A Vision of Liberty for a Modern Nation, Part 1: Treading Lightly

American Liberty 2017 gold UHR coin main2

In March of last year, when the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee released its final design choice for the 2017 American Liberty high-relief gold coin, the numismatic zone of the Internet exploded. The conflict renewed at each step in the process, including the official unveiling this month: fans praised the design’s inclusiveness and beauty, while detractors called it politically correct, unattractive, or both. Charges of racism—some justified, others not—were hurled. Over and over again, the discussion returned to Liberty’s braided hairstyle. Although some complaints focused on the size of the stars in Liberty’s crown, it was her braided hair, by far, that provoked the most outrage. In a nation founded on one of the highest principles imaginable, our national conversation was preoccupied with a hairdo.

For weeks, I’ve tiptoed around the subject of this coin. It’s an major piece of our numismatic history, largely because of the race of the woman representing Liberty—but how do I address the subject without starting a dumpster fire? Race is among the most important issues of our time; it’s in greatest need of discussion, yet is one of the hardest things to discuss. I began to realize that avoiding the subject on Mint News Blog was exactly the wrong thing to do. The more difficult the discussion, the more important it is to have it.

So I began studying the matter in depth, and discovered there’s much more going on here than a decision to give a black woman a turn at being Liberty. The paths leading to this coin come from a world of subjects—not just race but gender, American history, ancient history, biology, banking, immigration, art, economics, and mythology. Even pornography (a word I never imagined using here) makes an appearance in the story.

As it turns out, a blog post is a woefully inadequate medium for the subject, which needs an entire book to give it the treatment it deserves. But a blog is the venue we have here, so in this tight framework, I’ll give it my best.

The End of One Series, and the Beginning of Another

To understand the interpretation of Liberty on the 2017 high-relief gold coin, it helps to start with its predecessor, the 2015 American Liberty HR gold coin—which leads us back to the 2009 edition, which leads us back further still to the historic Saint-Gaudens double eagle of 1907. (As you can see, we haven’t even made it out of the first paragraph and the paths are already forking.)

In July 2014, the CCAC held one of its regular meetings via teleconference. The major topic on the agenda was an ultra-high-relief, 24-karat gold, American Liberty–themed coin, along with a silver medal of the same design, to be recommended for the Mint’s 2015–2016 production calendar. The Mint (which had representatives in the conference call) viewed the coin as a bookend* to the 2009 high-relief gold coin struck during the tenure of Edmund Moy, who was director of the U.S. Mint at the time. Moy’s coin, in the words of Mint representative April Stafford, “fulfilled the original vision of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, closing one chapter of American coin design and beginning a new one.” (Quotations from this meeting have been shortened for use in this article; the complete transcript is available here.)

Stafford was referencing, of course, the original 1907 Ultra High Relief double eagle gold coin, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. The president wanted to revitalize the designs on American coinage, which he felt was “artistically of atrocious hideousness.” The first, pattern strikes of this coin were a test of how far the Mint could take the concept of extremely high, medallic* relief. The results, although quite beautiful, were of course unsuitable for long-term production. The Mint lowered the relief somewhat and tried again, but even these coins were troublesome, taking three strikes per coin to bring up the design. After producing a little more than 12,300 of these high-relief strikes, the Mint moved to a flatter, more traditional relief that was both beautiful and production-friendly—but was nonetheless a diminished version of Saint-Gaudens’s original.

The 1907 Ultra High Relief double eagle. (Photo courtesy of Stack's Bowers Galleries)

The 1907 Ultra High Relief double eagle. (Photos courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries)

2009UHRObv-Rev USMint

The 2009 Ultra High Relief gold coin. As CCAC member Michael Moran pointed out, although the Mint describes the coin’s relief as “ultra” high, it is not as high as that in Saint-Gaudens’s original. (This post uses the term “high-relief” in the interest of accuracy.) Note, however, the precision of the details made possible by modern minting technology. (Photos courtesy of the U.S. Mint)

With the 2009 HR gold coin, Director Moy felt Saint-Gaudens’s original vision could be realized—that, as CCAC chair Gary Marks put it in the teleconference, “a past failure could be corrected.” According to Marks, the Mint director hoped the coin would be the first in a series of ultra-high-relief gold issues with modern designs. That was the CCAC’s hope, as well.

