Have you ever wondered who designed your favorite U.S. coins? Take a look at the artists behind Americas beautiful coinage, and discover what changes were made through the years!
Since striking their first test pieces in a small shop in Philadelphia back in 1792, the U.S. Mint has produced a large array of beautiful coins over their more than 210 years of history. While collectors collect these masterpieces for their value and beauty, most do not know the artists behind these treasured works of art. While a single article is not enough to thoroughly cover the accomplishments of these artists who are so important to numismatics, it just may be enough to pique the interest of any collector seeking to learn more!
Some of these artists, such as Elizabeth Jones, Christian Gobrecht, George Morgan, Charles Barber, and John Mercanti, were employed by the U.S. Mint. Others, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser, and Adolph A. Weinman, were hired on a limited basis to produce particular pieces of art. Regardless, every one of these figures was an artists in their own right and produced some of the most impressive designs ever used.
Noted as the third Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Gobrecht created a dollar pattern showing Liberty seated that we know today as the “Gobrecht Dollar.” While this coin would only circulate in very small numbers, his Seated Liberty coin series included all the denominations from the half dime to the dollar. These were his most noted accomplishments during his five-year tenure in office.
Succeeding Gobrecht after his passing as Chief Engraver in 1844, Longacre was the most prolific coin designer of the 19th century. With nearly a dozen different circulating coin designs to his credit, Longacre created more coin designs for circulation than any other artist before or since.
Designing coins, however, was not Longacre’s forte. His most favored artistic accomplishments were a large number of paintings and engravings he had executed for clients prior to working at the U.S. Mint. In fact, one such work he created for South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun prompted the push to have him hired by the Mint after Gobrecht’s passing.
An English-born artist and die cutter, Morgan was hired as an assistant engraver in 1876 to create a replacement design for the Gobrecht Seated Liberty coinage. Although his efforts would create a large number of pattern coins beginning in 1877, the Morgan silver dollar design that bears his name would be the only coin design circulating that showed his work.
Morgan did, however, create a number of popular commemorative coin designs to include the first commemorative half dollar, the 1892 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar. He also created the half dollar design and the two-and-a-half dollar (Quarter Eagle) gold design for the Panama-pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
Born in London in 1840, Charles Barber was the son of William Barber, the fifth Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. He would eventually replace his father in that office upon William’s passing.
Charles Barber was best known for his rather sanitary designs that adorned coins from the nickel through the half dollar during his tenure as Chief Engraver. They had also been the subject of Theodore Roosevelt’s distaste with our coin designs as being too plain, which led to their replacement from 1908 through 1916.
Although unhappy with the change initiated by the president, Barber did assist in implementing minor changes to the designs as required by law in 1908, and was, in fact, the artist who placed the motto “In God We Trust” on most of the designs circulating at the time.?
Best known for designing the double-eagle gold coin named after him, Saint-Gaudens was born to a French father and Irish mother in Dublin, Ireland in 1848. Augustus was raised in New York and left for Europe to study art at an early age. His work as a cameo-cutter had been impressive, but it was his larger works in sculpture that brought him the notoriety that would place him in the right place to be noticed by President Theodore Roosevelt.
After having designed the inaugural medal for Roosevelt, Saint-Gaudens was hired to design a “distinctly-American” series of designs that would eventually be known as the “Renaissance of American Coinage.” This included the aforementioned Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle and the Gold Indian Head Eagles Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens would not live to see his acclaimed coins issued - he passed just a few months before they were released to the public.
Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle design was reincarnated for the Gold Eagle series in 1986, which has since become a favorite of gold coin collectors worldwide.
Born in Germany back in 1870, Weinman immigrated to the United States at the age of 14. Within a year, he was studying art and sculpture with Saint-Gaudens, where he earned jobs as a sculptor and designer.
It was this relationship that brought Weinman to the forefront of the Renaissance of American Coinage where he was hired, in part because of his history with other designers working in the program. Weinman was challenged with replacing the designs of the dime and the half dollar.
His dime design was erroneously referred to as the “Mercury dime” by collectors, mistaking the winged cap of Liberty atop a young lady’s head with the Greek god Mercury who had wings on his feet. Even with the incorrect name, which has stuck to this day, it is still the most popular dime series in American history.
His Walking Liberty Half Dollar design would become an iconic classic of American coinage, first appearing on the half dollar from 1916 until 1947, then again appearing on the American Silver Eagle from 1986 to date.
Born to a musical family in Philadelphia in 1909, Frank Gasparro had a pre-conceived destination to follow his father’s footsteps as a musician, but young Gasparro would have nothing of it. He first apprenticed as a sculptor early in life, then was eventually hired by the U.S. Mint as an assistant engraver. His first successful design while working for the Mint was the Memorial reverse of the Lincoln cent, the most minted reverse design in world history.
Gasparro would eventually replace his mentor, Gilroy Roberts, as Chief Engraver upon Roberts’ retirement in 1964. He would hold this position until his own retirement in 1981. He is credited with a number of late 20th century medal and coin designs. A number of his designs are still present on coinage today, and can be found in U.S. Proof and Mint Coin Sets.
When Frank Gasparro left his post of Chief Engraver in the capable hands of Elizabeth Jones in 1981, it was immediately known that she would be the first female Chief Engraver. What was not known at the time was that, although her leadership and art experience would lead toward the production of a number of commemorative coins and medals, Jones would be the first Chief Engraver whose artwork would never appear in circulation.
During her tenure as Chief Engraver from 1981 to 1991, not one single new design was used for circulating coinage. Her attention was on medallions and commemorative coinage. She was also the Chief Engraver during the introduction of bullion coinage to the repertoire of the U.S. Mint. She handled the engraver’s office end of the legislation and supervised the design of the American Eagle Program.
Elizabeth Jones coins include the 1982 George Washington commemorative half dollar, the 1983 Olympic dollar commemorative, the 1986 $5 Gold Statue of Liberty commemorative, the 1988 Olympic $5 commemorative, and the 2001 Capitol Visitors $5 Gold commemorative, as well as other coins and medals.
Philadelphia born and raised artist John M. Mercanti was hired as an engraver at the U.S. Mint in 1974, and quickly gained the respect of the office. He was promoted to Chief Engraver in 2006 after a 15-year vacancy in the position.
Mercanti had oversight and direct involvement in the designs of the American Eagle program as well as direct involvement in the Statehood quarter program, completing the engraving work on the reverse sides of five different quarters in the program (Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia).
Mercanti retired from his position at the U.S. Mint in 2010, but continues to serve an active role in the coin community. He well know for his recent designs for the Perth Mint in Australia, in creating the Silver Wedge-Tailed Eagle.
There have been some 75 different artists permanently affix their work to our numismatic hobby in the form of engraving or designing United States coins. The list provided above are merely some of the more recognized artists who contributed to our coinage. A challenge for collectors might be to find one design from each of the different artists and purchase an example of those designs. This would be one sure way to learn plenty about the artists who shaped the history of our money!