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.
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.
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.
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.