US Coins

A U.S. commem 'so ugly it's actually a bit beautiful'

It seems that among U.S. coin designs, some are universally praised and some seem to enjoy consistent disdain from collectors.

From the soaring heights of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1907 High Relief double eagle — considered by many to be the finest U.S. coin design — to the lowly Anthony dollar, the more than two centuries of coins produced by the U.S. Mint have seen high points and low points.

What follows is the result of an informal survey I conducted with more than 50 of my coin collecting friends. I asked a simple question: What is the least attractive U.S. coin. The results allow us to have a discussion on aesthetics and ways of seeing and helps us evaluate what design elements work on a coin (and what ideas don’t work.)

The following is the third part of my look at ugly U.S. coins. You can also read Part I and Part II.

Classic and modern commemorative issues

Two issues in the commemorative series were singled out repeatedly by those surveyed for their visual shortcomings. Among the classic issues, struck between 1892 and 1954, the Washington-Carver commemorative issues of 1951 to 1954 were the most frequently mentioned. 

Steve Bieda, a Michigan state senator and the designer of the reverse of the 1992 Olympic Games commemorative half dollar, noted that on the Washington-Carver half dollar, “the portraits are relatively well-done, but the obverse is cluttered with lettering. On the reverse he called out both the odd Cold War slogan “Freedom and Opportunity for all — Americanism” along with a lumpy map of the United States, pointing out the odd proportions of Michigan. He admitted the coin was not without merits, “At the same time, the coin has a bull dog quality about it — so ugly it’s actually a bit beautiful.”

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Dennis Tucker called the reverse “disappointingly simple, almost mindless in its cartoonish simplicity.” He was optimistic that today’s artists at the U.S. Mint would render the half dollar’s message of “Freedom and Opportunity For All” more artistically today. Ken Bressett, editor of A Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) also called this half dollar his least favorite design in the series. 

Cornelius Vermeule, author of the 1971 book Numismatic Art in America, considered the Washington-Carver half dollar alongside the Booker T. Washington commemorative half dollars of 1946 to 1951, as both were designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway and honored black educators. 

Vermeule wrote, “Both coins suffer from too much lettering, brought about partly by the introduction of biography on the first coin and meaningless aphorisms on the second.” On the Washington-Carver half dollar, Vermeule thought that the map, labeled U.S.A., marked a low point in pictorial imagination and said that reverse, “impoverished of ideas and devoid of artistry,” represented a rather sad end to the classic commemorative coin series.

After the Washington-Carver half dollar series concluded in 1954, commemorative coins would not be issued again until 1982. While many people surveyed had strong opinions on the merits of the modern commemorative coins produced by the U.S. Mint, one seems to be singled out as being particularly ugly: the 1995 Special Olympic commemorative dollar. 

The dollar had a popular subject and represented the first likeness of a living American woman on a coin in depicting Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was instrumental in starting the Special Olympics. 

Sales of the dollar proved disappointing as the issue competed with the massive 1995–1996 32-coin Atlanta Olympic Games program and the 1995 Civil War Battlefield commemorative coins. 

The Shriver portrait was the only choice of Special Olympics International, the organization that received surcharges from the sale of the commemorative. The legislation was co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., Shriver’s nephew. Oddly, at the time of issue, collectors were generally silent on the artistic merits of the coin. Rather, they were concerned with the break with tradition in depicting a living person on a coin.

On the dollar, Michigan artist Larry Sekulich explained, “The portrait is oh so wrong. I have a sense that a less-than flattering photograph may have been used to create the image. The exaggerated lines on the face make the profile subject look very, very old. The linear hair treatment only adds to this effect. The artist might have done something to create a more sculptural image that did not make Shriver look so bad.” As another friend told me, “Eunice may not have been a beauty, but the sculptor did her no favors.”

Erik Goldstein, curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, did not mince words, saying that the dollar still gives him nightmares. “True, Shriver was an older woman as depicted, but she could have been much more sensitively rendered. He said, “She looks like a corpse here,” before admitting, “Perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of Walking Dead.”

Keep reading our breakdown of the U.S. Mint's ugliest coins:

U.S. coins mentioned in this article:

Washington-Carver commemorative half dollar

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1951-D VF-20 - $15; AU-58 - $20; MS-66 - $500
  • — From a small beginning in 1892, U.S. commemorative coinage gathered momentum in the 1920s and enjoyed a full-scale speculative boom in the mid-1930s. Read more.

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