Archive for January, 2011

IN 1892 everyone, it seems, was dissatisfied with the designs of United States coins, Treasury officials as well as the public in general. The two engravers at the Philadelphia Mint, Chief Engraver Charles Barber and his assistant George Morgan, had creating coins of mediocre appeal.

Treasury officials announced a contest for the public to submit designs for new silver coin denominations.  Despite the fact they received hundreds of entries, none were found suitable. The officials had to fall back on the work of their two mint engravers. They accepted what Morgan created for a new dollar coin, and what Barber created for a single design for the half dollar, quarter and dime. But, again, their designs lack the artistic appeal of coins of European countries.

An event occurred in 1897 to change all that. Sculptor Henry Adams and a group of fellow sculptors organized the National Sculpture Society for artists interested in promoting figurative sculpture. All the top sculptors in America responded and joined the organization including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser, Victor D. Brenner, Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil and  others.

During the last decade of the 1800s Henri and Felix Weil were working for many of these same sculptors as sculptors assistants. They were as accomplished as these “name” sculptors, but it was the artists with the greatest reputations who received the lush commissions for creating the monuments, the public statues, the busts of important people, all aspects of the sculpture craft.

It was Saint-Gaudens and President Theodore Roosevelt who led the movement to infuse more artistic designs into American coins. Saint-Gaudens prepared two new coin designs to replace the mediocre designs of the Mint’s staff artists. That story is well known and has been eloquently told in a new book by Michael Moran, Striking Change. [I was asked to be technical editor of this book.]

Listed here are Saint-Gaudens coin creations:


  • 1905-06 One Cent Coin (unaccepted models), Dryfhout 204A
  • 1906-07 $10 Gold Coin (unaccepted models), Dryfhout 204B
  • 1907 Eagle $10 No Motto Gold, Breen 7094-7099, KM 125
  • 1908 Eagle $10 Motto Gold, Baxter 201, Breen 7100-7137,ANS (IECM) 25, Dryfhout 204B, KM 130
  • 1907 Double Eagle $20 High Relief Prototypes, Baxter 202, Breen 7355-7361
  • 1907 Double Eagle $20 No Motto, Breen 7362-7367, Dryfhout 204C KM 126
  • 1908 Double Eagle $20 Motto, ANS (IECM) 26, Baxter 203, Breen 7368-7419, KM 127
Saint Gaudens Double Eagle Gold Coin Obverse

Saint Gaudens Double Eagle Gold Coin Obverse

Needless to say, Chief Engraver Charles Barber was not enthused with having an outside artist invading his fiefdom of U.S. coin design. He objected at every stage. Perhaps his greatest objection was Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle model that the high relief was indeed unsuitable for striking on a coining press and stacking after struck. The compromise was a lower relief.

President Roosevelt was very active in persuading the reluctant Mint officials to institute Saint-Gauden’s designs. It also led to the commission of Victor D. Brenner to receive the commission to do a Lincoln coin design. [As illustrated in the lithograph by Joel Iskowitz and published by Signature Art Medals.]

For each one of these – Saint-Gauden’s gold piece and Brenner’s coin model – Henri Weil was involved.  These artists created oversize models, too large for the engraving department at Philadelphia to reduce. It was the artists who called on Henri to make an intermediate reduction, to be able to send to the Mint the 9-inch metal pattern it required to work with.

Henri made beeswax reductions of Brenner’s Lincoln portrait and then made an appropriate size galvano to send to the Mint. At this time Henri had the Janvier die-engraving pantograph in operation and also could cast the necessary galvanos. He could do what the Mint engravers could not do!

In effect he was making patterns for all the new coin designs. And this was to continue for the next two decades!

In 1912 he began working with James Earle Fraser who had been commissioned to prepare a new five-cent coin design. A fussy perfectionist, Fraser had Henri make reductions and galvanos of his Indian head obverse, and his Buffalo-Bison reverse.  After a copper galvano came out of the tank, Fraser demanded that Henri silverplate the copper galvano and solder together the obverse and reverse to more closely look like a copper-nickel coin.

This was the first time such a pattern had been created. It inspired numismatic writer Waler Breen create a new word – ELECTROTRIAL – for Fraser’s silver plated galvanos.

In writing about this in his History of the Medallic Art Compay, Felix commented on these:  “Needless to say, as Fraser was to foot the bill himself, we were very conservative as to the amount charged.”

In 1916 Treasury officials again sought more coin designs. This time the appeal went to members of the National Sculpture Society.  Adolph Weinman  responded and was awarded the Liberty Walking half dollar and Mercury dime commissions. Hermon MacNeil created his Liberty Standing quarter – all in 1916.

These sculptors were all friends of the Weils, they had worked with some of the artists previously on a variety of sculptural projects. The Weils were among the “in crowd” in New York City sculpture circles. In Weinman’s case they had even attended the same art classes together at the Cooper Union.

This association of name sculptor and a Weil as an assistant – performing cast replicas, wax reductions, and/or galvano casts – was well established. The Weils performed a function for the artist before his model was ever sent to the Philadelphia Mint.

