This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Not just any old coin design will do.
That’s the message the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee sent loud and clear July 27 as it recommended designs for only one of eight coins presented by the U.S. Mint.
“We’re putting more value on our recommendations,” said CCAC Chairman Gary Marks.
So after adopting a new voting procedure that calls for a majority rather than plurality of votes before a coin design can be considered “recommended,” the CCAC only gave thumbs up to an obverse and reverse design for the 2011 First Spouse coin honoring Lucretia Garfield.
But the CCAC isn’t blaming the Mint artists for the disappointing designs.
“The artists are pretty much told what to render,” Marks said. “There isn’t a lot of creativity going on in what the artists are allowed to do.”
And that’s where design excellence comes in, Marks said.
“We have some of the best artists in the world, but they are not allowed to bring their full talents to bear in the designs that are being produced by the U.S. Mint,” Marks said.
Ten CCAC members attended the meeting held in Philadelphia. Each member’s vote for a design is worth three points, so each design had a possibility of garnering 30 points. The Garfield obverse design No. 1 received 16 points and the reverse design No. 5 received 17 points, which were majorities of votes cast.
All of the designs presented for the reverses of the Eliza Johnson and Lucy Hayes gold First Spouse coins were rejected by the CCAC, which asked the Mint for entirely new designs.
Artistic quality aside, the main reason they were rejected was historical inaccuracy.
Two of the designs for the Eliza Johnson coin show President Andrew Johnson, who had been a tailor, working at a sewing machine while his wife read to him to further his education, Marks said.
But there’s a problem with that scene.
CCAC historian Michael Ross pointed out that the sewing machine hadn’t been invented when Johnson was in office.
“Historical inaccuracy is humiliating,” said CCAC member Donald Scarinci. “If you can’t get objective historical information correct then how can you hope to produce artistic excellence?”
Another probable mistake, Marks said, was the depiction of African-American children at an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn for the Lucy Hayes reverse design. At that time, President Benjamin Hayes was reducing troops from the South as a precursor to segregation, Ross told the committee, so it’s questionable that the event would have had a racial mix to it.
In all, the CCAC reviewed designs for four 2011 First Spouse coins and four 2012 Presidential gold coins.
It took umbrage at the portrait designs presented for the Presidential coins, which led to a discussion about design originality, Scarinci said.
“What we’re getting now are just tracings of some other dead artist’s work,” he said. “It’s not illegal, and there is no copyright issue, but let’s not pretend and call it art.”
The Mint sales and marketing staff provides the artists with source materials – photographs, paintings – and the artists “pretty much turn that into coin-sized portraits,” Scarinci said.
“The Mint is clearly hearing from the Commission of Fine Arts and the CCAC that’s not what we want,” Scarinci said. “We don’t want traced images of someone else’s work. We want the artists to be artists and do what they are capable of doing. Give us original portraits based on multiple images.”