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Laura Gardin Fraser

1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Who do you think designed more U.S. coins, James Earle Fraser or his wife, Laura Gardin Fraser? The former is well known to coin collectors for the Buffalo nickel, and he also deserves credit for one side of the Oregon Trail commemorative. His wife, on the other hand, designed either one or both sides of four commemorative half dollars and a commemorative gold dollar. In addition, according to all accounts, she should have been credited with the design of the largest denomination U.S. coin circulating today, the Washington quarter.

Laura Gardin was born on September 14, 1889 to John Emil and Alice Tilton Gardin, who lived at the time in a suburb of Chicago. Laura's sculpting ability was recognized early, and in this, her mother, an artist herself, encouraged and guided her.

While Laura was still young, the Gardins moved to New York City, where Laura attended high school at the prestigious Horace Mann School, graduating in 1907. From there, she enrolled briefly at Columbia University before studying between 1907 and 1911 at the Arts Students League in the city.

Founded in 1875, the Art Students League was then and still is devoted to studio-based art education. In what would probably be considered inappropriate today, Laura studied with and married one of her teachers, James Earle Fraser. They were wed in 1913, two years after Laura graduated.

In fact, the number 13 seems to have been an important number for the Frasers, as James Earle died almost 13 years before his wife; she died on August 13, 1966. In addition, he was 13 years her senior, and his greatest numismatic creation first appeared in 1913.

Although their union was childless, the two sculptors enjoyed a long and happy life together. Whereas James Earle is the better known of the two, Laura was very much an accomplished sculptor on her own. As an example, she won a competition to design a double equestrian statue of Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The monument was removed from its place in Baltimore, Maryland on August 16, 2017, following the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia a few days earlier.

Laura's numismatic work began with the 1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar. With it, she became the first female artist whose work appeared on a United States-issued coin.

The Alabama Centennial coin was authorized in 1920 to commemorate the centennial of Alabama's admission to statehood, which was actually celebrated in 1919. The half dollars themselves were not available until President Warren G. Hardin's visit to Birmingham in 1921. Is that confusing enough for you?

On the obverse, the Alabama half dollar features the overlapping busts of William Wyatt Bibb (1819 governor) and Thomas E. Kilby (1919 governor). The presence of Kilby, still living at the time, was controversial because this was the first time that a legal tender coin depicted someone who was still alive. As David Bowers pointed out in his Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia, "The Act of April 7, 1866 expressly forbade the portrayal of living persons on coins."

The reverse bears ". . . the Alabama State Seal with an eagle holding arrows, perched on a horizontal shield. In the eagle's beak appeared a ribbon with the state motto, HERE WE REST."

Two versions of the Alabama 50c were created through the addition and deletion of "2X2" in the right obverse field. The numbers indicate that Alabama was the 22nd state to join the Union, whereas the X represents the St. Andrew's cross, which is from the state flag. In turn, the Alabama state flag inspired the Confederate flag. The coins with 2X2 were struck first in the amount of 6,006 examples. After this, the 2X2 was removed and an additional 64,038 pieces were produced. In his Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States, Anthony Swiatek, aka "Mr. Commemorative," gives the final production figures of 6,000 with the inscription and 59,000 without it.

As Bowers pointed out, most of the issue was sold to Alabama citizens and wound up entering circulation for a time, thereby acquiring circulated grades such as XF and AU. As such, he wrote, "Mint State examples are scarce and coins MS-63 or finer are rare. . .. Sharply struck, high-grade Mint State coins are very rare."

Very rare, perhaps, but not necessarily very expensive as early commemoratives go. "Market Watch" (MW) in this magazine says the 2X2 variety in MS65 is worth $950. The "plain" Alabama, with ten times the mintage, lists for $700 in the same grade. I paid $661 for my PCGS MS65 example without the 2X2 in 2020.

Swiatek concluded, "Strictly graded, eye-appealing MS-64 coinage for this issue is at present [the book was published in 2012] undervalued, and I highly recommend such coins to collectors. . .. Pieces rated MS-65 offer very good future potential; the 2X2 is slightly rarer in this grade."

1922 Grant Memorial Gold Dollar with star.

1922 Grant Memorial Gold Dollar with star.

Laura's second foray into commemorative coin designing was the 1922 Grant Memorial issue to celebrate the centennial of Grant's birth. The issue included a gold dollar as well as a silver half dollar. Both bear the same design, a bust of General Ulysses S. Grant facing right on the obverse, the home where he grew up on the reverse.

There were two varieties of each of the Grant coins, ones with an incuse star in the right obverse field and ones without the star. For the half dollars, the starred coins were decidedly in the minority, with Swiatek reporting net mintages of 4,250 starred coins and 67,350 pieces without the star. For the gold dollars, the net mintages were the same, 5,000 of each variety.

According to Bowers, the public was apathetic toward the issue, with the result that most of the half dollars and nearly all of the gold dollars were sold to collectors. For the half dollars, there's an enormous difference in the values of the coins either with or without the star. Without the star, MW assigns a value of $175 in MS63, $500 in MS65. I bought an unstarred example in PCGS MS65 for $399 in 2020.

