The Selma Burke Controversy Lives on Long After the 1940s
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I found this on eBay the other day for a dollar and couldn't resist buying it:

1fion5.png

 

For those of you who don't know the connection between the Roosevelt dime and artist Selma Burke, I'll briefly sum it up:

 

Among the controversies surrounding the Roosevelt dime, there has been long-standing allegation that engraver John R. Sinnock copied or borrowed the Roosevelt profile from a bronze bas relief of FDR created by sculptress Selma H. Burke for the dime's obverse. Partially seen below, Burke's bas relief was sculpted in 1944 and and unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today.

 

The exact origin of this claim is currently unknown to this writer. But whether or not it was Burke who first made the accusation, it is clear that she was very unhappy with Sinnock and felt that she deserved the credit for the design. In a special tribute to the sculptress presented to the 103rd Congress in 1994, writer Steven Litt reported:

 

Selma Burke, 93, has earned more honors in her long career than many other 20th-century American artists. She first garnered attention as a sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance, the burst of art, music and literature by blacks in New York during the 1920s and '30s. She later studied in Europe, founded an art school in New York and an art center in Pittsburgh, and was awarded nearly a dozen honorary degrees.

 

But one thing eludes her. It is credit for the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that appears on the dime, which was issued by the U.S. Mint in 1946.

 

The dime bears the tiny initials "JS," which stand for John Sinnock, the former mint chief engraver who, according to Burke, copied a bronze portrait plaque of Roosevelt created by Burke in 1944 for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C.

 

I'm so mad at that man,” she says of Sinnock.

 

Officials at the mint say their records show Sinnock deserves full credit for the Roosevelt dime. But Burke isn't convinced. She says that because she is black, she will never get the recognition she feels she deserves.

 

“This has happened to so many black people,'' she says. “I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me the credit.”

Litt continues:

 

Burke and some scholars believe that Sinnock used her sketches and plaques to design the profile of Roosevelt that appears on the dime.

 

But Brenda Gatling, public information officer for the mint, says "both Ms. Burke and Sinnock did live sittings with the president. Historical records do not bear out Ms. Burke's statements that he copied her design. Those who could have provided eyewitness accounts have long passed on."

 

But Burke isn't discouraged. "Everybody knows I did it," she says.

Source: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-1994-12-20/html/CREC-1994-12-20-pt1-PgE25.htm

 

In general, Burke's image of Roosevelt is quite similar to the one found on the dime. Both are left-facing profiles that have the same angle of cut on the neck. However, this is where the similarities end.

 

A close look at both images reveal many subtle differences. Compare the two designs for yourself:

 

qqv3ba.png

 

Here are just a few differences that I've noticed between Sinnock's Roosevelt profile and Burke's:

  • Burke's bas relief seems to be, in general, proportionately different than the one found on the dime.
  • Burke's profile appears to portray a younger looking Roosevelt than is on the dime.
  • Burke's image does not show Roosevelt directly from the side as seen on the dime. Burke's bas relief shows a small bit of the right side of Roosevelt's face, the most obvious being the right eyebrow.
  • Roosevelt's left eyebrow on Burke's bas relief is also “bushier” and more pronounced.
  • The dime shows wrinkles radiating outward from the outer corner of Roosevelt's eye (crow's feet) while there are none on the Burke relief.
  • The forelock of Roosevelt hair is a bit rounder on the dime and extends forward from the hairline, whereas Burke's design has the hair “slicked back”.
  • The part in Roosevelt's hair is also different between the two images and Burke's design shows Roosevelt with a much higher hairline. There are also clear differences in the way the hair falls on Roosevelt's head.
  • The back of the neck in Burke's design is much longer, and generally shows Roosevelt's neck as thinner.
  • The ear lobe on Burke's bas relief is much more pronounced than on the dime.
  • The curve of the nostril is much more pronounced than on the dime.
  • The chin on Burke's bas relief is much rounder and extend further from Roosevelt's face than on the dime. Also Burke's profile does not feature a line on the chin as seen on the dime.

