The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
1932 Coin





Coin Details

Origin/Country: United States
Item Description: $5 1999 W GEORGE WASHINGTON
Owner: coinsbygary

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
Competitive Sets: Gary's Modern Commemoratives   Score: 1206
Research: NGC Coin Explorer NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

In February of 1930, the US Congress established the George Washington Bicentennial Committee. The purpose of this committee was to make preparations for the 1932 bicentennial celebration of George Washington’s birth. Subsequently, the Bicentennial Committee and the Fine Arts Commission agreed to an invitation only competition to design a Washington bicentennial medal.

Shortly thereafter, on April 21,1930 President Hoover vetoed a bill to issue a new commemorative half-dollar honoring President Washington. Not deterred by the veto, the Bicentennial Committee went ahead with a contest to design a commemorative medal and half-dollar. In response to Hoover’s veto, the commission intended for a Washington Half-Dollar to be issued in lieu of the 1932 Walking Liberty Half-Dollar. (Incidentally, no half-dollars were coined in 1932.) Technically speaking then, the proposed Washington Half-Dollar would not be considered a commemorative but a regular issue coin. Furthermore, the Bicentennial Committee stipulated that the obverse device of the medal and half-dollar be based on a 1785 bust of George Washington sculpted by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon. [1]

The Washington Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission expecting that the same artist would design both the medal and the coin, chose Laura Gardin Fraser’s design for the bicentennial medal. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission then assumed that Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon would have no objection to their plans for either the medal or half-dollar. [1] [2]

Interjecting themselves into the mix, Congress began making plans to permanently replace the Standing Liberty Quarter with a newly issued Washington Quarter. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission immediately petitioned Congress to mandate Laura Gardin Fraser’s design motifs. Congress without giving consideration to their request passed legislation on March 4,1931 to replace the Standing Liberty Quarter with the Washington Quarter. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission then appealed to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. In his reply Secretary Mellon stated that he was under no obligation to abide by their recommendation and a new contest for the quarter ensued. [2]

In November of 1931 the Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission recommended to Secretary Mellon, Laura Gardin Fraser’s model for the Washington Quarter. However, Mellon favored John Flanagan's quarter design. Because the Fine Arts Commission felt so strongly about the artistic superiority of Laura Gardin Fraser’s submission, they asked Secretary Mellon to give the artists more time to refine their designs. Still, Secretary Mellon preferred John Flanagan’s design over Mrs. Fraser’s. [2]

In a letter to Secretary Mellon dated January 20, 1932, the Fine Arts Commission had this to say concerning Mrs. Fraser’s quarter: “This bust is regarded by artists who have studied it as the most authentic likeness of Washington. Such was the skill of the artist in making this life-mask that it embodies those high qualities of the man’s character which have given him a place among the great of the world... Simplicity, directness, and nobility characterize it. The design has style and elegance... The Commission believe that this design would present to the people of this country the Washington whom they revere... The eagle is exceptionally well rendered. It has vigor. It has sculptural quality”. [2]

Finally, the Fine Arts Commission sent a strongly worded letter to Andrew Mellon’s successor Ogden L. Mills deploring John Flanagan's design for the quarter. That request was also rejected and John Flanagan’s Washington Quarter began its long run on August 1,1932. That said, whenever there are unresolvable conflicts in these matters between the treasury secretary and the Fine Arts Commission, the treasury secretary always has the final say. The role then of the Fine Arts Commission is only that of an advisory role. [1] [2]

The apparent conflict between the Fine Arts Commission and Secretary Mellon has fueled speculation as to why the secretary would reject a so-called superior design. Walter Breen blames Laura Gardin Fraser’s rejection on sexism by Secretary Mellon. David Bowers calls Breen’s accusation “numismatic fiction”. As for me, I think there is circumstantial evidence for both sides of that argument but hard evidence to support Bower’s view. [1] [3]

What I think is more likely is that Mrs. Fraser got in the way of a few bureaucratic wheels in a bitter dispute over the 1929 Lindbergh Medal. In the end Mrs. Fraser prevailed but at a cost and according to Don Taxay she was given a “persona non grata” rating.

Though the contestant identities in the Washington Quarter contest were anonymous, Don Taxay theorizes that Secretary Mellon was familiar with the artistic style of Mrs. Fraser and knew which submission was hers. Therefore, Mrs. Fraser may have been the victim of political payback. [4]

Many years after the fact, people in numismatic circles still believe that Mrs. Fraser was snubbed. Especially so when respected numismatic art critics like Cornelius Vermeil describe Mrs. Fraser’s quarter design as "Artistically, stunning. . . And technically, flawless; there's just no way to get all the required elements on the quarter and do it any better than Mrs. Fraser.“ [5]

Eventually, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s death in 1999, the US Mint posthumously revived Laura Gardin Frasers Washington Quarter design and adapted it to a commemorative half-eagle. While the treasury department did not admit to any wrong doing in 1932, it may have tacitly acknowledged the artistic merit of Laura Gardin Fraser’s design.

1 A Guidebook of Washington and State Quarters by Q. David Bowers
2 The US Mint and Coinage by Don Taxay
3 Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins
4 Coinage Magazine January 1970, The Ordeal of Laura Gardin Fraser by Don Taxay
5 Numismatic Art in America by Cornelius Vermeule

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