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FIRST ‘MODERN’ COMMEMORATIVE OPENED TO MIXED REVIEWS

By Ed Reiter


 “Scintillating” ... “fresh” ... “disappointing” ... “lousy.”

 Strange as it may seem, all four of those adjectives were used to describe the very same subject.

 The subject was the then-new George Washington commemorative half dollar, and the people using the adjectives back in 1982 were members of a blue-ribbon panel assembled by COINage, the magazine of which I am now senior editor, to evaluate the merits of the coin.

 Those asked to comment were people with special interest in numismatic art: medalists, curators and others with expertise in the field. Their views varied widely – indeed, dramatically – and while they yielded nothing remotely approaching a consensus, they did make it plain that the new coin could arouse strong and often contradictory emotions.

 Among those who considered the Washington coin impressive was Dr. Cornelius Vermeule, curator of classical art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and author of the much-acclaimed book Numismatic Art in America. Although he found fault with certain details, Vermeule said that on the whole, the coin was  “quite exciting.”

 “It’s different,” he said, “from anything we’ve had in the past, and generally I think it’s a very splendid coin.”

 The obverse, with its portrait of Washington on horseback, reminded Vermeule somewhat of the drummer boy design on the Bicentennial quarter. Both, he pointed out, offer half-figure views as opposed to the heads and profiles that have appeared on many U.S. coins.

 “That’s a very painterly obverse,” he exclaimed. “The figure of Washington looks like it’s been almost laid on with a big, heavy brush. I think that’s quite spectacular.”

 Vermeule gave high marks to the reverse of the coin, as well, finding very special merit in its portrait of Mount Vernon, the famous Washington homestead in Virginia.

 “This coin,” he said, “treats architecture with more imagination than it’s ever been treated on any U.S. coin. This is really quite a scintillating Mount Vernon, compared to Monticello on the Jefferson nickel and the Lincoln Memorial on the cent.”

 Karen Worth, one of the nation’s outstanding female medalists, likewise spoke highly of the coin – whose designer, Elizabeth Jones, then in her first year as chief sculptor-engraver of the Mint, was, like her, widely regarded as one of the
leading women in the field and continues to enjoy that status today.

 “I like its originality,” Worth declared. “I think it reflects a very fresh approach. It’s not at all pedestrian – and I really don’t intend that as a pun.”

 Edward C. Rochette, executive vice president of the American Numismatic Association, has always had high regard for Elizabeth Jones. Unlike Karen Worth, though, he found Jones’s work on this particular coin “disappointing.”

 After the release of preliminary sketches in the spring of 1982, Rochette expressed this disappointment in his weekly coin column, which was distributed nationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

 “Hopefully,” he wrote, “salvation lies in ‘preliminary,’ for if this is the finished product, the Mint should prepare itself for another round of criticism equal to that it received on the design of the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Surely America is capable of something better for its money.”

 By the end of June 1982, Rochette had seen plasters and galvanos for the coin and said they represented “quite an improvement.” He nonetheless maintained, as he had in his critical column, that collectors had reason to expect a great deal more from Elizabeth Jones.

 “I’m still disappointed,” he remarked. “I think she’s capable of doing better work. I just think she’s got too many bosses.”

 Jones did indeed have to get her work approved by a number of higher-ups – including not only Mint Director Donna Pope but also Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, who took a personal interest in the coin. She also had to clear it with the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal advisory panel that passes artistic judgment on all new U.S. coins. But, while each of these reviewers had input on the design, Jones insisted that she was in full agreement with all the modifications that were made – and, in fact, initiated some of them herself.

 The Fine Arts Commission suggested a number of changes – notably a shift in the placement of Washington’s horse; it recommended this with a view to giving Washington greater prominence. And yet, despite its role in bringing about
revisions, the panel liked Miss Jones’s basic design from the very start, according to its chairman, Carter Brown.

 “I think it was good when it started and it got a lot better,” said Brown, who was then director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

 “I suppose there will always be controversy about these things,” he added, “but I am quite pleased with this coin.”

