Senate Banking Committee Coin Design Symposium

Coin Designs Worthy of a Great Nation
A Symposium on Coin Design

Prepared Remarks of Dr. Ute Wartenburg
Executive Director
American Numismatic Society

Note: Images of coins mentioned in this statement are on the ANS website at:

Throughout history coin designs have generated views among those who produce them and those who use them. The present debate about the more recent designs of US coins is interesting for numismatists, who study coin designs of all historical periods. The underlying assumption of the symposium's motto is that great nations have good coin designs. The importance of this question is obvious: good coins are often the only piece of official art that an American citizen is likely to own. In a democracy they therefore play an important role, which was already recognized the Founding Fathers, who tried to give the new republic an iconographic identity. Their main problem was to create an imagery that would represent the new state, without using the well-established canon of European royal symbolism. Many of these designs, such as the Eagle or Lady Liberty, have come to symbolize many of the core values for which the United States stand. The wish to alter coin designs which we have witnessed over the last decades have many reasons: the demographic changes within the population, the increased role of women and ethnic groups, but also a different artistic style appear to demand a change to the traditional set of coins.

In Europe the questions of what should be on coins has become over the last decade a hotly debated topic, as the European Union is introducing its new EURO currency. The debates about coin design and national identity have been fascinating. Whether so many different nations, many of which were at war, for over half of the 20th Century, can be brought together, and use on currency will be interesting to watch. The new designs for the EURO and the decision process behind them might serve as a useful background to the redesign of US Coinages.

In the US, a new dollar coin and the new state quarter program have changed the contents of our purses. Everyone involved in the hobby of numismatics is pleased by the strong response of the public to the new state quarters, as they have generated an interest in other coinages too. The attraction appears to lie largely in the early variety of designs, which encourages collecting, not in the beauty of the designs.

From an artistic perspective, these designs are somewhat disappointing, - an obviously personal statement. Most of the designs are too linear, and without any sculptural elements. The outline of the States, which is part of some designs, appears to have no meaningful context, and the message of these designs remains sometimes obscure.

The Sacagawea dollar is also too linear, in particular for a head which is seen in three-quarter view. The frontal, or partial frontal, view of faces is first used in the Greek world, on a coin of Sicily. It is often imitated, but in many modern and ancient examples, it losses its sculptural quality. Such a design needs a lot of depths, which many modern die-engravers appear to dislike it. Generally, profile heads can give a lot of character to an image, and hats and headdresses can enhance such images (Austria, 10 Schilling). The effort put into the new dollar design was obviously considerable, but I wonder whether much attention was paid to the question whether its style was suitable for a coin. In fact in uncirculated condition, the coin looks rather attractive, but it is unclear what it is supposed to symbolize. LIBERTY, right above the head of the woman, would suggest that this is representation of Liberty; nowhere are we told who the woman and the child are, and the image is somewhat puzzling. The total result, because of its lack of context and its style, appears a little too sweet: the dignity of previous women or female figures on coins is not strong enough.

Let me turn to some famous coins of the ancient world for contrast:

The silver coins of Athens

During the fifth century BCE, Athens, the birthplace of democracy, became an international power which dominated the Mediterranean world and beyond. Its coinage, which shows a head of Athena, the helmeted goddess of wisdom, and an owl, a bird common in the city of Athens. As so many other coin designs, at the time of its creation the style was already out of fashion, which is an important feature of many successful coin designs.

Looking at the design and style of these coins, we notice that they are simple: the obverse has a profile head, whereas the reverse shows an owl and the three initial letters of the city of Athens. All these give the user the main information that need to know. What we should note is the fact that the coin designs chosen send a clear, unambiguous message: this is the coinage of Athens. This was important because Athenian merchants when abroad were dependent on instant recognition of their coinage. This coinage, unlike other coinages, was known to be of pure silver, and within a short time it became, just like the US dollar today, an international currency.

What is interesting for our question about US designs, is the fact that the designs did not change for about two centuries, a question I wish to return to later.

