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COIN DESIGN COMPETITIONS: A REPORT CARD

By Ed Reiter

 

          For the third time in the decade of the Eighties, designs for U.S. coins were chosen in 1989 through a process of limited, invited competition.

          For the third time, the results triggered something less than universal raves from critics of coinage art.

          The designs in this third set were selected to appear on the three 1989 commemorative coins marking the bicentennial of the U.S. Congress: a half eagle ($5 gold piece), silver dollar and copper-nickel “clad” half dollar. And if variety is indeed the spice of life, these were sure to pose no problem for people on bland diets.

          Of the six sides available altogether (three obverses and three reverses), two  depicted the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and two others portrayed the statue of Freedom which rests atop the Capitol Dome. Technically, in fact, the statue appeared in whole or in part on four of the six sides, since it’s present in minuscule form in the portraits of the building as well.

          Before sampling critics’ comments on the designs – and on the competitions as a whole – here’s a brief rundown on how the new coins ended up looking:

  • The half eagle, the centerpiece of the set, featured a close-up of the Capitol Dome on its obverse and an eagle on its reverse. The eagle is based on one in the Old Senate Chamber. Both designs were prepared by John Mercanti, then an assistant sculptor-engraver at the Philadelphia Mint.
  • The silver dollar showed a full-length view of Freedom on its obverse and the House of Representatives mace on its reverse. The mace is the symbol of authority wielded by the sergeant-at-arms in gathering House members for a
  • ·quorum call. These designs were fashioned by William Woodward, an artist from Warrentown, Va., who was head of the painting department at George Washington University in Washington.
  • The half dollar carried a close-up of Freedom on its obverse and a full view of the Capitol Building on its reverse. The reverse was Woodward’s work –  giving him three of the six sides on the Congress coins. The obverse was
  • ·designed by Patricia Lewis Verani, an artist from Londonderry, N.H., who also was a winner in both previous coin design contests of the 1980s. Her work was
  • ·chosen for both sides of the Constitution silver dollar in 1987 and the obverse of the Olympic silver dollar in 1988.

Robert A. Weinman of Bedford, N.Y., past president of the National Sculpture Society, found the Congress coin designs “stodgy and safe” for the most part.

“I’ve seen worse,” Weinman said, “but this stuff is kind of right off the shelf. There’s nothing inspired about it. Suddenly it’s 1900 again – or maybe even 1875.”

The gold coin, in particular, left him cold.

“That dome design,” he said, “is the ultimate in platitudinous dopiness. That’s where Congress meets, of course, but I think it could have been rendered far more interestingly, either by showing more of the building or something symbolic of the building. I think it’s pretty lacklustre.

“As for the eagle on the reverse, it looks more like a feather duster than a bird. ‘Scrawny,’ I think, is a good way to describe it.”

Weinman also found the close-up portrait of Freedom – the one that ended up on the half dollar’s obverse – uninspiring.

“The full figure of Freedom comes off a lot better than that head,” he observed. “The way it’s rendered, the close-up portrait looks less like a steel engraver’s handiwork and more like what you might get from a pattern maker at an iron foundry. It’s terribly stodgy and lifeless – like something that was inspired by an East Illinois car token.

“The Capitol Building portrait doesn’t move me all that much, but I do think it’s superior to the other design showing just the dome.”

In Weinman’s opinion, the silver dollar emerged as the best-designed coin of the three.

“I rather like the treatment of Freedom on that coin,” he remarked. “I can’t quite imagine how the rays around it will be handled on the coin – but if done successfully, it would be rather nice, I believe.

“As for the mace on the reverse, he didn’t think very hard or very long about that; I mean, he grabbed a very handy symbol. But I could live with it.

“I think of all three coins, that’s the one that most appeals to me.”

Weinman, one of the nation’s best-known sculptor-medalists, was not among the 10 prominent artists invited to compete – along with the U.S. Mint engraving staff – in this contest. He did take part in the Constitution coin design contest two years earlier, but turned down an invitation to vie again when designs were being sought for the 1988 Olympic coins.

In 1974, Weinman was chief judge in the open competition that led to the designs of the three special coins honoring the nation’s Bicentennial. Six decades earlier, his father, Adolph A. Weinman, designed the Winged Liberty (or “Mercury”) dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar – also in a Treasury competition.

 

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Mico Kaufman of Tewksbury, Mass., another of the nation’s top medalists, competed in the first two coin design contests of the ’80s, but also sat on the sidelines the third time. He felt it was just as well.

