The Coin Analyst: What Ever Happened to the New Golden Age of American Coin Design?

by Louis Golino for CoinWeek…..

If coins are, as Michael Bugeja has argued “art you can hold and experience history in the process,” then the designs that appear on them are clearly are of paramount importance. In fact, for many collectors the aesthetic appeal of a coin’s design is what draws them to a particular coin more than anything else.

Coin design is also an issue that straddles the classic-modern coin divide as I have discussed before, since most collectors feel that modern coins simply do not compare to classic coins from an artistic perspective.

coin design 1 The Coin Analyst: What Ever Happened to the New Golden Age of American Coin Design?That is not to suggest that there are not modern coins with appealing designs, but a large number of those modern coins that collectors consider attractive re-use designs that appear on classic coins, sometimes with a few changes.

Examples include most prominently the American silver and gold eagle, which use respectively modernized versions of the Walking Liberty half dollar of Adolph Weinman and the St. Gaudens double eagle of Augustus St. Gaudens. The so-called Liberty subset of First Spouse coins issued for presidents who were bachelors while in office is another example.

During his tenure as U.S. Mint Director, Edmund Moy (who served from 2006 to 2011) tried to revitalize modern coin designs with his efforts to promote what he called a “New golden age in U.S. coins”.

The golden age he sought to recapture refers to the period at the beginning of the 20th century when Augustus St. Gaudens and President Teddy Roosevelt worked together to create the gold coins that to this today are considered the most beautiful designs in American history, which include the St. Gaudens double eagle and the Indian $10 eagle. Their goal was to make American coins that reflected the greatness of our nation, evoked the coinage of ancient Rome and Greece, and were inspired by classic art

But modern coins, including many of those issued since Mr. Moy’s tenure, simply do not come anywhere near to meeting those lofty standards. In fact, there is a considerable consensus among those who collect and study modern American coins that there has been a significant decline in coin artistry in recent years.

And some of the designs of the past couple years, such as the ones used on the 2012 Infantry Soldier dollar or the 2011 Army $5 gold coin, have been the subject of fairly widespread criticism. Many people feel that too many recent issues have designs that are not well executed, are too busy for the size, or are mediocre and uninspired.

But it is worth remembering that classic American coins also include some duds such as some of the commemorative half dollars issued from 1892-1954. And some of the coins that are very popular today, such as Barber coinage, were considered unattractive when they circulated.

A brief review of the designs used on quarters since 1999 helps show where we are on the issue of coin design.

By the time the state quarter program debuted in 1999, many Americans – coin collectors and non-collectors alike – had grown tired of the static designs used on U.S. coins in the preceding decades, particularly as a result of the overuse of presidential profiles. Our coinage was due for an upgrade.

coin design 2 The Coin Analyst: What Ever Happened to the New Golden Age of American Coin Design?State quarters were designed to address some of those concerns by using designs that evoked Americans’ pride in their home state and also sought to attract new collectors to numismatics. It certainly accomplished the latter since it has been estimated that as much as one third of the U.S. population collected them.

From an artistic point of view, though, most state quarter designs were viewed as generally lacking by collectors, although the average person found them to be appealing. And after a ten-year state quarter program followed by a year of territory quarters, and then a new eleven-year program beginning in 2010 that honors the nation’s national parks, the America the Beautiful series, plus the presidential dollar series, the saturation point in new coin designs was reached for many people.

The national parks quarters may prove to be more effective than either the state quarters or the presidential dollars at least aesthetically. The designs used so far are mostly quite appealing in their own way, and few previous coins depicted our state parks. The main criticism one can make regarding the designs is that over time there will be too many that look alike. It simply will not do to keep depicting trees and animals.

Plus the same designs are used on the five-ounce silver versions of these coins, which in some cases has resulted in large-format versions of designs that are quite appealing aesthetically, such as the art nouveau-like Hot Springs issue, although there is hardly a consensus on this matter. Plenty of people find the new quarter designs to be unappealing in either the quarter or the five-ounce format, while others think that the ones with a lot of detail like the Grand Canyon coin are too busy for a quarter but work in the large format.

Re-issuing classic coin designs, which can also help modern collectors get more interested in classic coins, is a useful approach, but it is not the only answer to what plagues American coin designs. What is really needed is to fuse classic and modern coin art the way the 2012 Star-Spangled banner silver dollar coin does, and to revitalize the process of American coin design.

