Collectors of modern coins from the United States Mint often complain about their lack of visual appeal. While it’s true that people have been complaining about U.S. coin designs as long as there has been a U.S. Mint, it’s also true that modern designs can seem lackluster.
The Mint is unusually constrained by Congress when compared with other world mints, which tend to have more creative leeway. The recent vote on the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act is an example. The law specifies that the convex side of the coin will show “a representation of a close-up of the famous ‘Buzz Aldrin on the Moon’ photograph taken July 20, 1969, that shows just the visor and part of the helmet of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in which the visor has a mirrored finish and reflects the image of the United States flag and the lunar lander and the remainder of the helmet has a frosted finish.” Some collectors who balked at supporting the law didn’t object to an Apollo 11 commemorative—quite the opposite—but they wanted the design of the coin to be up to the designer, not the politicians.
In 1998, numismatic author Ed Reiter pursued the subject with Joseph Veach Noble (1920–2007), a widely respected antiquities collector, museum official, and executive director of the Society of Medalists. The article is, naturally, a bit dated, but Mr. Reiter’s and Mr. Noble’s observations are worth revisiting today. The interview was the basis for a COINage article, “Is There a Doctor at the Mint?” which is posted on the PCGS website. The article is being reproduced here with the permission of PCGS.
Is There a Doctor at the Mint?
by Ed Reiter, November 6, 1998
We’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about “coin doctors.” Well, Congress and the U.S. Mint could use some first-rate coin doctors today—and I don’t mean the kind of “doctors” who specialize in artificial toning.
Our nation’s commemorative coins are suffering from a case of quality-design anemia—a serious, chronic deficiency of solid artistic excellence—and the program urgently needs corrective surgery. A face lift won’t do the job; it will take an art transplant to remedy this problem—abandonment of the system now being used to obtain coin designs and establishment in its place of a system that takes the high road, rather than the path of least resistance.
Just 16 years have elapsed since the “modern” series of U.S. commemoratives got under way with the issuance of the George Washington half dollar in 1982. Already, however, the U.S. Mint has issued more coins in this series than it did during the entire 62-year period of “traditional” commemoratives, from 1892 to 1954. And with relatively few exceptions, the artwork on these coins has been depressingly, relentlessly inferior.
Joseph Veach Noble is not a doctor; he’s a former museum official and longtime executive director of the prestigious (and now regrettably dormant) Society of Medalists—which for many years, starting in 1930, issued two medals a year by top-flight artists. But he has a strong sense of what ails our commemorative coinage, and a forthright prescription for treating and curing the problem.
“Collectively, these recent commemorative coins are atrocious, and a disgrace to the Treasury Department,” Noble declared disgustedly in a far-ranging interview I conducted with him for COINage magazine. “Everything has been crowded into their design except the kitchen sink. The major fault is that every coin is overburdened with too much text.
“All of the sculptors are talented, and if left to themselves they could produce beautiful coinage. But Michelangelo couldn’t do any better, given the overabundance of copy and design elements that our sculptors are forced to include in their designs.
“These new coins are politically correct, but artistically they are failures. I am ashamed of them as an American citizen.”
Noble brings a unique perspective to this issue, for he has been involved for many years in commissioning artists to prepare medallic works, not only for the Society of Medalists but also for an annual series issued by Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.
In his opinion, the federal government is “hamstringing” artists by imposing so many requirements on coin designs today—including not only a plethora of mandatory inscriptions but also detailed guidelines on what must be portrayed.
“I see no saving grace,” he remarked. “The downside is complete. These designs may be politically correct and have every element you can think of—or a committee can think of. But it’s that old story about the horse designed by committee—which, of course, is the camel. And these coins, I’m afraid, are a bunch of camels.
“We need to go back to the way things were done years ago, when President Theodore Roosevelt asked Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the gold double eagle and eagle. Roosevelt didn’t give him a laundry list of what to put on the coins; he left it to Saint-Gaudens’ artistic judgment. And we ended up with two magnificent coins.”
There may not be any medalists of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ stature on the scene or horizon today, but Noble says there’s a pool of many talented artists that the government could tap for coinage projects. And he says this with conviction, for he himself has tapped that pool repeatedly.
“The sculptors are just as good today as they ever were,” he said, “and the work that is being done in the art medal field in America is superb. In fact, there has been a renaissance in this field: If anything, the artists are even more imaginative and creative than in the past. You can’t be creative if you’re put in a straitjacket, though; the spirit of creativity can never take flight if you load the artist down with too much baggage.”
Half of the ideas for Society of Medalists issues came from the artists themselves, Noble reported. And even when he assigned a general theme, he gave the artists great leeway in working out the particulars.
“They love that kind of freedom,” he exclaimed. “Most sculptors have in the back of their heads some ideas which they never were able to develop, and this gives them a chance to bring them out. With the new U.S. coins, the artists don’t have any freedom—and predictably enough, the designs that they produce are all too often sterile and uninspired.”
Earlier U.S. commemoratives from the so-called traditional period reflected far greater artistic independence and diversity, Noble said.
“By and large, the older commemorative coins were infinitely more successful artistically,” he said emphatically. “Infinitely more successful. The artists had more freedom—and while there were some inferior designs in those days, too, there were also some exceptional works of art.
“Today, the designs are so homogenized that if you told me they were all done by one person, I would believe you, even though I know they were not. They remind me of all the different postage stamps the Post Office has been pushing: One’s as uninteresting as the other. They’re strictly sales gimmicks, meant to make you buy; they have no merit at all as works of art.”
Will Congress and the Mint remove the artistic straitjacket that’s holding down the quality of new U.S. commemoratives? Will the program get the art transplant it needs?
Sadly, it appears that like other forms of health care, this one isn’t due for attention anytime soon in the nation’s capital.
Mint News Blog’s sister site, Coin Update, has assembled a Pinterest board on the artwork of August Saint-Gaudens that the reader might enjoy. A related board is dedicated to the work of Adolph A. Weinman, while a third board covers medallic art in general. ❑