BY MICHAEL “MILES” STANDISH, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
By the 2000’s, coinage at the U.S. Mint had devolved into a multi-partite process, with no single agent managing or overseeing the process. This is a dangerous approach. The apt maxim describes it best: “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” True, there were some coins of this era that showed technical achievement, such as the 2000-W Library of Congress Bicentennial bimetallic coin. But many of the U.S. commemorative coins and States Quarters from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s fail to inspire or impress.
This period can be contrasted with 1981 to 1991, which saw the birth of the Modern Commemorative Program and the creation of the Gold and Silver Eagles. Looking back, these earlier designs still feel rich, well-balanced and relevant. One contributing factor is certainly the presence of a Chief Mint Engraver, Elizabeth Jones, who held that position during those years.
The role of Chief Mint Engraver was originally formed at the same time as the Mint as a lifetime Presidential appointment. Indeed every person to hold this post from 1793 until 1947 died in office. Longest to serve was Charles E. Barber, for 38 years from 1879 until his death in 1917. Other luminaries include George T. Morgan and Christian Gobrecht. Even if a collector of U.S. coins is not intimately familiar with these figures, he or she knows of them from coins that they designed: the Barber series, the Morgan Dollar and the Gobrecht Dollar. The very names by which U.S. coins are called illustrates how central the Chief Mint Engraver was to their form and reification.
Curiously, the U.S. Mint operated with no one formally in this role from 1991 to 2006. Gone was the Presidential appointment. Rather, functionally someone needed to oversee design and its interaction with the technical aspects of coinage production. The U.S.
Mint first revitalized the role of the chief engraver as Supervisor of Design and
Master Tooling Development Specialist.
To fill this position they found someone among their own ranks. In 1974, John M. Mercanti had joined the Mint as a sculptor-engravor. He had been classically trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia College of Art and Fleisher Art Memorial. Working at first under and in the methods of Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro, he made immediate contributions. Over the following three decades he designed or sculpted dozens of coins and medals.
The year of Mercanti’s elevation to Supervisor, 2006, marks the beginning of a monumental shift at the U.S. Mint. For the first time ever, the Mint offered Reverse Proof coinage in the American Eagle 20th Anniversary sets. Started in 2007 were the Presidential $1 Coin and First Spouse programs. In 2009, the new reverse designs were introduced annually for the Native American $1 Coin, and in 2010, the America the Beautiful Quarter program begin. It is a period of bold new initiatives and improved design—exciting coinage! This achievement required leadership.
The most significant measure of this change is one coin: the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle. The goal was to recreate a coin hailed by numismatists as the pinnacle of U.S. Coinage design, Saint-Gauden’s 1907 Extremely High Relief Double Eagle. The Mint wanted to prove they had the technical capabilities and process to do it.
The main driving force of the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle was Mint Director Edmund Moy. Creating the coin was his ambition, but John Mercanti was his means. Other Mints had struck high relief coins, but none had struck over 100,000 of them in gold using such a beloved and iconic design. The bar had been set incredibly high. As Supervisor, John Mercanti would be involved with every aspect of the coin’s development: capturing a 3D scan of the Smithsonian’s original coin, working the CAD models, inventing a new partitioned lettered edge collar, evaluating feasibility and trial strikes, etc., etc.
Widely lauded and very well-received by collectors, the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle was a grand success. For Moy, it both proved that the U.S. Mint had unparalleled capabilities and that a Supervisor-led design process was an essential component. His response was to revive the title of Chief Mint Engraver as a one-year appointment by the Mint Director, renewable for a term of up to five years. John Mercanti was so appointed and served in that role until his retirement from the Mint.
While Mercanti retired from the Mint, he has hardly retired. He has accepted commissions for coinage design, sculpting plasters in the traditional methods of his craft. The first of these is the Wedge-tailed Eagle for Australia in 2014. Struck in gold and silver and in high relief, it became an international staple among modern coin collectors and is now in its third year of release. Mercanti has also hand-signed certification labels. In 2016 he entered into an agreement with NGC. While previous Mint Engravers are remember for their signature coins, certification labels reinforce that association for American coins of the modern era. Mercanti is rightly remembered for the mark he made on American coinage design, both in its artistry and how these design become world-class coinage.
Miles Standish is a Vice President at NGC. He can be reached via email