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Commems Collection: 1980-84 American Arts Gold Medallions

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Preface


Back in 2017, I presented on the American Arts Gold Medallions series at several coin clubs in my area, tweaking and refining my presentation with each iteration. The talk always generated questions, as many collectors were not familiar with the series and didn't realize that the US Government had issued gold bullion pieces for collectors/investors prior to the American Gold Eagle bullion coins. I always brought my set to the meeting for show-and-tell, so that those with an interest would have an opportunity for "in hand" inspection.

I thought the topic might be of interest to some here on CCF, so I decided to rework the presentation into a suitable format for an online forum - it took longer than I expected! Whether you're new to the series or not, I hope it answers questions you might have about it. But, if not, please post your question(s) and I will do my best to provide an answer.

One note about the medallion images displayed: I did not have my set available for imaging, so the images presented are courtesy of Heritage Auctions (www.ha.com). I will post my set as soon as I can.

And now...



Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.
Edited by commems
06/19/2022 5:11 pm
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Background and Introduction


The American Arts Gold Medallions program was a series of half-ounce and one-ounce commemorative gold medals struck by the US Mint (at the West Point Bullion Depository before it became an official mint) between 1980 and 1984 inclusive. The medals were intended to provide collectors/investors with a direct way to purchase a US gold bullion product and were meant to compete with popular gold bullion coins such as the South African Krugerrand and Canadian Maple Leaf.

The medals were authorized by the American Arts Gold Medallion Act which became Public Law 95-630 in November 1978; the gold medals were authorized via a Title within the Financial Institutions Regulatory and Interest Rate Control Act rather than via a standalone bill/Act. The concept of striking gold medallions in a one-ounce size began with Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) who took issue with the US Government's plan to sell excess inventory of gold from its Strategic Stockpile via 400-ounce bars. Helms believed, rightly so, that this would greatly limit the number of individual Americans who could afford to purchase the US' gold (he did not want to see purchases limited to large institutions and foreign governments). Helms introduced a bill calling for gold medallions in April 1978.

Multiple bills were introduced in the Senate and House following Helms' initial bill, they were referred to the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs in each chamber. None of the bills were reported out. Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) introduced his first bill in July 1978, Unlike the bills introduced by others, Leach's bill specified one-ounce and half-ounce gold medallions that would commemorate American Artists. The Leach bill included the names of the artists to be celebrated (see below).

Representative Jim Leach

(Image Credit: US Government Printing Office. Public Domain.)

While considering the House-initiated Financial Institutions Regulatory and Interest Rate Control bill, the Senate added a section that authorized gold medals based on Senator Helms' original bill (i.e., not in commemoration of American Artists). When it considered the version of the bill passed by the Senate, the House took the opportunity that resulted from the Senate's willingness to approve gold medallion legislation by amending the bill to feature Leach's American Arts Gold Medallion program vs. the Senate's (Helms') medallion proposal. The Senate concurred with the House's changes and President Jimmy Carter signed the overall bill into law on November 10, 1978. The American Arts Gold Medallions program was created!



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Artists, Sales and Mintage Figures


The Public Law for the program called for a minimum of five hundred thousand ounces of gold to be struck in Year 1 (1980) into one-ounce medallions featuring a portrait of painter Grant Wood and at least another five hundred thousand ounces to be used to produce half-ounce medallions featuring singer Marian Anderson. The Mint struck the specified medals, producing 500,000 Grant Wood medallions and 1,000,000 Marian Anderson pieces.

Unfortunately, sales did not meet expectations and hundreds of thousands of each of the medals were eventually melted. Consumer sales never did meet initial expectations, and the Mint learned that the pubic prefers coins to medals. In 1986, the Mint launched the Gold American Eagle bullion coin program - a runaway success from the start!

Two medals were released each year - the aforementioned one-ounce piece and half-ounce piece. Different designs were used each year, with each medal featuring a portrait of a famous American artist on its obverse and an illustration of his/her craft on the reverse. Following is a summary of the medals, with mintage statistics from the US Mint:


                                                 Initial        Net Mintage/
Date           Artist            Weight          Mintage           Sales          Melted

1980 Grant Wood 1 Ounce 500,000 312,709 187,291 1980 Marian Anderson 1/2 Ounce 1,000,000 281,624 718,376 1981 Mark Twain 1 Ounce 141,000 116,371 24,269 1981 Willa Cather 1/2 Ounce 200,000 97,331 102,669 1982 Louis Armstrong 1 Ounce 420,000 409,098 10,902 1982 Frank Lloyd Wright 1/2 Ounce 360,000 348,395 11,695 1983 Robert Frost 1 Ounce 500,000 390,669 109,331 1983 Alexander Calder 1/2 Ounce 410,000 75,571 335,429 1984 Helen Hayes 1 Ounce 35.000 33,546 1,454 1984 John Steinbeck 1/2 Ounce 35,000 32,572 2,428


It's important to realize that the above statistics come from the US Mint and do not include melting figures for medallions sent to smelters by the marketplace. For years, the series carried a reputation for being unpopular, and many pieces were sent to be melted by dealers as a result. All of the "Net Mintage" figures presented above are, therefore, over-estimates of the surviving population.



