The Negative Gold Piece

The last gasp of the past

When William McKinley was reelected to the presidency in 1900, the US was looking forward to a new century of progress.

President William McKinley

But McKinley was a conservative man, and something as traditional as the designs on the nation's gold coins did not attract his attention, even though they hadn't been changed in over 60 years. In fact, all the circulating gold coins being produced in 1900--the $2 1/2, the $5, the $10 and the $20 dollar gold pieces all bore the same basic design---a classic bust of liberty on the obverse and a spread-winged eagle on the reverse. Although these classic designs are quite impressive, many folks around the turn of the century would have appreciated something new.

When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, no one knew the changes that were in store under Theodore Roosevelt, and even those who longed for new designs on the nation's gold pieces could not have suspected the radical changes the nation's youngest president would make to the largest denomination coins produced at the US Mint.

The struggle for the future

Theodore Roosevelt

During Roosevelt's second term the president asked the directors of the Mint why they had not changed the designs of the nation's gold coins for over six decades. Whatever response he got, it could not have been satisfactory to a man of action such as Roosevelt. The fact of the matter was, the Mint had no desire to change the designs. Roosevelt sensed this, and so he searched outside the Mint for new designs. The nation was leaping into the future, and the president wanted it's gold coins to reflect the artistic advances made since the gold Liberty coins were first produced in the 1830's.
The New York Skyline in 1907--the nation was leaping forward into the new century (Photo---library of Congress)

Roosevelt approached the famous sculptor Bela Pratt. Would he consider designing new gold coins for the United States?

The Chicago Auto show in 1907--the nation was on the move

A Triumph of the modern age

Pratt leapt at the chance. Apparently he had been thinking the same thoughts as Roosevelt about the nation's gold coins, and the two men got along famously from the start. In response to Roosevelt's plea, Pratt not only designed a completely different gold piece---he created coins unique in the history of American coinage. Instead of raising the design off the surface of the coin, he depressed it into the surface---creating what is known as an incuse design. Such coins really are quite spectacular---almost optical illusions, because when you look at the coin it looks a bit like a photographic negative.

But what a design! Most collectors will agree that Pratt's Indian on the obverse of the coin, with its full headdress and brave profile, is one of the most spectacular coin images in history---and the strong eagle on the reverse of the coin is poised to take flight---just like the United States leaping into the twentieth century.

The most radical coin design in history

When the designs for Pratt's new gold pieces were presented to the Mint, the managers balked---they were still locked into their traditional thinking. They claimed the public would never accept such a radically different coin. Roosevelt persisted, and finally the Mint did strike the new design.

Treasury official counting paper money, 1907--even though paper money was widely used, folks still carried gold pieces in their pockets (photo---National Archives)

The obverse of the Negative Gold Piece

The reverse of the Negative Gold Piece

Indeed, when the new Indians were released, a rumor was spread that the incuse design on the coin would capture germs and spread disease! Of course, this was nonsense, and the public paid no attention to it---they fell in love with the new incuse gold Indians.

Les Desmoiselles D'Avingon---Pablo Picasso, 1907

Pratt's negative gold pieces continued to be produced all through the teens and twenties---and, in fact, Pratt's Indians were the last designs of their denominations ever struck for circulation by the US Mint.

Collectors still praise the radical design of Pratt's gold piece---but they may not know of Roosevelt and Pratt's struggle to get it produced.

Simply as an important work of art, the $2 1/2 dollar Indian coin should be accumulated by serious collectors---but--it's also one of the best buys in today's coin market!

 

 

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