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Recessed relief of Pratt gold too much change for many
Innovative designs draw mixed reaction from U.S. populace in 1908
BY PAUL GILKES - COIN WORLD STAFF
November 3, 2008

Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt's Indian Head gold $2.50 quarter eagle and $5 half eagle, simultaneously released into circulation Nov. 2, 1908, drew mixed reactions from the general populace.
The two coins are the first and only U.S. coins to have all of the obverse and reverse design elements in "recessed relief." The design elements are raised, but instead of projecting above the fields as on all other U.S. coins, are instead recessed below the fields.
Some hailed the coins as an advancement in design techniques for U.S. coins. Others blasted the new designs, not necessarily just because of their design aesthetics, but because the recessed elements might trap dirt and verdigris during handling posed a possible health risk, critics warned. Some critics at the time also said that the newly designed coins could be easily counterfeited. That warning proved accurate; certain dates within the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle series are among the most counterfeited of all U.S. coins, according to the major grading services.
The recessed relief designs in 1908 sparked a heated public debate among Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, an art collector in Boston who championed the Pratt designs; and Philadelphia numismatist and antiquarian Samuel Hudson Chapman and Denver banker George H. King, both of whom were critical of the Bigelow-Pratt gold pieces.
The debate was carried out in the pages of the February 1909 issue of the American Numismatic Association journal, The Numismatist

An evolutionary process
Writing in the October 1792 issue of American Museum magazine, Matthew Perry, according to Don Taxay in The U.S. Mint and Coinage, had urged Mint officials during the early months of the Mint's operation to strike intaglio coins.
A similar design concept, according to Taxay, had occurred to Bigelow. President Theodore Roosevelt was still riding high with emotion over the execution of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' designs for the gold $10 eagle and $20 double eagle as design efforts were being contemplated for the quarter eagle and half eagle.
The Bigelow-Pratt designs were not the first to be considered for the two smaller gold denominations in 1908. The Mint engraving staff had begun work on reducing the double eagle designs for use on the $2.50 and $5 coins. Mint officials stopped the work when Congress ordered the motto IN GOD WE TRUST be restored to the eagle and double eagle. The suspension provided an opening for Bigelow.
A close friend of Roosevelt's, Bigelow pitched the idea to the nation's chief executive for retaining a "relievo [relief] design, but depress it below the field of the coin," according to Taxay. Because of Bigelow's relationship with Roosevelt, Taxay surmises, it wasn't difficult for him to advance his proposal in a Jan. 17, 1908, letter to the president.
Bigelow recommended the commission to design the quarter eagle and half eagle go to Pratt, an up-and-coming Boston sculptor familiar with Saint-Gaudens' work.
While Pratt's obverse of an American Indian was an all-new rendition, his eagle on the reverse was a modified version of the Saint-Gaudens design on the reverse of the eagle, as recommended by Roosevelt.
Pratt completed his designs June 29, 1908, and forwarded the models the same day to U.S. Mint Director Frank A. Leach.
The designs for the two denominations were identical except for size. The quarter eagle had a diameter of 18 millimeters, the half eagle a diameter of 21.6 millimeters.
Once the designs were approved, die preparation apparently was executed without any obstacles. Roosevelt sent a package to Big¬elow on Sept. 26, 1908, in which he enclosed copies of the models for the half eagle as well as the first half eagle struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The president requested that Bigelow accept the coin and models with his compliments as well as those of Leach.
Unfortunately, according to Taxay, the coin was stolen before Roosevelt's correspondence reached Bigelow.
Despite Pratt's request to be advised of any contemplated changes, U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber unilaterally touched up Pratt's obverse model.
Soon after the quarter eagle and half eagle entering circulation on Nov. 2, 1908, comments about the new designs, some unfavorable, began to be expressed.

Bigelow notified Pratt of the public opinions on the new coins, both pro and con. Bigelow also noted that some publications had credited him as the designer, although he had only taken his technical idea to Pratt for the artist to translate with his skill and creativity.
Roger W Burdette, in his book, Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908, explains that when the coins were first being issued, much of the credit was going to Bigelow.
Bigelow attempted to ease Pratt's obvious growing discontent in a Nov. 17, 1908, letter to the sculptor. Pratt didn't publicly respond to the public's reception to his coins until early in January 1909, according to Burdette.