The upshot of the teleconference was that a 2015 renewal of the format would be a worthy complement* to the 2009 coin. Where the 2009 coin had brought to a close an era of classic American coin design, the 2015 coin would open the door on a new one. The committee hoped that, if the Mint followed up on its recommendations, the resulting design candidates would be more than a rehashing of past classics. As Marks put it, “I’d like the artists to try to pull out of their souls some new ideas about what Liberty might look like in the twenty-first century.”

Which brings us to another fork in the path.

Women and People of Color on Money

The late Richard Doty, who was senior curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was a close student of artwork on American currency. In Pictures From a Distant Country: Seeing America Through Old Paper Money, he describes the evolution of designs on 19th-century private bank notes. Then, as now, the designs on money depicted the outer world while also revealing the worldviews of the artists and those who commissioned their work.

Doty traces the evolution of the design elements on those now-obsolete bank notes, and includes depictions of people who are especially relevant to our discussion of a modern Liberty. “There were three groups,” he writes, “who frequently appeared on our early currency, but who played little or no role in the money economy that that currency facilitated. They were Native Americans, African-Americans, and women, and their constant visibility on bank notes (in contrast to their virtual invisibility in a number of other areas) says a great deal about the mind-set of those who requested, designed, engraved, and used the bills.” He goes on to demonstrate how “the depiction of the three ‘out’ groups evolved through time, manifesting a visual progression that mirrored the evolution of the country itself.” (Italics are the author’s.)

Across three of the book’s chapters, Doty makes the case that, at the beginning of the private-bank-note era, each of these three groups served merely stage props, standing in for the figures in popular imagination. The Indian was a sneaky enemy, or a remote figure who looked on in denial as the white man’s progress, in the form of trains and factories, rolled onward. The African-American began as a feature of the landscape, indistinguishable as an individual among a group of slaves. As the issue of slavery grew more contentious, the African-American was depicted as a happy worker, beaming a great smile while carrying a bushel of cotton, or singing joyfully while hoeing a row.

Here, "a native group has been disturbed, its men in disorganized pursuit of that which they cannot understand."

Here, “a native group has been disturbed, its men in disorganized pursuit of that which they cannot understand.”

"One can just imagine the wife in [this] scene ... saying, 'Look honey, factories! Aren’t they neat?' To which her husband responds with a monosyllabic grunt that roughly translates to 'Phooey.'”

“One can just imagine the wife in [this] scene … saying, ‘Look honey, factories! Aren’t they neat?’ To which her husband responds with a monosyllabic grunt that roughly translates to ‘Phooey.’”

This vignette originally depicted a field of white laborers harvesting wheat. A South Carolina bank wanted to use the image, but asked that the laborers be changed to black slaves, and the wheat to cotton.

This vignette originally depicted a field of white laborers harvesting wheat. A South Carolina bank liked the image, but asked that the white laborers be changed to black slaves, and the wheat to cotton.

PFDC African-American 2

Examples of the “happy-slave” trend, in which many bank notes served as propaganda for the pro-slavery cause.

Members of the third group, women, were often depicted as grand allegories, which often was an excuse to render them naked. The precedent of nudity in fine art served as an excuse for partial or total nudity on banknotes; there was little danger that the “fairer sex” would be exposed to the images, as women (especially gentlewomen) rarely handled money. “One is rather hard put,” Doty writes, “to come away with anything but a lingering impression that the bathing nude on a $20 bill from Macon, Georgia, was there as the 1840 equivalent of a pinup.”

"This was not the sort of thing you would show to your mother—or your daughter, or your wife." Although Doty doesn't mention it, the position of the eagle's wings gives the scene a creepy similarity to the story of Leda and the Swan.

“This was not the sort of thing you would show to your mother—or your daughter, or your wife,” Doty writes. Although he doesn’t mention it, the position of the eagle’s wings gives the scene a creepy similarity to the story of Leda and the Swan.

In an opposing trend, women were depicted as soft-cheeked ideals of virtue. Of this tendency to romanticize female figures, Doty writes, “Nowhere was this need more indelibly expressed than in the profession most commonly associated with them, that of the milkmaid. From the simple testimony of the currency, milking cows must have been the growth industry of the 19th century.”

