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People's Needs Don't Square With Art
June 25, 2008

The Mint gives collectors another reason to attend the American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money in Baltimore at the end of July.

It will put on display an example of the Ultra-High-Relief $20 gold piece that will be sold to collectors next year.

The coin will be 27 millimeters in diameter and be about 50 percent thicker than current one-ounce bullion coins. It will contain one-troy ounce of gold.

This generation of collectors grew up with stories of Theodore Roosevelt's commitment to give the United States a coinage worthy of ancient Greece. His chosen instrument was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who came up with a completely impractical design in 1907 that met Roosevelt's standard but couldn't stand up to the demands of mere commerce.

Bankers didn't like high relief because the coins would not stack properly. With much business conducted with gold coins, the artist simply provided bankers with something to hate on a daily basis.

Roosevelt believed that low commerce was no place to invoke the name of God and asked that the motto be omitted from the new $20. It was, causing another uproar from average Americans.

Now in this age of subprime loans going sour we can see how unusual a coalition of bankers and average Americans is.

This peculiar coalition saw to it that the coin was modified. The relief was massively lowered and "In God We Trust" was added.

America ended up with a coin unworthy of ancient Greece, but it satisfied the American people. This is kind of like the story of the Wisconsin state quarter. Whatever you say about the cow, the corn and the cheese, it was the choice of the people. The people don't always choose art.

To see an example of real coinage art, go to the ANA convention.

No doubt Roosevelt would approve.

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About the Author
David C. Harper has been a coin collector since 1963. He joined the Krause Publications editorial staff in 1978 and is currently editor of Numismatic News and World Coin News. He also edits two books annually, North American Coins & Prices and Coin Digest. He is the author of the Class of '63 column that runs each week in Numismatic News. His first bylined numismatic article appeared in the June 1971 issue of Coins Magazine and his various Krause Publications assignments included a stint as editor of the magazine 1980-1983. Harper received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1977. He had a double major of journalism and economics.

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