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Ordering Process


A weakness of the program was its cumbersome initial ordering process - in 1980 and 1981, obtaining one of the American Arts Medallions was not as simple as heading over to a local coin store and making a purchase.

In these years, customers needed to call a dedicated telephone number to get that day's gold price (based on the previous day's closing price in London). For an order to be valid/accepted at the quoted price, a customer had to go to the Post Office for a postmarked Order Form and envelope, pay for the desired medallions via USPS Money Order, Cashier's Check or Certified Check and mail the order the same day (so that it received that day's postmark cancellation). To say the least, the multi-step process hindered overall sales, though some customers were able to manipulate the process somewhat by placing orders on days when the price of gold rose and the medals could be purchased at below then-current market prices based on the previous day's closing price. (Note: A premium over gold's spot price was added to the purchase price of each medal to cover costs of production, marketing and distribution.)

In 1982, J. Aron & Company was hired by the Mint to handle the sale and distribution of the medallions. Under the contract, Aron purchased the medallions from the Mint and acted as their distributor, selling them to resellers/dealers who would then sell them to the public. Though far simpler than the initial ordering process, sales (to the public) continued to fall short of expectations; Aron's contract required it to purchase large numbers of the medallions in 1982 and 1983, but it was unable to sell most of them, and many were melted.

Aron's contract was cancelled early by the Mint in June 1984, and the Mint then launched a direct-to-consumer telemarketing program to sell the medallions, but this did not yield strong sales. In 1985, the US Mint attempted to sell out its remaining inventory by selling five-medal sets (either the one-ounce medals or the half-ounce medals) in a custom, brown velour, clam shell case with a white outer sleeve. Only five-piece sets were available; no individual medals were marketed. Per a Mint Press Release of the time, "The Mint has approximately 4,400 one ounce sets and 5,300 half ounce sets available." The price of each medal was determined at the time the telephone order was placed with the Mint (no repeat of the price manipulation seen in 1980/81); as described above, a premium was added to each medal to cover costs beyond the precious metal.



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American Arts Medallions of 1980 & 1981


Other issues faced by the first releases of the series included the fact that:

They did not specify they were a product of the "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" - such an inscription was not to be found on the medallions
They did not indicate the fineness of their gold or the weight of the piece - forced a buyer to look elsewhere for such information (unlike competing gold coins/products)
Their appearance "screamed" medal rather than coin - no familiar mottoes, no rim treatment, no reeding on edge

Smooth sailing was definitely not ahead!



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1980 Grant Wood - One Ounce


Grant Wood, Self-Portrait

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection,)

Grant Wood (b. February 13, 1891 / d. February 12, 1942) was an American painter born in Anamosa, Iowa. He is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest, particularly the painting American Gothic, an iconic image of the 20th century. He is recognized as being a primary driver behind the launch of the Regionlist Movement, an artistic style that depicted rural and small-town America in a realistic manner in paintings, illustrations, murals, etc.

Obverse Design         Portrait of Grant Wood
Obverse Designer       Frank  Gasparro
Reverse Design         Depiction of Wood's American Gothic painting (1930)
Reverse Designer       Frank  Gasparro
Composition            0.900 fine gold, 0.100 copper
Mintage                500,000
Medallions Sold        312,709
NumisNote	       Another of Grant Wood's paintings is featured on a US coin - the 2004 Iowa 
                       Statehood  quarter.  The quarter's design is adapted from Wood's Arbor Day 
                       painting from 1932.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

(Image Credit: Public Domain; Grant Wood died in 1942, copyright expired 75 years later in US, in 2017.)

1980 Grant Wood - One Ounce Gold Medal




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06/20/2022 10:01 am
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1980 Marian Anderson - Half Ounce


Marian Anderson, Circa 1940

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.)

Marian Anderson (b. February 27, 1897 / d. April 8, 1993) was an American singer (contralto) who began singing in her church's choir when she was just six years old. She would tour Europe in the 1930s, performed an open-air concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (after being refused Constitution Hall (an indoor venue) by the Daughters of the American Revolution); the Lincoln Memorial concert attracted an estimated 75,000 attendees. In 1955, she was the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1961, she performed at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and later received a Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963); the medal was awarded by Lyndon B. Johnson on December 6, 1963 (just two weeks after Kennedy's assassination).