This was to everyone’s advantage. Both sculptor and the Mint got the very best pattern executed to technical perfection with the creativity of a top American sculptor.

No better endorsement of this can be made than the actions of the U.S. Mint itself, nine decades later, by reissuing Fraser’s Buffalo in a gold bullion coin and Weinman’s Liberty Walking in a silver bullion coin.

The Weils performed this technical function for five United States circulating coins in addition to Saint-Gauden’s gold coins.


  • 1909 Lincoln Cent Galvanos (from Victor D. Brenner’s models), Breen 2052
  • 1912 Indian-Bison (Buffalo) Nickel Galvanos (from James Earle Fraser’s models, called “electrotrials” by numismatic author Walter H. Breen), Breen 2584
  • 1916 Mercury Dime Galvanos (from Adolph Weinman’s models), Breen 3595
  • 1916 Liberty Standing Quarter Galvanos (from Hermon A. MacNeil’s models), Breen 4225
  • 1916 Liberty Walking Half Dollar Galvanos (from Adolph Weinman’s models), Breen 5124

Later they were called upon by nine additional sculpture/artists to repeat their technical proficiency nine times more for commemorative coins! In addition to reductions, galvano patterns, they also produced hubs to the U.S. Mint’s specifications. All these occurred in the 1930s. Here is that list:


  • 1934 Maryland Tercentenary Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Hans Schuler), Breen 7484
  • 1935 Hudson New York Sesquicentennial Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Chester Beach), Breen 7515
  • 1936 Providence Rhode Island Tercentenary Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Arthur Carey & John Benson), Breen 7534
  • 1936 Long Island Tercentenary Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Howard Weinman), Breen 7546
  • 1936 Bridgeport Connecticut Centennial Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Henry Kreis), Breen 7551
  • 1936 Elgin Illinois Centennial Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Trygve Rovelstad), Breen 7553
  • 1936 Delaware Swedish Tercentennial Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by Carl Schmitz), Breen 7556
  • 1936 York County Maine Tercentenary Commem Half Dollar Hubs (design by Walter H. Rich, models by George S. Pacetti, Boston, hubs by Medallic Art Co), Breen 7547
  • 1937 Roanoke Island Commem Half Dollar Hubs (by William Marks Simpson), Breen 7558

A growing amount of numismatic literature discusses the contributions the Weils made to American coins of the 20th century.  These include:

  • N16 {1967}  Taxay (Don)  Illustrated History of United States Commemorative Coinage. New York: ARCO, 256 pages, illus.
  • K24e {1982}  Dryfhout (John H.)  The Work of Augustus St- Gaudens. Hanover & London: University Press of New England (1982) 356 pages, illus.
  • M42 {1987}  Baxter (Barbara A.)  The Beaux-Arts Medal in America. New York: American Numismatic Society. For Exhibition Sept 26, 1987 to April 16, 1988. 92 pages, illus.
  • N30 {1991}  Bowers (Q. David)  Commemorative Coins of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia. Wolfeboro, NH:  Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc.  768 pages, illus.
  • N37 {2005}  Burdette (Roger W.)  Renaissance of American Coinage, 1916-1921. Great Falls, VA: Seneca Mill Press (2005-2997) 3 volumes: Volume 1 1905-1908 (2006) 382 pages, illus.Volume 2 1909-1915 (2007) 350 pages, illus.Volume 3 1916-1921 (2005) 343 pages, illus.
  • N38 {2008}  Bowers (Q. David) A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents. Atlanta: Whitman (2008) 294 pages, illus
  • N39 {2008}  Moran (Michael F.)  Striking Change; The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Atlanta GA: Whitman (2008) 432 pages, illus.
  • N41 {2009}  Reed (Fred) Abraham Lincoln The Image of His Greatness. Atlanta GA: Whitman (2009)  272 pages, illus.
  • N16 {1967} Taxay, p 141 (Maryland for Hans Schuler), 162 (Hudson New York for Chester Beach), 171 (Providence Rhode Island for Benson and Carey), 189 (Long Island for Howard Weinman), 207 (Bridgeport Connecticut for Henry Kreis), 210 (Swedish Delaware for Carl Schmitz), 219 (Elgin Illinois by Rovelstad), 231 (Roanoke for William Simpson), and 238 (York County Maine).
  • O12 {1988} Breen 2052, p 225-228, 2584 256, 3595 326- 327, 4225 360-362, 5124 412-413; 7484 593-594, 7515 595, 7534 597, 7546 599, 7547 599, 7551 600, 7553 600, 7556 601, 7558 602.
  • N37 {2005}  Burdette. Renaissance of American Coinage, vols 1 & 2 passim.
  • N39 {2008} Moran (Michael F.)  Striking Change; The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, p 224, 227-228, 231, 243-244, 278, 351; portrait 224.

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Modern Military Necessities

“Knock. Knock.”

If you are in a bar that sound is an invitation, not the beginning of a childish joke.

