US Coins

Coin designers can face obstacles: Making Moderns

The designer of a modern coin is seldom an important consideration for collectors.

It’s curious that in modern U.S. numismatics we seldom give mind to the designers of our coins. In fact, not much is written about the relative merits of designs outside of the reporting on the selection process of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. Why?

First, the subject matter of most coins is determined by Congress when it authorizes a new commemorative issue or coinage series. The creative spark isn’t an artist’s inspiration. It’s new coinage legislation.

Second, before a design appears on a coin, the CCAC and the Commission of Fine Arts debate and dissect various proposed designs. Then they send their recommendations to the secretary of the Treasury, who has the final say on coinage designs.

Last, coins are small, rendered in low relief, and a lot of mandatory elements unrelated to a design must appear on them. The date, the denomination, the word “Liberty,” and the mottoes “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum” all must find their way into the design. 

Before the era of modern coinage, stars of coinage design existed: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adolph Weinman, and James Earle Fraser. What allowed these individuals to achieve greatness was not only their talents but the freedom granted to them. They chose their motifs, played with surface textures and height of relief; they even removed mottoes.

With so many new designs each year, some attractive coins do make an impact. The successful designs benefit from a simple composition that considers limitations posed by canvas size. 

Glenna Goodacre’s Native American dollar obverse is a good example of the artist’s work and style, showing Sacagawea with a lively expression, and her face rendered with smooth, rounded texture. 

The artist is clearly present, and the design has only improved since date and Mint mark were moved to the edge.

Elizabeth Jones’ obverse for the 1988 Olympics $5 half eagle, at the time of issue, was lauded for its beauty and is still a favorite of collectors. 

It’s unclear if a depiction of Nike, goddess of Victory, would be a suitable theme for an Olympic coin to today’s selection committee, but Jones made the most of artistic freedom allowed to her.  

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