Our Best Sides: Taking a Look at 30 Years of Modern Commemoratives

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker

It’s hard to believe that the modern commemorative program is over 30 years old now. In some ways, it’s even surpassed what we consider the “classic” commemorative era. The classic series spanned 61 years, but coins were only struck in 36 of those, and breaks of up to ten years occurred several times throughout that period. By contrast, the modern series has been more consistent, with coins released every year of the run except 1985.

While many in the hobby look down on modern commemoratives due to the high initial sales prices and the number of coins struck, it’s important to realize that, before the era of state quarters and other rotating designs, these pieces were the only opportunity that the Mint’s many talented engravers had to show off their artistic talents on a U.S. coin.

To celebrate 30 years of artistic achievement, let’s take a look at twenty of what we consider to be the United States’ best coin sides.

1. 1988 Seoul Olympiad $5 Gold Obverse (Elizabeth Jones)

Jones’ interpretation of Nike, the Greek goddess of Victory, compares with the great works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens as America’s best medallic and coin sculpture of the 20th century. We’d even argue that Jones one-ups the master, with her slight and angular portraiture uncluttered by unnecessary inscriptions. Ed Reiter commented that he found the combination of Jones’ obverse, which he saw as classical, with Marcel Jovine’s modernist reverse as incongruous[1]. We beg to differ. Both sides are modern or classical, depending on your perspective, and they work together wonderfully to create something timely yet timeless. Few will remember the ‘88 Olympics a hundred years from now. Coin collectors should, however, remember this beautiful design.

The design is typical of Jones, who once described her work as “mildly modern”[2]. Here, her version of Nike retains its classical roots while seemingly drawn with an airy brush, leaving the impression of a lightness that most certainly lends itself to Jones’ modernist aesthetic.

2. 1999 George Washington Death Bicentennial $5 Gold Obverse (Laura Fraser)

It’s well-known in numismatic circles that the selection process for the design of the Washington quarter was mired in controversy. Conceived as a one-time circulating commemorative to be released in 1932 (the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth), it’s long been assumed that Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon rejected Laura Gardin Fraser’s winning design simply because she was a woman. The injustice went uncorrected for almost six decades.

In 1999, the Mint released a $5 gold commemorative coin honoring both Washington and Fraser’s original quarter design. Although we quite like John Flanagan’s Washington quarter design as minted, Fraser treats her subject more elegantly than Flanagan, making Washington’s features more rounded and detailed. Also, while Flanagan’s design is more upright and centered, Fraser’s main device better utilizes the coin’s space. Since both artists were inspired by Jean-Antoine Houdon’s famous bust of Washington, the comparison is an easy one.

The coin’s reverse is impressive as well (number six in our list), making this overdue release a welcome surprise for fans of Fraser’s work and students of American numismatics. Instead of being a story of what could have been, the Mint did right by elevating this design to a deserved place on one of the most beautiful gold coins minted in the modern era.

3. 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad Dollar Reverse (Robert Graham)

Graham took a lot of heat for the design of his 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad commemorative dollar. Some consider it one of the ugliest coins in U.S. History. Beg pardon, but we feel that the design fit the baroque grandiosity of the event. The coin honors an Olympics held in the Los Angeles Coliseum, of all places. While we think that Graham’s obverse fares better than Elizabeth Jones’ modernist take on Myron’s Diskobolos (shades of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936) – check out the opening montage), the portrait of a perched eagle on the reverse is quite lovely. Graham’s bird is elegiac, detailed, and bold. It is perhaps one of the greatest eagle portraits to appear on a U.S. coin, and just the first of many in our list.

Worth mentioning is Graham’s thoughtful and creative placement of the inscriptions on both sides.

4. 1999 Dolley Madison Dollar Obverse (Tiffany & Co.)

This coin represents the first time that a company got the commission for a commemorative design. The National Trust, to whom proceeds from the sale of the coin were earmarked, hired Tiffany & Co. to produce the design. The results were translated into coin art by Mint engravers T. James Ferrell and Thomas D. Rogers.

Tiffany’s design for the obverse is one of the most elegant and detail-rich in U.S. history. Flowers and letters practically spill over the edge of the coin’s face, and the interplay of individual design elements conjures up an amazing depth of field. In less skillful hands, the same concept would be a crowded, noisy mess. Dolley Madison herself is depicted as a voluptuous beauty.

In our experience, the circulation strike has a greasy look to it. This makes proofs the more attractive option.

5. 1991 Korean War Memorial Dollar Obverse (John Mercanti)

John Mercanti’s stylized design commemorating the “Thirty Eighth Anniversary” of the Korean War doesn’t immediately jump out as one of the modern commemorative series’ best designs. However, the coin rewards the patient observer.

