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The E-Sylum: Volume 21, Number 4, January 27, 2019, Article 16

VAN RYZIN ON SELMA BURKE AND JOHN SINNOCK

Bob Van Ryzin is one of the numismatic field's experts on last week's topic of the design of the Roosevelt dime. He offers these observations based on the recent articles and his earlier experience. Thank you! -Editor

Roosevelt Dime In 1993, I took some time away from the American Numismatic Association convention in Baltimore and drove to Dr. Selma Burke's home/studio in New Hope, Pa. to interview her on the topic of her claim that her design was used on the Roosevelt dime.

My article, from which the below is adapted, ran in the Nov. 30, 1993 issue of Numismatic News as "Who Really Designed the Roosevelt Dime?" Much of what appeared in the Atlas Obscura article, "Who Really Designed the American Dime?," referenced in The E-Sylum January 21, 2006 matches with what Burke told me as to the design competition she won; her drawing Roosevelt from life; her problems with getting him to pose; and Eleanor Roosevelt's later visit and comments about Burke's work making FDR look too young.

There is a little bit more to Burke's claim, not contained there, but expressed to me during the interview. I was also able to take a b+w photo of her original drawing, which was done on brown butcher paper she had obtained from an A&P grocery store and took with her to her sittings with the president. (Burke was in her 90s when I talked to her, but was still very sharp.)

She said It wasn't just the similarity between the image on the dime and her work that led her to believe she hadn't been properly credited. She told me she received a phone call late one evening (in 1945, during the time the design was being prepared at the Mint) from a Ruth Wilson, at the Recorder of Deeds office, where Burke's plaque was to be displayed.

Burke related of this call:

"The reason why I knew that Mr. Sinnock had gotten it [her Roosevelt sketch] from there [the Recorder of Deeds office] was that Ruth Wilson had called me in the middle of the night, in New York, to tell me that this man, Sinnock, and Marshall Shepard [Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia] were making a deal that he had taken the drawing to the Mint. Ruth Wilson said, 'You'd better come to Washington because Marshall Shepard and Sinnock are doing a thing on you.'"

Burke said she was acquainted with Wilson as she and Wilson were godparents to the daughter of a Mary Wilson.

"She [Ruth Wilson] felt very close and she had to let me know what was going on. I was sleeping, and I said, 'I am not going to Washington. I won this thing [the contest for Recorder of Deeds office plaque of Roosevelt]' No, I just took a stand."

As in the Atlas Obscura article, Burke claimed to me that her subsequent attempt to gain credit for the design led to her being investigated by the feds, namely J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

I talked to Burke one additional time, by telephone, shortly before her death in 1995, and later was invited to speak at an exhibit of her works in Austin, Texas. I found her to be a very gracious lady, and am convinced she truly believed until her death that she designed the dime.

I do think, but have no proof of it, that there was some truth behind her story of the late night phone call, which helped bring her to her conviction. Perhaps, if it occurred, it wasn't even Sinnock who requested to see the design, and even it was, it doesn't mean the dime's image was lifted from her work.

Whether she deserves credit for the dime or not (and there are additional arguments for not presented in the Atlas Obscura article by Christina Ayele Djossa and here by Dick Johnson), there can be no doubt Dr. Selma Burke's place in history as one of the nation's leading sculptors is forever secured.

Agreed. Burke's work is excellent. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I remember the Selma Burke Art Center there, which was near where I went to high school. I wasn't aware of the Roosevelt dime controversy at that time. -Editor

Bob adds:

"The Marshall Shepard she mentioned was Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia at the time of her plaque's unveiling, in 1945. He appears in an Associated Press photo with the plaque along with Burke and President Truman."

Susie Nulty writes:

I enjoyed reading the latest edition of The E-Sylum and was especially interested in the "Burke vs. Sinnock: Who Designed the Dime?" article. You may be interested in a site we host gratis titled, "Richard's Roosevelt Review" put together many years ago (1997) by Richard Bateson. It is full of numismatic details and covers the design issue your article examines on the "Roosevelt Dime" page just after the "Introduction."

To visit Richard's Roosevelt Review, see: http://www.richardsrooseveltreview.net

Another expert with deep knowledge of the events is researcher Roger Burdette, who took part in a discussion of the topic on the NGC discussion board in 2014. Read the full discussion online for more. Here are two comparative illustrations and Roger's conclusion. -Editor

Roosevelt Dime model vs Burke bas-relief
Sinnock's Model and Burke's Plaque

FDR Medal vs Roosevelt Dime composite image
Sinnock's Roosevelt Third Inauguration Medal

Roger Burdette wrote:

As you note, Ms. Burke had nothing to do with the FDR dime.

The final portrait was the outcome of two meetings between Sinnock and sculptor Lee Lawrie, who had been “deputized” by the Commission of Fine Arts to review the dime designs.

To read the complete discussion, see: The Selma Burke Controversy Lives on Long After the 1940s (https://www.ngccoin.com/boards/topic/348290-the-selma-burke-controversy-lives-on-long-after-the-1940s/)

To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
VAN RYZIN ON SELMA BURKE AND THE ROOSEVELT DIME DESIGN (http://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v09n07a05.html)
BURKE VS. SINNOCK: WHO DESIGNED THE DIME? (http://www.coinbooks.org/v21/esylum_v21n03a13.html)

THE BOOK BAZARRE

RENAISSANCE OF AMERICAN COINAGE: Wizard Coin Supply is the official distributor for Roger Burdette's three volume series that won NLG Book of the Year awards for 2006, 2007 and 2008. Contact us for dealer or distributor pricing at www.WizardCoinSupply.com .


Wayne Homren, Editor

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