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Archive for January, 2013

On January 15, 2013 an Op-Ed article I wrote was published in the Wall Street Journal.  NPR, the national public radio network, picked up that article. Scott Simon’s January 18th segment of Simon Says was based on that article.

Simon introduced a bit of levity in his commentary by saying that Larry, Curly and Moe’s portraits are not on our coins. Instead the coins feature past presidents and Congress would find a difficult time replacing them on any future coins. (In my plan to revamp our coinage system I would promote those same presidents to a higher denomination coin, but, of course, Simon was unaware of that.)

Thirty-eight listeners responded to his commentary before this Report was written, recorded on NPR’s website. If this brief response was indicative or typical of radio listeners it provides insight into the medium’s audience.

Analyzing those comments is quite interesting. They range from intelligent and insightful to near gibberish. The largest percentage had comments about the design appearing on coins – and in particular whose portraits appear – irrespective of what denominations. People are vocal about what appears on all coins.

The second most common group were evenly divided among those who made comments on economics, and the purchasing power of coins and those who commented on their experiences with coins in other countries, particular the Euro.

The remainder were scattered among accepting new coins, rounding up or down – insisting a loss in most transactions of those few pennies – and a couple that were anti-government, no mater what.

One suggested the same concept offered by Chicago Federal Reserve Bank senior economist Francçoise Velde, to revalue lower denomination to the next higher. Too late for that for the American penny however.

One was critical of both this author and Simon on his broadcast, claiming we were not considerate of the homeless who exist on donations of lower value coins. And one was a poem by someone who must have had a lot of time on his hand.

Here are some selected extracts from those comments:

  • Willius M:  Great idea! Let’s do it.
  • Oscar Myer:  This isn’t a problem with the coins themselves. It’s a problem with government policies.
  • Travis Petengill:  Do it already, U.S. Mint, stop gabbing about it.
  • Peter Barrett:  I think I see the situation more clearly than I ever had! I have been in denial as to why the 1979 dollar coin never caught on
  • Matthew Fry:  For electronic transactions you can pay down to the [exact] penny as always.
  • Katthy Applebaum:  Why not just fix our manufacturing process? Smaller coins, cheaper metals, more efficient techniques can go a long way.

The voice of the listening public is naive perhaps and without the full knowledge of the overall problem, nor of possible solutions. They are quick to sound off. Their comments indicate an expression, a need of a far more reasoned study and intelligent thought of the problem and all possible solutions.

Here is Scott Simon’s full text on his January 18th broadcast from NPR’s website:

A Thought That’s Worth More Than A Penny (Or A Nickel)

by Scott Simon
January 18, 2013 2:27 PM

It costs more than a penny to make a penny, and more than a dime to make a nickel. Would it make better business sense to simply round up?

You might want to look at the profiles of presidents — current, past and aspiring — attending President Obama’s inauguration on Monday and imagine how they’d look one day on a coin.

But a few voices are beginning to propose that in these times, when newspapers cost a dollar and more, and people pull out credit cards to buy a cup of coffee, small coins may soon be relics.

A penny costs more than a cent to mint and circulate. The nickel costs more than 10 cents. This is not a good business plan for a nation that is kazillions of dollars in debt.

This week, D. Wayne Johnson, historian of the Medallic Art Company, proposed in The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. government get rid of the penny, nickel and quarter. You can’t buy a pack of gum with a quarter these days. Pennies and nickels are often just cast into bowls, drawers and jars, useless and unspent.

So Mr. Johnson suggests we round off prices to the nearest 10, and start minting just 10 cent, 50 cent and $1 coins. The dollar coin would replace the bill, which gets worn, wrinkly, and then won’t work in vending machines.

It’s one of those ideas that sounds sensible every way but politically. And politics is what truly counts.

That’s not Larry, Curly and Moe on the penny, nickel and quarter; it’s Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington — two founding fathers and the president who saved the Union. Can you imagine any Congress taking those profiles off of coins?

But even if you put those old presidents on new dimes, half-dollars and dollars, you’d have to scrap Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Sacagawea. Half-dollars and dollars aren’t used much right now, except by casinos and the Tooth Fairy. But imagine the outcry if Congress proposed removing from our money the president who won World War II, the president who personified youthful vigor, and a woman who helped open the West?

Can you see why when the European Union started minting money, they chose stylized architectural details instead of people?

Reducing the number of coins in America would bring down the number of pedestals on which to put national heroes. But imagine the debates if Congress had to decide whom to put on just three small coins. Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez? Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs? Jackie Robinson or Jim Thorpe? Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony or Sandra Day O’Connor? FDR, not Lincoln? Or vice versa? At least after this week, Lance Armstrong wouldn’t be in the running.

In a sense, it helps us appreciate that the United States has grown so rich in history, diversity and depth that no three, four, five — or a hundred profiles can express it.

What about Marx — Groucho, Chico and Harpo?

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A version of this article appeared January 15, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Melted Penny for Your Thoughts.

