Heritage’s Aug. 10 auction held during the American Numismatic
Association World’s Fair of Money had a unique consignment from the
Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society: five original,
preliminary flying eagle sketches by Hermon Atkins MacNeil.
The sketches were drawn by the sculptor as he worked out his
concepts for his Standing Liberty quarter dollar, which would be
struck in December 1916, modified several times in 1917, and then
continued in production until 1930.
The sketches were created in early 1916 at the artist’s College
Point studio in Queens, N.Y., and are among the few works from
MacNeil’s studio that relate to his famed quarter dollar design. The
sketches were acquired from MacNeil’s studio after his death in 1947
by his neighbor, illustrator John A. Coughlin.
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At the time, the preparatory works of artists were generally
considered of modest value, and devoted neighbors are responsible for
saving much of what we know of the working practices of artists active
in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries.
Newman acquired them around 1960, and they have been showcased in
the The Newman Money Museum, housed in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art
Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. The proceeds of the
auction are to be used for supplementing the society’s museum
operations and to support scholarly research efforts of the society.
As Heritage noted, “The depth of history and numismatic significance
of these sketches, direct artifacts of one of the most storied coin
design stories in American numismatics, is arguably unparalleled.” The
firm adds, “The original sketches, models, and patterns that were
created throughout the design’s development in 1916, rather than
actual coin issues, are by far the rarest artifacts of the Standing
Liberty quarter series. Most of the sketches that Hermon MacNeil
submitted in the initial competition against Albin Polasek and Adolph
Weinman are not known to have survived.”
The most expensive of the five, at a total price of $14,100, was a
preliminary reverse sketch for the Standing Liberty quarter dollar,
initialed by Mint Director Robert Woolley with the note “O.K.” in the
upper left corner.
The finished presentation drawing represented the approved reverse
design. A May 30, 1916, press release from the U.S. Mint described it
as “intended to typify in a measure the awakening interest of the
Country to its own protection.”
100 years later, MacNeil's design is back! Read our coverage of
the 2016 Standing Liberty gold quarter release:
Initially Weinman’s designs were selected for the obverse and
reverse of his Winged Liberty Head (Mercury) dime and Walking Liberty
half dollar, as well as the reverse of the Standing Liberty quarter.
The Commission of Fine Arts expressed concern that all but one of the
six designs selected were by a single artist, stating, “It seemed to
us that this was likely to lead to a certain monotony in the three
coins; a monotony which might be avoided if Mr. MacNeil were given an
opportunity to make some further studies for the reverse of the 25 ct.
piece (of which his design for the obverse had been selected.)”
Roger Burdette explained in his 2005 book Renaissance of American
Coinage, 1916-1921, that Woolley visited MacNeil on March 25,
1916, and examined the artist’s revised sketches. Among them was the
present drawing, which the director liked and approved to be
progressed into a plaster model. Instead of stars the sketch shows
olive branches flanking either side of the eagle, similar to a pattern
quarter that was struck in early June 1916. It was plated in
Burdette’s book and in Don Taxay’s 1966 book The U.S. Mint and Coinage.
A similar drawing on translucent parchment paper, also an early
representation of the adopted design but likely composed at a slightly
later date, sold for $3,995.
Variations on a theme
The remaining three sketches showed the artist’s variations on the
reverse design. The most expensive of these records the artist’s
development in late March as he incorporated stars.
As Heritage notes, “The majestic flying eagle parts E PLURIBUS UNUM
in the middle, and the motto is bordered above and below by a total of
13 stars. Two of the stars and the upper-left corner of the first U in
UNUM are partially covered by the eagle’s wings, and the wingtip also
partially overlaps the E in STATES. MacNeil clearly favored the
three-dimensional appeal of overlapping design elements, as many of
his original sketches show this characteristic. This preliminary
sketch exhibits wingtip feathers protruding below the eagle’s breast,
suggesting that partway through the drawing MacNeil decided to
reposition the eagle’s far wing.”
Another sketch with a more robust eagle sold for $8,225. It was
another proposed revision to the reverse design that MacNeil created
in late March 1916 and presented to Mint Director Woolley on March 25, 1916.
Heritage observes, “Aesthetically, this design is arguably superior
to the spread-winged one Director Woolley ultimately chose for the
reverse of the quarter. One wing of the eagle is extended, and E
PLURIBUS UNUM stretches horizontally across the field on either side.
Olive branches flank the eagle along the rims, and the wings partially
overlap the ES in STATES and the first U in UNUM. Woolley’s rejection
of this design may have stemmed from the vertically positioned,
centrally located eagle, which would have placed the high points of
the reverse directly opposite the high points of Liberty’s figure on
the obverse — a design characteristic that was long known at the Mint
to be impossible to strike up fully.”
Ultimately the reverse design used in 1916 and in early 1917 would
be revised since there were issues anyway in striking the coins, and
as Heritage concludes, “Problems regarding the relief of MacNeil’s
models would later be among the complaints placed by Chief Engraver
Charles Barber when die trials began.”