This particular milk maid seems a tad overdressed...

This particular milkmaid seems a tad overdressed…

Woman as a symbol of purity, complete with white dove.

Woman as a symbol of purity, complete with white dove.

As time passed and American culture progressed, Native Americans and women came to be depicted in a more realistic fashion, as features of the world that is rather than the world as others want it to be. Women, who were beginning to earn and spend money of their own, began to be depicted as workers in stores, mills, and factories. Native Americans, as their physically threatening status diminished, were depicted living ordinary lives, canoeing, fishing, and hunting “without moral commentary.” As for African-Americans, the happy-slaves trend came to an end, but not because of cultural progress. In the midst of the Civil War, the National Bank Act of 1863 made the U.S. government the sole issuer of paper money. The era of private bank notes was over, and soon afterward, the era of slavery was, as well.

As women began to earn money for themselves, banks began to depict them realistically on their bank notes.

As women began to earn money for themselves, banks began to depict them realistically on their bank notes.

Thoroughly Modern Liberty

In its 2014 instructions to the members of its Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), the Mint’s instructions—like the CCAC’s recommendations—were intentionally vague (especially in comparison to the lengthy, rigid requirements often required by Congress for circulating coinage, with the Apollo 11 commemorative being a recent example). As the CCAC had hoped, the goal of devising a modern Liberty representative of the nation’s diversity gave the artists a much-needed dose of creative freedom.

Justin Kunz, the AIP artist who produced the winning 2015 design, said, “The problem we were tasked with solving, to portray Lady Liberty as a modern figure (rather than a traditional one), proved a bit more difficult in practice than it sounded in theory. It required a lot of studying, sketching and meditating about what Lady Liberty represents, what it is that defines our time from past eras, and how these ideas might be distilled down to a simple visual statement that could be expressed in an elegant way.”

Kunz’s Lady Liberty on the 2015 high-relief gold coin is clearly a modern figure, particularly in two aspects. The first is her stance. Liberties of the past, when depicted in full or three-quarter length, have been grand allegories. They are untouchable; they stride from an exalted world into our own, bearing a shield of war or a sheaf of grain, carrying a torch of freedom, extending an olive branch or merely a beckoning hand. They tend to have dawn trailing from the skirts of their Greek-inspired, billowing robes. These Liberties were handed down to America from a time when human beings seemed to be utterly at the whim of the gods.

The 2015 high-relief gold coin, depicting an all-new, thoroughly modern interpretation of Liberty. (Photos courtesy of APMEX)

The 2015 high-relief gold coin, depicting an all-new, thoroughly modern interpretation of Liberty. (Photos courtesy of APMEX)

The 2015 Liberty is strong and dignified, but she is very human. She lives in a world where people, including women-people, control their own destinies, to the degree that it’s possible within the bounds of nature. Her Greek-inspired gown hangs straight, obeying gravity rather than a divine wind. The breeze that ripples the flag catches her sleeve and gives it a flutter, but the effect is entirely realistic. Her arms are strong, with a hint of muscle. Rather than holding the torch of freedom above her head as if leading a vast army, she grips it at a practical height, as if she’s leading her neighbors on a long trek to safety. Her hair is not a flowing fire hazard. It’s either done up or worn short, with a few strands escaping to one side. She stands perfectly still, but the rippling flag, the dancing torch flames, and the flame-like shapes of the laurel wreath on her head suggest motion. (In fact, one CCAC member, Michael Bugeja, had emphasized that “liberty” means not only freedom of will but unrestrained motion, an aspect the design captures.)

The second modern aspect of Liberty was not a complete surprise, as the design instructions had called for a sense of diversity—that said, “diversity” was left open to interpretation, and an other-than-white Liberty had not been a strict requirement. Whatever they had expected, the committee members were pleased to see that, for the first time, Liberty could be interpreted as being from a race other than white.

