Ed Reiter -
November 10, 1999
When coin collectors talk about United States gold coins, the first to come to mind is the stunning Saint-Gaudens double eagle -- the $20 gold piece created by famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Not far behind is its beautiful companion piece, the Saint-Gaudens eagle, or $10 gold piece.
The high recognition of these two popular coins is amply justified, and so is the high esteem in which they are held; they rank among the loveliest coins not only in U.S. history but in the entire world. Nonetheless, their glitter has blinded most collectors to the beauty of two other U.S. gold coins. And the towering reputation of Saint-Gaudens has completely overshadowed the achievements of the sculptor who designed those other coins.
That sculptor was Bela Lyon Pratt, and the coins he designed were the Indian Head half and quarter eagles -- the $5 and $2.50 gold pieces that circulated Side-by-side with the two Saint-Gaudens coins.
It's not at all surprising that Pratt and his two coins have been overlooked. The coins, after all, are smaller and less spectacular than their better-known contemporaries, and Pratt -- like all U.S. sculptors of his day -- was toiling in Saint-Gaudens' lengthy shadow. And yet, while they're less dazzling than the double eagle and eagle, the Pratt coins in a sense are more innovative and daring.
In part, their innovation stems from Pratt's design, which both coins have in common. The obverse portrays a true-to-life Indian brave, the first real Indian ever to appear on U.S. coinage, while the reverse depicts a naturalistic eagle in repose. Earlier coins, including Saint-Gaudens' eagle, had featured "Indians," but always as Caucasians wearing Indian attire.
More than anything, though, these coins are set apart by their use of incuse relief: Rather than being raised above the surface and protected by a rim, the design elements and lettering are sunken in a plane which is uniformly flat. This fascinating technique has never been used on the entirety of any other U.S. coins.
The history of the Pratt gold coins closely paralleled that of the two Saint-Gaudens pieces. They first appeared in 1908, just one year after the double eagle and eagle, and were issued from then until 1929 -- roughly the same period as the two larger coins. As in the case of the larger coins, their designer was an outside artist, rather than a Mint staff engraver. And, perhaps most important, they sprang from the very same roots: All four coins were designed and produced in the first place because of the personal interest and intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt.
"Teddy" Roosevelt's interests were many and varied, and often highly passionate. Clearly, however, upgrading U.S. coinage art was particularly close to his heart. It was he who prevailed upon Saint-Gaudens to come up with new designs for the double eagle and eagle ... he who made sure that the project came to fruition in the face of stiff resistance at the Mint ... and he who endorsed the subsequent revamping of the two smaller gold coins, including the offbeat concept of using incuse relief.
This intriguing departure from the norm was suggested to the president by a close friend, Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a prominent Boston physician. Bigelow collected fine art, and he had come to admire the incuse relief used in works of art in ancient Egypt. Pratt, too, was from Boston, and he had become acquainted with Bigelow through their mutual involvement in art circles there. That, in turn, had prompted the doctor to recommend him for the coin design assignment.
But, while geography may have played a part in landing Pratt the job, his credentials were impressive enough to merit such a commission even had it resulted from a nationwide search. While far less renowned than Saint-Gaudens, he was nationally known and respected as a sculptor of considerable talent. And, in fact, he once had been a student of Saint-Gaudens.
On coming across the name Bela Lyon Pratt, casual students of numismatic history sometimes mistake it for that of a woman -- a woman named Bela whose maiden name was Lyon. In point of fact, of course, the sculptor's name was Bela as in Bela Lugosi, not Bella as in Bella Abzug. Pratt was born on Dec. 11, 1867 in Norwich, Conn., to lawyer George Pratt and his deeply religious wife, Sarah. On his father's side, the family had firm New England roots going all the way back to Mathew Pratt, an early settler of Weymouth, Mass. From his mother's side came a heritage of creativity: Her father, Orramel Whittlesey, was proprietor of the Music Vale Seminary, a well-known center of musical learning in Salem, Conn.
As a child, Bela showed an aptitude for art, and at 16 he was sent to the Yale School of Fine Arts. There, he studied under two excellent masters, John Ferguson Weir and John Henry Niemeyer. At 19, he entered the Art Students' League of New York -- and that was where his path brought him in contact with Saint-Gaudens, who was teaching there at the time. His work in Saint-Gaudens' modeling class impressed the eminent master and led to an invitation -- which he eagerly accepted --to serve as an assistant in the famed sculptor's private studio. Beyond a doubt, this close early relationship with Saint-Gaudens influenced
Pratt's work throughout his artistic career. In historical terms, it also adds a touch of aptness to his later role as a coin designer: He was, so to speak, following in the footsteps of his mentor.
Saint-Gaudens urged young Pratt to hone his skills in Paris, and in 1890 he followed this advice. He took advanced courses at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in that city and worked in the studios of Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu and Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguiere, two of the leading French sculptors of the day. He returned to America after two years abroad -- just in time to help prepare sculptural decorations for the World's Columbian Exposition, which took place in Chicago in 1893. The works he created for the show, two large sculptural groups representing the "Genius of Navigation," gained him recognition as a sculptor of considerable substance, and he never lacked thereafter for commissions.