Mercanti plays with direction, depth and scale with his design, which features an American serviceman charging up a hill, rifle in hand, while a fleet of warships approach the shoreline underfoot and two F-86 Saberjet fighters soar overhead. The rippling water forms a clever exergue for the word LIBERTY at the coin’s base. The aforementioned hill doubles as a mountain when viewed as the horizon for the warships and jets, an optical trick that helps elevate this design.

Unfortunately, the effect of Mercanti’s excellent obverse isn’t helped in the least by T. James Ferrell’s awful reverse. The design is lazy and uninspired, and the placement of the inscriptions ONE DOLLAR and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is bottom heavy and obnoxious. Thankfully, Ferrell redeems himself with his Monticello design, which appears on the reverse of the 1993 Thomas Jefferson dollar (see number 16).

6. 1999 George Washington Death Bicentennial $5 Gold Reverse (Laura Fraser)

Like we mentioned earlier, we love the 1999 Washington $5 design, which utilizes Laura Fraser’s proposed design for the 1932 circulating commemorative Washington quarter. Fraser’s heraldic eagle reverse differs greatly from Flanagan’s Art Deco-inspired rendering. Her eagle’s wing feathers are oversized and splayed, and the chest and leg feathers are more detailed. By way of comparison, Flanagan’s eagle appears overly stylized, simplistic, and lacking in detail. Extra credit goes to the proof version of the coin, which stuns with its high-contrast golden cameo.

7. 1995 Civil War Half Dollar Reverse (T. James Ferrell)

Don Troiani may be one of the most popular painters of American military themes, but his designs for the American Civil War Battlefields commemoratives leave much to be desired. Considering the great Civil War-themed coins from the classic commemorative era, the 1995 pieces are a missed opportunity. Fortunately for us, T. James Ferrell’s half dollar reverse design – a view in perspective of a Confederate cannon, with Gettysburg’s famous Little Round Top in the distance – is pitch perfect.

Ferrell finds a balance between inscription and motif, filled space and empty space. The whole scene is ambiguous; are we looking at today’s memorial or yesterday’s moment frozen in time? His landscape is realistic, which stands in opposition to the lackadaisical background on the coin’s obverse.

8. 1994 U.S. Prisoner of War Museum Dollar Obverse (Tom Nielsen/ Alfred Maletsky)

The Mint has a checkered history giving credit to the artists who originally created a coin’s design (as opposed to the engraver who rendered that design for striking). For the obverse of the 1994 U.S. Prisoner of War Memorial Dollar, the Mint got it right, crediting both Tom Nielsen, a former Prisoner of War, who designed the unshackled soaring eagle featured on the coin, and Mint engraver Alfred Maletsky, who did a wonderful job turning it into sculpture.

The design itself is emblematic of how every American P.O.W. feels in captivity – a burning desire to escape and a trust in God and country that they will help make it so. Nielsen’s eagle soars through a halo of barbed wire, unfettered from bondage, the words LIBERTY and FREEDOM marking his flight. The eagle’s left talon, which traditionally holds the arrows of war, wears a broken chain.

The coin was released on the eve of improved relations with Viet Nam, a change made possible with the help of Senators John McCain (himself a former P.O.W.) and John Kerry (a decorated Vietnam War veteran). While the coin honors prisoners of war from all American conflicts, Viet Nam is the subtext.

This is the kind of design that resonates with the public, and that in itself is a perceptive choice considering the cultural impact of the war.

9. Chief Justice John Marshall Dollar Reverse (Donna Weaver)

Donna Weaver’s reverse for the John Marshall dollar depicts the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the United States Capitol building, used from 1819 to 1860. This was where Marshall served as the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 through mid-1835. The chamber, with its curvilinear ceiling and vaults, was the work of architect Henry Latrobe and the first of its kind in the young nation. Built and rebuilt three times before finally being completed in 1815, the chamber bore witness to a number of historic cases, including McCulloch v. Maryland and the infamous Dred Scott decision.

Weaver’s rendition does justice to the chamber, which seems to be a perfect subject for coinage. The rounded windows, ceilings, and arched arcades behind the judges’ seats act as a counterpoint to the well-placed inscriptions. John Mercanti’s capable left-profile portrait of Chief Justice Marshall deserves an honorable mention, as this is one of the better all-around designs in the series. However, it is Donna Weaver’s reverse that won us over.

