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“Typo” might have doomed 1891 coin design competition.

RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

Collectors are generally familiar with the failed 1891 silver coin design competition. The Mint issued a circular requesting designs from the public and also invited ten well-known artists to participate. Ten days before the due date of June 1, the invited artists objected to terms of the competition which included payment of $500.00 for each accepted design, up to all five (5) requested.

After June 1, the public submissions were all rejected and none of the invited artists participated largely due to the paltry compensation offered. However, the $500.00 figure might have been an error – a latter-day “typo” caused by the Mint Director’s office.

A copy of the proposed circular was sent to Treasury Secretary Foster on April 4, 1891. Item number 5 of the rules states: “An award not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500) will be made for each design accepted.” [Entry 235, vol 060 p.358] That seems perfectly clear….

But – In Leech’s cover letter to Sec. Foster, the Director says: “…the best method of obtaining suitable and artistic designs would be to offer a reward of say five thousand dollars ($5000) for each design accepted, five in all.” [Entry 235, vol 060 p.357] This amount is consistent with commissions paid to Augustus Saint-Gaudens and other top-rank sculptors for similar work.

If the copy book entries are correct, Leech intended to offer “$5,000” for each accepted design, but he, or his clerk, dropped a zero in the amount and put “$500” in the circular for Foster’s approval. It is possible the entire fiasco occurred because Foster approved the circular and it was printed and distributed without the award amount being corrected.

If Leech’s intention was to pay $5,000 per accepted design ($25,000 total), it is likely additional highly skilled artists would have participated. Rather than Charles Barber’s stuffy, crowded designs, our subsidiary silver coins of 1892 might have had a completely different appearance.

Comments

  • rickoricko Posts: 98,724 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Wow... the difference a misplaced period can make.....and what may have been....Now, of course, we are still assured of mediocrity through other means. Cheers, RickO

  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I suspect the Director's clerk, a Mr. Morgan, accidentally wrote "500" instead of "5000" when transcribing his shorthand notes (i.e., while taking dictation from Leech). Others simply copied what Morgan had written and did not question the content - entirely normal behavior in such circumstances.

  • ChrisH821ChrisH821 Posts: 6,320 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting!

    Collector, occasional seller

  • desslokdesslok Posts: 310 ✭✭✭

    According to online inflation calculators, $500 in 1891 are equivalent to $12,500 in today's money, whereas $5000 in 1891 equal to $125,000. Did the Mint really intend to offer such high prizes?

  • StrikeOutXXXStrikeOutXXX Posts: 3,350 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited October 31, 2017 9:01AM

    In quite a coincidence, the Royal Mint also had a competition in 1891 to redesign their coins. They didn't offer the competition to the public, rather a list of invited sculptors/artists.
    https://books.google.com/books?id=Q3spAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA2-PA56&lpg=RA2-PA56&dq=great+britain+1891+artist+sculptor+invited&source=bl&ots=HRJPYiUDfS&sig=IdJWRD3h2fEMmkRZhUjllGrogc0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjP4a6RjZvXAhUr74MKHWY1DVIQ6AEIQTAK#v=onepage&q=great britain 1891 artist sculptor invited&f=false

    This document details the selection of the invited lists, and their submissions.
    http://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital BNJ/pdfs/1996_BNJ_66_7.pdf

    The Royal Mint paid 150 POUNDS to each entrant which equates to 17,700 POUNDS today = $23,487.10 in US.

    Seems many thought even that number was "Chincy" just as some felt for the US Competition - quote from the 2nd link above.

    Entrants were offered a fee of £150, which the Illustrated London News considered 'totally inadequate remuneration for the time and labour and materials' involved.

    ------------------------------------------------------------

    "You Suck Award" - February, 2015

    Discoverer of 1919 Mercury Dime DDO - FS-101
  • TommyTypeTommyType Posts: 4,586 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Seems the typo could have been the reverse, as well. That the intended award really was $500, and the draft letter contained the typo?

    It kind of appears that the mints, (US and British), considered the honor of being on a coin should be enough...and hoped that artists would scramble for the honor, despite the low award fee. This is particularly the case when the think they have the required abilities already on staff at the mint. One could claim that attitude continues to this day(?)

    Easily distracted Type Collector
  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @TommyType said:
    Seems the typo could have been the reverse, as well. That the intended award really was $500, and the draft letter contained the typo?

    It kind of appears that the mints, (US and British), considered the honor of being on a coin should be enough...and hoped that artists would scramble for the honor, despite the low award fee. This is particularly the case when the think they have the required abilities already on staff at the mint. One could claim that attitude continues to this day(?)

    Also possible, especially if there was a connection with the Royal Mint design competition payment discovered by StrikeOutXXX. 150 British pounds was approximately $725 U.S. - certainly in line with the US Treasury/Mint circular. In both countries the press considered the sum paltry. (Was there a connection between the two solicitations for new coin designs? Fremantle was in routine correspondence with US mint directors even since Lindermann's second term)

    Medal designs by top-tier US sculptors ranged from $1,500 to $5,000 (Saint-Gaudens) at the time. The Columbian Exposition medal was $5,000. The expectation was for extremely high quality designs, and overall that goal was achieved. Early US medals by Wright and others were also several thousand dollars.

