July 20, 1998
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,
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.