Q. David Bowers
Bullion Medallions Created
American Arts gold medallions (authorized by Public Law 95-630, November 10, 1978) were quasi-commemoratives conceived as a way for citizens of the United States to invest in gold bullion-type coins similar in concept to the South African krugerrand and the Canadian maple leaf.! The law provided that not less than one million ounces of gold per year be struck in medallion form and sold to the public over a five-year period. Americans prominent in the arts were honored on this short-lived series, which saw a new half-ounce and a one-ounce medal design created each year, with designs furnished by artists at the U.S. Mint. All pieces were struck at the West Point Bullion Depository (later known as the West Point Mint) but bore no mintmark.
The enabling act provided that the medals be sold to the public at a price equal to the free market price of gold plus costs of production and marketing. The premium above gold value for the half-ounce medallion was $6 and for the one-ounce medallion, $12. The first pieces, a half-ounce medallion depicting contralto singer Marian Anderson and a one-ounce medallion showing artist Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame), went on public sale at post offices on July 15, 1980. A complex pricing system was devised whereby intending purchasers had to get daily quotes based upon the gold value.
The so-called "ordering period" for 1980- dated pieces closed on February 28, 1981. By that time, 272,467 half-ounce and 299,669 one-ounce medals had been sold. It turned out that the Mint would later sell additional pieces.
In the Words of Frank Gasparro Frank Gasparro told of the first issue:2
"In the mid-1970s, as chief engraver I was instructed by my director of the Mint, Mary Brooks, to prepare working dies for gold striking of mini-size commemorative medals for U.S. Mint public sales.
"The Marian Anderson congressional medal was the first considered. This three-inch diameter bronze replica was then being sold to the public. A reduced size in gold, 1 5/16", was to be struck on a special coinage press. We were to use a press similar to that used for coining the Saint-Gaudens ten-dollar and twenty-dollar gold pieces and to strike this new gold medal under repeated pressure. This was a new challenge to us. The last time the U.S. Mint struck ten- and twenty-dollar gold coins was in 1933. I knew of no one still at the Mint who could have witnessed gold coins struck on the coining press.
"First, I went about preparing reduction dimensions from the three-inch Marian Anderson medal down to 1 5/16" diameter size, for gold striking. I also had our transfer engraver make plans to reduce the height of relief to a low .014 inch similar to the relief height of the the U.S. silver dollar and suitable for both obverse and reverse dies. The working dies were finally prepared and ready for trial striking. Then a revelation took place. The coining press came down on the gold blank between the obverse and reverse dies with average pressure. What relief I had on the dies came up. That was all.
"The gold would not spread under pressure like silver or copper coins. The gold just sunk. In striking coins, silver or copper flows or spreads. That is the reason that in the press collars are used to contain the Metal in spreading and in the meanwhile to fill up the relief cavities. With gold, which is dense in content, if you have the correct relief to take all the impression, well and good. Gold will not move or spread in order to fill the remaining relief under terrific pressure.
"We then had to take out the gold speciMen from the coining press and to heat anneal (soften) it in order to strike it again, under a high pressure used for medals. Still the relief of gold would not move or flow. The same thing occurred with certain areas of the reverse side. I had to go back and revise the relief to a very low height for both sides. I also lowered the relief of the nose and forehead. I did the same with the reverse areas. I came up with lowered relief dies, and these were successful.
"Then the whole truth dawned on me. I saw the clear picture before me. I envi-sioned the great trouble that ensued with Augustus Saint-Gaudens' High Relief twenty-dollar gold pieces. They would not strike up under terrific pressure [and had to be struck three times on a medal press]. I saw the displeasure and anxiety of President Theodore Roosevelt. I envisioned all of the problems between the outside artist and the Engraving Department of the Mint. This all took place 1906-1907. I concluded that Saint-Gaudens did not take time out to study coinage production technicalities.
"We must conclude with this observation, that gold will sink, due to its density, and will not flow or spread satisfactorily under extreme pressure. Had a roundtable discussion taken place in 1907 among all those involved, results would have been acceptable and satisfactory, thereby resulting in the creation of well-struck coins with less wasted time and discontent. I am glad I was given the opportunity in my tenure as chief engraver at the U.S. Mint to understand the problems with striking gold coins."
Composition of the 1980-dated medallions was 90% gold and 10% copper. In
1981 the composition was changed to 90% gold, 7% copper, and 3% silver, the latter
metal being added to "enhance the appearance" according to a Treasury report. Sales
of 1980 medallions, which had been struck in the full authorized quantity of 100,000
half-ounce and 500,000 one-ounce pieces, amounting to a million ounces of gold, fell
far short of expectations.
In 1981 many fewer medallions were struck. It had become obvious that a mil-lion ounces of gold could not be sold in this manner to the public each year. The 1981-dated medallions were officially on sale from July 15, 1981, to July 5, 1982. A newspaper advertising campaign was launched in an effort to spur sales, but response was sluggish.
Medallions of the 1980 and 1981 series look like medals. The edges are plain. The obverse of each depicts an artist, with the only inscription being his or her name above the portrait. The reverse of each shows a vignette from the artist's life the surrounding inscription AMERICAN ARTS COMMEMORATIVE SERIES, followed by the date, 1980 or 1981. The diameter of the half-ounce piece is 27.4 mm. and of the one-ounce piece, 32.0 mm.