By Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………..
Editor's Note: A complete rundown of designs considered by the CCAC are included at the bottom of this article.
On April 8 the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (www.ccac.gov) held a two-hour telephone meeting to discuss what design should replace the Heraldic eagle that currently appears on the reverse of the American silver eagle coin, having previously agreed that design should change. The meeting, which was marked by spirited and passionate debate by committee members, eventually resulted in unanimous agreement to recommend a new eagle design favored by most of the members present, which included ten of the group’s eleven members. Mint staff members and six media representatives, including your columnist, also listened in on the discussion, which provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the coinage design process and of participatory democracy at work.
Chairman Gary Marks began by explaining that a March 11 media report (which he did not name, and which I can confirm was not by this author) made some inaccurate points about this issue. First, it claimed that the reverse design change would only apply to bullion silver eagles, when in fact it would apply to both bullion and proof versions, said Mr. Marks. That presumably also means it would apply to the burnished uncirculated coins as well. Second, the report said that a CCAC design change recommendation “would put pressure” on those involved in this process to move forward. Marks made clear that it is not his style to pressure anyone, and that is not the intent of this exercise, which is only to make recommendations, as that is the committee’s mandate.
Contacted for this article, modern coin expert Eric Jordan explained that the design can be changed every 25 years, that both the obverse and reverse design can be changed, and that it would apply to all versions of the coin, bullion and collector.
Impetus for design change
Discussion then moved to the impetus behind this effort, which goes back several years since the committee has recommended a design change in its last three annual reports. Committee members clearly understand the significance of a change to the design of the silver eagle, which holds such a special place in modern American coinage. They also are well aware of the importance of the symbolism of the design as a representation of American ideals. As Committee member Mike Olson said the silver eagle is “a flagship coin that needs to demonstrate the strength and majesty of the U.S.”
Member Erik Jansen noted that “the design is what people will remember” about silver eagles and asked if the current design is the best image. He then explained that while considering other coin programs, some very good eagle designs that were not selected were put aside for future consideration. The Mint’s staff has been keeping a binder of these designs, and prior to the meeting it released 44 images to the media that the group considered.
Many collectors have expressed concerns that this process means the designs being considered are basically rejects that were not good enough for other programs, but that really overlooks the fact that it is not unusual for there to be more than one compelling design considered for a coin. Just because a design was not selected for another program hardly means it is not a good design in itself, especially for a different program.
Jansen also pointed out that this effort is “not a done deal” but rather is a “responsible revisiting of the issue” and that because the coin is so iconic, its design must be of very high caliber. Marks also stressed that the design would still need to be reviewed by the Mint, the Commission on Fine Arts, and ultimately go to the Treasury Secretary for approval. He also said the group would revisit this after the Mint changed the inscriptions in the selected design to adapt it to the silver eagle.
The first order of business was to come up with a “cold list” to narrow down the design selection process. The 16 they decided to focus on were: 1, 10, 16, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41, and 44, which will be posted in CoinWeek.
Numismatist Dr. Michael Bugeja explained that there are four types of eagles that have appeared on U.S. coinage since 1792, including: stylized eagles like the one on the 1936 Bridgeport commemorative half dollar; personified eagles, which he thinks are “an embarrassment”; a bird flying, which would not be appropriate in his view; and symbolic eagles, which often appear on the reverse of coins. They are not animals but are symbols of power and peace. His favorite designs were 40 and 41, which are clearly both very symbolic images.
Mike Olson said that designs 40 and 41 really “jump off the page,” and that 41 reminded him of the old Gobrecht silver dollars from the 1830’s.
Train #41 has left the station
It quickly became apparent that designs 40 and 41 were favored by most, though not all, members, and Marks said in an initial vote before the meeting six members chose 40, and eight selected 41. But as Don Everhart, a sculptor-engraver for the Mint, explained, design 40 is the one the committee chose as the reverse of the $5 gold U.S. Marshall Service commemorative coin for 2015, and as several members later agreed, a different and unique design needs to appear on the silver eagle reverse.
Chairman Marks also said he was very favorable to 41, and that it would “pair up well with the Adolph Weinman obverse” on the coin now. He also said the silver eagles inscriptions for fineness, denomination, etc. were fairly simple, which should make the Mint’s job of adapting the chosen design easier.