In addition, critics have noted that some of the most appealing classic American coins, like the 1921 Peace dollar, use high relief to depict the coin’s devices, whereas modern coins use much more shallow images. The use of this approach on the 2009 Ultra High Relief double eagle, which was Mr. Moy’s crowning achievement as Mint director, is something that should be explored. Foreign mints such as the Perth Mint in Australia are already doing this to great effect.

During the past year steps have been taken by the Mint to improve U.S. coin designs and address the void created by the retirement of many senior coin designers and engravers.

The recent trend has been to use contractors selected through design competitions rather than maintaining a staff of Mint employees who design coins. But recently a new division was set up within the Mint to focus on this issue, which will hopefully help.

In addition, the CCAC, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (www.ccac.gov), which includes members who are experts and practitioners of the medallic arts, are focusing on the need for better coin designs. In January 2011 the CCAC and the Commission of Fine Arts released a blueprint for improving artistic creativity in U.S. coins. The report found that there are a lot of bureaucratic impediments in the coin designing process, which needs to be streamlined.

According to an article by Amy Drew Thompson in the May issue of Coinage, CCAC member Heidi Wastweet, who has personally designed over a thousand coins and medals, the Mint should hire an art director. She also laments the fact that U.S. colleges and universities do not offer programs in medallic art and sculpture and that books are not being published on the topic. The Coinage article also highlighted the fact that the process of producing coin designs involves the use of two-dimensional drawings, which results in coins that fail to make use of a coin’s full surface area.

We are a clearly a long way from Edmund Moy’s new golden age, but some of the reforms being implemented now should help to improve the state of U.S. coin design.

golino portrait thumb The Coin Analyst: What Ever Happened to the New Golden Age of American Coin Design?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 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.

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12 Comments on "The Coin Analyst: What Ever Happened to the New Golden Age of American Coin Design?"

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  1. Louis,

    I agree about oversaturation of reverses. For me a big part of the degrading of coin-art quality is the lowering of relief. Flattened coin designs have a more token-like quality and I’m afraid that this reflects the way the Mint and the Treasury view coins in light of their purchasing power. I also recently commented on design malaise- which I think carries some of the blame as to our lack of ingenuity when it comes to modern coin design. I think it’s time to rethink the whole issue and return to coins that depict liberty, not iconic politicians.

    • Louis Golino says:

      Thanks for you comments, Charles. I think the Mint has started to respond to the widespread interest for using iconic images of Liberty again, such as on the Liberty spouse coins, the Star-Spangled Banner commems, and others. I definitely like that approach, but I’d also like to use real people who are not dead presidents, especially real women, who have been underrepresented on our coinage. A wider range of themes on our commemoratives would help too. With only two programs a year, and so many military themes in recent and upcoming programs, other important themes are crowded out.

  2. Louis,

    A good column. To your list of recent, poorly designed modern coins, I’d add the 2011 army half dollar as well.

    In terms of art trends, I think the “neo-classical” style (if that is the right term) that Joel Iskowitz tends to use has overall produced excellent coins, especially the Medal of Honor and the 2011 platinum eagle. I think this seems to be the one of the most promising avenues of development going forward.

    It’s actually kind of unfortunate what’s happened to the AtB series. In general, I feel like a lot of the landscapes are nice, but as you said they tend to almost drown each other out. The Vicksburg design was a nice break from this trend and I think the Acadia light house for Maine will also be good for this. An additional problem for the AtB designs is that the quarters aren’t circulating, so fewer people see them.

    I’ll second the call for more high relief and ultra high relief coins. I’d love to see a high-relief silver eagle, and I’d also like to see an “ultra-high relief” peace dollar, done in a manner similar to the UHR double eagle.

    I agree on your comments about the Barber coinage and Morgan silver dollars. I thought a lot of the older (pre-20th century) coin designs were not terribly impressive, which is part of the reason I don’t really try to collect them. I’ve never really understood the popularity. There are a few winners, though, such as the flying eagle cent and the Indian head penny.

    • Louis Golino says:

      Thanks for your comments, CO. The classics definitely include some very beautiful coinage too like the Seated Liberty and Bust series, which I am very partial to. I am considering building a series of Bust halves in lightly circulated condition as it is a set that does not include a lot of rare dates. Large and half cents also have some terrific designs, Standing Liberty quarters are superb, and I would have to disagree on Morgan dollars. I also love the Peace dollar design and like your idea of a UHR version, but Morgan dollars are attractive and are a fascinating series because of the variations between the different issues and because so many look so perfect so many years later.

