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Competition, it is said, brings out the best in us. That may not always be true -- but, in the case of United States coins, it has been a pretty accurate statement of fact through the years.

During its first two centuries, the United States Mint obtained designs for nine regular-issue coins through contests involving outside artists -- persons not employed on its staff. Most have won acclaim for their craftsmanship and beauty. In fact, some of these coins are ranked -- by connoisseurs and critics alike -- among the nation's finest works of numismatic art.

The new dollar coin portraying Sacagawea, scheduled to debut in January 2000, will lengthen this list to 10, for its obverse design by Glenna Goodacre -- an artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico -- resulted from a special invited competition in which a number of outside artists took part.

Two current coins, the Washington quarter and Jefferson nickel, are included in the group. So, too, were the three Bicentennial coins of 1975-76. The impact of design competitions -- and their great potential for bettering our coinage esthetically -- could be seen most dramatically, though, in the first half of this century. For most of that period, the work of outside artists was dominant among our coin designs. And special competitions accounted for much of that art.

The first U.S. coins to result from such a contest were the Winged Liberty (or "Mercury") dime, Standing Liberty quarter and Walking Liberty half dollar, all of them products of a single competition which took place in 1915. But the groundwork had been laid more than six decades earlier, in 1853, when Congress empowered the director of the Mint "to engage temporarily ... the services of one or more artists, distinguished in their respective departments" to prepare designs and dies for new coins.

Up to that time, all U.S. coin designs had been prepared by artists at the Mint. Despite the act of Congress, that practice would continue for more than half a century. The act of Congress did, however, form a legal bridge that eased the transition when outside artists finally made a breakthrough.

In point of fact, the Mint director at the time, James Ross Snowden, did follow through when Congress sent its signal in 1853. While seeking designs for new silver coins then being readied by the Mint, Snowden invited "the cooperation of artists, engravers and other persons of taste," and a number of designs were submitted. All were rejected, however.

The first formal contest involving outside artists also dates back to the 19th century. It took place in 1891 -- and, once again, silver coins were the ones being redesigned: The Mint was seeking replacements for the Liberty Seated dime, quarter and half dollar, three coins it had been issuing for more than 50 years.

Initially, the Treasury intended to hold what is known as a limited competition -- one involving a small number of artists specifically invited to compete. To that end, it extended invitations to 10 of the nation's most highly respected artists, including famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. After conferring among themselves, however, the artists insisted that certain preconditions first be met, including a pledge that each of the participants would be paid. Treasury officials balked at these demands and opted, instead, for an open competition with no advance guarantee of payment. Lacking such assurance, first-rate artists felt little incentive to compete -- and, while the government did receive 300 entries, it deemed only two of them good enough to merit even honorable mention.

The Mint staff engravers were, understandably, jealous of their role in designing the nation's coins, and for more than a hundred years they successfully resisted attempts to make them share that role with others. Not until Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 did the pendulum start to swing the other way. Roosevelt took a personal interest in U.S. coinage art and enlisted outstanding artists in efforts to upgrade our coins' appearance.

It was largely through Roosevelt's influence -- and direct intervention -- that Saint-Gaudens got a chance to prepare his stunning designs for our two largest gold coins, the double eagle and eagle ($20 and $10 gold pieces). It was through his efforts, too, that Bela Lyon Pratt, another leading sculptor of the day, got to redesign the two smallest gold coins, the half eagle and quarter eagle ($5 and $2.50 gold pieces). All four coins by Saint-Gaudens and Pratt were first produced in a two-year period -- 1907-08 -- late in Roosevelt's tenure at the White House. The Lincoln cent -- designed by yet another outside artist, Victor David Brenner -- also had "T.R." as a patron, though he was out of office by the time it first appeared in 1909.

All of these coins resulted from commissions, not contests; in each case, the government hired the man it wanted for the job. That was the case a few years later, too, when James Earle Fraser designed the Buffalo nickel, a coin that first appeared in 1913. Roosevelt, however, can be credited indirectly with bringing about the contests that ensued: By opening the Mint's windows and letting in the fresh artistic breezes, he had established an atmosphere in which the concept of coin design contests quickly flowered.