10. 1994 U.S. Capitol Bicentennial Dollar Obverse (William Cousins)

One element that differentiates modern commemorative coinage from the classic period is the fineness of detail that modern coining technology allows. The 1994 U.S. Capitol Bicentennial dollar would have been nearly impossible to achieve in the first half of the 20th century. The William Cousins design shows a near-ground-level perspective view of the Capitol dome. A flag pole to the left gives a sense of proportion to this magnificent rendering. A glory of thirteen stars forms a halo around Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom (1857-1862), which surmounts the dome.

If the design has a weakness, it is the too large font used for LIBERTY and the date, which drape over the top of the design in a fashion that looks immediately dated and cheap. The large fonts continue on the coin’s equally estimable reverse, which we describe below (number 12).

11. 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad $10 Gold Reverse (James Peed / John Mercanti)

As far as heraldic eagles go, James Peed’s 1984 Olympics $10 gold is elegant and perfectly balanced. Gone is the federal shield that usually covers the eagle’s breast. Gone, too, is the glory above the eagle’s head, which typically features thirteen stars arranged in a six-sided formation and hemmed in by clouds. Peed fans the thirteen stars out in a 1-3-4-5 formation, from the top of the eagle’s head to the inscription. The overall result, especially in high-contrast deep cameo proofs, is a beautiful example of coin art.

12. 1994 U.S. Capitol Bicentennial Dollar Reverse (John Mercanti)

Mercanti again exercises his talent for intricate detail in this sculptural reproduction of a stained glass piece produced by J & G Gibson in 1860. The design recreates a popular federal motif of the mid-19th century (see the two cent piece and shield nickel), while raising it to new heights with stunning clarity. The federal shield is depicted in slightly rounded relief, and surrounded by flags, olive branches and oak wreaths. An eagle is atop the shield and carries a ribbon, onto which the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is inscribed (IN GOD WE TRUST was used in the 19th century and the shield appeared on the obverse).

Oversized font encircles the design, but in such proportion to the main device that we can somehow tolerate it.

13. 1994 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dollar Obverse (John Mercanti)

In our review of John Mercanti and Miles Standish’s book on the American Silver Eagle program, we talked about our admiration for Mercanti’s obverse. We discussed how the piece shows the chief engraver’s mastery of symmetry and symbolism by coupling Lee Teter’s powerful imagery (from the painting “Reflections”) with the side-perspective image of the wall fading into the distance, culminating in the Washington monument – a symbol of America’s first general and victory in our first war.

It would be difficult for a coin to capture what makes the Vietnam War Memorial so moving and so personal. Harder still to make such a statement on a federally-issued commemorative. Still, Mercanti’s design manages to say some of what needed saying.

14. 1990 Eisenhower Centennial Dollar Obverse (John Mercanti)

Mercanti calls this two-headed coin his “Janus” piece[3], Janus being the double-faced Roman god of gateways, beginnings and endings. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dwight D. Eisenhower, World War II top general and 34th President of the United States, Congress authorized the production of this commemorative. Eisenhower’s portrait appeared earlier, of course, on the short-lived Eisenhower dollar (1971-1978). Design duties for that coin went to Mercanti’s mentor, former Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro. For his turn, Mercanti opted to go beyond Gasparro’s workmanlike portrait and create two ultra-realistic images of Eisenhower, one from his Army period and the other from when he was president.

The resulting artwork was the most successful and lifelike in Mercanti’s career up to that point. While we don’t so much care for the large font surrounding the central device, we can’t deny that when it comes to Mercanti’s elegant and realistic design, we like Ike(s).

15. 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad $10 Gold Obverse (James Peed / John Mercanti)

Three years before the release of this coin, Hugh Hudson’s film Chariots of Fire captured the imagination of moviegoers all over the world. For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic $10 gold, John Mercanti adapted fellow Mint artist James Peed’s running theme, which seems to borrow from the sentimentality of that film. We don’t really have much to say here, it’s a relatively simple yet pleasing side.

16. 1993 Thomas Jefferson Reverse (T. James Ferrell)

When Felix Schlag won the contest to replace the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel, major changes were needed in order for the Mint to approve his Monticello reverse. The resulting coin bore little in common with the initial design, which approached the iconic estate from a three fourths profile and placed the building within the context of its surrounding environment.

Benefiting from the large dollar-sized format, Mint artist T. James Ferrell returned to the original Schlag concept, and instead of canting the building, he offset it from its head-on center perspective while adding bushes and trees for proper context. Everything works perfectly. The scale of the building puts it soundly in the center of the coin, without boxing it off. E PLURIBUS UNUM and ONE DOLLAR in the oversized exergue at the bottom of the reverse mirror the inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and MONTICELLO in the sky above, with AMERICA in incuse among the trees on the right.

