After 27 years of experience in the coin and bullion industry, Natanya Van Niekerk has left her distinctive artistic mark on both legal tender coins and investment bullion pieces. She has experienced the inner workings of our industry at the national mint, private mint and refinery levels. The constant in each of those channels was that Van Niekerk pursued a holistic approach to precious metal design, combining politics, environment and art.
This approach guided Van Niekerk in the creation of almost 20 award-winning coin designs, from 1996 to 2013, including nine Mint Directors Conference (MDC) awards and three Coin of the Year (COTY) category awards, two of which went on to win the overall COTY in the 1999 and 2011 competitions. But this recognition did not appear overnight, as Van Niekerk reminded us in her acceptance speech for the 2021 COTY Lifetime Achievement Award in Coin Design, her career has been a process.
“My training in fine arts did not prepare me for the miniature world of coin art and engraving, but it did give me a sense of visual history and a solid background for design. I had to learn the modern techniques and computer graphics after my formal studies. Along the way, modeling in clay made way for ArtCam and digital scanning. Rotating pantographs were sold on auction to make space for CNC engraving and laser equipment.”
A South African from birth, Van Niekerk’s career in coinage began at a pivotal time for her country. She drew inspiration from current political events and eventually from the environment of her homeland.
“I was born in South Africa and started my career at the South African Mint three weeks after Nelson Mandela took the Presidential oath. It was a theatrical time and a couple of golden years within the New South Africa followed. We were in an industry that had to capture these exciting times in precious metal. We told stories and saw the change from the ‘Old South Africa’ to the ‘New South Africa,’ to where we are today.”
These changes are reflected in Van Niekerk’s award-winning coin designs. Her first overall COTY winner focuses on the Women of South Africa through an extremely emotive design. While comprising half the population, women were at that time “one of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the country,” to quote Waheeda Amien of the University of South Africa.
The coin design shows half of a South African women’s face both separated from and combined with an African landscape and the surface of the moon. The South African women’s burden of marginalization shows in her expression, while these combined images speak to the binding importance of her role within her country and our world.
Often Van Niekerk’s lovely designs were created in various art forms and then modelled for coin dies by others. Neels Dannhauser had appointed Van Niekerk as the first official Mint artist, allowing her to concentrate her talents on the development and evolution of South African Mint commemorative coinage.
Arthur Sutherland, Susan Erasmus and Thinus Scheepers, among others, provided the modelling for some of Van Niekerk’s designs. In the case of the great South African Mint chief diesinker Arthur Sutherland, the two developed a cherished father/daughter relationship which nurtured both Van Niekerk’s artistic and personal development over the years. I think this entire group, along with Ed Harbuz, the managing director of the South African Mint in these golden years, worked very well together to bring coin design to an entirely new level.
The most significant pathway for that evolution in coin design came through the Natura pure gold commemorative series launched by the South African Mint in 1994. Natanya Van Niekerk arrived at the South African Mint that year with a talent for artistic design and a love for her countries magnificent animals.
Beginning in 1994 with the new Natura series, you could see the coins had a new style. This was a very artistic look, with legends altering letter size to give a sense of depth of perspective and the vastness of the region. The animals appeared in their natural environments and in natural stances, not on plain fields in broadside poses as many previous precious metal animal coin series had been. This new approach gave a more complete picture of the animal’s lives, their natures and their struggles. The Natura series introduced the coin market to the talented design concepts of Van Neikerk, and the awards rightfully followed.
From 1994 through 1998, the Big Five animals were featured on the Natura coinage. One species each year was struck on denominated coins in weights of tenth, quarter, half and one ounce. The elephant design of the 1996 100 Rand won an MDC award. The 1997 African Buffalo 100 Rand won an MDC award and the Leopard 100 Rand of 1998 won an award at the Singapore coin show.
The success of this series was followed up by the Monarchs of Africa series featuring the Kudu in 1999, which won an MDC award, the Sable in 2000 and the Oryx in 2001. In 2000, the entire Natura series was presented the Frenelli Award for Excellence in Coin Design at the World Money Fair, held in Basel, Switzerland.
Wildcats of Africa came next from 2002 to 2004, then Giants of Africa with the hippo in 2005, giraffe in 2006, eland in 2007 and finally the elephant in 2008. The 2006 giraffe 100 rand won an MDC award.
In 2009, the Safari through Africa series launched featuring the white rhino followed by the black rhino in 2010. It was at the World Money Fair in Berlin, Germany, that the White Rhino coins were announced, by Natanya Van Niekerk, with a passion that struck right to the core of everyone in attendance, including me. Van Niekerk also put a strong emphasis on the Natura program’s goal of donating part of the proceeds from sales towards the preservation of endangered species. For me, this was the logical extension of the changes in her coin designs, the fully integrated concept of representing animals with respect and treating them with compassion.
The White Rhino 100 rand of 2009 earned Van Niekerk’s second overall COTY award. This achievement was followed by the 2011 Meerkat coins from the South African Mint’s Nature’s Families series being honored. The 100 rand Meerkat took an MDC award and the 50 rand Meerkat won the Best Gold Coin category at the COTY awards.
Van Niekerk won her last coin award in 2013 in Mexico when the Nature’s Families Zebra 100 rand was declared the Most Beautiful Gold Coin by the MDC at their biannual conference. That same year, Van Niekerk left the South African Mint to explore the refining industry. Building on the knowledge she gained in the refining field, Van Niekerk established her own bullion company and developed a precious metal bar program that featured beautiful animal designs. Recently, Van Niekerk has joined the Pagliari Group and will be working with one of their premier businesses, the oldest private mint in South Africa, the Cape Mint.
Reflecting back over her years of designing for the coin and bullion industry, Van Niekerk summed it up best in her acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s COTY virtual award ceremony:
“How to add additional value to precious metal is the thinking process that I have kept myself busy with over the last 27 years. To understand true value, a concept that grasps the essential contradictions of give and take, beauty and dreadfulness, content and drivel, richness and poorness, history and future. All these divine polarities captured within a contemporary development process that was exciting and filled with attributes: art, history, technology, sociopolitical agendas and gorgeous individuals. What a privilege.” ◆
The Lifetime Achievement Award in Coin Design is given annually as part of Coin of the Year, an internationally conducted awards program recognizing excellence and ingenuity in coin design. It is presented by World Coin News, sister publication to Numismatic News.