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New Coin with an Old Design
By Stewart Huckaby

The first commemorative quarter the US produced was the Isabella Quarter, issue in 1893 as a part of the Columbian Exposition festivities. While no other quarters are included along with commemorative issues in current catalogs, the Washington Quarter, first issued in 1932 in commemoration of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, was originally envisioned as a one year commemorative issue. Little did the powers that be know at the time that modifications of the Washington design would still be in use over 75 years later!

The process that led to the design selection had its own share of intrigue. A design competition in 1931 called for entries based on the bust of Washington by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. Out of a hundred designs submitted, one stood out - a powerful, left-facing bust, designed by Laura Gardin Fraser, the wife of Buffalo nickel designer James Earle Fraser and a renowned sculptor in her own right with several commemorative half dollar designs on her resume.

The Washington Bicentennial Commission unanimously chose Fraser’s design. However, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, whether out of stubbornness, chauvinism, or for other reasons, refused to accept the recommendation, instead choosing a design by John Flanagan. The Commission begged him to relent, and Mellon eventually allowed a second competition, which again was won by Fraser. In the end, Mellon’s wishes prevailed, and the familiar Flanagan design was used.

For many years, Laura Gardin Fraser’s design for the quarter languished, more a matter of numismatic trivia than anything else. Fraser would die in 1966 without seeing another of her designs minted into a US coin. However, with the bicentennial of Washington’s death in 1999 and the success of the American Eagles, bullion coins which resurrected classic beautiful American coin designs, it was decided to resurrect Fraser’s winning 1931 quarter design into a new commemorative, the 1999 Washington half eagle.

Beautiful, elegant, yet simple in execution, this coin is reminiscent of what might have been in American numismatics. It remains to be seen what will become of the quarter once the Statehood design runs its course at the end of this year (there have been recurring suggestions to extend it one more year for parts of the US that are not states, such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam), but wouldn’t it be intriguing if the Washington Bicentennial Commission’s recommendation were adopted - even if 75 years later than they wished?

In the meantime, numismatists are left to admire the Washington half eagle. Readily available in the highest grades both as a circulation strike and as a proof, this coin has always brought a premium due to its beauty and due to its historical numismatic roots.

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