The Obama administration has officially repudiated the idea of minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin to address some of its fiscal problems. Washington shouldn’t stop there. Next to go should be not only the penny but the nickel, too.

Already each penny costs the U.S. government more than a cent to manufacture and distribute, and that cost is only rising without a suitable substitute for the raw materials. The coin has less purchasing power today than the U.S. half-cent coin did when the government abolished it in 1857.

But how to eliminate a coin? There are 150 billion pennies in banks, the cash drawers of retailers, the pockets and purses of citizens, and the jars atop dressers. Françoise R. Velde, chief economist of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, suggests the government revalue (or “rebase”) all cents to the value of a nickel so that they would circulate side-by-side, both worth five cents. A Treasury proclamation would do the trick at no cost.

This change would cause mini windfalls all over the nation, as 100 pennies in that dresser jar suddenly become worth five dollars, but it would prevent the problem of scrapping all those loose pennies.

Sooner or later, the government should also rebase nickels to the value of dimes, since nickels also cost more to produce than they are worth. A Dallas speculator whom I know (but who wishes to remain anonymous) has already hedged for that event by squirreling away $1 million worth of nickels in a Texas warehouse.

At least the U.S. is lucky that it has only five coin denominations in circulation. Italy struck seven denominations of euro coins in 2002, but by 2012 merchants and the public were throwing away the two lowest ones, deeming them valueless. There is a sixth U.S. coin—the dollar piece—but Americans have largely rejected it. Though Washington has struck 2.38 billion dollar coins since 1979, the bulk (1.2 billion) now reside in Federal Reserve storage.

Fourteen countries have now eliminated their lowest or two lowest coin denominations. All then rounded prices up or down to the value of the nearest coin still in active circulation. “Merchants will always round up, costing more for buyers!” screamed the naysayers. Not so. A 2006 Wake Forest University study of 200,000 convenience-store transactions in the eastern U.S. revealed that the rounding tends to balance out in a year’s time.

After Israel dropped its one-agorot coin in the 1990s, a drugstore chain there established a policy of always rounding down, trumpeted the policy in advertising and gained a marketing advantage over competitors. Thrifty customers increased the chain’s sales.

So what coin denominations should Americans plan for in the long term, as the value of low-denomination coins declines further due to inflation? Keep the dollar as the unit, as well as a 10-cent and 50-cent division of the dollar. That is three coins to keep while eliminating the cent, nickel and quarter.

Then, add five-dollar and 10-dollar coins, and the U.S. would again have five denominations to fill the drawer of every cash register. Stop printing paper currency in these denominations and accrue even more savings, as coins outlast paper 20-to-one in circulation.

Australia made a transition like this in two steps, abolishing its one-cent coin in 1990 and its two-cent coin the following year, melting both to make medals for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. But it is more efficient to do it all at once—and more considerate to the vending-machine industry, the largest user of coins. Industry spokesmen in the U.S. estimate it could cost up to $3.5 billion to recalibrate all their machines, and they shouldn’t be expected to do so twice.

In the plan to eliminate the cent, nickel and quarter, the latter two could be melted and recycled into new denomination coins. But what about all those cents?

Here is where the Treasury deserves great respect. In 1982, it began making cents with a zinc core and copper plating, rather than with a copper-zinc alloy. A gold star award to the Treasury official who made that decision. The brilliant part is that when all those cents are scrapped—those minted before 1982 and those minted since—the result will be a mixed alloy of copper and zinc. Voilà, brass. Add a little virgin copper and you have bronze.

Thus all those cents could be melted and used for bronze statues or bronze bells. But it is tricky to achieve the proper resonance for a perfect bell sound. So I have commissioned a top American sculptor—Elizabeth Jones, former chief engraver of the U.S. Mint—to sculpt a life-size or larger statue of David Rittenhouse, the first director of the U.S. Mint and a prominent astronomer and financial officer for Pennsylvania.

Gathering 23.7 million of those unwanted cents would furnish ample metal for a bronze statue of Rittenhouse to stand in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. The surplus metal would be sold to pay the artist, foundry expenses and other costs. The city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania would receive a bronze statue at no cost, and Rittenhouse would be honored with the metal from coins created by the Mint he founded in 1792.

The Rittenhouse statue should be reason enough for the Treasury to issue a waiver to its 2006 policy outlawing the melting of pennies. An added bonus are the hundreds or thousands of other bronze statues and bell towers that could go up in other cities across America.

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EVERY die-struck item – coin or medal – has two important hard and fast rules. I call these “undeniable truths.” They cannot be overlooked at any step of modeling, pattern-making or die-making in the medallic field.

Dies need to strike and withdraw. They must be made to insure that ability to withdraw from the struck piece. Otherwise the struck piece clings to the die. Pressmen call this a “hang-up.”

In a coining press a hang-up with a struck piece attached strikes the next blank that comes into position with two blanks between the two dies. The struck pieces have no design on one side and a mangled surface on the other, what mint error collectors call a “brockage.”

