As a change of pace, I wanted to take a post to look at some of my favorite modern commemorative coin designs. Each of the coins highlighted below are beautiful in their own respect, but also include some specific aspects that make them worthy of discussion.
The coins include only modern commemorative coin issues. This does not include First Spouse Gold Coins or American Platinum Eagle reverse designs. I am also not including designs that were previously used on other U.S. coins (i.e. the 2001 American Buffalo Silver Dollar).
1988 Olympics $5 Gold Coin Obverse
Over the years, the US Mint has issued many commemorative coins for the Olympic Games, reaching its peak with the issuance of sixteen different designs for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. For the most part, the designs have featured depictions of athletes.
The obverse of the 1988 Olympic $5 Gold Coin, designed by Elizabeth Jones, took a different approach. The design features Nike, the goddess of victory, wearing a crown of olive leaves. The classical depiction is relatively uncluttered by the copious inscriptions that are required to be included on most commemorative coins. The word LIBERTY crosses Nike’s neck and inscription IN GOD WE TRUST is placed on a ribbon intertwined with the crown. These placements allow the portrait to have a wider canvas and carry a greater impression.
1994 Prisoner of War Silver Dollar Obverse
Some US Mint coin designs or design candidates have been criticized for taking a literal approach to the subject, rather than utilizing symbolism, which can be much more powerful.
The 1994 Prisoner of War Silver Dollar obverse was designed by Tom Neilson, who was a decorated former prisoner of war employed by the Bureau of Veterans Affairs. The design depicts a bald eagle with a broken chain on one leg, flying through a ring of barbed wire to represent freedom.
1999 George Washington $5 Gold Coin
The design for this coin is by Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966), the wife of James Earle Fraser (designer of the Buffalo Nickel). During her life, Laura Gardin Fraser designed several early commemorative coins including the 1922 Grant Memorial Half Dollar, 1921 Alabama Half Dollar, and the Oregon Trail Half Dollar (together with her husband).
She had created this design of George Washington and a bald eagle for use on the 1932 Washington Quarter. From more than 100 different models submitted by 98 sculptors, this design was selected by a bicentennial committee, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the Treasury Department. However, the design was rejected by the Secretary of the Treasury, some have suggested because he did not want to have a woman design the new quarter.
More than 60 years later, the US Mint used this design for the 1999 George Washington $5 Gold Coin. Throughout history, there must be countless designs created for US coins that were not used. From time to time, it might be appropriate to resurrect one of these unused designs for contemporary use.
2000 Leif Ericson Silver Dollar Obverse
This coin was issued to mark the 1,000th anniversary of Leif Ericson’s discovery of the New World. The obverse design is by John Mercanti and features a portrait of Leif Ericson in traditional Icelandic style.
I like the idea of using a style that conveys something about the subject matter being depicted. I have seen this approach utilized for some world coins, but for the most part not on any U.S. commemorative coins.
2005 Marine Corps Silver Dollar
This coin featured the famous scene of Marines raising an American flag over Iwo Jima that was photographed by Joe Rosenthal. The scene was modeled for the coin by Norman E. Nemeth.
Using an iconic scene that will be recognized by most Americans was clearly a winning approach. The coins managed to sell out of the maximum authorized mintage of 600,000. I suspect a good portion of the coins were purchased by non-coin collectors on the basis of the design. Future commemorative coin programs could take a lesson from this.
2011 Medal of Honor $5 Gold Obverse
This is the reverse design for the recently issued 2011 Medal of Honor $5 Gold Coin designed by Joel Iskowitz. It presents a stunning depiction of Minerva, who appeared on the central image of the original Medal of Honor. She carries a union shield and flag with munitions and a cannon in the background. Despite the many elements included, the design remains well balanced and effective. It would have been great to see this design on a larger sized coin.
Readers: Please feel free to share your own favorite modern commemorative coins in the comments.