Charles E. Barber, the Mint's chief sculptor-engraver, had been the major beneficiary in 1891 when that year's competition failed to produce any winners. That failure had made it possible for him to redesign all three silver coins himself. Thus were born the Liberty Head dime, quarter and half dollar -- better known to hobbyists as the "Barber coins."

Ironically, Barber became the big loser a quarter-century years later, when the 1915 coin design contest took place -- for the coins being redesigned then were the very ones that he had brought into being. The Barbers had reached "retirement age," and Treasury officials were wasting no time in finding more imaginative replacements.

Mindful of the problems their predecessors had had with open contests, the officials chose to hold a limited competition -- the same kind of contest that was planned in the first place in 1891. This time, however, they narrowed the number of entrants, inviting only three, and gave them a financial guarantee. Each was to receive a $300 minimum, with $2,000 being paid for a winning entry.

The three participants -- New York sculptors Hermon A. MacNeil, Albin Polasek and Adolph A. Weinman -- all were among the most distinguished men in their field, and it's clear from Mint records that all were expected to end up with "a piece of the action." In other words, with three men preparing designs and three coins being redesigned, the Treasury expected that one design from each man would be picked. That's not the way the contest ended, though: Weinman emerged a double winner and Polasek came up empty. The judges chose Weinman's Winged Liberty design for the dime and his Walking Liberty entry for the half dollar, and gave MacNeil the nod for the final coin, the quarter, where his Standing Liberty figure was enshrined.

The coins that resulted from the 1915 contest were greeted enthusiastically -- by Americans in general and hobbyists in particular -- when they burst upon the scene in 1916. Indeed, they are viewed even now as three of our loveliest coins. Buoyed by this success, the Treasury adopted a similar approach five years later, when a new design was needed for our largest silver coin, the silver dollar. Acting on instructions from the Mint, the federal Commission of Fine Arts arranged a competition involving eight outstanding U.S. sculptors. Brenner, MacNeil and Weinman all were included among the invitees. The winner, however, turned out to be a relative newcomer: a gifted young Italian-born artist named Anthony de Francisci.

The ground rules for the contest set forth in general terms the subject to be dealt with in the new silver dollar's design: It was meant to commemorate the restoration of peace following the end of World War I. The winning design had a highly personal flavor, for sculptor De Francisci patterned his portrait of a fresh-faced, idealized Miss Liberty after his wife, Teresa, who served as his model for the project. Selection of his entry earned De Francisci a $1,500 prize, plus $200 for travel to and from the Mint. Each of the other entrants got $100 for competing.

In 1931, the Treasury scheduled another competition -- this time for a coin design to honor George Washington on the 200th anniversary of his birth. This one, however, was an open affair: Anyone could compete, and 98 persons did. Actually, the contest was a two-in-one event; the Fine Arts Commission was seeking designs not only for a coin but also for a Washington medal. It was stipulated, though, that only one winner would be picked, with his or her designs to be used on both the coin and the medal.

The winner of the contest, at least in the judges' eyes, was Laura Gardin Fraser, wife of James Fraser and a highly accomplished artist in her own right. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon dissented, however. He preferred an entry by sculptor John Flanagan -- and even though the judges lodged an impassioned protest, Mellon made sure that Flanagan's work was chosen -- and used -- by the Treasury. The outcome dismayed the Fine Arts Commission, but the new coin found favor with the public anyway, upon its introduction in 1932 -- so much so, in fact, that the Treasury decided to retain it thereafter, even though original plans had called for it to be a one-time commemorative issue.