Based on these observations, it seems quite clear to me that Sinnock did not copy from Burke's bas relief for his profile of FDR on the dime. However, in doing some further research into the controversy over the past few days, I was shocked to find so many who disagree.

 

Some sources even go as far as to give Burke the entire credit without even mentioning Sinnock. Example includes Burke's obituary as they were printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Seattle Times:

 

Selma Hortense Burke, 94, of New Hope, the sculptor who created the profile of FDR used on the dime, died Tuesday at Chandler Hall, a nursing home and hospice in Newtown. The profile was taken from a bronze plaque she had made for a new federal building in Washington. The plaque, unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in 1945, was done from sketches made on butcher paper in a 45-minute session with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. She later sculpted that image into the profile on the dime.
Source: http://articles.philly.com/1995-09-01/news/25715829_1_fdr-new-hope-sculptures

 

Selma Hortense Burke, the sculptor who created the profile of FDR used on the dime, died Tuesday at a nursing home and hospice near Philadelphia. She was 94. The profile was taken from a bronze plaque she had made for a new federal building in Washington. The plaque, unveiled by President Truman in 1945, was done from sketches made on butcher paper in a 45-minute session with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.
Source: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19950901&slug=2139370

 

In fact, a Google search of “Selma Burke Dime -Sinnock” yields over 3.3 million results! (If you didn't know, putting a minus sign [-] before a word in a Google search will exclude results that contain that word.)

 

Encyclopedia.com says:

 

The source of Roosevelt’s image on the dime has recently received much attention. John R. Sinnock, the chief engraver at the U.S. Mint, has his initials on the profile. The dime’s head, however, is merely a mirror image of the plaque created by Selma Burke, with the exception of a few detail changes in the arrangement of Roosevelt’s hair. Moreover, the National Archives and Records Administration of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, stated that the dime portrait originated with the sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt done by Selma Burke.

Source: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Selma_Burke.aspx

 

Meanwhile, Encyclopedia.com does not even have an entry for John Sinnock.

 

Okay, but many if not most of these examples were probably not researched and written by numismatists or experts who were just basing their "facts" on what others have previously written. Surely an organization like the Smithsonian (which claims to be the world's largest museum and research complex) would have done a proper investigation into the matter. Right?

 

Think again.

 

With no mention of the controversy or Sinnock at all, The Smithsonian American Art Museum says of Burke in her biography:

 

Sculptor and educator who received national recognition for her relief portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was the model for his image on the dime.
Source: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=27983

 

So, what do numismatists have to say?

 

Walter Breen wrote:

 

The illustrious black sculptor Selma Burke claimed that Sinnock adapted his design from her bas-relief of Pres. Roosevelt - Considering that Sinnock had also copied and signed John Frederick Lewis's design for the 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar, Ms. Burke's claim is probably valid.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Sinnock did not steal from Burke is the fact that he had already created a few different inauguration medals featuring Roosevelt's profile dating back to 1933. The most notable for this argument is a medal designed by Sinnock for Roosevelt's third inauguration in 1941. The profile of FDR on the 1941 medal is a near copy of one of the initial design sketches Sinnock submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts for comments and approval of the Roosevelt dime obverse design. (Special thanks to Roger Burdette [RWB] for permission to use the image of the composite sketch below.)

 

2eq6sup.png

 

So, what the heck is going on?

 

Without mincing words, it is my opinion that many of the claims that Sinnock copied Burke's work is racially and politically motivated (excluding Breen's). The story that a white man working for the government stole from and uncredited an African-American female artist is an attractive anecdote for those looking to push their own agenda.

 

It does not seem unrealistic to suggest that Sinnock used all of the resources available at the time to assist him with the design; which may or may not have included Burke's design. However, it would also seem that Sinnock would not have needed to copy or borrow from Burke, especially considering that he had already created several different profiles of FDR for medals well before Burke's bas relief.

 

Seeing as Sinnock created his FDR profiles over a decade before Burke's work, one could also suggest that Burke used all available resources for the design of her bas relief; which may or may not have included Sinnock's medals.

