US Coins

A closer look: MacNeil's Standing Liberty sketches

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.

Original sketches

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.”

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