The corresponding values for the starred coins are $1,550 and $4,350. Although the net distributions appear to be the same for the gold dollar varieties, the one with the star is slightly more valuable, with MW values in MS63 of $1,165 (with star) and $1,125 (no star).

Other than adding value to the coins possessing it, the star appears to have no meaning. Swiatek wrote, "In actuality, the star bears no significance, unlike the incused 2X2 on the Alabama variety. . .."

1925 Fort Vancouver half dollar.

1925 Fort Vancouver half dollar.

Laura's third commemorative coin was the 1925 Fort Vancouver half dollar. This coin commemorated the 1825 founding of Fort Vancouver, Washington, by Dr. John McLoughlin, a Canadian physician. As such, the obverse bears the left-facing bust of McLoughlin, bracketed by the years 1825 and 1925. The reverse features a right-facing trapper clad in a buckskin suit holding a musket. Behind him is Fort Vancouver and beyond that is Mount Hood. Although there is no mintmark, the coins were minted in San Francisco.

According to Bowers, the Mint's production was 50,028 pieces out of a maximum authorization of 300,000. Of the 50,000, 35,034 were melted, leaving a net distribution of 14,994. Values range from $290 in AU50 to $600 in MS65.

Swiatek noted, "Specimens in the EF-AU category for the most part will display some form of numismatic abuse. Depending on one's current financial situation, I would suggest locating a coin that shows most of its original surface and possesses slight wear." A nice AU58, perhaps?

If you want a mint state example, there's little difference in value between one in MS63 ($420) and MS64 ($450). For this reason, Swiatek suggested that you ". . . consider a flashy eye-appealing MS-64+ or a higher graded specimen, if possible." My example is a super nice PCGS-graded MS66, with CAC sticker. I paid $858 for it in 2020. The current PCGS value is $875.

1933-D Oregon Trail half dollar.

1933-D Oregon Trail half dollar.

We've now come to the final early commemorative half dollar for which Laura was a designer, the 1926-1939 Oregon Trail Memorial. According to Swiatek, the reason for the coin was "To commemorate the heroism of those who traversed the Oregon Trail to the Far West and to rescue the various important points along the Trail from oblivion."

If you consider the date side of the coin as the obverse, this was designed by James Earle Fraser. On it is shown a Conestoga wagon being pulled by two oxen, a man with a staff guiding them. According to Swiatek, "Within the wagon is the first implied baby or child depicted on U.S. coinage." The wagon and figures are heading westward toward a setting sun.

The reverse, which some people consider the obverse, was the work of Laura Gardin Fraser. It shows a Native American standing before an outline map of the United States. In his right hand, he holds a bow and his left hand is outstretched as though he is trying to halt the westward march of European settlers. The Frasers considered the Indian side the obverse, whereas the Mint gave the date side that designation.

As you can see, the Oregon Trail commemoratives were minted over a period of several years and at each of the mints striking coins at the time (PDS). Although some of the individual dates had minuscule mintages (for example, 3,005 of the 1939-S), because there are so many to choose from for a type set, most of the individual prices are relatively low. If you're just collecting by type, there are several date/mintmark combinations with values ranging from about $160 in AU50 to $250 in MS65. With this small a spread between a circulated specimen and a nice Mint State piece, it's hard to fathom why a collector would opt for the lower grade.

The Oregon Trail half dollar is generally considered one of, if not the most beautiful of the classic commemorative issues. As such, it is the commemorative that got me started on a 50-coin type set of early commemoratives. A few years ago, I was writing an article for this magazine about the series and looking at what was available on eBay. While there, I spotted what looked like a bargain-priced Oregon Trail 50c in MS67, decided to purchase it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That coin, which I consider the centerpiece of my type collection of early commemoratives, has a PCGS value of $475, which is what I paid for my 1938-D, mintage of 6,005. That's actually more than you can get them for at auction, as it turns out, but I'm not really complaining, as it set me on the road toward completing an interesting set of coins.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that Laura Fraser should have been credited with the design of the Washington 25c. In a design competition in 1931, Laura's design for a commemorative quarter to honor the bicentennial of Washington's birth in 1732 was preferred by the Commission of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon preferred an entry by John Flanagan, and Mellon's successor, William Woodin, shared that preference. The result was that we've been stuck with Flanagan's interpretation since 1932.

Although Walter Breen argued that Mellon knew that Laura's entry was from a female and rejected it because of male chauvinism, there's little evidence for this view. In fact, Mellon approved her work for the last three commemoratives she worked on (Grant, Fort Vancouver, Oregon Trail). For whatever reason, he found the Flanagan version for the quarter superior to Laura's.

For those of us interested in Laura Fraser's 1931 entry, her design was resurrected and applied to the 1999 bicentennial $5 gold commemorative of Washington's death. I purchased an NGC MS70 example on eBay in 2018 for the bargain price of $400. The current PCGS value is $750. Net mintage, according to Swiatek, was 22,511.

As I hope you've seen from this article, Laura Gardin Fraser was an extremely talented sculptor during her active years and a designer par excellence of early United States commemoratives. If you don't have any examples of her work, by all means check out the Indian side of the Oregon Trail commemorative. Purchase an example and see if it spurs you to assemble a type set of commemoratives like it did me. I predict you'll like the result.