USA Coin Album: Transitional Pairs — Part Five

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 7/16/2013

David's study of transitional pairs, coins of the same denomination and date struck with different designs, shifts this month to 20th-century issues. The first 40 years of the past century were rich in overlapping coin types, including some of the most popular designs sought by collectors.

At the age of 70, Christian Gobrecht’s once-acclaimed but now antiquated bust of Liberty wearing a tiara or coronet, a staple on the nation’s gold coins since 1838, had become an embarrassment to aesthetes and to the Mint itself. The same could be said of James B. Longacre’s Liberty Head double eagle coined since 1850. Impressed with Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ submission for his inaugural medal of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded the great sculptor to prepare coin designs for the four gold issues. This work commenced in 1905, but it would not be realized until two years later, following various pattern and trial strikes.

Late in 1907 numismatists were finally treated to finished products. The eagle, or ten-dollar piece, featured a bust of Liberty adorned in a Native American headdress, and this was paired with an eagle perched atop a bundle of arrows intertwined with an olive branch. The new double eagle displayed a full figure of Liberty striding toward the viewer, while its reverse featured an eagle in flight that recalled the cent of 1857-58, that coin being a particular favorite of the artist.

While both were minted in fairly large numbers in that year’s closing months, this production was preceded by much greater numbers of the old Coronet Liberty pieces. The mints at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco each participated in coining the retiring designs, but dies for the new types were not ready in time for the western mints. All of these coins are readily obtainable in most grades, only the 1907-S Coronet Liberty eagle being scarce in choice condition.

It was anticipated that Augustus Saint-Gaudens would also create new designs for the quarter eagle and half eagle, but he died in the summer of 1907 before models were prepared. This commission was then awarded to Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, who modeled the new coins in a distinctive, sunken relief reminiscent of ancient Egypt. The devices and legends were set below the level of the field, the latter bearing the burden of wear on these entirely rimless coins. Both denominations shared a common design, only the expression of value differing. A realistic bust of a male Native American on the obverse was paired with a perched eagle on the reverse, the eagle figure being little more than a miniature of that on the ten-dollar coin.

The two new issues were not minted until well into 1908. Since the quarter eagle was a coin struck primarily for supplying holiday gift-givers during the final month or two of each year, no Coronet pieces were struck with that date. The half eagle, however, was a coin that could not wait, and Philadelphia minted nearly half a million pieces of the old type before the new dies were ready. That same mint was the sole provider of Indian Head quarter eagles in 1908, but Denver and San Francisco also joined in the production of the new half eagles. The 1908-S issue is the only scarce coin among these various entries, so collectors will have no trouble finding suitable examples of the two half eagle types for that year.

President Roosevelt was so pleased with the four new gold coins that he also commissioned sculptor Victor David Brenner to create a new type of one-cent piece. This was to be based on the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that Brenner had already devised for several plaques and medals. The object was to honor Lincoln on the centennial of his birth in 1909, though the coins would not be ready in time for the exact date of February 12.

The obverse of the new cent, which bore the Lincoln bust, was ready early in 1909, but the coin’s reverse proved to be more problematic. Brenner initially submitted a design that was quite derivative of the striding sower found on contemporary French coins, and this was rejected by the Treasury Department. He ultimately replaced this model with one featuring a stylized pair of heraldic wheat heads, and this was accepted once the artist had removed his name “Brenner” from the model. He simplified this to read just V.D.B., and production of the new cent commenced in June for an August release.

Earlier in the year, cents of the old Indian Head Liberty type were coined at both Philadelphia and San Francisco, the latter producing only 309,000 pieces. The same two mints struck the new Lincoln cents in two varieties (the designer’s initials V.D.B. were protested by the press and public and were quickly removed). This makes for a total of six major varieties of 1909 cents, and none are truly rare. The 1909-S Indian cent is the toughest to locate across all grades, but it has long been overshadowed by the vastly more popular 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent. For the purpose of assembling a transitional pair, most collectors will simply obtain examples of the 1909 Philadelphia cents of both types, though one could easily add the second variety of Lincoln cent lacking the designer’s initials.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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