Obverse Design        Portrait of Marian Anderson
Obverse Designer      Frank  Gasparro
Reverse Design        Depiction of cupped hands holding a globe (adapted from the design of the Congressional gold medal presented to Anderson)
Reverse Designer      Frank  Gasparro adapted Matthew Peloso's original design
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.100 copper
Mintage	              1,000,000
Medallions Sold	      281,624
NumisNote	      Marian Anderson was the first African-American to receive 
                      the Congressional Gold Medal;  Frank Gasparro created the 
                      obverse of the medal, Matthew Peloso was responsible for 
                      the reverse design.

Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial Concert, 1939

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.)

1980 Marian Anderson - Half Ounce Gold Medal




Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.
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06/20/2022 10:04 am
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1981 Mark Twain - One Ounce


Mark Twain, Circa 1907

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs. Public Domain.)

Mark Twain (b. 30 November 1835 / d. 21 April 1910) was an American author and humorist. His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He is best remembered for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Obverse Design        Portrait of Mark Twain
Obverse Designer      Matthew Peloso
Reverse Design        Depiction of side wheel riverboat under full steam on the Mississippi River
Reverse Designer      Matthew Peloso
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver - *New Composition*
Mintage               141,000
Medallions Sold	      116,371
NumisNote	      Mark Twain was celebrated via a pair of gold and silver US commemorative 
                      coins in 2016.  The reverse of the gold half eagle, with its paddle wheel 
                      riverboat, calls to mind the reverse of the Twain gold medal though the 
                      coin presents a departing stern wheel model vs. the medal's approaching 
                      sidewheeler

Mark Twain Quote - A Personal Favorite of Mine!


1981 Mark Twain - One Ounce Gold Medal




Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.
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1981 Willa Cather - Half Ounce


Willa Cather, Circa 1912

(Image Credit: Willa Cather Foundation. Public Domain.)

Willa Cather (b. December 7, 1873 / d. April 24, 1947) was an American author and poet whose writing focus was generally on life in the American Great Plains; she lived in Nebraska from the age of nine through her college graduation. After graduating, she moved to Pittsburgh for a decade and then on to New York City where she lived the rest of her life. She is best known for the intimate portraits of her characters and stories of pioneer life in Nebraska. She wrote 12 novels in addition to numerous poems and short stories. One of her most acclaimed novels is My Antonia; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours.

Obverse Design        Portrait of Willa Cather
Obverse Designer      Sherl Winter
Reverse Design        A female farmer plowing her field
Reverse Designer      Sherl Winter
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage               200,000
Medallions Sold	      97,331
NumisNote	      Willa Cather is possibly the least-known of the artists honored in the 
                      American Arts Gold Medallions series, but her body of work makes it
                      hard to argue against her inclusion.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Red Cloud, Nebraska

(Image Credit: Public Domain.)

1981 Willa Cather - Half Ounce Gold Medal




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Mid-Program Changes


With sales not meeting expectations and critical comments being levied against the design features of the medallions, the Mint decided to make a few changes to increase the medallions' appeal and make them more "coin-like" and less "medal-like."

- The change made in 1981 to the metallic composition of the medals that was designed to brighten them up a bit would continue (i.e., 90% Gold, 7% Copper and 3% Silver vs. 90% Gold and 10% Copper)

- Coin-like features were added:
> The plain edges were switched to reeded edges
> Denticles were added along the rim on each side
> "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" was added to the obverse
> The name of the profiled artist was moved to below the obverse portrait (to make room for the "USA" inscription)
> The date was moved to the obverse

- The weight of the medal was added on the reverse



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A Quick Comparison


Which do you think looks more coin-like?

1981 Mark Twain - One Ounce Gold Medal


1982 Louis Armstrong - One Ounce Gold Medal




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1982 Louis Armstrong - One Ounce


Louis Armstrong

(Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain.)

Louis Armstrong (b. August 4, 1901 / d. July 6 1971) was an American musician (known for his trumpet playing) and singer, most closely aligned with jazz.; he also composed songs. His nicknames included "Satchmo" and "Pops" - he was also considered a "Founding Father" of Jazz. He had the distinction of releasing hit records in five decades. It was hard to photograph Armstrong without his trademark broad smile!

Obverse Design        Portrait of Louis Armstrong
Obverse Designer      John  Mercanti
Reverse Design        A trumpet plus music notes on a staff; the inscription "AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ"
Reverse Designer      John  Mercanti
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage               420,000
Medallions Sold	      409,098
NumisNote	      The first of the American Arts medallions to feature the coin-like modifications the Mint
                      incorporated to make their designs more familiar/appealing to the general public.