  3. Julie Ann Rizolli says:

    I have to disagree with Charles slightly on his thoughts on the over saturation on the reverses. I think we should have more to choose from and should be offered every year and on at least 2 or more designs. This would ger new collectors into the hobby and maybe keep some in that are so tired of the U.S. mints very stale products. I personally buy every reverse that has been offered and that includes 12 of the 1907′s.
    On another note, I also have great interest in the H.R. coins that have in my opinion, a loyal cult like collector base in this country. Again, our U.S mint director will not manufacture these. Why I do not know or understand. With the H.R.’s, I have a very nice collection of everything that has been minted in the world. 5 of every coin, all in OGP. It would have been nice to have the upcoming 75th frisco set to have a 2012 eagle in High Relief. That would have gone through the ROOF in terms of sales.

    • Louis Golino says:

      Julie,
      Thanks for adding your perspective. I also like the changing reverses esp. on the Native American dollars, but the Mint needs to get more people interested in the ATB quarters, and five ounce versions through better promotion of the programs.
      As for high relief and UHR, I agree and would add that the Mint mentioned an HR silver eagle as a possible option in the survey that was sent out earlier in the year, so perhaps that is something we will see eventually. With 2021 the 100th anniversary of the start of the Peace dollar series, that would be a great time to issue a UHR version like the 2009 gold eagles. But I’d prefer it in silver esp. since gold may be out of most people’s reach by that year.

  4. Scott says:

    Our coinage is a direct reflection of our national decay. History shows us the coinage of an empire generally deteriorates as the empire declines, first thru debasement, then artistically. The bigger question is “How much longer can the U.S. monetary system survive?”

    • Louis Golino says:

      Scott,
      We definitely have serious problems, but I do not think we are going the way of the Roman empire, or that we face some kind of inevitable decline. One way or another we will get through the challenges of the future. I am still bullish on America and the American people and our capacity for renewal, including in our coinage.

      • Julie Ann Rizolli says:

        LOUIS, Thanks for the upbeatness on this great country. My english isn’t that good, for I just got my citizenship 10 years ago and I try my best with what I have been taught so far. It will take allot to go the way of the Roman Empie. We are too smart of a nation to let it happen. I also have to say I wish people on the “mintnewsblog” would be nice to each other, we can do w/o the nasty remarks that just go and on. Bunch of little kids over there. Why doesn’t that man clean things up and just
        abolish/ban anyone that calls other posters mean names ? That guy never says a word about the verbal abuse, not a word. I have to think he enjoys the nasty comments collectors have for each other. How can I, or others, think otherwise.
        Any thoughts Louis, if not, that is ok too. I know he reads this and I might be putting you in a bad position by asking you to post your thoughts. Sad thing is, people around the world are reading this and saying that Americans can’t get along with each other. Just very sad he never says to stop it. Really think he enjoys it.. Thank you for reading this Louis, like I said, I know you can’t comment on this, he might be your friend..

        have a nice weekend sir, julie…

        • Julie Ann Rizolli says:

          LOUIS; I just noticed that I got my reverses and HR’s a little mixed up. i have numerous HR 1907 AGE’s and I have many worldwide HR’s. Not that their are allot, but I think have all and many in each offering. The reverses, I have only the 2 from this country.
          I am sincerely sorry and I didn’t mean to brag, not what I was trying to accomplish here. But being disabled and not getting any sleep, my thoughts sometimes come out wrong. Sorry. I did want to ask you your thoughts on something off topic,if that is ok ? My son (who is banned from using the household laptop) has a Mexican Libertad “ONZA”, 1 ounce gold piece in a slabbed NGC holder that is graded at MS69. I see where their are only 3 of these graded in this number. It is very special to him and is one of the most beautiful gold coins I/we have ever seen.Amazing.
          Is this a rare coin, and is it worth more than the bullion value ? Any thoughts on this… julie, thanks, looking forward to your knowledgeable article and insight..

  5. Julie Ann Rizolli says:

    LOUIS; that is a 2003-1 oz. Mexican Libertad gold NGC MS69 Only 3 graded by that TPG going back about a year or so. I do not know abut any graded by PCGS or any others. It is a stunning coin though. Maybe if I leave a quarter under my son’s pillow (ne’s about to lose a tooth), he will gladly give it to MOM for my upcoming birthday present. lol..

    • Dave in CT. says:

      Julie;
      My info on your son’s 2003 Mexican gold, Libertad coin
      is aprox. between $3000.00 and up to $3600.00 or so. Depends on the buyer, the week of the selling, and how many are graded in MS69 grading. You never mentioned what was paid, so i don’t know what you are looking to do with it. This is only my opinion.
      Good luck though.

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