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THE SILVER EAGLE COULD HAVE BEEN A FAMILY AFFAIR

By Ed Reiter  

The American Eagle silver bullion coin was a source of modest pride to Robert A. Weinman. His father, noted sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, designed the coin’s obverse, which duplicates the obverse of the much-admired Walking Liberty half dollar.

It also was a source of consternation – for Robert Weinman didn’t think the United States Mint should have used the design on the silver bullion coin. What’s more, he didn’t think his father would have wanted it used there, either.

“I’m sure the old man would have had a real fit,” Weinman told me in an interview 25 years ago, shortly after the Silver Eagle’s design was unveiled.

“Reusing old designs, however attractive they may be, strikes me,” he said, “as evidence of a paucity of ideas. And Dad felt that way, too. He always believed in giving other artists a chance.”

Bob Weinman, who died in 2003, was less inclined toward having “real fits” than his sometimes cantankerous father. He did share his father’s artistic ability, though. And in 1986, at the age of 71, he could look back on a life that had had important parallels with that of “the old man.”

Prior to his death in 1952, A.A. Weinman enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a sculptor and medalist. His son followed in those footsteps. The elder Weinman served as president of the National Sculpture Society for three years. So did his son. In 1920, the American Numismatic Society honored Adolph Weinman with its J. Sanford Saltus Award for distinction in the field of medallic art. In 1964, it similarly honored Weinman’s son. (And, to make the award even more meaningful, the Saltus medal bears a design crafted by Weinman the elder.)

One of the few important artistic achievements attained by A.A. Weinman, but not by his son, came in the field of coin design. The elder Weinman fashioned not only the Walking Liberty half dollar, but also the Winged Liberty (better known as “Mercury”) dime. Robert Weinman, by contrast, never designed a U.S. coin – though he did serve as chairman of the five-member panel of judges that selected the designs of the three Bicentennial coins for the U.S. Treasury.

Interestingly, another of A.A. Weinman’s three children – Robert’s older brother, Howard Weinman – did design a coin: the Long Island commemorative half dollar of 1936.

In retrospect, the Treasury could have scored a real coup by having Robert Weinman design the silver bullion coin’s reverse. That would have heightened the coin’s appeal to collectors. It also would have served as a sort of historical bridge, giving real meaning to reissuance of the classic old design. Perhaps most important, it almost surely would have inspired an outstanding new design – for Bob Weinman was one of the most distinguished and talented of all American medalists in his day.

Would he have been interested?

“Oh, sure,” he replied when I posed that question in 1986. “That’s really the big challenge.

“If you look at it cold turkey,” he went on, “it honestly doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. No one really knows who designed a coin. But, on the other hand, it’s a very select, small circle – and to get into that is quite intriguing.”

The assignment went instead to John Mercanti, an assistant sculptor-engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, and he prepared a design portraying a heraldic eagle. Mercanti’s artwork seems uninspired – and it falls far short of the high standard set by the obverse.

Questioned by this writer, a high Mint official said time constraints would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for outside designs to have been commissioned. The obverse design (A.A. Weinman’s) and the reverse (Mercanti’s) were chosen, he explained, almost simultaneously.

The explanation seems lame; at the very least, it doesn’t stand up very well. The silver bullion coin was authorized in July 1985 – more than 15 months before the Mint began producing it. Indeed, Mint Director Donna M. Pope commented at the time that here, at last, was a case where Congress had given her time to develop a coinage program without undue haste.

In one sense, Robert Weinman was just as glad he didn’t have to come up with a design – for that would have put him on a sort of collision course with “the old man.”

“It would have caused a great deal of inner turmoil,” he acknowledged. “You know: ‘Can I live up to Dad’s work?’ That sort of thing. But after a lot of sturm and drang, it would have come out, I suppose – good, bad or indifferent, as the case might have been.”

Weinman’s track record suggests that it would have been good – very good, indeed. Perhaps even good enough to meet the old man’s demanding standards.

For his part, Bob Weinman insisted that he wasn’t upset at being passed over – or not considered at all – for the assignment. But coin collectors, and lovers of coinage art, should be.

A golden opportunity – or a silver one, at least – had been missed.  

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