Federal panels differ on obverses for Proof American Eagle platinum program

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness themes of obverse motif choices for 2018, 2019 and 2020 issues
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 09/23/16
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The nation’s two coin review panels have taken sharply different stands on how some the nation’s most expensive coins should be designed.

Meeting in Washington on two consecutive days, the Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee reviewed 12 sets of proposed obverse designs for platinum coins planned for 2018 to 2020.

Those coins should sell for about $1,700 each, making them the most expensive single coins in the U.S. Mint’s sales inventory.

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That factor seemed to play heavily in the CCAC’s deliberations, as the panel was warned that these were coins with “a pedigree” and buyers would be extremely sensitive to the designs.

“What we’re asking for is a really classy design,” said CCAC Chair Mary Lannin at that group’s Sept. 16 meeting.

The three coins are supposed to celebrate “Life,” “Liberty” and “The Pursuit of Happiness,” themes taken from the Declaration of Independence. 

Mint officials submitted for review 10 sets of designs, with the designs in each set reflecting an individual artist’s approach to illustrating the three themes. Some sets featured three (or four) obverse designs only, while others offered three obverse designs and a supporting reverse design. The panels also reviewed four reverse designs originally submitted for other programs that were not part of any set.

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What the CCAC strongly endorsed Sept. 16 was a set showing Lady Liberty planting seeds (representing the theme of Life), holding a torch (representing Liberty) and harvesting fruits with a young child who chases a butterfly (representing the theme Pursuit of Happiness).

CFA choices differ

A day earlier, Sept. 15, the CFA sent recommendations for three different sets of obverse designs to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.

Three CFA members gave their “primary” endorsement to a three-design set that features elements from the Statue of Liberty — a portrait of the statue’s face, the broken chains that lie at Liberty’s feet, and Liberty’s torch.

Their second recommendation was for a three-design set that shows a fluttering American flag when all three coins are placed in a triangle.

The commission’s final set recommendation features three designs showing Liberty’s torch.

The CFA also endorsed an image of an eagle about to fly for the series reverse.

Avoiding confusion

In the CCAC meeting, held a day after the CFA vote endorsed the three different sets of obverses, Erik Jansen, a collector from the Seattle area, urged his fellow members on the CCAC that a stronger, more direct recommendation was needed because “the secretary is going to be confused here.”

Jansen’s prodding seemed to work. 

Despite a wide range of views about the designs, the committee overwhelmingly rallied behind the Lady Liberty set, giving it almost unanimous support.

“I believe this might work,” said Pennsylvania artist Jeanne Stevens-Sollman. “I like this set very much.”

The Lady Liberty designs drew 21 out of a possible 24 votes under a voting scheme that allowed each of the eight CCAC members present to cast up to three points for any coin design.

The CCAC also gave a unan­imous 24-point vote to the same reverse design showing an eagle taking flight that the CFA endorsed.

Final recommendations

Both the CCAC and CFA seemed to be delighted with the proposed designs.

Since the CFA debated the coins with less that a quorum, the recommendation of its three members must be formally ratified by a quorum at its Oct. 18 meeting, according to CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke. 

But letters citing the CFA recom­mendations will be issued soon, he said.

What made the CCAC deliber­ations interesting was how the committee voted to urge certain changes to their recommended designs.

For example, some members did not like the word “Liberty” that had been incused on the lower portion of the coin.

So, at the urging of Robert Hoge, a coin museum curator by profession, the committee voted to place the word on a cap on Lady Liberty’s head, much in the manner of classic American coins. 

This would meet a congressional mandate that the three coins must bear the word “Liberty,” said the Mint’s lawyer, Greg Weinman.

Other changes voted by the CCAC would call for simplifying the background designs on the three obverse designs.

Heidi Wastweet, a Seattle sculptor, noted that the CCAC has long argued for simplified designs.

This set “has too much detail for the size of the pallet.”

The Mint rarely has grouped designs by individual artists for presentation to the review panels.

Without identifying the artists, the Mint said it had asked them to provide illustrations for all three years of the platinum series. Most also submitted an eagle design for the reverses.

The CCAC members applauded this action and the fact that they were given descriptions by the artists of what they were trying to accomplish with their designs.

Dropping current designs

The idea of changing the obverse design annually for three years is a departure from the past approach for the Proof American Eagle platinum coins. 

Since 1998, a different reverse design has been used on the Proof coin annually, the designs representing a series of multiyear themes (for example, the first theme spans the issues of 1998 to 2002, with reverse designs showing a bald eagle soaring each year above a different geographic region of the United States).

In contrast, Proof and bullion American Eagle platinum coins have carried John Mercanti’s Statue of Liberty portrait on the obverse since the coins debuted in 1997. Mercanti’s Heraldic Eagle reverse design has been used on bullion issues and on the first Proof issue.

His design will be dropped for at least three years and will be replaced by the new obverses in 2018, 2019 and 2020. 

The three coins will share a new common reverse under the Mint’s plan.

CCAC member changes

Two changes in the CCAC membership were announced at the meeting.

Sculptor Stevens-Sollman recently was given a second four-year term on the committee and Steve Roach, editor-at-large of Coin World, has resigned from the panel.

U.S. Mint lawyer Greg Weinman said Roach, who had been named to the panel earlier this year, resigned after accepting a position in the Treasury Department. His employment would prohibit him from remaining on the panel, Weinman said.

The Mint is seeking a replacement for Roach, the lawyer said. 

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