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The Who, What, Where, When, and Whys of Researching Coins



When I first look at a coin, I often ask myself, "What's this coin trying to tell me about itself?" Sometimes that coin's story is in its date, mintage, mintmark, die variety, and metallic composition, to name a few. However, I almost always find my coins' design features far more interesting than its technical characteristics. If they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I want to know what my coins' allegorical images intend to communicate.

To help me research and understand the symbolic images on my coins, I ask myself five questions. They are:

*       I want to know "WHO" designed or commissioned my coins' minting. For instance, knowing that Augustus St. Gaudens designed the 1907 double-eagle tells me volumes about the artistic and symbolic images featured on that coin.

*       I want to know "WHAT" my coins represent or the message they convey other than a means of exchange. As an example, the Roman goddess Libertas or Lady Liberty appears on most of our classic coins. This message expresses the importance of personal freedom and liberty to our culture and society.

*       The "WHERE" of my research focuses on the nations and people issuing my coins. A country and its people tell me a lot about a coin's design. Conversely, a coin says a lot about the people and country circulating it.

*       The "WHEN" is the year and historical context of my coins. Coins don't pop up randomly in history. World events, at any point in history, have an impact on coin designs. Not only did the Standing Liberty Quarter represent a renascence in coin design, but it conveyed a message to the world of the United States' standing in World War I.

*       The "WHY" is the purpose of minting the coin. The ancient Romans used coins to disseminate propaganda. In polytheistic societies such as Ancient Rome, the Roman Emperor featured on the obverse of a coin wanted to identify himself with the reverse's deity. The effect of this was to have the people see him as a god.

Now you don't necessarily have to answer all the W's to make an informed conclusion concerning your coin, but you need most of them. The following is a portion of an article I wrote for the PAN publication, "The Clarion." To read the rest of the story, you'll have to get a copy of the October 2020 issue. See which W's you can pick out in the clip below.

A sentence in the Declaration of Independence reads as follows, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This concept of liberty, eloquently described in the Declaration of Independence, has been at the core of who we are as Americans ever since.

At the minting of our first coins, the architects of our constitution had to find a way to illustrate the values set forth by the Declaration of Independence onto our national coinage. For this, they chose the Roman goddess Libertas. Libertas or Lady Liberty is the Roman goddess of liberty and personal freedom.

A liberated slave in ancient Rome received a conical cap called a pileus to symbolize their emancipation. The pileus, however, has been confused and interchanged with a Phrygian cap. The Phrygian cap became associated with a form of government during the French Revolution. We adapted the Phrygian cap to represent liberty during the Revolutionary War. Consequently, Lady Liberty often appears on our classic coinage wearing a Phrygian or Liberty cap.

The coin I have pictured is a proof 1863 United States quarter. The central device on the reverse of this quarter is our national bird, the bald eagle. The obverse features a seated image of Libertas or Lady Liberty as she has become known.

The obverse of this quarter employs several symbols to communicate the message of Liberty. The rock on which Lady Liberty sits could represent the country in which we live (The United States of America) and her power to bestow liberty on the inhabitants thereof.

The imagery of a liberty cap atop a liberty pole goes back to ancient Rome. A group of senators assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC. After his death, the assassins marched through the streets with their weapons held high. One of them lifted a pileus surmounted on the tip of a spear to symbolize that Rome was free and no longer under the rule of Julius Caesar. Incidentally, there is an ancient Roman coin with a pileus on the reverse and a downward pointing knife on each side to commemorate this event. The obverse features conspirator Marcus Brutus. Like the raising of the pileus at Julius Caesar's demise, so is the raising of liberty caps on poles all around the colonies after the American Revolution.

The shield held by Lady Liberty's right hand has 13 vertical bars and one horizontal bar. The vertical bars represent the 13 original states holding up one horizontal bar representing the federal government. Engraved on a scroll emblazoned across the shield are the letters LIBERTY to show Lady Liberty's willingness to defend it. Finally, by looking over her shoulder, Lady Liberty demonstrates her preparedness to meet any threats she encounters.

Today liberty appears on our regularly circulating coins in name only. In place of a representative image, try to think of the contributions to our freedom made by presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, and Kennedy whenever you pull their images out of your pocket. If you carry an Eisenhower dollar as a pocket piece, go ahead and pull that out also. Gary

The following is a link to the Ancient Roman coin I referenced: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Brutusides.jpg



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I expect we all do this to some extent, even if we don't realise it, and documenting it is surprisingly difficult so congratulations on your article in the Clarion (which I had to look up :bigsmile:).

We are a bit short of numismatic publications here in the UK which is more or less now limited to 'Coin News' which does a great job of trying to cover everything from ancients to new paper money releases.

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