By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
The Washington Quarter obverse is one of the longest-running U.S. coin designs. Since colonial times, the George Washington motif has been a favorite in numismatic circles. Considered the “Father of our Country”, his likeness is featured on many medals, tokens, and paper monies, including the currently circulating quarter and the (current) dollar bill.
The reverse of the quarter, however, has alternated commemorations for over two decades now. This fact is fitting as the origins of the design stem from a commemoration of the birth of our first president. And the controversial story has once again come into the limelight.
In 1931, a year before the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth year, the United States Treasury Department, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the Washington Bicentennial Commission proposed the issue of both a commemorative medal and a half dollar. The obverse was to bear a depiction of Washington based on the sculpture by Jean-Antione Houdon on display at Mount Vernon. The bust was done during Washington’s lifetime and is considered the most lifelike representation of the Founding Father. As with other new coinage designs of the period, a competition was held and the chosen sculptor was to design both the new coin and a medal.
Laura Gardin Fraser won this by unanimous vote. An experienced sculptor and wife of James Earle Fraser, she was no stranger to creating numismatic art. She was already the first woman to design a U.S. coin and by 1931 her portfolio of works included the iconic obverse of the Oregon Trail commemorative, the 1921 Alabama Commemorative half, the 1922 Grant silver half dollar and gold one dollar coins, and the 1925 Vancouver Centennial half. Along with these classic commemorative designs, she had done a number of medals both for the United States and private companies like Gorman and The Medallic Arts Co.
Congress approved the new commemorative, but changed the denomination to a quarter dollar and authorized the issue with the Act of March 4, 1931. The earlier choice of Fraser was rebutted and Assistant Mint Director Mary O’Reilly asked the Commission to suggest sculptors for another competition. The CFA insisted upon their previous choice, but the Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon rejected this. A new competition was arranged and 98 contestants submitted 100 designs.
The Commission of Fine Arts again chose Fraser’s work and added the condition that the artist be given an opportunity to make changes to improve aspects of her work to appease previous criticisms. Mellon did not feel this was a fair course of action. Fraser’s work was not his first choice, and besides, allowing one artist the opportunity to update their submission wouldn’t be fair to all considered. He ultimately allowed his choice of three artists the opportunity to resubmit entries for restudy.
While at the time it was thought that each submission was anonymous, it has since come out that both the Fine Arts Commission and the Treasury knew who did each work.
The Commission panned Flanagan’s work, calling it “artistically unfortunate.”
The controversy raged on, and in January 1932, no final decision had been made. Mellon was determined to use the works submitted by New York-based Sculptor John Flanagan but the commission panned his work, calling it “artistically unfortunate.”
However, Andrew Mellon was faced with more controversy than just the choice in quarter design. He was being impeached for conflicts of interest involving his banking interests and operations at the Treasury. Mellon resigned in February and was succeeded by his under-secretary, Ogden Mills. Mills disregarded pleas from the Commission espousing his predecessor’s choice of Flanagan. He asserted that the final choice was his as Secretary of the Treasury and the role of the CFA was purely advisory. In April of 1932, Mills named John Flanagan the new designer for the commemorative quarter dollar. Laura Gardin Fraser was awarded the design rights to the commemorating medal.
The new quarters entered into circulation in the summer of 1932 and were produced at all three operating Mints. The branch mints struck less than a million examples combined, creating the series’ two key date issues. After a hiatus in 1933, the Treasury authorized the continued production of the one-year type and Flanagan’s design continued in silver until 1964 and as clad coinage until 1999, when his obverse portrait was reduced and the reverse was replaced with alternating commemorative issues.
Fraser’s original design did make it into Mint production when the work was chosen for use on the 1999 $5 Commemorative gold coin as a memorial to the bicentennial of Washington’s death. This coin also met with some controversy as $10 from each sale was donated to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. This legislative handout was met with some protest. While it was commonplace for classic commemoratives to fund private associations, the practice is frowned upon as pork-barrel politics in the modern commemorative arena. Sales of the coin fell short of the authorized 100,000, but with a mintage of just over 22,000, the Mint State issue has found resurgent demand and is popular among collectors.
Recently, Fraser’s work has been given another opportunity to grace the obverse of the quarter.
Starting in 2022 and running through 2025, the United States Mint is set to produce a new series commemorating the accomplishments and contributions of American women. A new competition was announced and there are several obverse designs, including Fraser’s original work, up for consideration. The reverse will be dedicated to five different women annually beginning in January of 2022. The obverse is to feature a likeness of Washington, but one that distinguishes itself from Flanagan’s portrait. Will Fraser’s design get snubbed again? Ninety years after submitting her models, the final choice again falls on Treasury officials.