U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

The Lady on the Dollar

A new dollar coin will be in Americans' hands in about a year-and-a-half - and from present indications, it will carry a portrait inspired by Sacajawea, the young Shoshone Indian guide who played a pivotal role in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Not everyone is pleased with the subject matter. Nor, for that matter, did the last U.S. dollar coin - with its likeness of Susan B. Anthony - enjoy universal acclaim as either a work of art or a statement of political correctness.

As we near the millennium, though, at least one 20th-century U.S. dollar coin does stand out in memory as a true aesthetic triumph. And unlike ""Susie B."" and Sacajawea, the lady on THAT dollar was never controversial in the least.

Her name was Teresa de Francisci, and the coin on which she appeared was the graceful Peace dollar, designed by her sculptor husband, Anthony de Francisci, in 1921.

I had the great pleasure to meet Mrs. de Francisci exactly 25 years ago - in 1973, at the Boston convention of the American Numismatic Association - and to speak with her by phone several times thereafter. I found her to be unfailingly gracious and modest to a fault regarding her role in numismatic history.

"I was just an accessory," she insisted. "And really, my husband wasn't making a portrait of me. What he wanted was a portrait of liberty - an idealized portrait of what it represented to him.

"I posed for it; whatever he got from life, he got from me. But he didn't set out to make a portrait of me, and I wouldn't really say that's what it was."

Still, there's no denying the close facial resemblance between De Francisci's portrait of Miss Liberty and photographs of his wife from around that time. Without a doubt, she had a profound influence on his design.

The Peace dollar was the last regular-issue U.S. coin redesigned in its entirety through a limited, invited competition involving outside artists - artists not members of the Mint's engraving staff. It has stood the test of time, and more than three-quarters of a century later its pleasing appearance continues to attest to the efficacy of that method - provided that the artists are picked with proper care and the winners are selected with artistry, not politics, in mind.

Nine artists were chosen to participate in the contest. They included such medallic luminaries as Adolph A. Weinman, designer of the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar; Hermon A. MacNeil, designer of the Standing Liberty quarter; and Victor D. Brenner, designer of the Lincoln cent.

At the time, De Francisci was still an up-and-comer - a rookie, if you will, competing against a lineup of all-stars and even Hall of Famers. He had recently designed a commemorative coin - the 1920 half dollar marking the centennial of Maine's statehood. That, in fact, undoubtedly was a factor in the Treasury's decision to invite him. Still, it seemed unlikely - at least to the artist himself - that he would win.

"Anthony was so certain he would lose," his widow said, "that he told his artist friends, 'I'll give you a silver dollar if I win.' Then, when he did win, we ordered 50 pieces from the Mint - and he gave them all away to keep his promise. He never even kept one for himself."

The 50 pieces sent to De Francisci, and given away to his friends, were all lustrous high-relief examples dated 1921. That, of course, turned out to be one of the key dates in the series, since barely a million specimens were produced. It also was the only date struck in high relief, making it even more desirable.

The couple never did have a 1921 Peace dollar, Mrs. De Francisci confided during one of our conversations.

"We were never collectors," she explained. "Anthony was content to do the creating and let others do the collecting."

The sculptor and his wife both were born in Italy, and both emigrated to the United States at early ages. The future Miss Liberty was only about 4 years old when, as Teresa Cafarelli, she came to this country from her native Naples.

They were newlyweds at the time of the coin competition, having been introduced by Teresa's brother, Michael, an artist who had met De Francisci at art school in New York.

To Teresa de Francisci, it seemed only natural that one of America's most beautiful coins should have come about through the efforts of immigrants.

"Being an immigrant," she said, "sharpens one's appreciation for what this country means. I'm very, very grateful for all that it has done for me. There are a lot of inequities, of course; there are in every country. But with it all, I think it's a great country."

Mrs. de Francisci modeled for her husband on other occasions, as well. Soon after they were married, for example, he sculpted a large relief of his dark-haired bride. Later, after the birth of their daughter, Gilda, he did a relief of her, as well.

Gilda, now Gilda Slate, is the couple's only child. Having inherited her father's artistic temperament, she became a successful commercial artist.

Anthony de Francisci died in 1964, at the age of 76, soon after designing an official medal for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Thereafter, his widow lived a quiet life, spending part of the year in her New York City apartment and part at her retreat in Rockport, Mass., before her death in the early 1990s at the age of 92.

Although she never collected her husband's coins, she did enjoy seeing them and discussing them with people who did collect them. She attended a number of numismatic events as guest of hobby friends and organizations.

And while she was always humble regarding her contribution to the Peace dollar project, she nonetheless took pride in the accomplishment. Now and then, this showed itself in unexpected ways, as it did some years ago on a sidewalk in Manhattan.

"It happened on Fifth Avenue," she recalled. "As I was walking along, I saw a woman with a pin in her lapel - and as she came closer I saw it was a cutout of the coin. 'Oh,' I said, 'my husband designed that coin and I posed for it.'

"She looked at me and ran - thinking, I suppose, that here was another New York nut."

In later years, Mrs. de Francisci had to use a cane to get around. "Everything is slow with me," she told me in an interview in the early 1980s. "Still, I keep busy. I do my own marketing. I go out whenever the weather's nice, because I think it's important for me to get out. And I do a great deal of reading. So you see, I'm never bored.

"I do miss my gardening. And I miss going out to the museums. But I think every phase of life has something good to offer if you accept it.

"I've had a very good life, and I have no regrets."

Happily, collectors have a beautiful reminder of that life. The Peace dollar lady is resting in peace, but the coin she helped create will outlive us all.

PCGS Library