Q. David Bowers
Columbus In History
By 1492, war had cut off Europe from Constantinople and' all routes east for nearly 40 years. Royal treasuries were depleted because there was little export trade. Columbus, of Genoa, Italy, came to the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and obtained funds for a voyage to the uncharted west.
Most people thought the world was flat. Navigation of the unknown seas to the west was limited for fear of "sailing over the edge." But Christopher Columbus dared to sail west, and "discovered" the New World. In 1892, when the 400th anniversary of Columbus first voyage was observed (although the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, threw open its gates to the public a year late, in 1893), the explorer was viewed as a hero.
Not so in 1992. Numerous features on the screen and in print pointed out that Columbus' arrival heralded hundreds of years of oppression and exploitation of what we now know as South, Central, and North America. Celebrations of the 500th anniversary (quincentenary) in the United States were few, far between, and met with a lukewarm reception.
Public Law 102-281, authorizing mintage of the 1992 'Columbus Quincentenary silver dollar (and other Columbus commemoratives), was signed by President George Herbert Walker Bush on May 13, 1992. The dollar coin was to be .900 fine; and weigh 26.73 grams.
This law mandated the creation of the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation "to encourage and support research, study and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind," it was noted in the September 8 issue of Numismatic News. The foundation was to award fellowships to individuals who were to be known as "Columbus scholars." Surcharges of $35 for the gold $5 coin, $7 for each silver dollar, and $1 for each half dollar were to be paid to the fund.
To more than just a few readers, it seemed that this was stretching things a bit. Once again: exploitation of collectors, who would have preferred a reduction in the price of coins, to the creation of a new foundation.
Designs for the Dollar
Coin World, July 6, 1992, reported the opinions of Commission of Fine Arts members concerning sketches submitted for the proposed commemoratives:
These were received ... hospitably. The obverse of the Columbus dollar depicts a full-length portrait of Columbus standing, a flagged pole in his right hand and telescope in his left hand. A mounted globe appears to his left, with a small scene of his three vessels at sea above. COLUMBUS QUlNCENTENARY appears below, as does statutory inscriptions. [John] Mercanti designed the obverse.
The reverse depicts half of a sailing vessel of Columbus' era, and half of a space shuttle orbiter with Earth and star in the background, the two halves forming the central device. Thomas D. Rogers, Sr. designed the reverse. The space shuttle/sailing ship reverse drew mixed reviews. Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts J. Carter Brown said it was "a cute idea, but it's just not going to work."
The staff proposed depicting the sailing ship in the background, with the space shuttle in the foreground. Acting Director of the Mint Eugene H. Essner told the commission that "the date 1992 will be added to the obverse, below IN GOD WE TRUST. The Mint plans to remove the clouds appearing above the vessels on the sketch. The HALF DOLLAR on the reverse will be changed to ONE DOLLAR. QUlNCENTENARY will be removed from the reverse design."
Ed Reiter, a veteran observer of the numismatic and coinage scene, in an article in COINage magazine, September 1992, suggested that the portrait of Columbus on the obverse was "amateurish at best." Further: "Interestingly, this is the only coin in the set which will not carry the double dates 1492-1992-yet, through its imaginative reverse, it captures the significance of that 500-year period far better than either of its two competitors."
An article in Coin World, September 7, 1992, pointed out that the telescope held by Columbus was a historical impossibility, as the device had not been invented by 1492. In the final version, Columbus holds a rolled-up scroll. (In a way, it is too bad that this anachronism did not slip through, for it would have stirred up a lot of interest in an otherwise semi-moribund issue.) The same article made note of the sails on the Santa Mariaon the reverse of the coin, saying that they had been modified from the original design to show ribbing.