US Coins

Models for popular 20th century coins at Stack’s Bowers

A plaster model of Adolph A. Weinman’s second Walking Liberty half dollar design has a blank reverse and shows the changes the sculptor proposed in the summer of 1916. It joins a bas-relief bronze galvano of James Earle Fraser’s reverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent piece in a Stack's Bowers March auction.

Images courtesy of Stack's Bowers.

Stack’s Bowers Galleries has some intriguing offerings related to two famous early 20th century coin designs at its March 26 Rarities Night.

A plaster of Adolph A. Weinman’s design for the Walking Liberty half dollar, executed by the sculptor as he refined his design, is a standout at the session. Measuring 167 millimeters in diameter and featuring a blank reverse with some pencil marks incised in the plaster, the cataloger notes, “It was executed in response to the Mint’s rushed work in preparing poor quality reductions from models of the first design [listed as Judd-1991 in the pattern reference], which lost some of the relief in a design that had already been executed in lower relief and with less detail than on later versions.”

Here, Weinman enlarged Liberty’s head, strengthened the lettering, and in moving the head also moved the word LIBERTY to the right field. On the change Weinman wrote, “I strongly believe the new arrangement to be better as the walking figure fills the entire circle and thereby gains considerably in importance and force of presentation.”

The new design was referenced by U.S. Mint director Robert W. Woolley in a July 15, 1916, letter to William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, describing the design changes where he stated, “I like it and believe you will.” Weinman’s new design, while artistically satisfying, did not seem to strike well, with an uneven edge. The plaster — which dates from between late June and late September 1916 — is striking evidence of what might have been in the era that Roger Burdette calls the “Renaissance of American coinage.”

Fraser’s sculpted bison

Joining the plaster model is a bas-relief bronze galvano of James Earle Fraser’s reverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent piece, affectionately called the “Buffalo nickel” by collectors today. Its inner diameter measures 101 millimeters with a 25 millimeter border surrounding it, and is believed to be a unique work dating from 1912, preceding the adoption of the coin in 1913 and its Type 1 variant with the bison on the textured mound.

Burdette has noted that the bison’s forelegs are on higher ground than his back legs — a characteristic seen on Fraser’s original design — leading Stack’s Bowers to propose a late-1912 date. The cataloger also observes, “The field is finely textured to suggest prairie grass, a feature praised for its rusticity and mimicked in the fine texturing on the earliest Buffalo nickels struck by the Mint. It was likely prepared as Fraser was working with the U.S. Mint to turn his designs into workable models for mass coin production.” Burdette’s research indicates that the coin’s design had been fully defined by August 1912, leaving little need for the production of traditional pattern coins, so most of the design development focused on improving striking characteristics.

Fraser worked with Medallic Art Company to help transition his sketch models, including his reverse based on a bison he observed at the New York Central Park Menagerie, into working coin designs. The sketch models were used to make galvanos — a thin metal shell, often around five-times the diameter of the finished coin. The 101 millimeter design here is consistent with Burdette’s research on the measurements of the plaster models for the nickel, though there is no record of how many design variations were tried. These plasters and galvanos represent challenges and opportunities for researchers today.

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