Ed Reiter -
August 4, 1998
Few men are so prominent that people routinely refer to
them - and recognize them instantly - by their initials.
Even among United States presidents, the list has been
exceedingly small: FDR ... JFK ... LBJ ... and one or two
others that are somewhat less familiar in shorthand versions.
In the coin collecting hobby, one set of initials is
far more familiar - and readily recognizable - than all
others. The initials are "VDB" and they stand for the name of
Victor David Brenner, the artist who designed the Lincoln
What makes these initials famous is the fact that they
appear on the rarest of all the Lincolns (excluding such mint
errors as the 1922 "Plain" and the 1955 and 1972 doubled
dies). Indeed, it was these initials that MADE the coin rare
in the first place.
The coin, of course, is the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.
The very first Lincoln cents carried Brenner's initials
in large, conspicuous letters at the base of the reverse.
But outcry arose almost at once that this outsized
"signature" was not only disproportionately large but also
inappropriate simply as a matter of principle.
Under public pressure, the U.S. Mint removed the
offending letters soon after the start of production - after
a mere 484,000 pieces had been struck with the initials at
the San Francisco Mint. The "S-VDB" has been a highly
sought after rarity ever since.
In 1999, the hobby will observe the 90th anniversary
of this venerable and perennially popular coin. And it's
interesting to note that while the coin has given lasting
fame to Victor D. Brenner, his name, in turn, has enhanced
the appeal of other numismatic collectibles, as well.
This was dramatized a decade ago when a group of
Brenner medals, plaquettes and related materials came up
for sale at a New York City auction conducted by Bowers
and Merena Galleries. They attracted strong interest and
drew impressive prices.
"Items designed by Brenner are quite popular with
collectors," said well-known numismatic cataloger and
scholar Michael J. Hodder, then director of research for
the Wolfeboro, N.H., company.
"A medal by Brenner," he said, "will bring perhaps 30
percent more than a medal by someone else without a coinage
connection - just because Brenner designed the Lincoln
cent. If the piece has a Lincoln motif, the price goes up
another 40 percent. And if his name appears prominently on
the medal or plaquette, then you have a REALLY salable
The Brenner material in that auction came from the
collection of the late Glenn S. Smedley, a prominent
numismatist who served for many years on the board of
governors of the American Numismatic Association. Smedley
greatly admired Brenner's work, and over the years he not
only formed an important collection of items designed by the
artist, but also wrote extensively on the subject.
In a booklet entitled "The Works of Victor David
Brenner," Smedley pointed out that the man who designed the
all-American Lincoln cent was not an American by birth.
Brenner was born of Jewish parents on June 12, 1871, in
Shavli, Lithuania, a small town near the Baltic Sea. His
father, a metal worker, was skilled at carving and engraving
- and young Victor demonstrated similar gifts at an early
While still in his teens, he left for America, arriving
almost penniless in New York City in 1890. But he soon found
a job as an engraver, and during the years that followed he
sharpened his talent by attending evening classes at Cooper
Union. In 1898, he went to Paris, where he spent three years
studying under such leading French medalists as Alexandre
Charpentier and Louis Oscar Roty.
Brenner produced a number of impressive medals during
the first decade of the 1900s, and his reputation was growing
as the end of the decade approached - and with it the
observance, in 1909, of the 100th anniversary of Abraham
In the year or two preceding the observance, Brenner
prepared appealing portraits of Lincoln for special
centennial medals and plaquettes. Then, in the summer of
1908, fate brought him in contact with President Theodore
The president was posing for a Panama Canal service
medal being designed by Brenner, and the artist suggested
the notion of a coin honoring Lincoln. Roosevelt invited
him to furnish proposed designs - and within a matter of
months, the idea became a reality.
The Lincoln cent has long been regarded as the single
most popular coin with basic collectors - the coin that
most collectors cut their teeth on, so to speak. It's less
well known, however, that a parallel market exists for other
works of art by Victor Brenner.
"Obviously, the clientele is far smaller and far more
select," Hodder said at the time of the Smedley sale in
September 1988. "But the people who collect Brenner artworks
are very enthusiastic.
"Brenner items are always very popular. There's no
comparison with Norweb-quality coins, for example, in terms
of prices realized. But the pieces are very colorful, they're
very attractive, they have a good, strong following - and the
prices seem to get better every year."
At the 1988 auction, prices were particularly strong for
a group of large bronze pieces bearing Lincoln portraits -
portraits strikingly similar to the one used by Brenner on
the cent. A bidder paid $660, for example, for an
uncirculated Lincoln medal 63 millimeters in diameter - more
than twice the size of a U.S. half dollar. Two uniface
rectangular plaquettes measuring 89 by 67 millimeters, sold
as a single lot, brought $550.
Such prices, to be sure, are very small potatoes
compared to the current cost of many coins. In the medal
market, though, they were - and still are - worthy of note.
"So much of medallic Americana is really unexplored by
the mainstream collector," Hodder observed. "And I think it's
largely a matter of ignorance - including widespread
ignorance of just how much these things are really worth."
In Hodder's view, anyone who collects Lincoln cents
ought to have "medallic art by Brenner, as well, and it ought
to be in large, module size."
While Brenner is best remembered for his works
portraying Lincoln, he fashioned numerous medals and
plaquettes on other subjects, too. Those in the 1988 sale,
for example, included attractive pieces depicting such
important historical figures as Amerigo Vespucci, the
Italian explorer after whom America is named, and John Paul
Jones, the American Revolution's foremost naval hero.
The sale also featured two offbeat - and intriguing -
Brenner-related items that might come under the heading
One was described by the catalog as a "presentation
cent." Brenner, it appears, acquired examples of the 1909 VDB
cent made at the Philadelphia Mint (in much more plentiful
numbers than the S-mint version) and placed them in cardboard
holders - one to a holder - which he then signed and gave
to friends and associates. The cardboard says simply:
"Compliments of Victor D. Brenner." This brought $462 at the
auction ($420 plus a 10-percent buyer's fee).
The second unusual item was a short but fascinating
letter from Brenner to Farran Zerbe, one of the leading
numismatists of the day. Evidently, Zerbe had written to
inquire whether the motto "In God We Trust" would appear on
the new coin - a query no doubt prompted by the absence of
the motto on gold coins the previous year (and also on the
Indian Head cent, the coin being replaced by the Lincoln
Brenner's letter, written in a broad scrawl, was brief
and to the point:
"'In God We Trust' is to appear on the face of the Cent
above the head of Lincoln.
"Very truly yours,
"Victor D. Brenner."
This changed hands for $275 - $250 plus the buyer's fee
- at the 1988 sale.
Victor Brenner died in 1924 at the age of 52. He lived
long enough to enjoy a certain measure of vindication: In
1918, his initials were restored, though in much smaller
letters, at the base of Lincoln's shoulder on the obverse of
At 89, the Lincoln cent already has lasted 37 years
longer than its designer. But Brenner has not been - and
will not be - forgotten. The cent he created, and his
larger works, as well, have given him a measure of
As long as Lincoln cents are set aside and treasured,
the initials "VDB" will always mean something special to