the Coins of a Designer
By Ginger Rapsus
You’ve been a
fan of the Kennedy half dollar since it began in
1964. You waited in line at your bank to get
some of the first ones made, and you’ve saved
one of each date and mintmark since then. As a
specialist in the series, you’ve heard the silly
rumor that the designer’s initials on the
obverse were a hammer and sickle; you know the
initials stand for Gilroy Roberts, who executed
the fine portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
If you admire the work of Gilroy Roberts, why
not collect his other products? He was chief
engraver of the U.S. Mint and then his career
took him to the Franklin Mint.
Roberts, an accomplished sculptor, executed a
medal depicting Kennedy at his inauguration. The
bust of JFK was the basis for the portrait on
the half dollar. Roberts also did a great amount
of work for the Franklin Mint in the 1970s,
including a beautiful series of medals, Roberts’
Robert’s Franklin Mint work was some of the most
artistic designs ever used on coins, but that is
natural. He was talented. He had a freer hand in
making designs at Franklin Mint than he did as a
A numismatist can specialize in one designer’s
work and build a meaningful collection of coins,
medals and other works.
Then there is Frank Gasparro, colleague of
Gilroy Roberts at the U.S. Mint. He designed the
reverse of the Kennedy half dollar, which was
based on the Presidential Seal.
Both artists worked under intense time pressure.
Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963. By the
end of the year, the half dollar was authorized.
By the end of March 1964 the new coin was in the
hands of the public.
If you think demand for the 2009 cents was high,
that was nothing compared to demand for the
Kennedy half dollar in 1964. Getting the new
coin was part of the grieving process. It was an
enduring memorial to the slain President.
Gasparro and Roberts are forever paired as the
creators of this coins. But that’s not all that
Gasparro did. He was promoted to chief engraver
when Roberts left the Mint.
He not only did new designs following his
promotion, but he did the Memorial reverse on
the U.S. cent, which was introduced in 1959 and
just retired in 2008.
Gasparro also produced Presidential medals,
assay medals and medals commemorating
secretaries of the Treasury, along with a few
other U.S. coins, including the Eisenhower
A lovely medal was done by Gasparro for the 1969
American Numismatic Association convention in
Philadelphia, a Liberty head with cap, based on
the 1793 half cent. The portrait of Liberty
reminded many of the old, but was unmistakably
new. Gasparro was quite disappointed 10 years
later, when his classic Liberty head was
rejected as a design for a new dollar coin, in
favor of Susan B. Anthony. But he did his job
and designed the Anthony dollar.
Collecting the works of Gasparro would be a
challenging hobby activity. But before you
decide to do that, there works of other artists
Collectors know that John Sinnock designed the
Roosevelt dime and the Franklin half dollar,
coins that began in 1946 and 1948, respectively.
He also designed the Sesquicentennial half
dollar of 1926, a coin featuring the Liberty
Bell on the reverse, just as the Franklin half
did 22 years later. Sinnock also did other work
that is not so widely known. He designed a
number of medals for presidents, notably
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry
S. Truman. His distinctive style is evident on
the execution of these medals. Study of these
pieces can make a numismatist appreciate the
artist’s work that much more, and gain an
understanding of just how much effort and
artistic ability goes into creation of medallic
The Edward C. Rochette Museum at ANA
headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., once
displayed an exhibit of Sinnock’s work,
including preliminary sketches for the coin that
would become the familiar Roosevelt dime. A
dedicated collector coul view this exhibit and
come away with a new respect for his favorite
designer and his body of work.
James Earle Fraser, designer of the Buffalo
nickel, created a famous sculpture, “The End of
the Trail.” Fans of the Buffalo nickel would do
well to find a copy of this work to complement
their collection. Fraser also designed a
potential Lincoln nickel, dated 1911 and
featuring a rugged head, not a bust, of Lincoln;
the piece is uniface.
His Buffalo design also ended up on a modern
commeorative silver dollar and the new Buffalo
gold bullion coins.
Fraser’s wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, was an
accomplished sculptor in her own right. Among
her most famous works are the 1922 Ulysses Grant
commemorative half dollar and gold dollar. She
also designed the Fort Vancouver half dollar of
1925 and the Alabama half dollar of 1921. She
also designed a Washington quarter dollar with a
design quite different from the one adopted, by
John Flanagan; many believe the Fraser design to
be superior. Her Washington design was finally
used on a 1999 $5 gold coin, commemorating the
200th anniversary of Washington’s death. Both
Frasers designed the Oregon Trail commemorative
half dollar that many collectors deem the most
beautiful of all classic commemorative coins.
Fans of the Mercury dime, and there are many,
may consider the works of Adolph Weinman. He
also designed the Walking Liberty half dollar,
considered the best design on a United States
silver coin, and a design that was resurrected
in 1986 for the one-ounce silver American Eagle.
His less famous works include the Saltus award
medal, given by the American Numismatic Society
for excellence in medallic art. The head of the
female figure on this medal is very reminiscent
of the head used on the Mercury dime. Weinman’s
son Howard designed a commemorative coin, the
1936 Long Island half dollar.
Hermon MacNeil, designer of the Standing Liberty
quarter, had an impressive resume by the time
the first of his quarters was struck in 1916.
One of his more famous medals was the one struck
for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.
Perhaps the best known, and most respected, of
all United States coin designers was Augustus
Saint-Gaudens. His $20 gold piece is considered
the most beautiful of all U.S. coins. He also
designed the $10 gold, a contemporary of his
double eagle. His many works of medallic
sculpture are listed in reference books, large
books that are collectors’ items themselves. A
collection of his works would be worthy of a
museum, and yes, there is a museum in New
Hampshire devoted to his works. A collector
might want to find a Theodore Roosevelt medal by
Saint-Gaudens, featuring an eagle reminiscent of
the large bird used on the $10 gold coin.
Designer’s initials are found on almost any
coin, but so often, the designer of a favorite
coin is forgotten. Why not pay your own personal
tribute to the designer of a favorite coin by
collecting his other works? Some works are
difficult to find, but most are unknown to the
casual collector, or to the coin hoarder who
just wants to make a profit.
Study of a favorite designer’s other works can
give you a new appreciation of what an artist
does and how much work goes into producing a
coin. And you will have a collection not of
dates and mintmarks, but a fine collection of
medallic art that not too many collectors can