You’ve been a fan of the Kennedy half dollar since it began in 1964. You waited in line at your bank to get some of the first ones made, and you’ve saved one of each date and mintmark since then. As a specialist in the series, you’ve heard the silly rumor that the designer’s initials on the obverse were a hammer and sickle; you know the initials stand for Gilroy Roberts, who executed the fine portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
If you admire the work of Gilroy Roberts, why not collect his other products? He was chief engraver of the U.S. Mint and then his career took him to the Franklin Mint.
Roberts, an accomplished sculptor, executed a medal depicting Kennedy at his inauguration. The bust of JFK was the basis for the portrait on the half dollar. Roberts also did a great amount of work for the Franklin Mint in the 1970s, including a beautiful series of medals, Roberts’ Birds.
Robert’s Franklin Mint work was some of the most artistic designs ever used on coins, but that is natural. He was talented. He had a freer hand in making designs at Franklin Mint than he did as a public servant.
A numismatist can specialize in one designer’s work and build a meaningful collection of coins, medals and other works.
Then there is Frank Gasparro, colleague of Gilroy Roberts at the U.S. Mint. He designed the reverse of the Kennedy half dollar, which was based on the Presidential Seal.
Both artists worked under intense time pressure. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963. By the end of the year, the half dollar was authorized. By the end of March 1964 the new coin was in the hands of the public.
If you think demand for the 2009 cents was high, that was nothing compared to demand for the Kennedy half dollar in 1964. Getting the new coin was part of the grieving process. It was an enduring memorial to the slain President.
Gasparro and Roberts are forever paired as the creators of this coins. But that’s not all that Gasparro did. He was promoted to chief engraver when Roberts left the Mint.
He not only did new designs following his promotion, but he did the Memorial reverse on the U.S. cent, which was introduced in 1959 and just retired in 2008.
Gasparro also produced Presidential medals, assay medals and medals commemorating secretaries of the Treasury, along with a few other U.S. coins, including the Eisenhower dollar.
A lovely medal was done by Gasparro for the 1969 American Numismatic Association convention in Philadelphia, a Liberty head with cap, based on the 1793 half cent. The portrait of Liberty reminded many of the old, but was unmistakably new. Gasparro was quite disappointed 10 years later, when his classic Liberty head was rejected as a design for a new dollar coin, in favor of Susan B. Anthony. But he did his job and designed the Anthony dollar.
Collecting the works of Gasparro would be a challenging hobby activity. But before you decide to do that, there works of other artists to consider.
Collectors know that John Sinnock designed the Roosevelt dime and the Franklin half dollar, coins that began in 1946 and 1948, respectively. He also designed the Sesquicentennial half dollar of 1926, a coin featuring the Liberty Bell on the reverse, just as the Franklin half did 22 years later. Sinnock also did other work that is not so widely known. He designed a number of medals for presidents, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry S. Truman. His distinctive style is evident on the execution of these medals. Study of these pieces can make a numismatist appreciate the artist’s work that much more, and gain an understanding of just how much effort and artistic ability goes into creation of medallic art.
The Edward C. Rochette Museum at ANA headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., once displayed an exhibit of Sinnock’s work, including preliminary sketches for the coin that would become the familiar Roosevelt dime. A dedicated collector coul view this exhibit and come away with a new respect for his favorite designer and his body of work.
James Earle Fraser, designer of the Buffalo nickel, created a famous sculpture, “The End of the Trail.” Fans of the Buffalo nickel would do well to find a copy of this work to complement their collection. Fraser also designed a potential Lincoln nickel, dated 1911 and featuring a rugged head, not a bust, of Lincoln; the piece is uniface.
His Buffalo design also ended up on a modern commeorative silver dollar and the new Buffalo gold bullion coins.
Fraser’s wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, was an accomplished sculptor in her own right. Among her most famous works are the 1922 Ulysses Grant commemorative half dollar and gold dollar. She also designed the Fort Vancouver half dollar of 1925 and the Alabama half dollar of 1921. She also designed a Washington quarter dollar with a design quite different from the one adopted, by John Flanagan; many believe the Fraser design to be superior. Her Washington design was finally used on a 1999 $5 gold coin, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death. Both Frasers designed the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar that many collectors deem the most beautiful of all classic commemorative coins.
Fans of the Mercury dime, and there are many, may consider the works of Adolph Weinman. He also designed the Walking Liberty half dollar, considered the best design on a United States silver coin, and a design that was resurrected in 1986 for the one-ounce silver American Eagle. His less famous works include the Saltus award medal, given by the American Numismatic Society for excellence in medallic art. The head of the female figure on this medal is very reminiscent of the head used on the Mercury dime. Weinman’s son Howard designed a commemorative coin, the 1936 Long Island half dollar.
Hermon MacNeil, designer of the Standing Liberty quarter, had an impressive resume by the time the first of his quarters was struck in 1916. One of his more famous medals was the one struck for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.
Perhaps the best known, and most respected, of all United States coin designers was Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His $20 gold piece is considered the most beautiful of all U.S. coins. He also designed the $10 gold, a contemporary of his double eagle. His many works of medallic sculpture are listed in reference books, large books that are collectors’ items themselves. A collection of his works would be worthy of a museum, and yes, there is a museum in New Hampshire devoted to his works. A collector might want to find a Theodore Roosevelt medal by Saint-Gaudens, featuring an eagle reminiscent of the large bird used on the $10 gold coin.
Designer’s initials are found on almost any coin, but so often, the designer of a favorite coin is forgotten. Why not pay your own personal tribute to the designer of a favorite coin by collecting his other works? Some works are difficult to find, but most are unknown to the casual collector, or to the coin hoarder who just wants to make a profit.
Study of a favorite designer’s other works can give you a new appreciation of what an artist does and how much work goes into producing a coin. And you will have a collection not of dates and mintmarks, but a fine collection of medallic art that not too many collectors can duplicate.