Last week I quoted a newspaper article discussing a model for James Earle Fraser's Indian Head nickel to be displayed in New Jersey. Here's some more background information from some of our readers. -Editor
David Gladfelter writes:
The story of James Earle Fraser’s designs and models for the Indian head nickel is told, illustrated and documented in great detail by Roger Burdette in Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915, chapters 7 through 11. In 1980 Joseph Lepczyk of East Lansing, MI. sold at auction a collection consigned by a dealer of 30 plaster models by Fraser and his wife Laura Gardin Fraser (Lepczyk 36:461-490), of which five were incuse obverse models of the nickel (## 464-468), two were incuse reverse nickel models (## 469-470) and one was a relief reverse nickel model (#471).
These were large-scale models ranging in diameter from 4.75 to 6 inches. All but two of the 30 lots were illustrated in the catalog. At the ANA convention in 1981, Bowers & Ruddy Galleries auctioned eight additional models by the Frasers, none of which were provenanced to the Lepczyk sale (B&R 53:2419-2426).
Of these, three (## 2419, 2420 and 2421) were uniface relief actual-size so-called “electro-trials” of the second obverse trial design (Lepczyk #465) and one (#2422) was a uniface relief actual-size trial of the adopted reverse design. The actual-size trials were formerly listed by J. Hewitt Judd et al, United States Pattern Coins, 7th ed. (1982), appendix “A” p. 249, but were dropped from later editions because they were electrotypes, not struck from dies, see 9th ed. (2005), p.313, fn. 24.
Author Roger Burdette forwarded the following discussion. Below is an image borrowed from Roger's book (p229). These are a group of Fraser's 1911 preliminary drawings for the reverse of the nickel from the Fraser Studio Collection at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum on Oklahoma City. Unique artwork such as these drawings are a wonder to behold. I love the simplicity and balance of the center sketch. -Editor
As noted in Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915, “…[Fraser] went a step beyond what other artists might have done. “I am having some electro-plates made of the small sketches and I will send them to you when they are completed.” He took the wax or plaster sketches to Medallic Art Company, and had Henri and Felix Weil make coin-sized reductions and electrotypes. This pushed the design from an artist’s concept – something any artist could do – to a practical metal replica that Andrew and MacVeagh could touch, admire and imagine as a real circulating coin.
By stimulating the imagination and self-image of these key treasury officials, Fraser put himself above a mere competition. Secretary MacVeagh was so completely captivated by the little metal tokens that within a few months of meeting Fraser he wrote, “…it has been decided to have you present your ideas in the form of models of the same size as the legal coin.” This was not only a complete turn-around from Andrew’s earlier comments, but indicates that MacVeagh accepted the electrotype tokens as substitutes for drawings, sketches, large models and pattern coins. More than anything else, Fraser’s bison, Indian and Lincoln tokens had succeeded in removing not only possible competing individuals, but had abolished the idea of holding any type of competition. To keep the project moving forward Fraser offered his own enthusiasm:
Although I realize that no definite commission has been given me in regard to the designs for the new coins, I have become so much interested in the sketches that I have pushed them a little farther and now they are in the shape of electrotypes which I should like to submit for your consideration.
Free of competitors, Fraser could work unhindered with director Roberts and secretary MacVeagh on the concepts and subject.”
As Dick Johnson noted, although Fraser commonly sculpted in clay, his medallic work was transferred to plaster which was more durable for final modeling. The New Jersey article is unclear on many points, particularly the size of the mold or model. Fraser’s sketch models, from which Henri Weil made electrotypes (called “electroshells” or “electro-plates” by Fraser) were approximately 3-inches in diameter and most of the electrotypes were approximately 20mm in diameter to mimic a standard nickel.
A model suitable for reduction to coinage was generally about 5-inches diameter. Medallic Art made the first reductions and Buffalo nickel hubs in Dec 1912, They also made a second set in January from new models. After that, the final reductions were done at the Philadelphia Mint using MACO’s quality as a guide.
There are at least a dozen known plaster sketch models of the obverse of the Buffalo nickel plus several electrotype versions. Most of these were little more than studio trash to Fraser. A more extensive version of the origin of these interesting pieces begins on page 227 of Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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