As Mint News Blog readers know, a popular choice for one of the 2018 America the Beautiful quarter designs—a diving sea turtle representing Cumberland Island National Seashore—has been overruled. A prompt from the comments section led us to ponder what made the rejected design special, and to see if we could discover why it was rejected in favor of a more predictable motif. As you will see, we made some headway with the former question, but got nowhere with the latter.
On June 16, 2016, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) met to discuss the 2018 ATB design candidates and make their recommendations. Their choice for Cumberland Island was design no. 6, a snowy egret perched on a branch with its wings spread in preparation for flight. In a letter to Rhett Jepson, then the principal deputy director of the Mint, “The Commission members recommended alternative #6, a second choice of the Mint’s site liaison. They commented that the snowy egret with outstretched wings provides a dynamic composition, and the scene conveys the character of this seashore.”
On June 27, it was the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee’s turn to meet and discuss the candidates. The CCAC members generally panned the snowy-egret design for looking stiff and unnatural. The design that received the most enthusiasm was no. 3, a diving sea turtle. The following member comments are from the meeting transcript:
I think [the turtle] would be very popular outside of the hobby community, and would have some fans in the mainstream audience. (Dennis Tucker)
I love the layout, I love the bubbles, I love the frolicking kind [of a surf] thing. The turtle is really fun. (Erik Jansen)
This is fantastic. It’s the right amount of bold, the right amount of detail, the right amount of contrast. I’d like to see the bubbles polished. It’s going to be really fun. The kids are going to love it. (Heidi Wastweet)
I do love the turtle. I haven’t seen anything like that before. Collectors, kids, they’d buy it for their kids or grandkids. It’s a neat coin. (Herman Viola)
I think a ton of collectors … really love turtles. I think young people, who will potentially be getting these coins as gifts, also love turtles… It’s fun. It’s going to look great as a Proof. It’s going to look good large, it’s going to look great small. It’s going to be the kind of coin that, when someone [sees] it in pocket change, they’re going to stop and look at it. (Steve Roach)
I think we have something pretty spectacular for young collectors to maybe follow the field a little closer. [The turtle design] gives them something exciting to have as a foundation. (Jeanne Stevens-Sollman)
Not surprisingly, the playful turtle was the “outstanding vote of the night,” getting 30 out of a possible 33 votes from the CCAC members.
When the floor was opened for questions from the audience, a gentleman named Taylor Elwood said, “I think the numismatic hobby is not one that’s particularly popular with young people in this day and age. And having coins with turtles or other animals of the sort could really help bring them into the hobby and really help … keep the hobby alive and well for the future generations.” And in the opinion of audience member Bob Campbell, “People in America are going to love that turtle just like the world loves the panda. That’ll be a collector’s thing for sure.”
When the Treasury’s final decisions were released, the turtle had been rejected in favor of the snowy egret. When a Mint News Blog reader pointed out the curious choice, we emailed the CCAC’s chairperson, Mary Lannin, to see if she could shed some light on the decision. She thoughtfully responded as follows (edited slightly for space):
The process of voting and having our preferred design accepted isn’t as simple as it seems. Our Committee, which, at the time, included the irrepressible Steve Roach, loved the turtle when we saw the art at our meeting of June, 2016. This design received 30 of a possible 33 votes. We also voted on two other America the Beautiful quarter designs, among other business of the Committee.
What then followed was that I wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, in this case, Jack Lew, and summed up our meeting. This letter included the Committee’s recommendations and the vote total for all the chosen designs. For each chosen design, I also include comments about why the Committee felt that we had ranked this particular design over others. This letter was then mailed to the Secretary…
Ultimately, the Secretary has two letters [one from the CFA, one from the CCAC], and occasionally the recommendations from each Committee are different. It was responsibility of the office of the Secretary of the Treasury which ultimately decided the final design.
This confirms what collectors of modern Mint issues know: that once the CFA and CCAC make their recommendations, the choice is out of their hands.
We don’t know whether the Treasury observed the difference between the strength of the CFA’s and the CCAC’s respective recommendations. Where the CFA noted that their recommendation was “a second choice of the Mint’s site liaison,” the CCAC pointed out that their choice had received “the highest total of 30 of a possible 33 votes.” We also don’t know whether the decision-making process involved a review of the committee members’ individual comments.
We’re unlikely to hear from the Treasury on the design choice, so Mint News Blog readers will have to speculate for themselves. One factor may be that it’s difficult for most people to look at two-dimensional line art and envision it in three dimensions, on shiny metal, with no outlines. Expertise in macroeconomics does nothing to enhance this ability. Even if those considering the design could visualize it on a coin quite well, perhaps the turtle seemed undignified. Perhaps the idea of a bird was more familiar, or the posture of the snowy egret, wings spread, was a subtle reminder of the eagle’s typical pose on American coinage. Perhaps the sea turtle, which is so often the center of environmental conflicts, seemed a little too chancy, politically.
Or maybe someone at the Treasury just doesn’t like turtles.