Heidi Wastweet, a medalic artist, said the group was headed in the right direction with 41, but that she would like to see some variations. The beak was a little too close to the edge in her view, and she also wants to see arrows added to the olive branches in the eagle’s talons, conveying the classic American message of strength and peace. This is something several other members agreed with, and it influenced the final recommendation.
Jansen, who represents the public on the committee, voiced by far the strongest dissent with the emerging consensus for design 41, that the Chairman referred to as “a train that has left the station,” a metaphor many other members came back to in their comments. Jansen began by saying that instead of just one design recommendation, they needed a series of preferences, especially as this was not the end of the process. He then made a point that would make many collectors smile when he stated in strong terms that the design needed to be “sculpted with detail and relief,” adding that the Mint should not just “Photoshop it” in order to create a die that could be used for a long period because doing so “would be a misplacement of the country’s sacred ideals.” He said he likes 23 and 24, especially the idea of two eagles that conveys the implication of working together. He also noted that 41 is a good design, but not for this coin because “the eagle is struggling,” asking “Is that the message we want to send?”
Thomas Uram’s view can best be summed with his comment: “Why mess with the best bullion coin in the world?” He asked what the upside is to changing a successful design and that he only favors changing the design for the proof coin, not the bullion version. He also said that the upcoming 30th anniversary in 2016 could be marked with a high relief coin that would complement the other anniversary coins. This is a suggestion your columnist has made several times here and in my February cover story for the Numismatist magazine on silver and gold eagles.
Bugeja again voiced his support for 41, and said the current reverse was too reminiscent of presidential seals, a point I have heard some collectors make as well.
There was also discussion about how a new reverse would bi-furcate the silver eagle series, which concerned Olson. Eric Jordan explained to CoinWeek that the new design would effectively create a type 1 and type 2 silver eagle, and that this might increase the value of the type 1 coins. He compared it to the silver and gold coinage of the 1800’s, which had very long-running series that were broken up into subsets, such as the various types of Seated Liberty coinage designs.
The committee then voted on all 16 of 44 designs considered. 41 was the clear winner with 23 votes (each member was able to vote for multiple designs), and the runners up were 23 and 24 with 8 and 7 votes respectively. This was followed by a lengthy discussion about whether to recommend only one design or several, and about whether the normal voting method of majority vote should be suspended for the purpose of recommending a series of designs, which was the preference of Jansen. His motion was rejected by a 7 to 3 vote, and the committee ended its discussion of the issue by a unanimous voice vote to recommend design 41 with the proviso that the Mint produce several versions of the design in which some of the elements would be modified, including adding arrows to the olive branches or including neither device (arrows or olive branches), the orientation of the eagle, which some members felt needed to be raised upwards, and the place of the inscriptions.
The selection of some version of design 41 for the coin’s reverse is a good example of the committee’s preference for modern designs, and modern representations of classic American images and themes, as opposed to reissuing more classic American coin designs of the past.
The design selected is one of those that was considered but rejected for the $5 gold Marshall commemorative coin planned for next year.
It is interesting to note that in the blogosphere collectors also mostly picked design 41, which reinforces a point I have often made. Preference for particular coin designs is in theory very subjective, but in practice most collectors very often agree on what is a good, compelling design, and what is not. That clearly bodes well for the recommended design change, if it is ultimately implemented.
I think that design 41 is one that most collectors and investors will agree is inspiring, represents Americans ideals, and is a suitable complement to the coin’s existing obverse. Provided the Mint’s artists and sculptors follow the advice of Eric Jansen and render the design with sufficient detail and relief, the possible new reverse should further increase interest in the silver eagle series, the king of modern American coins.
New medal program
The committee also had a briefer, second discussion about creating a new national arts medal program, which the Mint can create through its own existing authority, as confirmed by lawyers from the Mint. The plan would be to issue one or two medals a year and to give the artists a much freer hand than in coin programs that come with very specific parameters. One member noted that “attractive designs sell and unattractive ones don’t” and used the example of the baseball coins as attractive ones, and the Civil Rights Act 50th and Girl Scouts of the USA coins as unattractive ones, another point that many collectors agree with. There was also optimism expressed during this discussion that this kind of program would really help stimulate our medallic artists to be more creative, which may eventually produce a “new liberty design in a 21st century way.” The group also voted unanimously by voice to move forward with this program.
Edited to correct an earlier version that misattributed two quotes to committee member Erik Jansen.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His insightful retrospective on the American Silver Eagle was the cover feature of the February 2014 issue of The Numismatist. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.