This may or may not have been intentional on Kunz’s part. Given his youth and gender, he’d be forgiven if he didn’t realize modern American beauty standards are quite different from what they were even 20 years ago. However, as an artist, he’s probably aware that in the not-too-distant past, “beauty” meant white skin, a small nose, and medium-to-thin lips. As more and more African-American, Latina, and mixed-raced women became celebrities, that ideal evolved. American preferences in skin tone, bone structure, lip fullness, hairstyles, and so on have changed greatly, and many “ideal” beauties today are of mixed or even indeterminate race.

From the outset, the CCAC was keenly aware that, whatever design was chosen, the coin must be an across-the-board success, or there would be no further high-relief coins from the Mint. The effort needed to work not only artistically but from the manufacturing (i.e., strike-ability) and marketing standpoints. Thanks to careful attention at each step of the process, the work was an unqualified success. Both the high-end 2015 gold coin and its companion piece, the more cost-conscious 2016 silver medal, were sell-outs, which meant that a new, high-relief gold coin was a possibility for 2017.   ❑

* This posted was edited for accuracy at 5:45 on January 30. At the suggestion of CCAC member Michael Moran, I changed the description of the relief on the 1907 UHR coin from “almost sculptural” to the more correct “medallic.” In addition, the original text said that the CCAC saw the 2015 coin as a bookend to the 2009 coin, but that was actually the view of the Mint, not the CCAC. Mr. Moran points out that “bookend” has a ring of finality to it, and that the CCAC wanted the coin to be the start of something rather than the end of it. I’ve adjusted the text accordingly.

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  1. Mint News Blog says

    @Old Big Bird, there shouldn’t be a problem — I don’t see any comments being held for moderation.

  2. Old Big Bird says

    @Mint News Blog just note I know for a fact that I wrote two and they never appeared just like the old TV program “”Lost in Space” but thanks for checking on it

  3. says

    For Just Another Dave In Pa and others that still have questions about “motivations” for this coin (e.g., “Is it simply filling a racial quota for coins? “), here is the entire content of the CCAC’s March 22, 2016 letter to the Treasury Secretary:

    A public meeting of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) was held on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 to review proposed obverse and reverse designs for the 2017 American Liberty High Relief 24K Gold Coin and Silver Medal.

    Mindful of the multiculturalism of our nation, the Committee took the opportunity to make a difference in applying a new perspective to broaden the view of Lady Liberty which, up to this point, has been cast in a European classical mold.

    We felt we could be inclusive of the many races in our country, mindful that there are many ideals of a woman, and sensitive to these defining characteristics.

    After studying the wide variety of Liberty depictions offered to the Committee, our recommendation is a profile view of an African-American woman, crowned by stars (HR-0-08). This remarkable and ground-breaking obverse, which garnered 28 of 33 points through the Committee’s scoring process, is paired with an elegant eagle (HR-R-01), that received 29 of 33 possible points.

    This letter can be found on page 2 of this document: https://www.ccac.gov/media/calendar/lettersToSecretary/2016_0315.pdf

    Can we all agree that the sentiment expressed by the CCAC is clearly NOT the same thing as “filling a racial quota for coins“!?

    I’m going to also express my disagreement with your choice of words regarding the BSA’s “recent changes”. Clearly it makes them much MORE relevant, because although you clearly think having compassion (i.e., being inclusive of other human beings) is some big joke, the BSA has determined it is the right ethical choice to accept transgender boys that identify as male. It is easy to judge others without having to walk a mile in their shoes; whether they are a woman, gay, transgender, black, disabled, non-christian, etc.

  4. says

    I think the new Liberty coin is remarkable! I see it as more of a representation of the U.S. than some mythical goddesses from the past. One thing I would have suggested though, if Miss Liberty ever should be wearing the cap, it would have been this one…

  5. Just Another Dave In Pa says

    right. The official document contains all the right buzzwords. Although I take exception to the wording

    European classical mold.

    There was never a mold used for Liberty. I guess this pertains to the evil patriarchy that has oppressed everyone for so long.

    They chose to portray Liberty as a black woman.

    No one ever chose to portray Liberty as a white European woman. The fact that Liberty has traditionally had those features is an organic consequence of the artist’s vision. It wasn’t chosen by committee to reflect some politically expedient, test-marketed racial identity association to reflect the benevolent understanding of the US Treasury Dept.

    Of course the official statement will read like a corporate policy designed to promote unity while shielding the organization from lawsuits.

