THIS WEEK we learn of a rejected coin design from Ireland which is featured in a museum exhibit that illustrates the history of Ireland in 100 objects. The coin model, prepared in 1926, shows a charming little boy described as “scampish” in the article appearing in the Irish Times this week. The coin model was from a coin competition of 1927 that led to the first national Irish coinage with coins struck in 1929.
A committee, led by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, was charged with choosing eight new coin designs and selecting a sculptor to create the models. The committee chose animals and a fish native to Ireland as the motifs for each of the eight denominations. They also selected nine artists from six countries to enter a closed (invitation only) competition.
Irish-born sculptor Jerome Stanley Conner stepped outside the rules – disregarding the recommended animal. Instead he created a model for the penny shown here bearing that Irish youth whose plaster design is now on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland.
Conner, who had left Ireland at age 14, came to America in 1889. Educated in Boston, he later became proficient in sculpture, specializing in monumental work in studios in Washington DC and New York City. He had returned to Ireland in 1925 before the invitations to compete in the coin competition were issued.
The artist felt the penny was a child’s coin. His design reflected this by celebrating a childhood theme according to the Irish Times article. This also brought to mind the harsh times in Ireland’s history where Irish families gave up their children to be housed in institutions because they were poor. The article expands on this.
[I looked up Conner (1875-1943) in my American Artists Databank. I found such tidbits as he was a one-time prize fighter, his name was often misspelled “Connor” – OR – even in his obituary in the New York Times (August 22, 1943), and the name is listed both ways in biographical dictionaries Fielding (1926) and Falk (1999). He also prepared reliefs of famous Americans. I had sold a galvano relief he had created of Walt Whitman in one of my auctions.]
In June 2011 numismatic author Ed Reiter wrote an article of the subject of this Ireland coin competition from the viewpoint of one of the rejected artist’s models – those of Italian Publico Morbiducci. The author records all artists who were invited in addition to the Italian Morbiducci – Americans Paul Manship, James Earle Fraser, and Ivan Mestrovic. Fraser declined to participate, Mestrovic received the invitation late and only submitted a model of the Irish harp to be common on all eight coins. Manship created all eight coin models.
In addition to Conner, Irish sculptors Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard were invited. Also Carl Milles of Sweden and Percy Metcalfe of England. Metcalfe won the competition and the others received a 50- pound compensation.
Reiter mentioned Morbiducci’s rejected models had sold over the years, individually and that a complete set once sold for $100,000. Paul Manship was, perhaps, more assured of his position in the art field despite not winning this competition.
Manship had donated a set of his rejected coin models to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, the year Metcalfe’s designed coins were released. He also donated his studio set of the eight models to the Smithsonian Art Museum (among other studio models) in 1965 a year before his death.
While Morbiducci’s models have infrequently appeared in the numismatic and art fields we have knowledge of other rejected coin models. The competition for the Washington quarter, resulting in the 1932 Flanagan design, is the most prominent that comes to mind.
Laura Gardin Fraser’s Washington model for this competition was rejected in 1932 but resurrected by U.S. Mint officials in 1999 for the commemorative $5 gold for the bicentennial of George Washington’s death. Both her obverse and reverse models were revived for this modern U.S. commemorative.
This was an open coin competition, anyone could submit a plaster model, and hundreds did. John Flanagan’s model was chosen to appear on the quarter (it continues to this day, even with reverses of the fifty states and “American Beautiful” National Parks and Monument designs).
The U.S. Treasury returned all unaccepted models. Many of those 1932 competition rejected models were made into cheap tokens, some were destroyed by dejected artists, some were never heard from again, most remained in sculptors’ studios. When their estates are sold these come on the market. Those models by New York sculptor Thomas Cremona bounced around the New York City market for some time. NASCA sold one in their auctions, I sold another.
What can be learned from these events? Competitions are often held to obtain coin – or medal – designs. Open competitions are just that – open to anyone – where a wide spectrum of designs are received. These come from amateurs, including school children (art teachers often encourage this). Unfortunately professional artists often eschew these contests as not worth their time to enter.
Drawings of unaccepted designs can easily be returned but at an expense. It is an even greater expense to return models. As evident here these models are often recycled into other, sometimes competing products. Open competitions require a lot of time and expense to publicize and to judge. The hope is always to discover some hidden talent. It is best not to accept models in an open competition.
Better, more professional artistic designs are obtained in a closed competition. Here the artists are chosen in advance, but all who participate expect to be paid. Of the choice of drawings versus relief models, the later is preferred. (Some relief artists are not necessarily good draftsmen.) It is best to demand models in a closed competition with the proviso that no models will be returned and become the property of the contest sponsor. This prevents any subsequent use of those designs.
A note about terms on coin designs. A model is a design still in plaster (or any previous form, clay, wax, whatever). It becomes a pattern when the model is made into metal.
There are many stories of what happens to unaccepted coin models. If they are returned to their artists they take on a life of their own. Can you say “recycle?”
Internet Resources for this Article
To read Ed Reiter’s article: An Italian Artist’s LegacyTo Irish Numismatics (www.coinnewstoday.com/article2/97-an-italian-artists-legacy-to-irish-numismatics.html)
The Irish Times article by Fintan O’Toole: (www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/1117/1224326693688.html)