 

Ultimately, I do not see any hard evidence that Sinnock stole from Burke, or vice versa. I believe that the similarities between Sinnock's dime and Burke's bas relief is the result of two very talented artists creating a realistic image of the same man.

 

The argument over who deserves credit for the obverse design of the Roosevelt dime may never be officially resolved. There seems to be only one person who can say for sure; and that is John Sinnock himself. Unfortunately, Sinnock died shortly after the release of the Roosevelt dime following an illness of several months in 1947.

 

If it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, that Sinnock did not use Burke's bas relief to guide his design, I assert these accusations are defamatory. And to exclude Sinnock from the conversation completely, giving Burke all of the credit, is egregious.

 

33dwkjk.png

 

P.S. I did not overlook the error on the piece that I got from eBay which says the FDR profile has been "used on U.S. Dime since 1945". Aside from the obvious missing word "the", the Roosevelt dime was released to the public on January 30, 1946. The mistakes just added nothing to my argument.

Edited by Mr. Smith Guesser

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Very interesting!

As you note, Ms. Burke had nothing to do with the FDR dime.

 

The final portrait was the outcome of two meetings between Sinnock and sculptor Lee Lawrie, who had been “deputized” by the Commission of Fine Arts to review the dime designs.

 

Why not edit your article a little and send it to The Numismatist at ANA?

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Excellent analysis. I agree that the gist of it is worthy of The Numismatist. Just needs to be fleshed out a little.

 

As far as I am concerned the Burke portrait does not appear on the dime. There should be some similarities between competent portrayals of the same subject by two different artists. Otherwise, one of them did something wrong.

 

TD

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One of the reasons the two portraits have a lot in common is because THEY'RE BOTH OF THE SAME PERSON!

 

Upon cursory examination of the two, Burke's is thinner, has a different hairline, stronger temple, more distance between the nose and mouth, head tilted more upward and very slightly toward viewer (right eyebrow slightly visible forward of the left). The overlay makes these differences more obvious.

Do another overlay with the 1941 medal flipped left-to-right and you should have a really good match for the dime.

 

One thing of note regarding the forelock, however. In 1946, there are two obverse hub designs showing the forelock was later brought forward and rounded, so it would be best to overlay with one of the early hub 1946 dimes, and not a lower-relief, modern proof.

 

I agree with Tom, in that it would be a great article once developed further. What is the origin of the claim that Burke designed the dime? Did she make the claim to be the designer, or was it someone else that claimed she was? Breen's accusation is dubious as best.

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Whatever the case on the origin of the coin the rendition by Burke is far superior IMO. I've never felt the dime really looked like FDR....but that's just me I guess.

 

jom

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Great article. Thank you. I had never heard of this before. Definitely deserves to be in The Numismatist.

 

I dont see how there is a controversy though. The two pieces look vastly but subtly different. I do prefer Burkes rendition and wish they would have used it.

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One thing of note regarding the forelock, however. In 1946, there are two obverse hub designs showing the forelock was later brought forward and rounded, so it would be best to overlay with one of the early hub 1946 dimes, and not a lower-relief, modern proof.

Yes, you are correct. There are two slightly obverse hub designs for 1946-dated dimes, found across all three mints. They are designated ODV-001 and ODV-002 by CONECA. Breen calls them Type 1 and Type 2. ODV-001 (Type 1) was used to produce dimes earlier in the 1946 production run.

 

The distance between the forelock of the hair and the Y of LIBERTY is one of the key makers in identifying the difference between the two obverse design varieties. However, both design varieties feature the forelock extending forward from the hairline.

 

2diht1t.png

 

The forelock of Roosevelt's hair in ODV-001 is a bit more blunt and lower in relief, while the forelock of ODV-002 is a slightly higher in relief and is a bit pointer and more defined. But neither is "slicked back" as seen on Burke's bas relief.

 

The difference is not obvious to the naked eye, for me at least. But basically, the distance between the forelock and the Y on ODV-001 is about 2.5 thicknesses of the bottom stem of the Y; while the distance between the forelock and the Y on ODV-002 is about 2 thicknesses of the bottom stem of the Y.

