These U.S. classics are on many collectors' ugly-coins list

You'll see them going for high prices at auctions, but that doesn't mean people think they're pretty
By , Coin World
Published : 07/16/16
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It seems that among U.S. coin designs, some are universally praised and some seem to enjoy consistent disdain from collectors.

From the soaring heights of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1907 High Relief double eagle — considered by many to be the finest U.S. coin design — to the lowly Anthony dollar, the more than two centuries of coins produced by the U.S. Mint have seen high points and low points.

What follows is the result of an informal survey I conducted with more than 50 of my coin collecting friends. I asked a simple question: What is the least attractive U.S. coin. The results allow us to have a discussion on aesthetics and ways of seeing and helps us evaluate what design elements work on a coin (and what ideas don’t work.)

The following is the second part of my look at the ugly of U.S. coins. Read the first part here.

Revisiting the classics

The U.S. coins that collectors consider classics today are what got the most mixed responses in my survey.

Many collectors singled out the Barber dime, quarter dollar and half dollar, first introduced in 1892, and the Liberty Head 5-cent piece of 1883 to 1913, as being particularly dull and uninspired. Both were the product of Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber. 

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Barber’s designs fall in the tradition of “Ideal Busts” which represented the formal taste for Classical art in the mid-19th century. Hiram Powers’s marble sculpture of Proserpine — the mythical wife of Pluto — had a thin narrative that would allow the artist to simply sculpt a beautiful, idealized woman. Powers and his workshop would sculpt more than 200 of these busts in various sizes with some modifications to meet demand for these popular sculptural objects. 

Barber would turn to a similar “Ideal Bust” model for his coins. 

Surprisingly, the Barber silver coins were the result of an open design competition that failed to yield designs that would meet the demands of striking (at least according to the U.S. Mint). Local newspapers reported at the time that just two of 300 designs submitted were deemed good enough to receive honorable mention. Rather than adopt any of the public designs, the Mint went with Barber’s designs.

Upon their release, Barber’s conservative designs were met with relative indifference, though the coins met the functional needs of mass production. As W.T.R. Marvin wrote in 1892 in the American Journal of Numismatics, “The head of liberty is dignified ... but she can hardly be called a beauty.” He also perceived “a slight swelling on the back of the neck, that led one irreverent critic to remark ‘she is going to have a boil,’ and another to say ‘the throat is that of a gladiator.” 

As Cornelius Vermeule, author of the 1971 book Numismatic Art in America, concluded, “Potentials of great numismatic art were scarcely realized, but a useful triad of coins emerged.” The designs wear well and Vermeule admits that Barber was “unsurpassed in the mechanics of creating a durable design of monumental validity.” 

Indian Head cent researcher Russell Doughty observed that the Barber design did not work equally well on all denominations, sharing, “I greatly enjoy Barber’s Liberty on the dime, but the design loses its appeal to me when stuck for quarters and half dollars.” 

Florida collector Peyton Souder and her dad, Terry, are less generous in their assessment, adding, “Barber’s coins are probably the ugliest. They lack any kind of inspiration considering that the designs of the other countries in the world were becoming more artistic in the late 19th century.” 

The Barber coins were introduced a few years after the debut of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, a representation of a sturdy Liberty if there ever was one. Coin World columnist Gerry Tebben captured what many think when he pointed out that, in Barber’s Liberty, “The gal looks like a guy to me and she’s got all that stuff on her head, a freedom cap, Liberty coronet and a laurel wreath with a bow.” 

Tebben then conceded, as did Vermeule, that the reverse of the Barber quarter dollar and half dollar can be beautiful in higher grades. Coin World valuing analyst Tony Cass said, “Barber spent too much time looking at French medals and coins rather than designing a truly classic series of coins,” before concluding, “The coins’ unattractiveness might be part of the reason why their prices seem to lag their rarity.”

Keep reading our breakdown of the U.S. Mint's ugliest coins:

U.S. coins mentioned in this article:

Barber dime

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1892 AG-3 - $5.50; 1895-O AU-55 - $4,000; 1901 MS-66 - $1,250
  • — One of the most popular and challenging U.S. coin series is the Barber dime – not only because it's the work of the prolific and controversial Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, but because of the number of key and semi-key coins that comprise the 74-coin set.  Read all about the Barber dime.

Barber quarter

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1893 AG-3 - $7; 1896-S AU-55 - $8,000; 1916-D MS-66 - $1,500
  • — Most Barber quarters were subjected to heavy circulation usage and show their excessive wear. Many of the low-grade coins were melted in the silver boom of 1979 to 1980. Read more.

Barber half dollar

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1892 AG-3 - $17.50; 1900 AU-55 - $425; 1907-S MS-64 - $8,500
  • — The first Barber half dollars were ejected from the coinage presses at the Philadelphia Mint at 9 a.m. Jan 2, 1892. Eight years later, the obverse hub for die production was modified for use on coins beginning in 1901. The difference is most readily seen in at Liberty's ear. Read more.
  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1883 AG-3 - $5; AU-55 - $19; MS-64 - $95
  • — Because it resembled the gold $5 coin and did not include a denomination instantly clear to the public, unscrupulous individuals gold-plated the new 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel coins before passing them off to merchants at 100 times their actual face value.  Read more.
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