Letter to Roosevelt
Coin dealer Chapman wrote directly to Roosevelt on Dec. 7, 1908, chastising the results of Pratt's artistic labor.
"It was the hope of everyone that when out new coinage appeared we would have one of great beauty and artistic merit," Chapman wrote in his letter to Roosevelt. "But the new $5 and $2.50 gold pieces just issued totally lack these qualities, and not only those of beauty, but actually miss the practicability to which every effect of beauty in relief has been sacrificed."
Calling the Indian's look "emaciated" and its treatment "crude and hard, with sharp, abrupt outlines," Chapman was also critical of the replication of Saint-Gaudens' eagle for the reverse. Chapman stated in his letter to Roosevelt the eagle wrongly was referred to as an American bald eagle when it more closely resembles the golden eagle, indigenous to Europe.
The designs of the two gold coins also lent themselves to counterfeiting, according to Chapman.
"The placing of the design below the surface of the flan, with deeply incised outlines, gives the effect of having been engraved into the metal, and can, therefore, be closely imitated by any metal chaser with the graver, without dies or moulds," Chapman wrote to Roosevelt.
"And I am certain that if this had been suggested to the Secret Service officials it would never have been issued by the Treasury Department, and the issuance ought to be immediately stopped and the coins recalled, for everyone will be in danger of imitations."
The recessed design elements, especially the sunken portion of the Indian's neck, "will be a great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease, and the coin will be the most unhygienic ever issued," according to Chapman.
Chapman said the coins also had a tendency not to stack properly on bank trays, although stackability was one of the principal claims for the coins.
Upon subsequently receiving a copy of Chapman's letter to Roosevelt, Bigelow rebutted Chapman's criticisms in his own letter to Roosevelt, dated Dec. 10. Bigelow defended Pratt's artistry, likening the results to Egyptian sculptures and wall carvings. "The bas-relief effect is , accentuated and not diminished by the shadow of the sharp outline," Bigelow wrote to Roosevelt.

The Indian's portrait was taken from a contemporary photograph and according to Bigelow any criticism of the final result of the coin should be directed at Barber, who retouched the details from Pratt's original models in the die-making process.
The matter of the use of the eagle was decided at the time of the execution of Saint-Gaudens' design for the $10 reverse, Bigelow said.
Bigelow also debunked Chapman's theories of the less-then-hygienic qualities of the new issues as well as their stackability. He did, however, agree with Chapman's assessment that stronger relief would give the coins more uniformity in thickness.

King, a banker with Denver National Bank, sent an unsolicited letter to The Numismatist that appeared in the February 1909 issue along with the correspondence from Chapman and Bigelow.
King labeled the new coins impractical because they were subject to wear without a protective rim and would not fit properly in coin trays. King was critical of the varying thicknesses of the coins and the incuse areas of the coins trapping dirt in the recesses.
The Numismatist noted that bankers on the East Coast explained that their customers, who often sought gold coins during the Christmas season, were rejecting the Pratt-designed coins in favor of coins bearing the Coronet designs.
Widespread public objection was voiced to the new coins not stacking properly, according to The Numismatist. The journal also cited the hygiene issue.
Also expressed in The Numismatist was the concern over excessive wear, causing a possible loss in value if coins redeemed for their metal content, which was determined by weight.
Chapman, meanwhile, continued his personal diatribe against the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle coins in a Dec. 16, 1908, follow-up letter to Roosevelt.

Pratt responds
According to Burdette, Pratt publicly commented on the new gold coin designs at a January 1909 lecture presented before the Thursday Evening Club in Boston.

"We knew we had a good design. Mr. Roosevelt said so," Pratt said, according to Burdette's research. "The models were sent to the Mint and there slaughtered after the manner in which the Mint always treats designs. They milled the edge, chopped off the margin, remodeled the feathers and did other things. ...
"One of the principal advantages of this coin is that it is nearly friction proof, as nearly so as a coin can be made, the background being slightly above the level of the relief, the broad surfaces of the background taking all the wear and being perfectly smooth, the friction loss is very slight...."
Pratt's available papers, according to Burdette, indicate the sculptor didn't completely accept Bigelow's explanation for the way the artist was treated throughout the coin design process and after the coins were released.
"In all respects, Bela Pratt was treated shabbily by the president, the Mint and his collaborator," Burdette wrote.
Criticism of the designs fell on deaf ears, as the gold coins contin¬ued to be produced intermittently through 1929.
The quarter eagle was struck from 1908 through 1915 inclusive at the Philadelphia Mint, and again from 1926 to 1929 inclusive. The Denver Mint struck the Indian Head quarter eagle in 1911,1914 and 1925.
The Indian Head half eagle was struck at the Philadelphia Mint from 1908 through 1915 inclusive, and again in 1929; at the Denver Mint in 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911 and 1914; at the San Francisco Mint from 1908, to 1916 inclusive; and at the New Orleans Mint only in 1909.

Coinworld


Recessed relief of Pratt gold too much change for many
Innovative designs draw mixed reaction from U.S. populace in 1908


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