It is the sound of a specially-struck medal tapped on the bar or table. The invitation is for all other members of a special group, usually of military elites, to prove their personal membership by showing a similar medal.

Woe be to any member who does not produce a medal from his pocket. He has to pay for a round of drinks!

The democratic practice possessing such a medal has grown among American military until now they are embraced by every rank, right up the chain of command. Even the highest officials participate. Generals, admirals, the civilian Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  – even the President of the United States – each have their own “challenge coin.”

The “challenge” in the name is obvious even to a casual observer. Likewise “coin” might be obvious from their similarity to any monetary object. Perhaps a more apt designation is a “military pocket piece.” But they have become more than that and are as necessary a component of a military uniform as the owner’s dog-tags or dress blues.

Challenge coins are carried around the world. They are as prevalent on the battlefield as in the bar room. On the front line they are considered by their owners as the most powerful “good luck charm” they could carry into battle. They were prevalent in Desert Storm and current operations in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

They are also a powerful symbol of the military esprit-de-corps, the badge of membership in a special group, whether as few as a dozen-man unit or special force, or as wide as the entire U.S Navy. Or Army, or Air Force, or Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. Members of all forces have embraced this popular custom of carrying a metal memento as visible evidence of their participation, of their membership, of their belonging to a very special group.

Originated by military unit commanders who wished to increase morale, patriotism and unit spirit – and honor military service! – the medals are more likely created by those who will carry them. This, in contrast to medals of official nature, those designed by the Institute of Heraldry, intended to be worn as participation in military or naval campaigns, or awarded for heroic action, with formal ribbons and prescribed rules for display on a uniform.

Challenge coins are pocket pieces. Cloistered in a pocket until challenged to be brought to light. To declare “I am a member of a special unit.”

The custom has dramatically increased in the last quarter century of the 20th century and further blossomed in the 21st century. It has spread to become a military collectable. Individual members of a service may now order their own specially designed medal and distributed these to comrades, family and friends.

Exchanging and trading challenge coins has become the right of any service member and building a collection of these has proved popular. After all, such medallic memorials are permanent reminders of the people who served with you and shared your military activities. Their memory is enshrined forever in a challenge coin collection. Racks and display cases have been made just for housing such medals, particularly for growing collections.

An entire industry has been formed to produce challenge coins. Among a dozen companies creating these, the leading producer is Northwest Territorial Mint of Auburn, Washington. Affectionately called “NWT Mint,” this firm uses the most modern equipment with highly talented craftsmen to produce these cherished products.

Its staff designers transfer the ideas, images and inscriptions suggested by the client. After approval these are rendered into a steel die with the modulated relief to produce those images and inscriptions onto a metal blank. Unlike casting, employed by some of their competitors, NWT Mint’s die-struck medals bear sharp, detailed, bold relief.

Dies are cut, again on modern equipment. Two completed dies are mounted in hydraulic or coining presses. After striking the freshly minted medals are given a finish.

The greatest innovation in recent years is the application of color to the monochrome metal objects. Color is provided with enamels in a rainbow of hues. Colors are chosen for their obvious, or sometimes subtitle, symbolism. Blue is symbolic of Navy for example.

Each enamel color is applied with fine particles of colored glass beads to the medal surface with a hypodermic-like needle. It is then fired in an oven to melt and fuse in a hardened state, forever preserving the vibrant color. It they are to be gold or silver plated, this can be accomplished after enamelling, as the plating adheres to the metal but not the glass-like hard enamel.

Inspection follows to insure the client receives only as perfect specimens as modern minting technology provides. Thus challenge coins have ended their creation and only then are they proudly shipped to the client.

For ease of obtained a high-quality challenge coins, Northwest Territorial Mint has established a Military Coin Store in the Pentagon, located on the Concourse, next to Fort America. It is staffed with knowledgeable specialists who can assist with any aid necessary in designing a new challenge coin. Hundreds of examples are on view for idea inspiration.

Here you will view challenge coins in all colors, and significantly, in a variety of shapes. While circular is most popular – and most useful perhaps as a pocket piece – oval, flag-shape, shield-shape, dog-tag shape, triangular, diamond, and, not surprising, even in pentagon shape.

The variety is endless and a designer is limited only by his own inspiration and imagination. To their credit NWT Mint is capable of creating any challenge coin concept that can be suggested to them.

Try it!

Some pin the origin of this custom to a 1969 event in which the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborn), under the leadership of Col. Vernon E. Greene, who was its Commander that year. They issued a coin bearing a Trojan Horse as a fundraiser to help purchase a glass home for a handicaped German member.

This unit had non-U.S. citizens join its group. With so many nationalities on board, and varying proficiencies in English, the coin was created as a document to “identify guys in the unit without a whole lot of wrangling.” Such a coin was bona fide proof of membership.

Some think the custom first occurred in World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions made with his squadron symbol on it.

He was assigned to a combat aircraft that was shot down in German territory. He was caught and stripped of all his identification – except for that medallion in a leather pouch hung around his neck.


Military Challenge Coins
Military Dog Tags

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