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The Flipside with Robert R. Van Ryzin

Artists Needed - Please Report for Duty
March 26, 2008

Recently, U.S. Mint Director Ed Moy said, "We want to spur the highest level of artistic excellence in American coin design." He made the statement along with the announcement of the Mint's plans to recreate the 1907 Saint-Gaudens ultra high relief gold $20. It will be quite the challenge and one that promises to produce a popular collectible.

It was the dream of President Theodore Roosevelt, along with the help of noted sculptors such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser, Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil and others, to dramatically improve the look of U.S. coins.

Roosevelt went so far as to envision a U.S. coin with the same high relief as found on some ancient coins, thus leading to the experiments with the height of the relief on the Saint-Gaudens gold $20 issued in 1907. It was argued, however, that such a relief, which took some press time to achieve, wasn't suited to high-speed coinage. So, the plan was shelved, and the gold $20 took a much lower relief.

It was a shame, and, as I said, the new effort should prove a noble one - at least from the technical side. Plus, if I can afford one, I'd like to have one in my collection. I've written about Saint-Gaudens and his design in the past, and it is one of my favorites.

However, I have one little concern. If we're really striving for artistic excellence in U.S. coinage design, why do we need to return to the past (and in this case a century ago) to spur this on? Don't we have artists who could produce a representation of Liberty that could compete with Saint-Gaudens, Weinman, or MacNeil?

Frankly, it looks to me like we're running out of designs to bring back. First we recreated the Saint-Gaudens gold $20 obverse in low relief on the gold American Eagle in 1986. That same year we added a silver American Eagle with Weinman's obverse from the Walking Liberty. In 2001, we brought back Fraser's design from the Buffalo nickel. It is now also available on a gold $50.

About all we've got left to recreate from circulating coins from that period of artistic excellence is MacNeil's Standing Liberty, Weinman's Mercury dime, Pratt's gold $2.50s and $5s, and Saint-Gaudens' gold $10. Are they next?

Again, where are the artists? I like all of the prior mentioned designs and applaud Moy's efforts to improve U.S. coin design. I'm just wishing for more originality and wondering where our generation of artists of the same ilk as Saint-Gaudens, MacNeil, Weinman and Fraser are hiding out.

We need you! Please report for duty.

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About the Author
Robert R. Van Ryzin has been a coin collector for 30 years. He has served as editor of Krause Publications Coins and Coin Prices magazines since 1994. He joined the firm in 1986 after obtaining a master of fine arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Prior to becoming a magazine editor, he worked on World Coin News as a staff member and later served as managing editor of Numismatic News. Van Ryzin, whose specialty is U.S. coinage history, is also the award-winning author of the book Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001), as well as two earlier titles, Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (Krause Publications, 1992).

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