    (The modern practice of paying coin designers a trifling sum might help explain the trifling quality we see so frequently. I know several excellent sculptors who would not touch a Mint design competition - too much time required for a good design and far to small compensation.)

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 31,539 ✭✭✭✭✭

    $500 seems too cheap and $5000 per design seems too much. Interesting puzzle.

    Numismatist. 50 year member ANA. Winner of four ANA Heath Literary Awards; three Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Awards; Numismatist of the Year Award 2009, and Lifetime Achievement Award 2020. Winner numerous NLG Literary Awards.
  • ms70ms70 Posts: 13,946 ✭✭✭✭✭

    $5,000 would have been a stupid amount of money in those days, especially tax-payer dollars.

    Great transactions with oih82w8, JasonGaming, Moose1913.

  • PRECIOUSMENTALPRECIOUSMENTAL Posts: 961 ✭✭✭✭
    edited October 31, 2017 1:38PM

    @desslok posted the inflation corrected amount just as I was going to.
    I would agree that $5K seems very high.
    What are the submitting artists paid today?
    Our fellow member Daniel Carr's New York, Rhode Island, and Maine Quarters won the design contest and were struck and issued.
    I can't recall the amount awarded, I do remember reading of it. (some timers disease-I'm sure I'll remember next week!)

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 31,539 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Why was it decided to not change the reverse of the dime, other than the new modeling with slightly different veining in the leaves of the wreath?

    Numismatist. 50 year member ANA. Winner of four ANA Heath Literary Awards; three Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Awards; Numismatist of the Year Award 2009, and Lifetime Achievement Award 2020. Winner numerous NLG Literary Awards.
  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

    In the late 19th century sculpture was considered a necessity for any commercial building. There was also high demand for public statuary and related artistic uses. An excellent sculptor could routinely command large fees. If we look at medallic art design commissions from the period $5,000 for both sides of a medal is not outrageous.

    Artists were "stars" of their time. Municipalities and corporations competed for the honor of paying an artist to create something special for them. As the neo-classic architectural style faded, fewer sculptural elements were required. Adolph A. Weinman made an excellent living as a sculptor. His two sons, also sculptors, more or less squeaked by.

    RE: "What are the submitting artists paid today?"
    $1,500 to $5,000. Minute sums for the creative work required.

  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited October 31, 2017 2:38PM

    @CaptHenway said:
    Why was it decided to not change the reverse of the dime, other than the new modeling with slightly different veining in the leaves of the wreath?

    Here's an excerpt from Director Leech's June 11 letter ordering the Engraver to begin coin designs. Based on the entire letter, the "blame" for Barber's designs sits squarely on Edwin Leech's shoulders - the engraver simply did what was ordered by his boss.

    "You will please understand that the coins which at present I desire to change are the half-dollar, quarter-dollar and dime.
    "I have no special objection to the present reverse of the half-dollar or quarter-dollar and especially the reverse of the dime, which I consider very pretty as it is.
    "The reverse of the half-dollar and quarter-dollar might be improved slightly without any material change in the eagle"

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 31,539 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Interesting that they might have kept the reverse design on the quarter and half that had been introduced on the half in 1807!

    Numismatist. 50 year member ANA. Winner of four ANA Heath Literary Awards; three Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Awards; Numismatist of the Year Award 2009, and Lifetime Achievement Award 2020. Winner numerous NLG Literary Awards.
  • dcarrdcarr Posts: 7,984 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @PRECIOUSMENTAL said:
    @desslok posted the inflation corrected amount just as I was going to.
    I would agree that $5K seems very high.
    What are the submitting artists paid today?
    Our fellow member Daniel Carr's New York, Rhode Island, and Maine Quarters won the design contest and were struck and issued.
    I can't recall the amount awarded, I do remember reading of it. (some timers disease-I'm sure I'll remember next week!)

    I was invited to submit designs for all five of the 2001 state quarters. All invited artists were paid a total of $500 if they submitted all five designs meeting the guidelines. Each winning designer was awarded an additional $2,500 per winning design. I earned zero for the Maine state quarter effort.

    At the time that I did those designs, it was typical for European countries to award $10,000 to $20,000 for winning designs. Europe apparently valued artists considerably more than the US.

    I can say that in this realm, money does talk. Personally, I would put a lot more effort into a design competition that awarded $10,000 than one that awarded $2,500 (for example).

  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I recommended to the US Mint that one artist design both sides of a coin, that a minimum of 60 days be allowed for design development, and that the remuneration be not less than $20,000. Next time, I will take a supply of hearing aids and ear trumpets with me.... :)

  • RogerBRogerB Posts: 8,852 ✭✭✭✭✭

    This 1891 theory will appear in an issue of Coin World. Additional comments are appreciated.

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