Happy Octave Day of the Nativity, and New Year. If 2008 was a bad year- thanks to Creative Minority Report for vindicating my judgment that 2008 wasn't so swell- I expect still less from the newly begun circuit of the sun. 2009: the number itself seems much less self-assured and uncertain than 2008; indeed, 9, while it does multiply prettily (18, 27... 72, 81), always looks prone to toppling in a good breeze. If we get into Roman numerals, whereas last year was MMVIII, a long, strong, vertical number (the Is remind me of a sturdy old fasces), MMIX looks downright clumsy, and I cannot help but think of the Twix slogan from just a few years back: It's all in the MMIX.
Sed contra and numerical ruminations aside, something stupendous is happening in the world of numismatics. In recent years, the US Mint, following the lead of other mints, has exponentially increased the volume of products offered, while simultaneously lessening the importance of each event commemorated, and creating new products for the sole purpose of profit. A good example were last year's commemoratives for the American Bald Eagle (which has already appeared on our coins continuously since America has had its own coins), allegedly struck to commemorate their recovery on- get this- the 35th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. God forbid they go without commemoratives during a year without important anniversaries, so they found an excuse to strike attractive though meaningless coins on an anniversary people don't even celebrate as special in their own lives and marriages. I have never heard of the big 35th. However that, again, was 2008. This year, the Mint is releasing, admittedly two years after the actual 100th anniversary of its original release (1907), America's most beautiful coin: the ultra high relief Augustus Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, or $20 gold piece. Notably, the centennial striking also uses the Roman numeral.
The coins were originally introduced at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, who desired to improve the designs on America's coins; the cent and the gold denominations (in those times, gold $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 coins were struck for circulation) were redesigned first, and the other denominations were redone in the coming decade and a half. Although the themes of the redesigned coins were quite diverse, I find they are characteristically bolder and more energetic than their predecessors. This particular coin, like several of the designs, portrays a confident, striding Liberty, in a style reminiscent of Roman imagery. The ultra high relief design required multiple strikes per coin, and the coins didn't stack well; consequently the relief was lowered once and then again before arriving at the design which proved satisfactory until 1933. On the up side, unlike the original, which (at the President's request) did not feature the words In God We Trust, the re-release features the national motto, which was soon later to the circulation strikes by demand of Congress.
While I cannot hope to acquire one of the above-described masterpieces any time soon, I have always been a fan of depictions of Liberty, not only on American coins, but also from Latin American and French issues. Lately I picked up a Brazilian 1931 2000 reis piece, .500 silver, for only $10. Since I could find few images, the one below is from a different date. A gorgeous coin, it resembles the contemporary Mercury dime, in use in America, in that the obverse depicts an attractive Liberty head, while the reverse features a fasces, a symbol frequently used in coinage before it became associated with fascism. Interestingly, Brazil did have a corporatist government in 1931, but the design had been in use years before the regime change. If one thing is amusing about Latin American coinage, it is the seamless continuation of the same designs through string upon string of coups d'etat.