November 6, 1998
We've heard a lot of talk in recent years about "coin doctors." Well, Congress and the U.S. Mint could use some first-rate coin doctors today -- and I don't mean the kind of "doctors" who specialize in artificial toning.
Our nation's commemorative coins are suffering from a
case of quality-design anemia -- a serious, chronic deficiency
of solid artistic excellence -- and the program urgently needs
corrective surgery. A face lift won't do the job; it will take an art transplant to remedy this problem -- abandonment of the system now being used to obtain coin designs and establishment in its place of a system that takes the high road, rather than the path of least resistance.
Just 16 years have elapsed since the "modern" series of
U.S. commemoratives got under way with the issuance of the
George Washington half dollar in 1982. Already, however, the
U.S. Mint has issued more coins in this series than it did during the entire 62-year period of "traditional" commemoratives, from 1892 to 1954. And with relatively few exceptions, the artwork on these coins has been depressingly, relentlessly inferior.
Joseph Veach Noble is not a doctor; he's a former museum
official and longtime executive director of the prestigious (and now regrettably dormant) Society of Medalists -- which for many years, starting in 1930, issued two medals a year by top-flight artists. But he has a strong sense of what ails our commemorative coinage, and a forthright prescription for treating and curing the
"Collectively, these recent commemorative coins are
atrocious, and a disgrace to the Treasury Department," Noble
declared disgustedly in a far-ranging interview I conducted with him for COINage magazine. "Everything has been crowded into their design except the kitchen sink. The major fault is that every coin is overburdened with too much text.
"All of the sculptors are talented, and if left to themselves they could produce beautiful coinage. But Michelangelo couldn't do any better, given the overabundance of copy and design elements that our sculptors are forced to include in their designs.
"These new coins are politically correct, but artistically they are failures. I am ashamed of them as an American citizen."
Noble brings a unique perspective to this issue, for he has been involved for many years in commissioning artists
to prepare medallic works, not only for the Society of
Medalists but also for an annual series issued by Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.
In his opinion, the federal government is "hamstringing"
artists by imposing so many requirements on coin designs
today -- including not only a plethora of mandatory
inscriptions but also detailed guidelines on what must be
"I see no saving grace," he remarked. "The downside is
complete. These designs may be politically correct and have
every element you can think of -- or a committee can think of.
But it's that old story about the horse designed by committee
-- which, of course, is the camel. And these coins, I'm
afraid, are a bunch of camels.
"We need to go back to the way things were done years
ago, when President Theodore Roosevelt asked Augustus Saint-
Gaudens to redesign the gold double eagle and eagle. Roosevelt didn't give him a laundry list of what to put on the coins; he left it
to Saint-Gaudens' artistic judgment. And we ended up with two magnificent coins."
There may not be any medalists of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' stature on the scene or horizon today, but Noble says there's a
pool of many talented artists that the government could tap for coinage projects. And he says this with conviction, for he himself has tapped that pool repeatedly.
"The sculptors are just as good today as they ever were,"
he said, "and the work that is being done in the art medal field in America is superb. In fact, there has been a renaissance in this field: If anything, the artists are even more imaginative and
creative than in the past. You can't be creative if you're put in a straitjacket, though; the spirit of creativity can never take flight if you load the artist down with too much baggage."
Half of the ideas for Society of Medalists issues came
from the artists themselves, Noble reported. And even when he
assigned a general theme, he gave the artists great leeway in
working out the particulars.
"They love that kind of freedom," he exclaimed. "Most
sculptors have in the back of their heads some ideas which
they never were able to develop, and this gives them a chance
to bring them out. With the new U.S. coins, the artists don't
have any freedom -- and predictably enough, the designs that they produce are all too often sterile and uninspired."
Earlier U.S. commemoratives from the so-called traditional
period reflected far greater artistic independence and diversity, Noble said.
"By and large, the older commemorative coins were
infinitely more successful artistically," he said emphatically. "Infinitely more successful. The artists had more freedom -- and while there were some inferior designs in those days, too, there were also some exceptional works of art.
"Today, the designs are so homogenized that if you told
me they were all done by one person, I would believe you,
even though I know they were not. They remind me of all the
different postage stamps the Post Office has been pushing:
One's as uninteresting as the other. They're strictly sales
gimmicks, meant to make you buy; they have no merit at all
as works of art."
Will Congress and the Mint remove the artistic straitjacket that's holding down the quality of new U.S. commemoratives? Will the program get the art transplant it needs?
Sadly, it appears that like other forms of health care,
this one isn't due for attention anytime soon in the nation's