 

The other main marker between the ODV-001 and ODV-002, by the way, is the strength of the JS initials. On ODV-001, the JS initials are smaller, weaker, and sometimes indistinct. On ODV-002, the JS initials are larger, stronger, and more distinct.

 

wbb0it.png

 

Also, seemingly overlooked previous authors, is the shape of the J. The top of the J on dimes with ODV-001 seems to slightly curved in, while the J on ODV-002 seems to stand-up straighter. The J on ODV-001 seem to be more shaped like a greater-than sign (>) while the J in ODV-002 is more accurate to the letter's correct formation. The end of the J also seems to extend just a tad further on ODV-001 than on ODV-002. Sort of like this:

 

mrcjgp.png

 

I think that the strength of the JS, however, should be used as a secondary marker when identifying the two ODVs because I have seen weaker struck examples of ODV-001 with weak looking JS initials.

 

Some have suggested that there may also be a third ODV, with the forelock found on ODV-001 and initials found on ODV-002. However, it is my belief that dimes with a third suspected ODV are actually just ODV-001 with very good obverse strikes.

 

Other much less distinct differences between the two 1946 ODVs include a rounder nose and a "fleshier" appearance of Roosevelt's cheek on ODV-002.

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I agree with assertion that those who say that Sinnock stole Selma Burke's work are approaching the issue with a politically correct agenda. The images are the same only from the aspect that they are left profiles of the same person. The Burke piece has far more detail, but before you condemn Sinnock's work, you should bear in mind that he was creating a piece of artwork that had to be mass produced with mintages in the 100s of millions for a very small coin. Hair detail at the level that Burke displayed in her composition would have never worked on high volume coin design.

 

Having said that Sinnock was also working in the era of the 1930s and '40s when coin busts had minimum detail. The busts of Jefferson, Washington and Franklin on the nickel, quarter and have dollar show the same or even less hair detail. And we can all remember the comments about "spaghetti hair" that accompanied the issue of the "improved" modern versions of the Washington Quarter.

 

I too agree that at first blush the Roosevelt dime does not look a lot like FDR, but then again most of the published pictures of him were not profile shots, unless you count the one with the cigarette holder between his teeth. I don't think that most people would have liked that image on a coin.

 

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The Burke assertions surfaced just after the coin was released.

 

By all means, follow the suggestions above for the article. Keep it focused and logical.

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I feel that Burke copied the 1941 Sinnock presidential medal

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Very nice work on putting this together.

 

(thumbs u

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What is the origin of the claim that Burke designed the dime? Did she make the claim to be the designer, or was it someone else that claimed she was?

I have not yet been able to locate a primary source that would point to the origin of the claim. However, it would seem that Burke herself made the accusation according to one writer, Steven Litt.

 

From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Printing Office:

 

A SPECIAL SALUTE TO DR. SELMA BURKE

Tuesday, December 20, 1994

  • Selma Burke, 93, has earned more honors in her long career than many other 20th-century American artists. She first garnered attention as a sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance, the burst of art, music and literature by blacks in New York during the 1920s and '30s. She later studied in Europe, founded an art school in New York and an art center in Pittsburgh, and was awarded nearly a dozen honorary degrees.
     
    But one thing eludes her. It is credit for the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that appears on the dime, which was issued by the U.S. Mint in 1946.
     
    The dime bears the tiny initials ``JS,'' which stand for John Sinnock, the former mint chief engraver who, according to Burke, copied a bronze portrait plaque of Roosevelt created by Burke in 1944 for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C.
     
    I'm so mad at that man,” she says of Sinnock.
     
    Officials at the mint say their records show Sinnock deserves full credit for the Roosevelt dime. But Burke isn't convinced. She says that because she is black, she will never get the recognition she feels she deserves.
     
    This has happened to so many black people,'' she says. “I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me the credit.

--Steven Litt

Souce: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-1994-12-20/html/CREC-1994-12-20-pt1-PgE25.htm

 

I am in the process now of trying to reach Mr. Litt to find his source for these quotes.