Louis Armstrong Mural in Lexington, Kentucky

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.)

1982 Louis Armstrong - One Ounce Medal




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1982 Frank Lloyd Wright - Half Ounce


Frank Lloyd Wright

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.)

Frank Lloyd Wright (b. June 8, 1867 / d. April 9, 1959) was an American architect and Interior Designer. He is known for developing the "Prairie School" of architecture which presents a very organic style that is in harmony with nature. During his career, he designed more than 1,000 structures, with 532 being constructed. Many remain iconic to the present - the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City is one of his most famous designs.

Obverse Design        Portrait of Frank LLoyd Wright
Obverse Designer      Edgar J. Steever
Reverse Design        Wright's "Fallingwater" house with surrounding landscape
Reverse Designer      Edgar J. Steever
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage               360,000
Medallions Sold	      348,395
NumisNote	      The first of the half-ounce American Arts medallions to feature the coin-like  
                      modifications the Mint incorporated to make their designs more familiar/ 
                      appealing to the general public.

Frank Lloyd Wright - Fallingwater House in its Natural Setting

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.)

1982 Frank Lloyd Wright - Half Ounce Medal




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1983 Robert Frost - One Ounce


Robert Frost, Circa 1959 (85th Birthday)

(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.)

Robert Frost (b. March 26, 1874 / d. January 29, 1963) was an American poet that was known for his realistic depictions of life in rural America, especially in New England. He was also known for his mastery of American colloquial speech. He published 15 books of poems, won four Pulitzer Prizes and often read/performed his poems in front of live audiences - he read "A Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Obverse Design        Portrait of Robert Frost
Obverse Designer      Phillip E. Fowler
Reverse Design        Excerpt from Frost's "The Road Not Taken" poem
Reverse Designer      Phillip E. Fowler
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage               500,000
Medallions Sold	      390,669
NumisNote	      The Robert Frost medal was the second-best seller of the series, trailing only the Louis Armstrong medal.

1983 Robert Frost - Congressional Gold Medal (Designed/Engraved by Engelhardus von Hebel of US Mint)



1983 Robert Frost - One Ounce Medal




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1983 Alexander Calder - Half Ounce


Alexander Calder, Circa 1947

(Imasge Credit: Alexander Calder 1947 - Photo by Carl Van Vechten., CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Alexander Calder (b. July 22,1898 / d. November 11, 1976) was an American sculptural artist an illustrator, best known for his (often large) mobiles and stabiles (stationary abstract sculptures) and wire sculptures that created three dimensional sculptures based on two dimensional line drawings.

Obverse Design        Portrait of Alexander Calder
Obverse Designer      Michael Iacocca
Reverse Design        Depiction of a Calder Mobile
Reverse Designer      Michael Iacocca
Composition           0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage               410,000
Medallions Sold	      75,571
NumisNote	      With 335,429 medallions melted - approximately 82% - the Calder piece was one of 
                      the least popular medallions of the series.  Contributing factors: 1) Consumer 
                      preference for one-ounce size, 2) Lack of name recognition of Calder, and 3) Rise 
                      in gold price during 1983.

Unnamed Alexander Calder Mobile at National Gallery of Art

(Image Credit: National Gallery of Art. Fair use.)

1983 Alexander Calder - Half Ounce Medal




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1984 Helen Hayes - One Ounce


Helen Hayes, Circa 1940

(Image Credit: Public Domain.)

Helen Hayes (b. October 10, 1900 / d. March 17, 1993) was an American stage and screen actress who enjoyed an 80-year career. Her screen career included silent movies as well as "talkies" and television. Her long and successful career earned her the nickname, "First Lady of the American Theater" a version of which is featured on her medallion's reverse. Ms. Hayes was one of just 16 actors to win a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ms. Hayes the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US' highest civilian honor. She also received National Medal of Arts in 1988.

Obverse Design       Portrait of Helen Hayes
Obverse Designer     John  Mercanti
Reverse Design       Masks of Comedy and Drama, with the "First Lady" inscription below them and a
                     ribbon framing all
Reverse Designer     John  Mercanti
Composition          0.900 fine gold, 0.070 copper, 0.030 silver
Mintage              35,000
Medallions Sold	     33,546
NumisNote	     The medallion had the lowest mintage of one-ounce pieces in the series - an indication 
                     of the market.  On the positive side, with a sales percentage of ~95.8% of mintage, 
                     it trailed only the 1982 Louis Armstrong (97.4%) and 1982 Frank Lloyd Wright (96.8%) 
                     medallions for percentage of mintage sold.


1984 Helen Hayes A Farewell to Arms Movie Poster

(Image Credit: Public Domain.)

1984 Helen Hayes - One Ounce Medal




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Edited by commems
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