A recent email blast from the Mint reminded that October is National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM). While the celebratory occasion was initially established 30 years ago as National Arts Week, in 1993 it was reformed into National Arts and Humanities month in order to “raise public awareness about the role the arts and humanities play in our communities and lives.” The month’s goals additionally include bringing attention to the arts at the local, state, and national levels and encouraging individuals, organizations, and businesses to participate in and appreciate the arts. In fact, each day of October honors a particular form of art, and today’s theme is literature.
In celebration of NAHM’s day of literature, we on Mint News Blog thought we’d go back into Whitman’s archives and share a section on American Arts medals from the 2017 Red Book—particularly the literary figures who were celebrated in that program. Here is an excerpt:
The early-1980s American Arts medals were a bridge between the era of federally outlawed gold and the U.S. Mint’s dynamic and popular American Eagle bullion program that started in 1986.
During the Great Depression, various federal orders had made it illegal for the average American to buy and own gold. Their intent was to strengthen the U.S. economy by discouraging hoarding. In the 1930s nearly all privately owned gold was cashed in and held for decades by the Treasury Department. The executive orders were finally revoked in 1974, and Congress explored ways to sell the Treasury’s gold reserves. Various programs were proposed to offer the metal in formats affordable for the average American family to invest in.
From 1980 to 1984, the U.S. Mint struck congressionally mandated half-ounce and one-ounce .900 fine gold bullion pieces. Unlike South Africa’s Krugerrand and Canada’s Maple Leaf, the American Arts Commemorative Series medals were not legal tender. In fact, at first they were designed specifically not to resemble federal coins: for the first two years, the medals bore no marks of content, fineness, or weight, and their edges were smooth. Although they honored popular American writers, singers, and other artists, the medals sold poorly. The Treasury tinkered with new features in 1982 to make them appear more coin-like, and launched new marketing efforts, but sales remained lackluster. Eventually hundreds of thousands were melted by wholesale buyers. In some cases today’s surviving quantities are mere fractions of their original mintages and quantities sold. (For detailed information, see American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date.)
Four of the 10 Arts medals celebrated American authors John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and Mark Twain:
The other medals in the program, which also honored music, architecture, painting, and sculpture, were:
As of late 2016, when the 70th edition of the Red Book was in preparation, the medals were faring well as bullion coins. Their value as collectibles, however, was negligible. The following was based on a gold bullion value of $1,150 per ounce:
Date and Subject Mintage No. Sold Est. Surviving* Value 1980, Marian Anderson (singer) 1/2 oz. 1,000,000 281,624 225,000 $595 1980, Grant Wood (artist) 1 oz. 500,000 312,709 250,000 1,170 1981, Willa Cather (writer) 1/2 oz. 200,000 97,331 83,000 575 1981, Mark Twain (writer) 1 oz. 141,000 116,371 99,000 1,170 1982, Frank Lloyd Wright (architect) 1/2 oz. 360,000 348,305 51,000 575 1982, Louis Armstrong (musician) 1 oz. 420,000 409,098 60,000 1,180 1983, Alexander Calder (artist) 1/2 oz. 410,000 75,571 8,000 595 1983, Robert Frost (poet) 1 oz. 500,000 390,669 41,000 1,170 1984, John Steinbeck (writer) 1/2 oz. 35,000 32,572 32,000 585 1984, Helen Hayes (actress) 1 oz. 35,000 33,546 33,000 1,250 *After melting and other attrition.
While most connoisseurs of numismatics are familiar with the exacting and scientific nature of the field, let us not forget the beauty and transcendence that American coinage — and coinage around the world — bring to millions of people on a daily basis.
What do you think—would you have any interest in a bullion-coin program arts-themed designs? Are there other design themes that you think might play well with collectors and investors?
Click here for the Mint’s webpage on this year’s NAHM, with interviews of four Mint artists.