Art on commemoratives matters too
In his editorial in the October 16 issue of Coin World, editor Bill Gibbs argued, as I have in several articles over the years, that it is time to end the practice of adding surcharges to the cost of U.S. commemorative coins.
Those surcharges help explain why we continue to issue many coins whose themes are rather narrow in focus when we should instead be issuing coins on issues of major national importance.
It is worth mentioning that legislation has been introduced in the past to end the surcharges, but it’s never garnered enough support to be enacted into law.
I would add that a second key element to improving our commemorative coin program is to improve the overall quality of the art on the coins.
To be sure, there have been some very nice recent issues, such as both of last year’s programs, which were for Mark Twain and the centennial of the National Park Service, or the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame coins.
But other coins have designs that many collectors fail to find appealing from an aesthetic perspective.
An example is the just-announced and eagerly awaited design for the 2018 World War I veterans commemorative silver dollar. This is a topic that virtually all collectors think is long overdue for commemoration, especially since most of these veterans have by now either passed away or are very elderly.
Perhaps the Mint’s rendition of the designs by LeRoy Transfield that were unveiled on October 9 by the U.S. Mint simply fails to resonate with those whose artistic sensibilities are more traditional.
The obverse called “Soldier’s Charge” that depicts a WWI “doughboy” gripping his rifle has been met with a barrage of negative reactions, especially in comments in online coin forums. I found much the same reactions in discussions with collectors and numismatists I know.
In addition to comments on why, in the line art the Mint provided, he appears to have two eyes on one side of his nose, both closed, and about that nose, many commenters have suggested the uniform, helmet, and rifle are not of the correct type and that the rifle is on the wrong shoulder.
The artist, a Utah sculptor who has never designed a coin before, said he intentionally gave the soldier a battle-hardened appearance such as by making it look like his nose was broken. And keep in mind that coin line art typically does not convey how the coin will look in hand.
The reverse, showing an abstract view of poppies and barbed wire, has been met with a more positive reaction, though some are unfamiliar with the custom of using poppies to represent remembrance of slain soldiers, which began after the Great War.
There are some who argue that collectors who post on coin forums tend to be more negative in general, in part because they are usually anonymous. That argument surely has some merit. Consider, for example, the online reaction to the 2015 and 2017 American Liberty designs, which were met with better sales than were anticipated based on those online reactions.
But it is also sometimes quite a reliable gauge, such as when the Girls Scouts of the USA Centennial silver dollar design was unveiled. The blogosphere was full of criticism of the design as being political correct because it depicted girls of different ethnicities.
I personally liked that one and bought it, and did an interview with the then president of the organization for an article, but as is well known by now, the coin did not sell well and ended up producing no surcharges for the GSUSA.
The issue of how to improve the art on our coins is a broad one that is too complex to cover here*, and when it comes to art, subjectivity rules. But one suggestion I have is to find a way to enlist the views of collectors in the design process. For example, perhaps collectors could vote on which design they prefer, a practice that has been used in other countries.
I’d welcome any other suggestions readers may have.
*I wrote a cover story on this issue for the June issue of The Numismatist, which has many suggestions for improving the art on our coins and the coin design process.