Description and Analysis

Modern Commemoratives

Description & Analysis

Just as a circulating commemorative quarter dollar was issued in 1932 on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, so too was a non-circulating issue minted for collectors in 1999 to mark the bicentennial of his death. On October 20, 1996 Congress authorized the striking of up to 100,000 gold half eagles to be coined and dated 1999. Proceeds from the sale of this issue would go to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which oversees the preservation of George and Martha Washington’s Virginia house and grounds of that same name.

George Washington has come to be known as “The Father of His Country,” and with good reason. Not only did he lead the Continental Army throughout the War of Independence, with its many highs and lows, he then served as the federal republic’s first president. He could have held this office for life if he desired, but Washington set the important precedent of relinquishing power after two terms.

Rather than prepare an entirely new design for the 1999 coin, the U. S. Mint revived one that had been submitted for the quarter dollar design competition in 1931. In fact, this same design, submitted by Laura Gardin Fraser, was the one selected by both the judges and the Commission of Fine Arts as the winner of that earlier contest. The final selection, however, was the prerogative of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and he chose the work of another finalist over the Fraser design. Though Laura Gardin Fraser would not live to see it, her superb models finally saw form as a finished coin in 1999.

The obverse features a bold rendering of the Jean Antoine Houdon bust of George Washington which is preserved at Mount Vernon. Washington faces right, with the date and mint of coining below. Fraser’s initials are at the truncation of the bust, and statutory mottoes complete this side.

For the reverse, U. S. law required the placement of an eagle on the quarter dollar, and Fraser created a very bold, heraldic presentation that is quite similar to what one might find on a public building erected in the 1930s. The eagle grasps in its right talons the arrows of war and in its left the olive branch of peace, an accidental reversal of these design elements that has occurred in United States coinage from time to time. Thirteen stars are arranged in a constellation above the eagle, while purely statutory legends balance the design above and below the central device.

As is typical for gold coins, both the uncirculated and proof editions of the George Washington Half Eagle were struck at the U. S. Mint in West Point, New York. Due to the aesthetic and historic appeal of Fraser’s vintage design, this coin was a relatively good seller as compared to similar offerings of the late 1990s. As is the norm, the proof pieces outsold uncirculated coins by a considerable margin.