If it continues to hang on to the die and the coining press continues to feed blanks that first struck piece will wrap around the die. Mint error collectors call this “capping” or “cupping.” It is one of the worst situations for a coining press operator to experience.

Even if the die isn’t damaged by all this, it should be rejected anyway. It wasn’t made properly in the first place. It provides a devil of a time for the pressman. Reject that die. Its problem was an improper bevel.

The problem with the die started with the modeling of the design. Two rules govern here – two undeniable truths – no undercuts and proper bevel of all lettering and devices. The two rules are so closely related we discuss them here both at the same time.

An undercut is modeling of relief between the design and its background; the carving of overhang of design relief; a negative slope of relief. Metalworkers call it back draft. Relief sculptors call it under bevel. Everyone calls it undercutting and everyone connected with medal making attempts to avoid it right from the beginning for any die-struck or electroformed reproduction..

[Undercutting is a sculpture technique of full-round sculpture even though it can be attached to its background; it intensifies a contour line or relief by casting a shadow behind the relief. In the medallic field undercut designs can only be reproduced on bas-relief cast plaques, and then only made by rubber or flexible molds.]

For new artists who want to model coins and medals, I recommend hanging a sign above their workbench: “No Undercuts. Bevel All Relief.” Hopefully they would see it every day and burn it into their memory.

All relief requires a proper bevel. The sides of all relief and lettering must have a slight bevel. Each medal making process has its own requirement. It is ideal to model a bevel (also called draft or taper) to accommodate any process used.

Four boundaries must be considered here:

  • Vertical relief from 0° to 2½° is called holding taper. Not only is that taper impossible to cut into a die, or strike, it would be impossible for the die to withdraw from the struck piece after striking.
  • Hand engraved dies can accommodate a 5° to 10° bevel where the dies can strike and the struck piece release from the die.
  • Reduction on the die-engraving pantograph, as the Janvier, requires a minimum 15° bevel. This is required for the shape of the cutting point that mills the design into the face of the die.
  • Reduction by computer generated models, requires a minimum 20° to 25° bevel, draft or taper. This also is determined by the shape of the cutting point that mills the design into the face of the die.

Early in the modeling career of every medallic artist it would be wise to create the sides of all relief and lettering with a minimum 20° bevel and maintain this throughout their career. A 20° bevel on relief or lettering is about the slope of a sharpened wood pencil.

Here’s a tip for all medallic modelers: check the bevel of relief by holding a pencil upright next to your modeled relief. Light will show at the base of the relief if the relief is too steep.

The slope in which the relief rises from the background has the proper bevel of at least 20° it will carry forward in all the die-making steps. Anything less than 5° draft will cause a formed piece to “hang up” or freeze in the die or mold.

While steep vertical relief without any bevel is impossible to strike, relief with minimum bevel creates stress in the dies. The displacement of surface metal of the blank is greater at that point and the wear to the dies is at its maximum (which leads to diecracks and diebreaks).

Humans like the sharp, crisp detail in their medallic designs. Unfortunately they also like sharp rises and falls of the modulated relief to give emphasis to the design. So the designer and modeler must balance the need for a superior design with the requirements of the medallic technology.

As the artist shapes the sides of the relief in his design during modeling he must be aware of this angle or bevel at all time.

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142

Committee members appointed to design the National Capitol Centennial Medal in 1900- Charles Barber disregarded all their suggestions for his own design. Medal struck in metal from Capitol roof.

2,052

Medals and medallic items exhibited at the International Exhibition of Contemporary Medals at the American Numismatic Society March 1910. Medalists from 11 countries sent exhibits.

1

In-house sculptors at Medallic Art Company until it moved out of New York City, 1972. Previously any sculpture chores performed by one of the Weil brothers, founders. Ramon Gordills was hired as factory artist when the last Weil died.

21

Articles written by Georgia Chamberlain reprinted in her book American Medals and Medalists, published by her husband in 1963 after her death.

573

Medals listed by Robert Julian in his book, U.S. Mint The First Century. Artists are identified for 412 items; 161 items have unknown artists.

39

Items are not medals in book 100 Greatest Medals and Tokens by Katie Jaeger and Q. David Bowers. Counterstamped items colonial coins, Hard Times, storecards, cut coins, encased postage stamps, plus 25 others, fall in class of tokens, thus 61 true medals.

6,121

Medals made by Medallic Art Company from 1906 to 1976 and cataloged by Dick Johnson before he left the firm Jan 1977.

883

Estimated number of sculptor-medalists of medals produced by Medallic Art Co. in 1906-1976 based on a sample of records; figure could increase when all records are checked for artists.

2,044

Dies from Scovill Manufacuring’s die vault, in Waterbury, that were deemed of “historical significance” and donated to 18 museums (plus others later) at suggestion of museum consultant Bruce S. Bazelon (registrar, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Harrisburg). In 1962 He examined 15,000 dies.

80%

Estimated percentage of medals (and tokens) by unknown engravers issued in America during 19th century. Most hand engravers did not sign their work, thus engraver remains unknown.

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