Alexander the Great

The coins of Alexander the Great bear another Classic design: Alexander's mythical ancestor Herakles and the father of the Gods, Zeus. The gold coins showed Athena and a figure of Victory. Here the political message was clear: Alexander, who was seen by many Greeks as a barbarian, wanted to be seen as a Greek. The style and contents of the designs were Greek, and his coinage was primarily intended for the international trade, as well as paying his many soldiers and mercenaries. Conquering large parts of the world as it was known then, he introduced new mints in many places, so that his coinage was widespread when he died in this thirties.

Again, this coinage is highly programmatic and easy to recognize. It was a great success for over two centuries and much imitated by other states.

In the exhibition a few other pieces from great nations are displayed, which show that many rulers, such as the Bavarian king Maximilian I, the Pope, or Constantine the Great cared about their coinages. It was thought that they would reflect the ruler's greatness through their lavish designs.

Modern 20th Century images:

I have selected just a few examples of what I consider interesting coin designs: the Canadian and the Chinese mints have had considerable commercial success with their coin designs. In the case of Canada, the circulating coinage benefits from a sound artistic level. Like the US, France and Italy still use designs, inspired by Classical imagery. The French coin is good in conveying a real sense of movement.

To sum up this very selective overview: coinages today have become more prosaic, and the artistic excellence is often secondary. Governments have been more concerned to produce functional, inexpensive coins than expressing themselves through their currency. I would argue that it is possible to design attractive and useful coins. The question how to achieve this lies in my opinion in the artistic selection process, to which I like to turn now.

1. Who decided over the designs?

Not much is known about the background of most coin designs. In the Roman Republic, the moneyers in charge of the coinage, change annually. The designs were chosen by them, and often they opted for images that commemorated their ancestors. But in general there was a tendency in the great republics of the ancient world not to change coin designs. Elected magistrates are representatives of the people and their depiction on coins was always felt unsuitable. In a monarchy coins tend to change more often because a new ruler required a different portrait and, often a different design program as well. The political change forced a frequent rethinking of coin designs. It is probably also fair to say that the monarch had considerable authority in choosing his designs and picking artists. In our modern democracy in which committees reign, compromise is the key to decision making. When it comes to art and taste, committee work is rarely a useful procedure. Whether there are other democratic ways of deciding should be a point of discussion in this symposium.

2. Who are the artists who make the coin designs?

Successful designs were often made by outstanding artists, who happened to be good at work in the medium of die-cutting. (St. Gaudens) Throughout the history of US die-engraving, good designs were often made by accomplished artists from outside the mint. An open exchange about coin and medal design can also be fruitful: awarding prices such as the ANS Saltus award helps to raise awareness of this art. As in many other art forms, the best way is an open competition. What is necessary is that the project offers rewards such as money or international prestige. In 1907/8 the American Numismatic Society suggested that a sum of $10,000 should be set aside for a coin design competition: the winner would receive $4,000, a large sum in those days, and the next best six entrants $1,000 each.

Artistically coins and medals often relate to earlier successful examples of ancient, Renaissance or other acclaimed coins. The influence of these coins was crucial for the development of the new US coins under Roosevelt. Naturally this requires a certain knowledge of numismatics and other art.

How can these historical observation help to improve present day coinage?

1. Periodically examine the need for change. Accept change of coin designs as a healthy process, which helps to re-examine designs and the underlying values of our society. For example: what does the concept of Liberty mean to us today and how can it be represented visually? A careful analysis of current ideas would help to assess the need for change. Articulate the ideas in a working paper.

2. Select the artists through a paid competition: Artists from outside the field should be invited to design coins. I am convinced that many artists would be interested in such a competition, in particular as the trend is going towards a revival of figurative art in the US.

3. Appoint a committee which represents a wide variety of representatives from the government, the US mint, the art world, and the population at large. Diversity on such a committee is crucial. It should also be instructed about earlier coin designs, both foreign and US, and discuss these within the committee, before judging any new works.

4. Do not interfere with the artist's design: he or she designs her work as an entity. The tendency of committees to tear their work apart into bits acceptable to everyone never makes a successful design. The decision of the committee has to be final, and then leave the detail to the artist: This requires the will be bold and controversial. Great art always involves a large element of risk.

5. Last but not least: Spend money on the design process and the execution.

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