Recently, U.S. Mint Director Ed Moy said, “We want to spur the highest level of artistic excellence in American coin design.” He made the statement along with the announcement of the Mint’s plans to recreate the 1907 Saint-Gaudens ultra high relief gold $20. It will be quite the challenge and one that promises to produce a popular collectible.
It was the dream of President Theodore Roosevelt, along with the help of noted sculptors such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser, Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil and others, to dramatically improve the look of U.S. coins.
Roosevelt went so far as to envision a U.S. coin with the same high relief as found on some ancient coins, thus leading to the experiments with the height of the relief on the Saint-Gaudens gold $20 issued in 1907. It was argued, however, that such a relief, which took some press time to achieve, wasn’t suited to high-speed coinage. So, the plan was shelved, and the gold $20 took a much lower relief.
It was a shame, and, as I said, the new effort should prove a noble one—at least from the technical side. Plus, if I can afford one, I’d like to have one in my collection. I’ve written about Saint-Gaudens and his design in the past, and it is one of my favorites.
However, I have one little concern. If we’re really striving for artistic excellence in U.S. coinage design, why do we need to return to the past (and in this case a century ago) to spur this on? Don’t we have artists who could produce a representation of Liberty that could compete with Saint-Gaudens, Weinman, or MacNeil?
Frankly, it looks to me like we’re running out of designs to bring back. First we recreated the Saint-Gaudens gold $20 obverse in low relief on the gold American Eagle in 1986. That same year we added a silver American Eagle with Weinman’s obverse from the Walking Liberty. In 2001, we brought back Fraser’s design from the Buffalo nickel. It is now also available on a gold $50.
About all we’ve got left to recreate from circulating coins from that period of artistic excellence is MacNeil’s Standing Liberty, Weinman’s Mercury dime, Pratt’s gold $2.50s and $5s, and Saint-Gaudens’ gold $10. Are they next?
Again, where are the artists? I like all of the prior mentioned designs and applaud Moy’s efforts to improve U.S. coin design. I’m just wishing for more originality and wondering where our generation of artists of the same ilk as Saint-Gaudens, MacNeil, Weinman and Fraser are hiding out.
We need you! Please report for duty.