    In that respect, it is filling a racial quota. The fact that Liberty is portrayed as a black woman is not an organic consequence. It’s a deliberate attempt to, in their own words; “be inclusive of the many races in our country, mindful that there are many ideals of a woman, and sensitive to these defining characteristics.”

    That’s what’s different. If you cannot see this very important distinction then you haven’t paid attention to the culture wars in this country.

  6. Sith says

    @Old Big Bird – I was just messing with you. 🙂

    @data dave, Hear, hear!

    @Just Another Dave In Pa – I believe in the melting pot, not the modern mosaic view of America as such I do not view “a deliberate attempt to, in their own words; “be inclusive of the many races in our country,” to be part of a culture war. Our culture is in constant flux. In context this is nothing new, as for example the Peace Dollar was labeled “America’s ‘flapper’ dollar,” because it failed to meet that generations ideal of Liberty. The model was Italian.

    FYI The Boy Scouts accept females. I didn’t tell them to do that, but that is the reality. They choose to represent that reality on their coin. The BSA coin sold out. The Girl Scout coin was a miserable failure. Some might say the coin was successful in-spite of the “female, but to me it sounds like the BSA did something right.

  7. Just Another Dave In Pa says

    I don’t think that statement is part of the culture wars either. It does point to a racial quota, though.

  8. Just Another Dave In Pa says

    To be clear;

    the distinction is between an organic artistic vision and a calculated, agenda-driven portrayal.

    I’m not even really against having these new Liberty coins. I won’t buy them. It’s not an unattractive coin, though.
    The cornrows are ok. It’s ironic that when a white girl or woman wears cornrows they call it cultural appropriation and they get angry that a white girl would try to profit from their culture.

  9. VA Bob says

    If one wants to see divisiveness look no further than the Mint itself (might as well include all of government). When they can refer to a person depicted on a coin as just plain old “American” instead of perpetuating and engaging identity politics, things will improve. The 2015 HR could have been a woman of any race, her facial features just weren’t that well defined, people assumed, but the Mint didn’t market it as the European-American Liberty, or the Asian-American Liberty. Why now? Are they afraid we can’t tell she is black? I’ve no issue with anyone celebrating their heritage. I do have a problem with government entities (Mint included) defining us for their purpose.

  10. VA Bob says

    Sith – They should have done a coin this year on the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Last year was the last for having elephants, and this May the circus will cease to exist after 146 years. No matter how one feels about it, it’s a piece of Americana gone forever. For many children it was the closest thing to a zoo they might have got a chance to see in person.

  11. Robert says

    Just Another Dave In Pa says: “No one ever chose to portray Liberty as a white European woman. The fact that Liberty has traditionally had those features is an organic consequence of the artist’s vision.”

    Your first statement is simply incorrect. Every artist who has ever portrayed Liberty on an American coin was a white man with European ancestry. Like most artists, these artists CHOSE to portray Liberty with facial features resembling their own race, which was white. They also CHOSE to depict Liberty with features strongly resembling classical Greek or Roman figures because those artistic styles were extremely popular in late 19th c. and early 20th c. American art and architecture.

    Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with what these artists did because generally all artists do this. That’s why Jesus Christ is generally portrayed as a white man with fair skin and reddish-brown hair and blue eyes, even though it’s highly unlikely he had any of these features given his origin. He was portrayed this way because he was painted almost exclusively by white men.

    However, we’re now in the 21st century, more than 100 years since the Neo-Renaissance of American art and architecture. Isn’t it about time our coinage reflects contemporary interpretations of the allegorical figure of Liberty? Let’s think outside the box for a moment and begin ito imagine how many different ways Liberty might be depicted on our coins, race being but one factor.

  12. Dustyroads says

    We’ve been talking so much about race, why not get passed it for a while and ask the question of why Liberty is even envisioned as a woman. I think Liberty over the years has been best envisioned as a woman because the message is that everyone in America has a chance to pursue whatever they decide. For so long this has been an uphill battle for women in general. It’s appropriate for our time that the vision of Liberty be extended to include the segment of our population that has been largely disenfranchised. It’s deeply saddening that so many of us lack common respect. On the other hand, no one deserves special treatment in America if they don’t try to personally better themselves. But this is where a large group of people fall into generalizations. It will always be important to think before we judge someone else. A couple of scriptures from the bible come to mind, “treat others as you would have them treat you”, and “judge not, lest ye be also judged”.

