other designs included in the portfolio, such as eagle head profiles, would mark a major departure from the current reverse designs.
These flagship coins, known all over the world as the silver and gold coins most emblematic of the American nation, sell many millions of dollars’ worth of coins each year and take their name from the eagle on their reverse, which conveys how important those designs are and how much is riding on getting this redesign right.
The Mint has not indicated whether the designs were prepared by their in-house artists, by those of the Artistic Infusion Program, or others, but that will be undoubtedly be revealed after the final designs are announced.
On June 18 the other committee that reviews and makes recommendations on U.S. coin designs – the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) – recommended an image of an eagle about to land while carrying a branch in its talons with its right wing going off the design for the gold coin, and a heraldic eagle carrying five arrows symbolizing the five branches of the U.S. military in its talons (which would need to become six with the advent of the U.S. Space Force) and 13 stars representing the 13 original colonies below it.
The U.S. Mint posted the entire portfolio on its website, and during the weekend preceding the CCAC meeting, collectors commenting in various online coin forums mostly expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the designs recommended by the CFA, though some said they were pleased. Many said that the designs were as good as the existing reverses.
CCAC Design Review
Towards the end of a two-and-a-half-hour session on the topic, a consensus had formed among the 11 members of the CCAC in favor of a dynamic flying eagle with wings spread above a rising sun for the silver coin (design 12A, reminiscent of flying eagles on other American coins) and a left-facing close-up profile of the head of an eagle (design 38) for the gold that captures the nobility and fierceness of the national bird that would mark a significant change from prior eagle images on American coins.
But then member Dennis Tucker, the publisher at Whitman Publishing, made a last-minute motion recommending that the eagle head be used instead on the Silver Eagle because he wanted to see something different and innovative on the coin more people can afford, and the flying eagle design on the Gold Eagle since gold is by definition a traditional asset.
That motion narrowly passed in a 6-to-5 vote, and now it will be up to the Secretary of the Treasury to decide between the very different recommendations of the two design groups, especially their respective choices for the Silver Eagle. During the meeting, several CCAC members said they realized the heraldic eagle recommended by the CFA provided continuity with the Mercanti design, but they did not find it artistically compelling.
I was able to speak with CCAC chairman Thomas Uram during the committee’s lunch break, and we briefly talked about what a wild ride the meeting had been as it veered from several very different designs to others. He said his main goal had been to make sure each member was able to express their views, which they did.
Former CCAC Chairman Gary Marks
Prior to the meeting, former CCAC member and chairman Gary Marks shared his thoughts about the importance of the redesign exercise and his preferred designs, which included the same flying eagle but for the silver coin, and an image of a side view of a posing eagle resting on an arrow and clutching an olive branch for the gold.
It should be noted that Gary was chairman of the CCAC in 2014 when the committee recommended the Paul Balan design of a flying eagle for the Silver Eagle reverse (reminiscent of the one on the Gobrecht silver dollar) that was later considered for the 2015 Marshall Service coin and eventually used on the 2015 American Liberty $100 gold coin and 2016 American Liberty silver medal, which both sold out.
Gary said before the CCAC review:
“After viewing the portfolio of proposed designs I am concerned. As you know, the Silver and Gold Eagle coins are the flagship coins of the U.S. Mint’s numismatic and bullion offerings. Moreover, the obverses carry a couple of the most celebrated American coin designs. As such, one does not pair Saint-Gaudens’ Standing Liberty obverse or Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty obverse with ordinary or mediocre reverses.
“I would be curious to know if the Mint advised their artists to consider these classic obverse designs as inspirations towards reverse designs that would compliment these classics. Further, I am disappointed the portfolio was not presented with the classic obverses shown alongside each proposed reverse design. I think that approach would have encouraged the CFA and CCAC to make their recommendations in context with the obverses. As it is, I fear the new reverse designs will be evaluated in a vacuum.”
Of his choices he noted:
“I try to avoid being critical, but I feel most of the designs in the portfolio simply don’t measure up for this challenging assignment. However, there are a couple of designs I feel would match well with their famous obverses.
“When selecting a reverse design to pair with the Weinman Walking Liberty obverse I feel it is important to look for a design that is active. Liberty is walking thus the eagle on the reverse should also be active. It should also be inspirational and evoke a sense of optimism and hopefulness. These qualities will bring harmony with what is clearly an inspirational obverse. That’s why I think Design 12 is the right pick for the Silver Eagle Reverse.
