“Typo” might have doomed the 1891 coin design competition.
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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.” 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.” 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.

Maybe, there would have been no Renaissance of American coinage design....?

Edited by RWB
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So do you think we were better off settling for Barber coinage only to later recognize the real true beauty of Renaissance coinage ? After all the talent was there in 1891 but politically could we have tolerated such unbelievable esthetic appeal that Europeans enjoyed ?

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Coinage designs were not a political matter. The tiny commission of $500 was effective in preventing any of the best artists from participating. Maybe we would have had some really good silver coin designs in 1892 if the best had entered. In 1905 Saint-Gaudens was paid $5,000 for gold and one-cent coin designs. His Columbian Exposition medal had a fee of $5,000 also.

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On 10/31/2017 at 10:14 AM, RWB said:

Maybe, there would have been no Renaissance of American coinage design...

Or it may have come 25 years earlier, or it may have still come in 1916 when the 1892 designs were changed.  The mint officials seemed to be under the impression back then that the 1890 law REQUIRED them to change the designs every 25 years.  So even if the designs had been great they still would have been changed in 1916.

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The Barber subsidiary silver designs were basically dictated by Director Leech. He stipulated the type of portrait, and all the reverse elements. The poor dime never had a chance for a new-look reverse: Leech said he liked it on the seated Liberty dime.

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Was it a typo, or was intentional intervention on Barber's part? As I recall, he always seemed a bit egotistical, and probably didn't want anyone else encroaching on what he saw as his domain! 

Ooh, and now we have a conspiracy! ;)

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Doubtful that the Engraver had much to do with the announcement. Further, correspondence implies he was not pleased with having to make a new coin design to conform to all the Director's requirements. Barber and Morgan were likely the best coin design engravers in the country, but they were not the best designers.

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