  13. Barry says

    The message from the BSA and GSA coins is that males can’t exclude females from their groups but, females can exclude males from theirs. Thus PC is implied.

  14. Just Another Dave In Pa says

    Regarding the BSA, steadily declining membership has put this organization in the position of accepting anyone that will have them.

    I think the same will happen with the Catholic Church and women priests. The declining number of men who want to be priests (as well as the abuse scandals) will eventually force them to admit women as priests.

    Both these organizations are increasingly irrelevant but money has no ethical standards. They’ll do what they have to do to survive.

  15. VA Bob says

    Dusty – I believe when we started as a nation, dominated by men, envisioned women as being the best of us. A separation of the grimy, nastiness of nation building with something pure and decent in their lives. Same for many today, though that is fading fast. Many ruthless, cut-throat women in places of power today. Perhaps one day there will be a male liberty on a coin. I don’t personally care to see it.

  16. Sith says

    @VA Bob – Hear, hear! On both posts. FYI My children are devastated it will be the last time they see this circus.

    @Just Another Dave In Pa – I agree

    From the Roman goddess Libertas. Art historians have traced images of America’s lady liberty back to the first years of European discovery and invasion, when America–the untamed New World–was symbolized as the Indian Queen, a voluptuous,but stern Native American woman dressed in little more than head feathers. She was soon replaced with a tamer, more anglicized American image: the Indian Princess, a tawny, barefoot beauty often guarded by a rattlesnake. skinned, more classical image. In the years surrounding the American revolution, the image of the Indian Princess began to compete with emblems of the Greek goddess emerging from the European schools of classical art and architecture. “By the late 1790s,” folk-art historian Nancy Jo Fox points out, “it was not clear whether a feathered Indian Princess had changed into a Greek goddess or whether a greek goddess had placed feathers or plumes in her hair”

  17. earthling says

    Hey Mint people , just give us a cheap affordable thrill this year, OK?

    Gold anything isn’t affordable. You gave us P’s already. Now give us a few P-less Pennies. Maybe not everyone is thrilled about P’ ed Pennies.

    Do the cheap thing. Give P haters something to smile about.

  18. Erik H says

    Jeff Wheat, I like your observation on the publics ability to view the design choices and then being disappointed if their ideal design wasn’t picked.

  19. So Krates says

    @ BK – Couldn’t have said it better myself. I think I also might need to work on one of them there light touches you speak of.

  20. Mint News Blog says

    Louis Golino, one fine dime, and Old Big Bird — I just found some of your comments in the spam folder, and I’ve returned them to their natural habitat. None of them contained anything that should have flagged them as spam, and I couldn’t detect any pattern with regard to length, number of hyperlinks, etc. I’m not sure what digital glitch caused them to get bounced, but I hope it’s temporary and will keep an eye on it. My apologies for the issue!

  21. earthling says

    This year I want a 2017 Lincoln Cent from the Philadelphia Mint with no ( P) Mintmark. I’m willing to pay for it but no crazy prices like some people pay for stuff of relatively no value.

    I like the Muhammad Ali Coins and the Moon Landing Coins. Maybe the Peace Dollar restrike.

    Other than that I’m done. It was fun , for a while, but lately……….?




  22. TemplePriestess says

    Thanks DustyRoads I picked up the Secret Life of Lady Liberty book. Its a great read, between the book and this article I have a new appreciation for the 2015 high relief coin. Really looking forward to the 2017 liberty release as well, I think it looks awesome! Though I may have to settle for the silver non coin version.
    Some people’s gripe that liberty has stars around her head make it no worse than if she had feathers, a wreath, or enlightenment encircling her head. The fact the design makes her a woman of color just adds to the evolvement of the liberty goddess. America has always been a melting pot, so its cool that other nationalities will get to have a version of Miss liberty in the coming years.

  23. earthling says

    Could we please get Betty Boop as Lady Liberty? I’ll even take Olive Oyl dressed as Liberty. Wilma or Betty?

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