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Coming up: new heads and tails.

COMING UP: NEW HEADS AND TAILS

U.S. coins spend easily enough, but as pieces of art, they aren't worth a plug nickel.

Raymond, a pharmacy technician, guesses that Abraham Lincoln's likeness is on the nickel, George Washington's on the penny, and the quarter--well, he has no idea.

Angelique, a restaurant manager, knows Lincoln is on the penny but can't remember anything about the other coins.

And Susan, a receptionist, says, "Abraham Lincoln is on one of them, probably. And George Washington is on one, isn't he?

We scrounge for exact change, hoard quarters for laundry day, and avoid pennies. But otherwise we rarely give our coins much thought. After all, they've looked just about the same for as long as many of us can remember.

That may soon change.

Diane Wolf, the United States' ebullient commissioner of fine arts, is spearheading a drive, co-sponsored so far by 265 congressmen and 67 senators, for legislation to require changing the design on the reverse (that's "tails" to lay coin users) of all our coins.

If the bill passes Congress, our coins will have a whole new tail. Instead of torches, eagles, and monuments, they'll bear images representative of the Bill of Rights. They'll still have the same presidential heads (although they may be updated), and they'll still say E Pluribus Unum and "In God We Trust."

Except for the brief run of the bicentennial quarter, the failed Susan B. Anthony dollar, and the introduction of the Kennedy half dollar, these will be the first new "business strikes" (as opposed to commemorative coins) this country has seen since 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial replaced the wheat stalks on the reverse of the penny. The five-cent piece hasn't been changed since Thomas Jefferson ran the buffalo off in 1938, and the quarter is unchanged since 1932.

In the past, government guidelines caused coins to be changed about every 25 years, a total of 33 times so far. But in the 1960s, when rising silver prices caused coin hoarding and shortages, the treasury threw off the guidelines and started cranking out new clad metal (copper-sandwich) coins without a redesign.

Changing the coins won't make them spend any better--a penny still won't buy much. So why bother?

For one, says Diane Wolf--and many coin collectors--our designs aren't much to be proud of. "A coin is really a piece of sculpture," Wolf says. "Coins are art that people hold in their hands every day.

"The quality of the design of coins today is really mediocre," she says. "They're not beautiful."

And, she says, "Coins represent an evolution of the civilization. We know a lot about the ancient Greeks because of their coinage. We know when civilizations are at war and at peace.

"The buffalo nickel was a perfect example of American expansion west. On one side a proud Indian, and a buffalo on the other. What they [coins] are saying now is that we're stuck in the past, that we don't care about art."

Coin collectors agree. Michael Haynes, president of Dallas-based Heritage Rare Coin Galleries, a nationally recognized rare-coin dealer, says: "Many coins in the United States do not measure up to worldwide standards. They're more functional, a lot less artistic. If you were to take some coinage from Canada and Mexico and some of our European trade partners, I think you'd see the difference in the craftsmanship."

Numismatic News, the weekly publication for coin collectors responsible for bringing the matter to Wolf's attention, did an informal survey of its readership. Of 2,000 responses (out of a coin-collecting population estimated at anywhere from 3 million to 10 million), 92 percent supported a coin redesign.

Dave Harper, the editor of Bank Note Reporter and a former editor of Numismatic News, says, "I've not heard anyone call the current designs beautiful. The Washington quarter--well, draw your own conclusions."

But senators and congressmen aren't experiencing angst over our coins' aesthetics. What has gotten their attention is that redesigning our coins is likely to inject approximately $366 million into the government.

How's that?

Coins are minted as banks run out and need more, says Harper. There is no actual gold behind them. "They are not backed," he says, "other than with the full force and credit of the United States government. In fact, if you send in paper money or coins for lawful money--for example, gold--the treasury will send you the same amount in different denominations."

Seniorage is the difference between the cost of producing a coin and that coin's face value. A quarter costs 2 1/2 [cents] to produce. The Federal Reserve buys it at face value, and 22 1/2 [cents] is credited to the treasury's account.

Historically, new coin designs have inspired even noncollectors to keep new coins as souvenirs. As those coins disappear from circulation, more must be struck. Thus, money in the government's bank.

In addition, when new coins come out, collectors scramble to buy proof sets and uncirculated sets, also to the government's financial benefit.

And finally, new designs often generate new interest in coins--and new collectors who pull even more coins out of circulation.

If this bill passes, the law states that the first new coin will have to be struck within a year. Artists will compete for the job of redesigning. (It has not yet been determined if one artist or several will design the coins.) A new coin will be struck every year for the next six years.

The quarter will probably be the first changed, and it will be redesigned twice--once with a design commemorating the bicentennial of the Constitution and a second time with the Bill of Rights theme.

The old coins won't be pulled from circulation. They'll die a natural death, being traded in by banks when they wear out, or disappearing through attrition--which translates loosely into disappearing under beds, between the floorboards, and into coin jars.

A change for our change? It could happen. Wolf is confident. "We're gonna do it," she says.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dembling, Sophia
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Words:999
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