What makes a particular coin beautiful? Is it the classic design, the lovely rendering of Liberty, the majestic eagle? Perhaps it is the composition of the coin, precious metals of gold and silver. Maybe the coin is just appealing to you, the individual collector.
Many numismatists agree that the most beautiful United States coin is the Saint- Gaudens double eagle, minted from 1907 to 1933. That opinion has not changed over many years.
The sculptor’s depiction of Liberty with long flowing hair, perched upon a rock, holding a torch and an olive branch, is undoubtedly a winner, especially when compared to the more bland designs used on modern coins. The reverse features a flying eagle, soaring over a sun with resplendent rays. The coin is made of gold, the highest denomination of regular issue U.S. coins. What’s not to love about this coin?
The obverse design even made a comeback in 1986, when gold American Eagle bullion series began. The 1 ounce size was joined by fractional ounce coins with the same design. The design is still being used for these coins.
The Saint-Gaudens design was used yet again in 2009 for a special gold piece struck as a modern version of the original high relief double eagle. This coin contains 1 ounce of .999 fine gold, purer than the original.
Another attractive aspect of this coin is its rich history. President Theodore Roosevelt, the only President who took a real interest in our coinage, appointed Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design wonderful coins. Roosevelt believed that the United States should mint coinage that was the greatest in the world and rival the beauty of the coins of ancient Greece.
Major rarities appear at the beginning and the end of the series. The ultra high relief 1907 double eagle is indeed a work of art, and causes excitement whenever it is offered for sale at auction.
The final year, 1933, has its own story. This coin has inspired book-length research and articles. Why is this coin illegal to own? What of the 10 specimens discovered in a safe deposit box in 2007, but recently ruled to be government property and what will become of them?
A lovely coin with a lot less drama and rarity is the Walking Liberty half dollar, designed by Adolph Weinman and minted from 1916-1947. This coin, showing the latest depiction of Liberty on circulating coins, has been a favorite with collectors for many years. Sometimes called the Striding Liberty, the figure is shown walking toward a rising sun. She is draped in an American flag with her arm outstretched; her left arm holds an olive branch. The reverse eagle is perched on a mountain. This series contains a few rare coins to keep a collector hunting, but nothing really out of reach or illegal.
This obverse design, too, made a comeback in 1986 for 1 ounce bullion pieces, this one used on silver American Eagles, and still used to this day.
The year 1916 was a remarkable one in United States coinage, as three classic designs debuted. It was also the first year that the dime, quarter and half dollar bore different designs. The much loved Mercury dime, another lovely coin, first appeared in 1916, along with the Standing Liberty quarter.
Standing Liberty quarters are notorious for having the dates worn off. Collectors of a certain age can remember getting these coins in change, often worn slick with no date visible. The design, by Hermon MacNeil, is lovely, but did not stand up well in circulation. Mint State coins are stunning. Heavily circulated coins are not much to look at, even those with readable dates.
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Classic commemoratives, while not No. 1 on the hit parade among collectors, have their share of beautiful coins. Each coin in the series is different, some more attractive than others. One of the more popular designs is the Oregon Trail half dollar. This coin was struck for a number of years from 1926-1939, at all three mints.
Voted best designed commemorative among specialists in this field, this coin shows a covered wagon traveling along the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail. The reverse depicts a Native American, one hand upheld, with a map of the 48 states in the background.
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Some beautiful coins are not widely known among collectors, including a number of patterns. Numismatists discovering patterns may wonder why some of these designs were never adopted for regular coinage.
The Amazonian quarter, half dollar, and dollar are classically beautiful and impressive, but this design has its own controversy. Some felt this design by Charles Barber, appeared too warlike, showing two shields, two eagles and a sword.
Depictions of Miss Liberty evolved over the years, from a quaint portrait on the 1792 half disme to more beautiful portraits, even reflecting the popular hair styles of the day. The Coiled Hair Stella, or $4 gold piece, struck in 1879-1880, is technically a pattern, although it is listed in the Red Book. Miss Liberty’s hair is shown coiled, the fashion of the time. There were also Flowing Hair examples in both years.
The Schoolgirl dollar of 1879 is popular among pattern lovers for its attractive portrait of Liberty, as a young girl, with long hair and pearls around her neck. The eagle on the reverse is shown in a fierce pose. Although this lovely design was never adopted for a regular issue coin, it remains a favorite.
A pattern gold dollar issued in 1836 shows a Liberty Cap among resplendent sun rays, a design inspired by coins of Mexico. The reverse bears a slim wreath, the denomination as “1 D.” and “United States of America.” Uncluttered by mottoes, attractive and symbolic, this pattern is an example of a beautifully designed coin. There are not too many elaborate details, just the basic motif, the value and the name of the country. What else is needed for a great coin?
Even Colonials and early issues include a few coins of simple beauty. While the minting process was not as advanced as it is now, with striking and cameo proof coins, these coins stand out as lovely examples of the coiner’s art.
Vermont copper coins of the “landscape” design were struck in 1785 by a citizen, Reuben Harmon, of Rupert, Vt. Many of these pieces were struck on defective planchets, but the design is still lovely, in a rustic way.
The landscape shows a sunrise over the Green Mountains, with a plough in the foreground. The reverse shows a constellation of stars and the inscription, “quarta decimal stella,” Latin for “fourteenth star,” referring to Vermont as the 14th state. A more modernized version of this design was considered for use on the Vermont Statehood quarter of 2001.
A pattern for a quarter dollar of 1792, while extremely rare, is another early coin with a lovely design. A graceful Liberty head adorns the obverse, with the word “Liberty” and the date. The reverse shows an eagle perched on a rock, with wings outstretched, and the name of the country, “United States of America.” Joseph Wright, picked by President George Washington as the first chief engraver of the Mint, designed this piece, but died soon afterward. Perhaps Wright would have designed more coins of simple beauty had he lived.
The United States series is filled with beautiful coins, some more well-known than others. Perhaps more lovely designs will be seen in the future on regular issue, commemorative and bullion coins.