What If?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Time. Space. Reality. It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am The Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me, and ponder the question… What if?

From Marvel’s “What If?” series

Marvel’s What If? streaming series asks a number of interesting questions relating to the Cinematic Universe, including what might have happened if Peggy Carter got the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers? Or what if Killmonger had killed Tony Stark, permanently overthrown T’Challa and started a war between Wakanda and the U.S.?

Or what if Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ original design for the gold double eagle had been adopted by the U.S. Mint?

Okay, so maybe not that last one. Then again, if Marvel would like to join the list of movies/shows about coin collecting, and do a “What If” about coins that we almost got, they know what to do.

Like what if, during the Avengers: Endgame time-heist, shortly after Loki took the Tesseract, he used it to enter a top secret government facility and stole some Adamantium and Vibranium? And what if he wanted to use them to mint some coins (“Loki Bucks”) with his face on them so he accessed the multiverse to find an alternate reality where there was a coin press powerful enough to strike those super strong metals and ended up in one where the below listed coins were actually issued?

Give me a call (and a nice paycheck and royalty rate) guys!

1866 Washington Nickel Pattern

What we could have had instead of the much-maligned Shield Nickel (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve covered the events leading up to the issuance of the Shield Nickel in 1866. Suffice it to say, the coin was not well-liked or regarded when it came out, with the American Journal of Numismatics calling it “the ugliest of all known coins.” That’s about as savage a review as I’ve ever seen — worse than the New York Times saying that Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star “may be the worst movie Pauly Shore has ever been. Think about that.”

It didn’t have to be that way. Some of the designs that were proposed for the coin that eventually became the Shield Nickel were quite good. There was a design honoring the recently-assassinated Abraham Lincoln that pre-dated the Lincoln cent by decades (Mint officials were understandably afraid the coin would not be embraced in the former Confederate states). There was also a beautiful “Indian Princess” pattern featuring a reverse that bore the shield we’d see on the eventual namesake nickel and a Roman numeral “V”-and-wreath design similar to the one we’d see on the successor Liberty Nickel.

There were also several pattern coins depicting a bust of George Washington. Designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James Longacre, the proposed nickel would have marked the first time the Father of our Country’s image was ever depicted on an official U.S. Mint-issued coin — something Washington, himself, was never comfortable with (his bust was used on a 2-cent pattern coin in 1863 — obviously, that one wasn’t adopted).

Longacre struck his patterns on different planchets, including some copper specimens that are very rare and expensive on today’s market. There were also various reverse designs, including a “5” surrounded by a field of stars and rays that would be adopted for the original Shield Nickel, as well as one with the rays removed that would used in later Shields.

Ultimately, the Mint decided not to go with the Washington design. Whether it was because of the longstanding taboo on utilizing his portrait, or because the difficulties of striking nickel required a more utilitarian design, we got the Shield Nickel, instead. It would not be until the “1900” Lafayette Commemorative Dollar when we finally saw Washington’s bust on a Mint-issued coin — although there were plenty of unofficial tokens and proposed coins with his portrait on them.

It’s too bad. The Washington patterns are all quite nice and make for really good looking coins. Numismatic historian Q. David Bowers once said he thought the Washington designs were more interesting than the Shield Nickels we ultimately got, and I couldn’t agree more. Furthermore, I’ve always liked this bust of Washington and wish we could have used it for the quarter.

At one point, the Washington nickel patterns were one of the bigger bargains in the pattern coin market. These days, the coin goes for quite a bit on eBay, with one seller asking for over $10,000 for his coin. Then again, one sold at auction for $2,280 in May and another sold for $2,100 in February. So the devil’s in the details.

Saint-Gaudens Winged Liberty Double Eagle

Could this have been better that the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle design we got? (Image via me)

It’s hard to imagine a coin more beautiful and widely beloved than the Saint-Gaudens double eagle.

The coin is a fixture on “most beautiful coins” lists, and unlike others that have become regarded as artistic masterpieces in the years or decades since their release, the Saint-Gaudens double eagle was widely acclaimed at the time of its release. President Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1904 letter to then-Treasury Secretary Leslie Mortier Shaw calling for more beautiful coins helped result in the Saint-Gaudens double eagle as well as the Class of 1916 coins, called the former “the best coin that has been struck for two thousand years.”

But was the design we got actually a downgrade over what we could have had?

Saint-Gaudens’ original design featured a winged Liberty wearing a Native American headdress and carrying a torch flying up to the sky. It’s a highly intricate and beautiful design — one that is, arguably, superior to the one we ultimately got.

However, it was also impractical, at least by the technical standards at the time. The level of detail on the Winged Liberty specimen would have been difficult, if not impossible, to recreate on a coin — especially with one strike. Indeed, many coins of that era fell into this trap, including the Saint-Gaudens double eagle, which had to be struck in low relief after its first few years in circulation.

As such, the Winged Liberty specimens was never made into a pattern coin or even submitted for consideration. Instead, the design had seemingly been abandoned by Saint-Gaudens and was only found amongst his belongings decades after his death.

Luckily, great designs never really fade away. In 2016, retired Mint chief engraver John Mercanti took the design and recreated it onto gold and silver rounds for private mints. The National Park Foundation started selling them, which is how I got mine.

So what’s the verdict? Is the Winged Liberty coin better than the double eagle design we ended up with? I guess that’s kind of like asking whether The Godfather was better than The Godfather Part II. Some days, I might say Part I was better; other days I’ll be partial to Part II. But you can’t really go wrong with either one.

1891 Barber Standing Columbia Design

An improvement over the Barber coins? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A common theme thus far in this post has been The Mint considering or soliciting intricate, beautiful designs but then having to settle for something more practical or utilitarian due to the technological limitations at the time.

That was the case for the Barber series of coins that were in circulation from 1892 to 1916. Designed by Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber, the coins were famously derided as “beneath criticism, beneath contempt” by none other than Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Barbers were uniform, minimalistic and well struck, making them durable and long-lasting– epitomizing the phrase “boring but practical.”

They also stood in stark contrast to what we almost got. Barber’s original design was a highly-ambitious one featuring an obverse image of a standing Columbia holding a liberty pole with a pileus on top in front of an eagle spreading its wings. The reverse was also highly intricate, bearing the image of the Great Seal of the United States surrounded by a lush oak wreath.

I might actually be in the minority here, but while I like the original Barber design, I think it might be a bit too much. It’s undeniably a good-looking coin, but it’s almost a little overwhelming. Simply put, there’s just so much going on. I wonder if it would benefit from a less decorative wreath. Or from eliminating the rays and stars on the obverse.

It would have been an impressive coin, though — especially given the technical constraints at the time. Maybe they can resurrect this one for the upcoming U.S. semiquincentennial (The Mint recently posted a poll asking the public to vote on their favorite designs for possible re-issue during the 250th anniversary celebration — pattern coins were not included, though).

Or maybe they could put together a set of restrikes of some of their favorite/most popular pattern coins (maybe starting with the three above-referenced coins). I’m sure that would be a big moneymaker.

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