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Know what Roosevelt looked like?

All coin collectors are art critics. I am one as well. The art that we like to criticize is that which appears on coins, or is art proposed for use on future coins.


My latest impulse to criticize occurs as the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential dollar goes on sale.

I do not think the portrait on the new dollar coin looks like FDR. It resembles FDR, but it just does not look like him.

When I was working on the FDR dollar story, I put the image of the obverse of the coin next to an image of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and asked editorial director Debbie Bradley to take a look at the file.


I asked her who it was who appeared on the new dollar.

We do kid around a bit at the office, and as long as the Rumsfeld portrait doesn’t accidentally make its way into Numismatic News labeled FDR, it will be OK.

But if you Google Donald Rumsfield you will see numerous images of him that will make you wonder if the coin artist wasn’t working from a photograph of the former defense secretary rather than the 32nd President.

Whatever you might think of the portrait, I am moved to ask if we have ever had a numismatic portrait of Roosevelt that conforms to our mental images of the man as we saw him in history books and newsreel footage.

As a kid, I was astounded when I was told that the man on the dime was Roosevelt. This portrait doesn’t look like him, either, but if my childhood reaction is any guide then most Americans don’t picture the former President as a younger man without his glasses however accurate the profile might be.

The portrait of Roosevelt on the 1997 commemorative $5 gold piece might be a better image of him than the other two I have mentioned, but it is so tiny on a nickel-sized coin that the image could be just about anybody. Sure, it was taken from a well-known photograph, but most of the portrait is of the man’s clothes rather than the President himself.

Perhaps nothing will satisfy me.

I even looked at the Roosevelt inaugural medals. The best one of these is the one from 1945, but it shows a very good portrait of a tired old man – also without glasses and it would not likely please anyone to see it on a coin.

It is possible that my mental image of Roosevelt is so cluttered with props – his cigarette holder, his hat and his little dog Fala that I really don’t have a good memory of the real man at all. In that case, the new dollar could be absolutely accurate and I wouldn’t realize it.

The cigarette was a numismatic taboo even before it was medically indicted by the surgeon general 50 years ago. A portrait with a hat might someday be tried, but I don’t expect it, even less the dog. Coins are too small to have a man and his best friend on them.
My opinion of the portrait did not stop me collecting dimes. The dollar portrait will not change my actions, but complaining about it makes me a collector.

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