John Mercanti Dishes on His Career, America’s Silver Bullion Program, and the Digital Age of Coining
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …….
American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program (2012) Whitman, 154 glorious full color pages. MSRP $29.95
The first thing you notice about American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program is that it’s a big book. Measuring 11” x 8.5”, the book more closely resembles a coffee table piece than the series-specific, softcover books that Whitman does with Q. David Bowers. The book is divided into four sections: a brief history of the U.S. Bullion Coin Program; a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. Mint, drawn from John Mercanti’s 36 years as an engraver; a date-by-date study of American Silver Eagles; and an overview of other U.S. bullion coins and medals.
In a brief history section, the authors discuss how the federal government entered the bullion market after New Deal-era restrictions on private gold ownership were lifted. They also write about the federal government’s early efforts to compete against foreign bullion, most notably the South African Krugerrand. The Krugerrand dominated the global gold coin market in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but Americans were prohibited from buying it due to sanctions against the Apartheid government.
At first, Congress mandated the production of non-legal tender medals to compete on the world market. These pieces, called the American Arts Commemorative Series Medals, were produced from 1980-1984 and did not sell especially well. Today, they command a small premium over melt (one could argue that this was the point). Mercanti and Standish provide images for these ten medals, which honor such American dignitaries as Grant Wood, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mercanti also designed medals for Louis Armstrong, Helen Hayes, and John Steinbeck.
In the vitally informative Behind the Scenes section of the book, Mercanti takes readers into the die shops and workrooms at the Mint and explains the technical challenges behind the production of coins before and after the digital revolution. He goes into great detail explaining the importance of good basin design, how to sink dies, and how a die’s topography affects the flow of metal during striking. It’s one thing to talk about these issues from a numismatist’s perspective. It’s another thing altogether to have these concepts described in detail by someone who dealt with these challenges on a day-to-day basis.
This section is filled with never-before-made public photos from Mercanti’s personal collection, several of which show the bearded young artist at work at his cluttered desk. Images of Frank Gasparro reveal Mercanti’s sincere fondness for the man. Mercanti discusses elements of good coin design, where he casts his lot in with Laura Fraser’s Washington quarter design, which he feels was superior to the Flanagan design. He says that the eagle on the latter design more resembled a pigeon than the country’s regal bird (although later in the book, he does reveal some admiration for the quality of obverse). 
He goes on to recall the process by which the Mint took Adolph Weinman’s original 6” plasters for the Walking Liberty half dollar and strengthened and enlarged the design to make the Silver Eagle. Whitman provides a high quality, photographic side-by-side comparison of the two coins and it’s quite revealing. The reader can see the care that was taken to make the new coin look authentic to the source, despite being radically re-tooled to fit the larger format and utilize modern coining techniques. The American Silver Eagle is arguably the perfect representation of the design, featuring strengthened typography on the motto and inscription, a sharper landscape, more clearly defined sun rays, and clearer details on Columbia’s dress and in the starry canton of the flag. Even the straps on Columbia’s sandals show improved detail.
Discussing his design process for the reverse, Mercanti presents the great eagle reverses in the history of U.S. coinage and shares his thoughts on the work. He also provides the reader a look at multiple working versions of the reverse, including several plasters in the process of creation.
The final part of this section addresses the development and implementation of digital coining. It’s not an overstatement to say that this topic will be one of the most important subjects of numismatic research over the coming years. Mercanti talks about going digital and explains the Mint’s thinking on the matter, spending six pages on the topic. One hopes that a future volume will be written on this topic by authors having the kind of first-hand knowledge that John Mercanti undoubtedly does.
The year-by-year breakdown of the series is presented in typical Whitman style, featuring beautiful full color photographs (this book ups the ante for Whitman; the pages resemble something from Taschen more than a coin book), date by date summaries, mintages and costs, population reports and price guides (provided exclusively by PCGS this go-round). The book lists both the single issues and special collectors’ packages – including the popular 20th and 25th anniversary sets and the 2000 United States Millennium Coinage and Currency Set (which included a $1 Federal Reserve Note and a specially-burnished Sacagawea dollar coin).
In the book’s third section, the authors show other offerings from the Bullion Coin Program, which has expanded in recent years to include five-ounce silver coins, gold $10 coins honoring the First Ladies, and $100 platinum coins. The platinum pieces are interesting, low mintage coins with tremendous upside potential. They also feature some of the Mint’s most sophisticated design work on the reverse.
All of this is quality, but the best part of the book, I feel, is an illustrated catalog of the many different coins John Mercanti designed during his career at the Mint. Starting with a 1972 medal honoring FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, we get to see a timeline of Mercanti’s work. In the light of his entire catalog, Mercanti is revealed as a master of rendering complex architectural models. Structures appear in no less than twelve of his struck commemorative designs. In one of her annual reports, Donna Pope described Mercanti’s rendition of the Capital dome as “spectacular”.
Mercanti also demonstrates a mastery of symmetry and symbolism with his study of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial silver dollar (1994). On this piece, he couples the human element of Lee Teter’s painting “Reflections” with a side perspective image of the wall fading into the Washington monument, derived from Maya Lin’s original artwork. Mercanti focuses on a section of the wall listing fallen members of the 1st Cavalry, who lost their lives in the Battle of la Drang in November, 1965.
Mercanti’s treatment of the subject, especially when given the official license of a United States coin, is unyielding. The Washington monument extends into the sky alongside the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which quite possibly never had a more religious context than in this circumstance. The word LIBERTY extends from the wall into the sky – an ideal born upon the blood of those who sacrificed for it.
Lin perfectly captures a nation’s loss in this perspective (left), Mercanti’s sculptural interpretation (right)
I’m also drawn to Mercanti’s underrated Korean War Memorial silver dollar obverse, which renders F-86 Saberjet fighters and Navy warships in silhouette, while depicting an American soldier rushing up the side of a mountain.
My favorite of the Mercanti pieces, however, is the picturesque village scene depicted on his 1979 medal reverse designed for U.S. Mint Director Stella Hackel. Here, Mercanti depicts the rolling hills and quaint towns of Vermont. He would revisit this perspective and theme in his 2004 Iowa state quarter reverse.
John Mercanti is clearly an important figure in the recent history of the Mint. His tenure saw the State Quarters program (1999-2008), the America the Beautiful Quarters program (2010- ), the Modern Commemorative program (1982- ), and the most popular bullion program in the world. The hobby is bigger now because of the work of John Mercanti, who set the stage for a rebirth of modern coin collecting through his innovative designs and professional mentorship. American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program is a valuable glimpse into that time and place, written by a man who lived it.
Charles Morgan is a member of the Ike Group and is working with Rob Ezerman on GradeView™: Eisenhower Dollars and with longtime collaborator Hubert Walker on a number of other projects, including the Walker Morgan Numismatic Abstract, which will be published sometime next year.
Hubert Walker’s background is in the classics. A nationally-recognized Latin scholar when younger, Hubert’s interest in history and symbology connects him to modern coins as well as ancients. He also likes the movies, among other things.
Charles and Hubert’s writing has been published in The Numismatist, by CAC, and by PCGS. Their informative columns appear weekly at CoinWeek.com.