Collectors are generally familiar with the failed 1891 silver coin
design competition. The Mint issued a circular requesting designs from
the public and also invited 10 well-known artists to participate. Ten
days before the due date of June 1, the invited artists objected to
terms of the competition, which included payment of $500 for each
accepted design, up to all five requested.
After June 1, the public submissions were all rejected and none of
the invited artists participated, largely due to the paltry
compensation offered. However, that $500 figure might have been an
error — a latter-day “typo” caused by the Mint director’s office.
Three rarities are identified among the smallest
Also in our Nov. 13 issue, columnists dissect a few poor attempts
at counterfeiting American rarities and explain an obsession to
search for surprise coins.
A copy of the proposed circular was sent to Treasury Secretary
Foster on April 4, 1891. Item number 5 of the rules states: “An award
not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500) will be made for each design
accepted.” That seems perfectly clear.
But, in Leech’s cover letter to Foster, the director says: “… the
best method of obtaining suitable and artistic designs would be to
offer a reward of say five thousand dollars ($5000) for each design
accepted, five in all.”
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If the copy book entries are correct, Leech intended to offer
“$5,000” for each accepted design, but he, or his clerk, dropped a
zero in the amount and put “$500” in the circular for Foster’s
approval. It is possible the entire fiasco occurred because Foster
approved the circular and it was printed and distributed without that
award amount being corrected.
If Leech’s intention was to pay $5,000 per accepted design ($25,000
total), it is likely additional highly skilled artists would have
participated. Rather than Charles Barber’s stuffy, crowded designs,
our subsidiary silver coins of 1892 might have had a completely