“The Saint-Gaudens obverse is a confident and soaring design that graces a series of smaller diameter gold coins. Thus, I believe the reverse needs to exhibit strength and confidence but also be simple enough to work well on a small coin. For these reasons, I believe Design 35 is the right choice for the gold series.
After learning of the final vote by the CCAC, Gary had these remarks:
“A big eagle’s head on the reverse of any coin just doesn’t make sense. Portraits and profiles are historically the domain of the obverse. I am a bit amused that a big eagle head would be paired with Weinman’s Walking Liberty design. The pairing will confuse the traditional visual orientation of the obverse and reverse where, in this case, the obverse looks like the reverse, and the reverse looks like the obverse. But all chuckles aside, I think it is absurd. I am saddened that this recommendation, if followed by the Treasury Secretary, will diminish America’s flagship silver bullion coin.
“As for the gold reverse, I am relieved the CCAC recommended an image appropriate for the coin and one that will pair well with Saint-Gaudens’ obverse. The flying eagle rendered on this design is well-executed and beautiful. That said, I feel this design would have been more powerfully displayed on the larger 40.6 mm palette of the Silver Eagle coin.”
CCAC Member Comments
It is also useful to review the highlights of comments made by CCAC members during the meeting in order to better understand how they arrived at their selections.
The group stressed how impressed they were with the overall artistic quality of the large portfolio and all agreed that this was probably the most important program they had worked on during their tenures. As member Donald Scarinci noted, this was the only opportunity they would have to provide input on these designs since according to an 1890 law each can only be changed once every 25 years.
There was also a consensus that the big eagle head of design 38 is an extraordinary work of numismatic art, but some felt it would work better on another coin, or perhaps a silver medal, while others were excited to see it as a new reverse for one of the country’s flagship bullion programs. Several members noted that it was quite scalable, which would work well on the four sizes of Gold Eagles.
Donald stressed repeatedly that by numismatic convention and history, profiles like those of design 38 have always been the province of obverse, not reverse, designs – a point to which he returned several times, sometimes with reference to foreign coins, which are a specialty of his and which very rarely use eagle profiles on their reverses.
Many members were also impressed with the anatomical accuracy of the various eagles.
Several expressed interest in design 10, which provides a top-level perspective of an eagle from above spreading its wings (which were not anatomically correct in this case, but which current Chief Engraver of the United States Mint Joe Menna said could be corrected) and for some reason clutching an olive branch in its mouth, which, as several members noted, is not something eagles are known to do.
Dennis Tucker, who is the committee’s numismatic specialist, noted that the original gold reverse of a family of eagles did not necessarily match the celebrated obverse of Saint-Gaudens’ universally admired design, which he said has been a matter of debate among numismatists for a long time. He also said that several of the proposed new designs, such as those that paired two eagles, were in keeping with the family theme.
He and Chairman Tom Uram stressed that design 2, which shows the eagle about to land, did not work for them because America should symbolically be in flight, not landing.
After the initial vote, designs 2, 10, 12A, and 38 emerged as the most popular designs with 16, 30, and 34 the next most popular.
At this point, Donald described his visceral reaction to design 38, which he found awkward and said that it would be “a little odd internationally”. Michael Moran agreed but noted what an exceptional design 38 was and that he wanted to see it on some coin because it is the best eagle head design he has seen in his many years on the committee.
Dennis Tucker noted that 2 and 12A were fine designs but that they did nothing new in terms of numismatic art and that similar eagle designs have been used on the American Platinum Eagle series. He said they were neither inspiring nor innovative. He then began to chip away at the consensus that had formed for more traditional designs, arguing in favor of throwing out the top four choices and looking instead at 16, 25, 30, and 34.
Several others again stressed how their eye would gravitate to 38 if it were in a group with other coins, and that it had the “wow” factor, especially for the silver coin.
Not long after those comments, Donald said that these coins were not the time for innovation and “outside the box” thinking and that they had to, in his memorable expression, “reek of America.” He suggested that 38 could work as a medal perhaps paired with a new eagle design.
Dennis agreed that because these are commercial coins stability is important and wondered if any were better in terms of anti-counterfeiting. Robert Harrigal of the Mint’s technical staff later said none were better than others in those terms and that all could be made secure.
At this point, Dr. Lawrence S. Brown called for a motion in favor of design 2 for the Gold Eagle and 12A for the Silver Eagles; the vote was 7 to 4 in favor. Mike Moran then called a motion in favor of 12A for the silver and 38 for the gold, and that passed 8 to 3. Finally, Dennis made his motion switching the last pairing, which passed 6 to 5.
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Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column “The Coin Analyst” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) for Best Website Column. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”.
In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.