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AN ITALIAN ARTIST’S LEGACY TO IRISH NUMISMATICS

By Ed Reiter
 
 Publio Morbiducci.

 It’s not the sort of name you associate with shamrocks and shillelaghs. It conjures up images of pasta, not potatoes ... Genoa, not Galway ... Italy, not Ireland.

 The images are accurate: Publio Morbiducci was, in fact, Italian – a leading Italian sculptor of the early and mid-1900s. Nonetheless, this noted son of Italy made a lasting contribution to the numismatic heritage of Ireland.

 The artist’s contribution came into focus for collectors throughout the world when a stunning set of coins designed by Morbiducci – and meant to serve as patterns for everyday Irish coinage – surfaced in the U.S. coin market in the early 1990s.

 The set contained nine die-struck coins – all of them proofs – bearing designs prepared by Morbiducci for an international contest in 1927. The Irish Free State, then less than six years old, held that competition to obtain the designs for its first national coinage – and Morbiducci’s entries, like those of all the competitors, spotlighted animals native to the Emerald Isle.

 Remarkably, the set of Morbiducci proofs changed hands for upwards of $100,000 when it came up for sale – even though the coins’ designs were not the ones selected by the judges back in 1927. While they didn’t win the contest, they clearly went on to become prized collectibles. Some of them, in fact, reposed at one time in the world-renowned collection of Egypt’s King Farouk.

 The Irish Free State approached the preparation of its first national coins with great deliberation and meticulous attention to detail. It first chose the coins’ denominations, sizes and compositions and then set about obtaining their designs through a limited competition involving top artists not only from Ireland itself but also from elsewhere in Europe and from America.

 To assist him in this endeavor, the new nation’s minister of finance appointed a committee made up of prominent people with keen insights and sharp perspectives in the areas of art and history. The chairman of this panel was William Butler Yeats, the noted Irish poet who also was a member of the national senate.

 In setting forth the ground rules for the contest, Yeats’ committee specified that there would be eight different denominations – the half crown, florin, shilling, sixpence, threepence, penny, halfpenny and farthing – and stipulated that each coin would carry a portrait of an animal indigenous to Ireland. It also spelled out which animal would appear on each coin.

 The concept was brilliant, setting the stage for a series of coins that would be distinctly Irish and yet universal in appeal. And history has confirmed the planners’ wisdom: In the fourscore-plus years since it made its debut in 1928, this coinage has enjoyed enormous affection among the Irish people and great admiration around the world.

 Yeats provided insight into why domestic animals were chosen as the subjects for the coins.

 “If we decided upon birds and beasts,” he wrote, “the artist, the experience of centuries had shown, might achieve a masterpiece, and might – or so it seemed to us – please those that would look longer at each coin than anybody else, artists and children. Besides, what better symbols could we find for this horse-riding, salmon-fishing, cattle-raising country?”

 The committee invited nine of the world’s finest sculptors – including Morbiducci, a lifelong resident of Rome, then 38 years of age, who had made a major mark in his native land as both a sculptor and a medalist. Indeed, he was already a successful coin designer, having won a competition a few years before with his vibrant design for Italy's 2-lire coin.

 The sculptors invited in the Irish competition included three Americans – among them James Earle Fraser, who 15 years earlier had created the much-beloved Buffalo nickel. Designing a set of animal coins would seem to have been a compelling challenge for Fraser; however, he declined to participate.

 Another of the artists on the guest list, Yugoslavian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, got his invitation too late to compete but did send the young Irish nation a personal gift: a portrait of Hibernia holding a harp. The ground rules stated that all eight coins must bear a common obverse depicting a harp – an age-old symbol of Ireland.

 Besides Morbiducci, the six other sculptors who actually competed were Jerome Connor and Paul Manship of New York, Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard of Dublin, Carl Milles of Sweden and Percy Metcalfe of London. Each received a guarantee of 50 pounds in return for supplying a model of the harp design and one or more animal designs for the coins’ reverses. Additional payment was to be agreed upon in the event an entrant’s work was chosen.

 The committee furnished each artist with photographs and drawings of the animals to be featured, photographs of typical Irish harps, examples of Gaelic script for guidance in preparing inscriptions, plus illustrations of Greek and Carthaginian coins portraying three of the animals to be shown: a horse, a bull and a hare.

 Some of the seven artists submitted plaster models for all eight coins; others restricted themselves to a few representative pieces. Publio Morbiducci outdid himself, however: He presented the committee not only with a set of 10 plaster casts (including two different obverses) but also with two sets of proof pattern coins of his designs, struck in silver in the designated sizes. He had arranged to have these pieces minted by Lorioli Castelli, a leading Italian medal-making firm in Milan.

 All of Morbiducci’s patterns are dated 1927, the year they were produced – setting them apart in date as well as design from the coins the Irish government actually issued. Each also carries the word PROVA (Italian for “proof” on the obverse and the signature P. MORBIDUCCI on the reverse. In addition, the statement of value is shown on each coin in a Gaelic inscription written in distinctive Gaelic script.

  These patterns “are designed in a delicate balance of strength and grace,” one critic has written, “and it is reasonable to state that they must have been close runners-up in the final selection.”

 Over the years, many who have seen the Morbiducci proofs have marveled that these designs were not selected. But the competition was strong – and in one denomination after another, the judges found themselves unanimously favoring the entries of Percy Metcalfe. At length, the panel decided to use Metcalfe’s designs for all eight coins, rather than intersperse the work of other artists.

 The Metcalfe designs were well received by the public. Still, to some observers, they don’t have quite the vibrancy of Morbiducci’s art. Metcalfe’s horse on the half crown, for example, is a handsome animal shown standing tall – but Morbiducci’s version is a much more spirited steed rearing up excitedly with the heat from its flaring nostrils almost palpable. Likewise, the bull on Morbiducci’s shilling is a powerful beast, pawing restlessly at the ground, while Metcalfe’s is relatively docile. In fairness to Metcalfe, however, his original design did depict a far livelier bull, but it was deemed to be unrepresentative of Irish cattle and
he was therefore asked to tone it down.

 The other creatures shown on the Irish coins (and on all the artists’ entries, including Morbiducci’s) are a salmon on the florin, a wolfhound on the sixpence, a hare on the threepence, a hen on the penny, a pig on the halfpenny and a woodcock on the farthing.

 Evidently, Morbiducci had small numbers of proofs prepared besides the two sets he submitted to the judges – some in the metal intended for actual coinage and some in other metals, perhaps to test their striking characteristics.

 The first recorded sale of one of these patterns took place in 1946. Since then, small numbers have turned up on the market from time to time – always bringing strong premiums, by Irish coinage standards. There has been no known sale of a Morbiducci halfpenny or farthing, but multiple examples of all six other coins have changed hands.

 The set that was marketed in 1993 had belonged to Maj. A.W. Foster, a prominent collector of rare Irish coins. It contained two half crowns – one in silver, the other in copper – and three florins, in silver, silver-clad copper and copper. It also contained a nickel-silver shilling and copper examples of the sixpence, threepence and penny.

 All nine coins were submitted to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America for certification. NGC graded three of the coins Proof-64, four of them Proof-63, one Proof-62 and one Proof-60. These were the first Morbiducci patterns ever certified by the service, an NGC spokesman said at the time.

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