It was after returning from Europe that Pratt took up residence in Boston. In 1893, he accepted a position as instructor of modeling at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts -- a post that he retained until his death -- and also opened a studio in the city. In 1897, he solidified his ties by marrying a Bostonian, Helen Lugada Pray.
Though frail and prone to illness, Pratt proved to be a prolific worker. In the first 10 years after opening his studio, he turned out more than 50 different sculptures. He also displayed considerable versatility, demonstrating mastery not only in massive sculpture but also in smaller art forms such as bas-relief portraiture and medallic art. By the time he was commissioned to redesign the two smaller gold coins, he had made his mark as one of the nation's leading young sculptors. He wasn't a Saint-Gaudens, to be sure -- but then, as present-day art authority Cornelius Vermeule observes, "it was 'logical' to entrust the remaining gold coins to a younger contemporary of established reputation," rather than to another superstar. And, in any case, who would not have suffered by comparison with Saint-Gaudens?
Like most radical departures, the Indian Head half and quarter eagles had their critics. One, in particular -- prominent Philadelphia numismatist S.H. Chapman -- found them so offensive that he fired off a letter to President Roosevelt. Chapman took exception to almost every aspect of the coins. First of all, he didn't like the Indian; that, he said, was "emaciated, totally unlike the big, strong Indian chiefs as seen in real life." He also found fault with the eagle, saying it appeared to be a kind that was native to Europe, rather than the U.S. national bird. He saved his harshest criticism, though, for the "sunken design" of the coins, which he warned would give rise to a multitude of ills: Counterfeiters would have a field day, the coins wouldn't stack properly, and -- most insidious of all - these would prove to be the "most unhygienic" coins ever issued, since the recessed areas would soon become clogged with filth and convey disease.
"These coins," Chapman said, "will be a disgrace to our country as a monument of our present ideas of art as applied to coinage. As compared with those of recent issues of European countries, not to mention the beautiful works of the ancient Greek coin engravers, it is an utterly miserable, hideous production, and let us hope that its issue will not be continued and that it will be recalled and melted."
Roosevelt sent a copy of Chapman's letter to Dr. Bigelow and Bigelow, in turn, wrote a letter of his own giving point-by-point responses to each of the objections Chapman raised. Far from being emaciated, he said, the Indian on the coins was based upon a photograph of an Indian whose health was excellent. "Perhaps," he suggested, "Mr. Chapman has in mind the fatter but less characteristic type of Indian sometimes seen on the reservations." As for the eagle, that, he said, was "an absolutely correct representation of the white-headed American eagle."
When he came to Chapman's comments on the coins' incuse relief, Bigelow made it clear that he viewed these complaints with disdain. Easy for forgers to engrave? "This criticism can hardly be taken seriously. If a forger were going to engrave anything he would not waste his labor on a single coin." Unhygienic? "A dirty gold coin would be an anomaly. I have never happened to see one." Impossible to stack? "Perfectly true. I noticed it as soon as they were issued and called Mr. Leach's (Mint Director Frank A. Leach's) attention to it. It proved to be due to an accidental warping of the steel die in hardening. Mr. Leach tells me that it can and will be avoided in future."
Roosevelt was satisfied with Bigelow's explanations. Chapman was not, and answered with a point-by-point rebuttal of his own -- but by then his objections were moot. The coins were in production and their issuance wouldn't be halted until the presidency of another Roosevelt, Theodore's cousin Franklin, in 1933.
Production of the two Pratt coins was sporadic. After the early years, there were long stretches when the Mint failed to issue one or both. Though last struck in 1929, both were regarded as current U.S. coins until FDR closed the books on gold coinage four years later.
Mintages of both the coins were relatively high, compared with those of earlier series in the same denominations. In both cases, though, there were issues of considerable scarcity -- and in higher grades, even common-date pieces command significant premiums. Among the quarter eagles, the key coin is the 1911-D, with a mintage of 55,680 and a price tag of $40,000 in Mint State-65 condition. Among the half eagles, there are several different coins which bring impressive sums. Of these, the scarcest is the 1909-O, a coin with a mintage of 34,200; in MS-65, it's worth about $180,000. For common-date coins in MS-65, buyers can expect to pay $2,000 for an Indian Head quarter eagle and $10,000 or more for a half eagle.
Pratt designed no further coins, but continued to win praise and respect for his larger works of art. In 1915, for example, he earned a gold medal for a collection of 17 sculptures at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He also remained prolific. But, in time, the pace of his output apparently took a toll. His strength wasn't equal to the constant load of work and on May 18, 1917, at the age of 49, he died in Boston of heart disease -- just as he was finishing a massive figure of Alexander Hamilton for the city of Chicago.
Pratt's two gold coins will never outshine the two by Saint-Gaudens. Their glow is less intense; they have a more subtle appeal. Hobbyists who take the time to study them, though -- to look beneath the surface, so to speak -- will find them compelling in a different sort of way.
Here, as in so many cases, beauty is more than skin deep.