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Imagination can be a powerful tool or a debilitating crutch.

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Whatever the case on the origin of the coin the rendition by Burke is far superior IMO. I've never felt the dime really looked like FDR....but that's just me I guess.

 

jom

 

And me Jom.

 

I think Selma Burke's sculpture is a much more accurate representation of FDR. Sinnock's rendition looks more like Truman to me.

 

I don't think the two designs look anything alike.

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Something else I just found...

 

Before Burke's bas relief was unveiled to the public, it was approved by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (and I believe other members of the Roosevelt family). There are conflicting reports over the date of the approval. But in a 1975 article by Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post Service, Burke says, “And they all came to my New York studio, one by one. Finally Eleanor called, and she visited the studio on Jan. 10, 1945.”

 

Regardless of the exact date, Burke continues in the article saying, “I uncovered the profile, and Mrs. Roosevelt said, 'Oh, it's well done, but you've made him too young.' I replied, 'I've not done it for today but for tomorrow and tomorrow.' She just answered, 'Well, the head's too high.'”

 

Trescott writes:

  • FDR's profile wasn't chanted for the Deeds building but, Mrs. Burke says, “someone did lower the head a little for the dime.

Source: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19750417&id=znokAAAAIBAJ&sjid=BCkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7270,3482222

 

The final quote also seems to imply that Burke did believe (in 1975 at least) that “someone” (we can assume Sinnock) changed her design for the Roosevelt dime.

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I'm sure Ms. Burke was sincere in her belief. That doesn't make it historically accurate.

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I commented to someone about this last night and thought that I would add it here...

 

It is my guess that Sinnock just used a combination of his own previous works, studies, and photographs of Roosevelt for his design. In particular, this one:

 

Churchill and Roosevelt in Marrakesh, French Morocco, January 23, 1943, following the Casablanca Conference

1y8ver.jpg

I don't know the original photographer. But this image is from FineArtAmerica.com

 

Look at those similarities:

 

287j5ae.jpgdcfuc3.jpg

 

Flipped horizontally:

 

2j3gp74.jpgdcfuc3.jpg

 

Image overlay:

 

2yl0l50.png

 

I first became aware of this photograph and it's possible connect to the dime from RichardsRoosveltReview.com. It's potential connection is mentioned there.

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I agree, that profile picture (which I have never seen before) when flipped does look more like the dime than the Burke portrait.

 

I am sure that Ms. Burke was quite sincere in her belief. That does not mean that she was correct.

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I am sure that Ms. Burke was quite sincere in her belief.

Oh, so do I. But, like you mentioned, that doesn't make her correct. People sincerely believe in all kinds of stuff, i.e. Bigfoot, ghosts, Mothman, etc. The Puritans of the late 17th century were apparently so sincere in their belief that some women were witches they had them killed. Hell, at one point in my own life I sincerely believed Santa Claus. I'm sure most of you did as well. But pure belief doesn't make it so regardless of sincerity.

 

What really irks me about the whole thing is when Sinnock is not included in the conversation. I feel bad for him. Dying in 1947, he really didn't have that much time to defend himself. Meanwhile, Burke had nearly 50 years to continue making the claim.

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I'm probably one of the few numismatists to have interviewed Dr. Selma Burke. She was a very sweet lady and a talented artist.

 

I was able to take a picture of her original design, which was on grocery store brown paper and was hanging on the wall of her studio/home in New Hope, where I met with her. She had modeled Roosevelt from life.

 

I detailed her claims in an article for Numismatic News in the 1990s that became a chapter in my book Twisted Tails (and later in Fascinating Facts) by Krause Publications.

 

I don't believe Sinnock stole her design, but I'm certain Dr. Burke sincerely came to believe it.

 

Robert R. Van Ryzin

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Bob --- Great to hear from you!

 

Roger Burdette

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I sent a PM to Mr. Van Ryzin asking a few questions earlier and also mentioned this, which I thought I should add to the conversation here as well...

 

I have no intentions (or ever did) of discrediting Burke as an artist. I only wish to uncover the truth, even if the truth is unpopular or uncomfortable.

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