 At least one change proposed by the commission wasn’t made. According to Brown, the panel was concerned about the small heraldic eagle that appears on the coin’s reverse below Mount Vernon.

 “It looked as if it might be a bird sort of sitting on the lawn,” he observed, “and the members didn’t want that ambiguity. We asked if there were a way of incusing it – engraving it into the surface – in order to differentiate it from the rest of the design. But, after exploring that, the artist reported that technically it couldn’t be done.”

 Vermeule, while lavish in his praise for other parts of the coin, concurred with the commission that the eagle was distracting and disconcerting.

 “It looks like a little dog-dropping on the lawn,” he remarked.

 “I know there is a feeling that an eagle is required,” he went on, “but really, I wonder if that’s so on a commemorative coin. It does seem to me that when you have to stick all those mandatory things on a coin, you cut down on the latitude –  the creativity – of the designer.”

 Not all curators contacted by COINage found the new coin to their liking. Vermeule’s enthusiasm contrasted sharply with the downbeat reaction of Dr. Richard G. Doty, then curator of modern coins and paper money for the American Numismatic Society.

 “I’m not all that impressed,” Doty said. “There’s an awful lot of open space for my money, at least on the reverse. It’s an improvement on our regular coinage; compared to what we have, it’s not bad – but an Oregon Trail half dollar it is not.”

 By far the most outspoken critic of the coin, among those taking part in the survey, was sculptor Mico Kaufman, a medalist of distinction and a man of strong
convictions.

 “Artistically, it’s lousy,” Kaufman said. “I’ve heard that Miss Jones is a very charming woman, and nobody wants to knock a charming woman. In this case, though, I’m afraid I have no choice.

 “First of all, there are fundamental errors in anatomy. The horse is completely wrong and Washington himself appears deformed. One of his hands is bigger than the other and his knuckles don’t follow the script; they are way out of kilter. I’m wondering, too, how the harness remains on the horse, since there doesn’t seem to be any strap holding it on behind the ears.

 “There also are mistakes in perspective. You are looking at Washington here from below; you are on foot, while he is on a horse. Thus, any lines which would be horizontal on eye level should now appear convex – and yet, there is no
convexity; instead, all the lines are cut straight.”

 Kaufman didn’t feel that matters such as these could be lightly dismissed as products of “artistic license.”

 “There’s nothing esoteric about all this,” he said. “It’s simply a case of poor composition and poor artistic quality.”

 To Kaufman’s way of thinking, the Washington coin underscored the need for opening the work of designing U.S. coins to artists outside the Mint.

 “The sculptors at the Mint always hog this work,” he said, “and the quality of our coinage has suffered as a result.”

 Frank Gasparro, Jones’s immediate predecessor at the Mint, took such comments in stride and advised his successor to do likewise.

 “All coins receive criticism,” he declared. “It happened with the Standing Liberty quarter, the Peace dollar, the Washington quarter – all of our coins have been criticized.

 “It happened to me with every coin I made, and it’s happening now to Elizabeth Jones, as well. She has to get used to it; the thing to do is just ride along with it and not let the critics get the best of you.”

 The Washington half dollar, which commemorated the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth , figured to attract particular attention – and particularly close scrutiny – because of its key role in U.S. coinage history. It was  the nation’s first new commemorative coin since the Washington-Carver half dollar, a piece last issued in 1954.

 The coin’s special status undoubtedly colored the views of many hobbyists, making them more tolerant of its flaws and perhaps a bit more conscious of its good points.

 Vermeule acknowledged this in speaking of his own high opinion of the coin.

 “I’m a little bit like the chap who’s walked across the Sahara Desert for a week and then is given a drink of very fine bottled water,” Vermeule remarked. “I would be impressed with almost any new coin because this nation’s coinage has
been so very starved for variety.

 “Even so,” he added “I’m really most impressed with this coin – and I hope that it will start us on the path of making U.S. coinage great.

 “It’s like the walk on the Moon. It’s one small step for the United States in achieving a richer numismatic heritage.”

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