By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
The end of the road is just around the corner for the America The Beautiful (ATB) Quarter series, a 12-year-long program in which 56 different national parks and monuments were showcased on the reverse of the Washington quarter.
Since 2010, each of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the outlying United States territories, have had their 15 minutes of numismatic fame by way of the ATB series, which followed the wildly successful 50 State Quarters program that launched in 1999 and ran through 2008; a one-year-only series in 2009 honored D.C. and the five United States territories.
But now we stand at a crossroads. The last of the America The Beautiful Quarters, honoring Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama, is to be issued in early 2021. Then what?
That’s the question for which even the United States Mint is seeking answers, as no new law has been signed that authorizes yet another long-running quarter reverse design program to step in where the ATB Quarters leave off. For many years, the idea was floated that following the issuance of the last ATB Quarter in 2021 a reprisal of the same series would kick in honoring new landmarks from national parks in each of the 50 states. But that initiative never received the necessary seal of Congressional approval.
Now, with the last handful of ATB Quarters scheduled to be released over the next 18 months, the Mint finds itself facing a multitude of possibilities for the quarter heading into the third decade of the 21st century and beyond.
For a time, many thought the Washington quarter would revert back to its original heraldic eagle reverse as seen from the debut of the type in 1932 until 1998, the year before the first 50 State Quarter coin was unveiled.
Others have even pulled for a complete overhaul of the Washington quarter as we know it, swapping out the John Flanagan/William Cousins obverse bust for one designed by gifted sculptor-engraver Laura Gardin Fraser. Her proposed Washington bust for the quarter was originally selected for the 25-cent piece in 1932 but was supplanted by John Flanagan’s design upon an executive decision by then-Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. Fraser’s Washington obverse design was finally coined in 1999 on a 1999 $5 gold commemorative marking the bicentennial of George Washington’s death.
While there appears to be no change coming to the obverse of the Washington quarter, there is a change — possibly several — slated for its reverse.
At this point, Chief of Corporate Communications Thomas V. Johnson confirms what we will see on the reverse of the 2021 quarter following the release of the Tuskegee Airmen ATB piece.
“We will be carrying the quarter the rest of that year with a reverse theme of Washington crossing the Delaware River during the American Revolution,” Johnson said.
However, he is unable to confirm if that will mean a new, original design or a reprisal of the Alfred Maketsky reverse as seen on the 1999 New Jersey quarter, dramatically capturing George Washington and the Continental Army crossing the Delaware River on a frigid night in December 1776 before the Battle of Trenton in the American Revolutionary War. While efficiency suggests the US Mint will revisit the Maletsky design, inspired by a famous 1851 oil painting by Emanuel Leutze, Johnson says the wording of the mandate is open to any design conveying Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.
Beyond 2021, the US Mint has to decide whether to keep the Washington quarter reverse static (as had been the case for most of the coin’s history) or to actively engage collectors — and the rest of the public — by having them look for new designs each year.
“We have done a number of focus groups—both with coin collectors and non-collectors, and what we have learned is Americans are interested in coins with animals and sports as subjects. These are themes that will also resonate with children, and it’s important that our coin programs appeal to youth. It’s also crucial that our programs appeal to a broad range of people,” Johnson said.
He also says that the philosophy of implementing new designs for the quarter is important for a variety of reasons.
“The benefits of our themed quarters programs are twofold,” said Johnson. “To create long-term growth for the hobby and generate revenue for the US Treasury.”
Yet, there is some evidence suggesting the public doesn’t want to wait a decade to finish a collection.
“We also want to implement shorter programs – programs that don’t necessarily take 10 or more years for collectors to complete.”
One particularly intriguing numismatic initiative may come in 2026, when the United States turns 250 years old.
“We are also researching ways that the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026 could be observed with a theme reflected on all circulating denominations,” Johnson said, suggesting a program similar to the 1776-1976 Bicentennial designs we saw on the United States quarter, half dollar, and dollar coins for the nation’s 200th birthday. He cautiously reminds us that “… all of these ideas are concepts that have not yet entered into the legislative process.”
Whether discussing the topics of animals, sports, or national birthdays, Johnson says feedback from focus groups has been integral to informing the US Mint’s general direction on coin designs moving forward.
“But it’s too early to say exactly how that input might fit into the process of advancing new themes forward. We certainly want folks to feel a sense of relatability and ownership when it comes to future programs.”
The key with these or any other designs is getting Congressional approval, a challenging task in a divided and contentious Capitol Hill.
“Thankfully, we have a strong legislative affairs team informing our decisions and helping us get the word out to lawmakers and their staffs on the Hill. There is a lot of proposed legislation competing for their time and attention on any given day, so taking these concepts to actual sponsored legislation will not be without challenges, but the excitement about where the Mint is going is palpable.”