Collectors love classic coin designs, but what - if any - design considerations must be taken into account before re-using an old design on a new coin, and how does the U.S. Mint deal with those considerations?
Using Classic Designs on Modern Coins
Collectors love classic coin designs. This is reflected in the massive popularity of the Gold and Silver Eagle programs with century-old designs (or nearly so), and the seeming relentless passion of many outspoken collectors to bring back the "Liberty" motif to our coins. Instead of giving new coins a completely "fresh" look, these collectors want to bring the classic designs out of the vault and re-use them.
In 2009, the United States Mint made an unprecedented decision to use original plaster engravings from a 100 year-old design to create a "new" coin. They used laser technology to painstakingly recreate every detail of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' famous double eagle design on a smaller one-ounce gold coin known as the "Ultra High Relief." This issue was a smashing success with collectors, as the first 40,000 coins sold in a very short time. Even with the fanfare over its release and collectors begging for more, this issue did not become a multi-year series because it was intended to be a one-time issue, and the Mint kept to their word.
This "re-use" of classic designs begs a question that extremely detail oriented people may ask. Should they be "updated" before their reuse, or should they be left alone out of respect to the original designer and artistic integrity? Let's examine two cases of old design re-use:
Case 1: The American Silver Eagle.
The American Silver Eagle is the result of the Liberty Coin Act of 1985, and is the official silver bullion coin of the United States. It has been wildly successful with collectors ever since it was first released in November of 1986.
The design of the American Silver Eagle depicts Lady Liberty in stride toward the rising sun with the American flag draped around her. This design, created by sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman in 1916, was the result of Mint Director Robert W. Woolley deciding that he not only was allowed to change the design of the half dollar, but was required by law to do so (the 25 year minimum rule). As it would turn out, he wasn't required to replace the Barber design, but did so anyway, turning our circulating half dollar into a very successful piece of art with Weinman's assistance. A point of note is that Weinman would also change the face of our dime that very same year with the Winged Liberty Head dime (also known commonly - and mistakenly - as the "Mercury" dime).
Given that the American Silver Eagle was enacted in 1985 and first released in 1986, and its design is all but an exact enlargement of the 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar design by Weinman, there exists an issue with the design that was perhaps overlooked in 1986 with the reproduced use of the beautiful 1916 coin's design. Or perhaps the fact that the coin design craftily hides the issue mentioned herein became an excuse for the mint to ignore changing the arrangement of stars on the flag in the design.
You see, in 1916, when the Walking Liberty Half dollar was first released, there were 48 stars on the American flag (Alaska and Hawaii did not become states until 1959, rounding out the 50 we have at the time of this writing). Step forward to 1986 when the first American Silver Eagles were released, and there should have been 50 stars on the American flag in the depiction of Liberty draped in Old Glory on our American Silver Eagle coins if the Mint intended to keep the design "current".
Case 2: The American Gold Eagle.
Like the American Silver Eagle, the American Gold Eagle is the result of the Liberty Coin Act of 1985, and is the official gold bullion coin of the United States. Each coin contains 91.67% pure gold weighing the amount shown on the reverse of the coin (making the actual weight of the coin overall slightly heavier to account for other metals used in the alloy). They have been one of the world gold standard bullion coins in the market since their debut in 1986.
The design on the obverse of the American Gold Eagle is an exacting reproduction of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle design. Both issues depict Lady Liberty walking toward the viewer with a torch in her right hand (representing enlightenment) and an olive branch in the other hand (representing peace). Behind her are the rays of the sun and the United States Capitol.
Its designer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, after whom the coin is named, was a very successful sculptor and designer as well as a mentor for other designers such as Victor D. Brenner (Lincoln Cent), Adolph A. Weinman (Winged Liberty Head (Mercury) Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar) and Hermon Atkins MacNeil (Standing Liberty Quarter).
The process of designing the Saint-Gaudens double eagle occurred during 1906, and involved a lot of political maneuvering by Saint-Gaudens, Chief Engraver Charles Barber, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw. Most of the "issues" that arose over the design centered on its high relief and the use of Roman numerals for the date – both were arguments that Saint-Gaudens (with Roosevelt on his side) would ultimately win, until both were deemed impractical after his death in 1907 and ultimately changed.
The design is rich with symbology. Lady Liberty has 26 rays of sun behind her – 13 on each side for each of the 13 original colonies of the United States. She stands atop a rise in the ground which represents the concept of "rising above all," with an oak sapling growing to her left (representing strength and endurance). Additionally there are the aforementioned torch and olive branch. The entire design is encircled by 46 stars, the total number of states in the Union at the time the design was created (New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states).
What is interesting to note is that the American Gold Eagle issues all have 50 stars in their design, which means the design was modified to account for the addition of four states. This change (as well as other minor modifications) shows that the Mint indeed was considering the age of the design when they developed it into a new coin.
Why one and not the other?
Since there are roughly (and barely) 25 stars showing in the design on the American Silver Eagle, perhaps it was the decision of the Mint to overlook the 'difference' in the flags of 1916 as compared to 1986 and leave the design the same, because arguably the 25 showing stars could indeed represent either flag.
With the American Gold Eagle, however, the stars are all completely visible, thus the difference in the original design and modern reality would be obvious if left the same, forcing the change. In fact, the 2009 Ultra High Relief design also bears 50 stars, with four stars carefully "added" in the oak leaves at the bottom of the design presumably so as to be craftily hidden from quick observation and give the general appearance of the original 46-star design.
Re-using classic designs on modern coins can be a very popular decision with collectors, but the decision requires consideration over whether elements of that design would be time-appropriate for the new issue.
If elements of the design require changes to match the era in which the new coin will be released, is it more important to preserve the integrity of the original design, or is it more important to change elements so the new coin issue will make sense to present-day collectors?
Presumably the decision made by the Mint in this matter is that if the element is partially hidden or not obviously outdated to the casual observer, they leave it the same. If the element is obviously in need of updating, they do so in a manner that makes the element appear as close to the original as possible yet serve the need to modernize the design to the era in which the new coin is to be issued.
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