Flanagan received a $1,500 award. Mrs. Fraser got what amounted to a consolation prize: Her medal design was chosen by the Treasury. She lost the big prize, though -- and numismatic scholars are in general agreement that the loss was America's, too, for the nation was deprived of an outstanding work of coinage art. That injustice was rectified partially and belatedly when the Mint resurrected the Fraser artwork for a 1999 commemorative half eagle marking the 200th anniversary of Washington's death. Not surprisingly, this $5 gold piece has won wide favor with collectors and enjoyed unusually strong sales.

Interestingly, the Bicentennial quarter was a product of two competitions. Flanagan's portrait of Washington was retained, while a Bicentennial design -- Jack L. Ahr's depiction of a drummer boy -- went on the coin's reverse.

From 1932 to 1975, the only U.S. coin design chosen in such a contest was that of the Jefferson nickel. This familiar coin, first produced in 1938, also represented the high point of the pendulum in terms of outside artists' involvement in coin design.

As in the case of the Washington quarter, the Jefferson nickel's design was chosen in an open competition -- and here again, the theme was pre-selected: This was to be a tribute to Thomas Jefferson. After wading through a pile of nearly 400 designs, the judges finally settled on an entry by German-born sculptor Felix Schlag. This time the Treasury concurred, and Schlag was awarded the $1,000 prize. Before beginning production, though, the Treasury chose to modify Schlag's design. He had shown Monticello, Jefferson's famous Virginia home, at a three-quarters angle which gave it an arty -- and even an airy -- look. The adapted (and adopted) design is a straight-ahead view of the building which looks, in the words of one coinage critic, very much like a "mausoleum."

With the advent of the Jefferson nickel, all but one of the then-current coins had resulted from design competitions -- and the one exception, the Lincoln cent, also was the work of an outside artist. For 35 years thereafter, outsiders were excluded from the process. The four new regular-issue coins introduced during that period -- the Roosevelt dime, Franklin and Kennedy half dollars and Eisenhower dollar -- all were designed by sculptor-engravers at the Mint -- and so was the cent's new Lincoln Memorial reverse.

The tide was stemmed -- temporarily, at least -- in 1973, when the Treasury held a contest to get new designs for the three Bicentennial coins. The three coins in question, the dollar, half dollar and quarter, were being only partly redesigned: The Mint was retaining the portrait of the president (Eisenhower, Kennedy or Washington) on the obverse of each coin, and using the reverse alone for special Bicentennial themes. The changes, in addition, were destined to be brief in duration: After being used for only two years, in 1975 and '76, the new designs were dropped and the three coins reverted to their pre-Bicentennial look. Still, these coins -- and the contest that produced them -- gave the hobby cause for satisfaction. After many years of sameness, even staleness, in our coinage, the Mint was reopening its windows.

Nearly 900 entries were submitted in the contest, and many were rejected out of hand. There was, for example, one design depicting President Richard Nixon and adviser Henry Kissinger linked in a telephone conversation. There also was an entry featuring a comely hula dancer. There even was one depicting the nation -- presumably 200 years earlier -- as a fetus inside its mother's womb.

Happily for the Republic, the judges found three other entries more to their liking than these. Besides Jack Ahr and his drummer-boy design, the winners were Seth Huntington, whose portrait of Independence Hall was used on the half dollar, and Dennis R. Williams, a young art student whose superimposition of the Liberty Bell on the Moon was chosen for use on the dollar. Each of the winners got a cash award of $5,000.

Coin design contests are not without pitfalls, and not all the winners have been stirring works of art. The chief judge in the Bicentennial competition, well-known sculptor Robert A. Weinman, commented afterward, for instance, that none of the entries there, including the ones selected, "was a real winner I'd fight to the death for." Weinman was well-versed on coin design contests, for his father was Adolph Weinman, the multiple winner in the stellar 1915 competition.

For all their shortcomings, though, these contests have produced some memorable coins -- coins that were prize winners far beyond the context of the judging. In a high percentage of cases, these special competitions have truly brought out the best in coinage art.

History Walking Liberty Half Dollars (1916-1947) Standing Liberty Quarters (1916-1930) Mercury Dimes (1916-1945)