“They did me a favor,” he said, “by not inviting me. The way these competitions appear to be run, they’re a waste of time – a huge waste of time. It’s unbelievable.”

Part of the problem, in Kaufman’s view, was that entries seemed to be judged entirely on how well executed – and how graphically appealing – the artists’ sketches were, with no great regard for how they would translate into coin designs and how well qualified the artists were to make that translation.

“You cannot judge a coin design until it is made in plaster,” he declared. “Many quality artists look upon the initial sketch as very secondary – just a way to convey an idea – and therefore do not lavish a lot of time and effort on this step.

“With these Mint competitions, however, it appears that everything hinges on the drawing. And so the winner will always be the best illustrator, rather than the best coin designer.

“If making a coin were so simple, all you would have to do is find the best photograph you can get and make it three-dimensional. But of course it isn’t that simple. You can have all the pictures in the world, but if you’re not a sculptor

who can produce a good likeness – a good portrait – and then go a little bit deeper into it, you really haven’t got anything.”

The judging suffered too, Kaufman said, because it was carried out not by people with aesthetic sensibilities but by politicians and bureaucrats – with the ultimate decision resting in every instance with the Secretary of the Treasury.

“It has become the politicians’ province,” he exclaimed. “The Mint tries to please the politicians, and the politicians want to have their say and reward those who are looking after them.

“Before you know it, you’re no longer talking about numismatic art or something that you can be proud of; you’re talking about politics as usual. And I’m sorry to say, but it stinks.”

The result, he said, has been a series of coins virtually devoid of artistic merit. And that, he said, includes the Congress coin designs, as well.

“These are things,” he said, “that if they were works of art, you’d be hiding them in the cellar.”

 

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Joseph Veach Noble, executive director of the Society of Medalists, agreed that there were problems with the conduct of the coin competitions. In his opinion, though, the principal one was lack of sufficient time.

“The biggest negative,” Noble said, “has been the unconscionably short time the Mint has allotted for these sculptors to produce their designs. This, I am sure, has discouraged some excellent sculptors from competing – and I’m sure that the submitted designs have suffered.”

In each of the three 1980s competitions, participating artists had well under a month to prepare and submit their designs. The period was somewhat longer than

usual in the Congress coin contest – but that was offset by the fact that it extended over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when most of the artists had special demands on their time.

Mint officials argued that they couldn’t spend money for coin competitions until the funds are authorized by Congress – a process that tended to drag until shortly before the coins had to go into production. Noble agreed that this was a

problem, but suggested a possible solution.

“What the Mint needs,” he said, “is a special revolving fund it could use to finance competitions. That way, it could schedule a design competition as soon as it’s apparent that new coins will be needed – even before the money is formally authorized. That would give the artists the time they need to do a better job.”

If Congress couldn’t be persuaded to establish such a fund, Noble added, an alternative would be to establish a private nonprofit foundation – possibly to be called the Friends of the Mint – which could set up the fund by soliciting

contributions from private individuals, foundations and corporations. He noted that similar organizations already served a number of other federal institutions and agencies, including the National Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Parks Service.

“If a Friends of the Mint is established,” he said, “you can count on me to support it. I will gladly make a gift of $1,000 to start the project.”

 

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Cornelius Vermeule, curator of classical art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and author of the much acclaimed book Numismatic Art in America, tended to be more sanguine than some of the other critics about the competitions and the

coins that they produced.

“I have a few reservations about these Congress coins,” Vermeule said. “For instance, I’d rather see that dome being used on the gold coin’s reverse, rather than on the obverse; a person or personification would be much more appropriate on the obverse. And that eagle on the reverse is sort of desiccated, isn’t it?

“But really, I’m so happy to see us producing regular commemorative coinage again, after such a long time, that I’m not going to nit-pick. And certainly these new coins are well above the standard of that Jack and Jill Olympic coin (the

1984 Olympic eagle) or that one with the body parts on top of the Los Angeles Coliseum (the 1984 Olympic silver dollar).

“Surely these coins are better – much, much better – than nothing at all. And it’s great to see them. It’s as if you’ve been starving on a deserted island and suddenly somebody takes you into Burger King. You don’t kvetch about the quality of Burger King’s food; you’re just so glad to see some food.”

But after your appetite is sated?

“Then,” Vermeule admitted, “you want better.”

 

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