I was working on an article about George Kunz and the redesign of United States Coinage (ANS Magazine, 2017/1) when I came upon an interesting coin design in the ANS vault. It was an electrotype model of a U.S. dollar by Victor David Brenner, made about fourteen years before his actual contribution to the redesign of U.S. coinage, the iconic and ubiquitous Lincoln cent (1909). His was one of twenty-five dollar designs submitted for a competition in 1895, part of an organized effort at improving the nation’s much maligned coinage that was ostensibly carried out by several private art groups but was in reality undertaken mostly by two: the National Sculpture Society (NSS) and the ANS. The NSS showed real commitment to the cause, putting up all of the prize money: $300 for first place and either $100 or $200 for second (accounts vary). This was big money in 1895; first prize would be comparable to about $8,000 today.
Given that coins are small sculpted pieces used by nearly everyone, the promotion of high quality coinage was a natural undertaking for the NSS. The group was founded in 1893 to promote quality sculpted art to the masses. To help fulfill its civic-minded goals, it opened its membership to non-sculptors—administrators, businessmen, and others that might help the cause. Kunz, Tiffany’s resident gem expert, joined the group in its first year. He also joined the ANS in 1893, and it appears that he was the primary agent at both groups promoting coinage redesign, apparently with the backing of an influential party in Washington.
The dollar designs that were submitted for the competition were displayed at an exhibition of ancient and world coins and medals at the American Fine Arts Building on 57th Street in New York City. The show was curated by the ANS and was intended to show historical examples of quality artistic coinage. Brenner did not win. First prize went to Albert Jaegers, specifically for the eagle on his reverse. Albert Randolph Ross came in second, for his obverse showing Liberty and a turkey. The prizes had no official standing and the two artists would play no role in the actual coinage redesign that began a decade later.
An electrotype of Jaegers’s design sits next to Brenner’s on a tray in the ANS vault. Unfortunately, though a letter from Ross and an entry in the Society’s proceedings say that he also donated his model to the ANS, a search for Ross’s turkey design was unsuccessful.
Incidentally, it is great to learn of the close relationship between the ANS and the NSS during the latter’s first years because the two organizations have been happily reunited in modern times. The ANS and NSS have shared office space at 75 Varick Street since 2009.
For more on the founding of the National Sculpture Society and its early history, see Michele Bogart’s Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989).