COIN World published a nice article by Paul Gilkes in the December 28, 2009 issue about a first century marble bust sold December 10th by Sotheby's.
It was owned by Stack's, and is believed to be the model for Charles Barber's Liberty Head nickel obverse. Here's some text from the Sotheby's catalog.
PROPERTY FROM THE STACK FAMILY COLLECTION
A MONUMENTAL MARBLE HEAD OF A GODDESS, ROMAN IMPERIAL, CIRCA 1 ST CENTURY A.D.
probably Aphrodite, Hera, or an Empress in the guise of a goddess, her centrally parted wavy hair bound in a laurel wreath and surmounted by a
stephane decorated in relief with alternating rosettes and lotus buds, the bust and back of the head restored in marble.
Height with bust 19 1/2 in.
ESTIMATE 20,000 - 30,000 USD
Although Theodore Roosevelt is famous for having railed against the "atrocious hideousness" of
United States coin designs, and commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create
coinage "worthy of the ancients," in fact United States coin designers had long relied on antique
prototypes. The specific sources for virtually all these earlier efforts, however, have been lost.
In 1881, Charles E. Barber, the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, began to design a
series of pattern coins for subsidiary coinage, one cent to five cents; all bore the same classically
inspired head of Liberty. The design for the five cent denomination was refined over the next year,
and was finally adopted for circulation in 1883. It became known as the "Liberty head nickel" or
"Barber nickel" after its designer. Millions were struck for circulation through 1912.
The inspiration for Barber's head of Liberty appears to have been derived from the present bust.
Cornelius Vermeule in Numismatic Art in America (1971) noted the increased reliance on Roman
cult-statues for inspiration by engravers since 1849. He further observed that Barber's "diademed
and wreathed head of Liberty on the obverse was modeled almost verbatim from a Greco-Roman
head of Juno or a major personification...." and that "the very head said to have been used as the
model for this nickel...is the centerpiece in the entrance salon of the premises of Messrs. Stack...."
Vermeule continued that the head, "a Greco-Roman restyling of a Greek head of the fourth
century B.C." had been on display at the Philadelphia Academy of Art from the Civil War until the
First World War, and that is was here that Barber, along with other Mint artists found their
inspiration and "turned its full, grave if not heavy profile into designs for the coinage."
later passed through a number of private collections, and was at one time in the possession of the
renowned Philadelphia coin dealers S.H. and H. Chapman whose partnership lasted from 1878 to
1906. Henry Chapman, the younger of the two brothers was well-acquainted with Barber.
Chapman died in 1935, and the head is believed to have come into the Stack family's possession
Although Barber took ample license in his rendering, a comparison of Barber's nickel with the
head's profile faithfully replicates the divinity's slightly curving nose (from restoration). Vermeule
summed up their relationship as "what some modern critics would consider a dull, academic
standard of classical divinity in visual form became a keystone in the redesigned denominations
of American coinage."
To read the complete sale catalog, see:
Egyptian, Classical, and Western Asiatic Antiquities
New York , Thu, 10 Dec 09, 2:00 PM, N08603
The image in the COIN World article faces LEFT, as does barber's coin. I've replicated the juxtaposition above. The image of the bust in the Sotheby's catalog faces RIGHT (shown here). I simply created a mirror image of the Sotheby photo on the assumption that the bust is symmetrical.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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