17. 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial Half Dollar Reverse (Sherl Joseph Winter)

In 1986, Congress authorized the release of three commemorative coins to help pay for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, which had fallen into a state of disrepair after nearly 100 years of service. The coin series was a success, and while the press fell in love with Elizabeth Jones’ $5 gold design (the reverse is number 19 in our list), we find that the greatest side of these three coins belongs to the clad half dollar.

As an early issue in the modern commemorative period, initial sales far outpaced all conceivable future demand, making the coin a loser in terms of investment potential. This is unfortunate, because we feel that Sherl Winter’s work on the abundantly common 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial half dollar is vastly underappreciated.

The design features an immigrant family looking out at the skyline of New York City in the 1910s. Struck in high relief, the coin has a dimensionality that captures the hope and optimism of the immigrant experience for so many. It is one of the more sentimental designs of the modern series, and would have fit in quite comfortably among the classic commemoratives. It also translates extremely well in both proof and uncirculated finishes.

18. 2005 Marine Corps 230th Anniversary Dollar Obverse (Norman E. Nemeth, from a photograph by Joe Rosenthal)

When Congress authorized the production of a commemorative dollar coin to help fund the construction of the Marine Corps Heritage Center in Quantico, Virginia, they sought to depict an image emblematic of the spirit of the Marine Corps. No image in American history better symbolizes this than Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, adapted for coining by engraver Norman Nemeth.

Use of the picture on a commemorative coin is but its latest use by the government to raise money. Official sanction occurred almost immediately after its initial publication in 1945, when Truman realized its popularity and potential to help fund the war effort.

Nemeth’s asymmetrical engraving touches all of the right notes. The motif is spaced appropriately and good use is made of the coin’s white space. LIBERTY fans out from the trajectory of the rising flag. IN GOD WE TRUST is placed slightly above the men, as if to symbolize that victory is in the hands of God, somewhere just over the horizon. To the back of the men, the inscription MARINES 1775-2005 touches on not only the 230th anniversary of the Corps but also charges that all of those who came before continue to give strength to those serving now.

The design may have been about giving the public exactly what they wanted, but that’s not always a bad thing.

19. 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial $5 Gold Reverse (Elizabeth Jones)

Elizabeth Jones’ 1986 $5 gold reverse may be the best eagle design ever put on a U.S. coin.

Ferocious and majestic, the eagle’s wings fan upwards and its talons extend as if about to latch onto its prey. It’s hard not to see this design as a precursor to Thomas D. Rogers’ Sacagawea dollar reverse (2000-2008), a similarly glorious design.

The coin’s statutory inscriptions circle the device with perfect symmetry, stars filling the white space between the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and FIVE DOLLARS.

20. 2006 Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary “Founding Father” Reverse (Donna Weaver / Elisha Gallaudet)

Don’t count us as fans of the two Ben Franklin commemorative issues. From an aesthetic approach, the coins are simply preposterous. Well, three fourths of the coins are preposterous. We’ve actually taken a shine to the Franklin-Founding Father reverse, which of course pays homage to Elisha Gallaudet’s Continental dollar design of 1776. His initials “EG” appear next to the Latin word FECIT (“(He) made (this)”).

Donna Weaver handled the job smartly, adding texture to the coin-within-a-coin. Collectors of classic coppers and colonial coins will certainly appreciate the inside joke, as the key to collecting this period lies directly in the quality of the flan. In proof, the frosting on the coin is stunning. Except for the non-inscribed ring bearing the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ONE DOLLAR and E PLURIBUS UNUM, everything on the coin is white.

Flip of a Coin

After the 1986 Centennial commemorative and besides the platinum bullion and presidential dollar programs, the Statue of Liberty appears three more times on United States circulating and commemorative coins. Those coins are: the 1988 Seoul Olympiad dollar (torch), the 1993 Bill of Rights half dollar (torch), and the 1999 New York state quarter.

Earlier we mentioned the Statue of Freedom that adorns the top of the U.S. Capitol Bicentennial commemorative. The colossal statue is also the central motif of the U.S. Congress Bicentennial dollar of 1989, and can be found on the $5 gold piece as well.

Tom Melish, the man behind the 1936 Cincinnati Music Center half dollar, was a numismatist and local coin columnist. We bet you didn’t know that he was also an inventor, who in 1925 applied for a patent for an incandescent light bulb for cars. He also patented a flour sifter design in 1936.

©2013 by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker



[1] Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of United States Commemorative Coins: History, Rarity, Values, Grading Varieties. Whitman, Atlanta. 2007. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phone Interview with Mercanti, October 2012.

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