Elizabeth Monroe. 5th coin in the series. Mintage: 4,462 Burnished; 7,800 Proof.
Designer: Joel Iskowitz (obverse); Donna Weaver (reverse). Sculptor: Don Everhart (obverse); Charles L. Vickers (reverse). Composition: .9999 gold. Actual Gold Weight: 1/2 ounce. Diameter: 26.49 mm. Edge: Reeded. Mint: West Point. Issue Price: $599.95 (Burnished); $619.95 (Proof). Release Date: February 28, 2008.
The first issue of First Spouse coins for 2008—that of Elizabeth Monroe—went on sale February 28, 2008, with a household limit of one coin of each format (Burnished and Proof) for the first week of sales. Starting with this issue, the Mint let customer demand decide the distribution between Burnished and Proof formats, capping the entire production at 40,000 rather than setting a limit of 20,000 of each. Mint salespeople brought the coins to the American Numismatic Association‘s March 7–9 National Money Show in Phoenix, Arizona, as part of a suite of new product offerings.
Joel Iskowitz, the designer of the Elizabeth Monroe coin’s obverse, recalls when it was first unveiled in November 2007:
My most remarkable memory from designing the Elizabeth Monroe and Dolley Madison First Spouse gold coins has its impressive setting in the East Room of the White House. At the time, Ed Moy was serving as the director of the U.S. Mint. Having been a prominent staffer during the George W. Bush presidency, he managed to arrange for the debut of the First Spouse gold coin series in this most prestigious of contexts. Selected designs were placed upon easels at the proscenium of the East Room. Just being among the invited guests as one of the designers was an indelible memory in and of itself. Seeing my design displayed in this setting will always fill me with a combination of humility and pride.
Among the guests were Chief Engraver John M. Mercanti; the Mint’s lead sculptor, Don Everhart; and Iskowitz, a member of the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program. Dignitaries included Congressman Mike Castle of Delaware, who had sponsored much of the Mint’s important modern numismatic legislation, and distinguished guests in the fields of art, history, and government.
“The two guests of honor,” remembers Iskowitz, “were Dolley Madison, personified perfectly by a wonderful reenactor [Lucinda Frailly], and First Lady Laura Bush, who proved to be a most gracious hostess.”
The subject of the first gold coin of 2008, First Lady Elizabeth Monroe, was influential in refurbishing the executive mansion after its main building was burned in the War of 1812. This significance is memorialized in her coin’s reverse design. Artistic Infusion Program Assistant Designer Donna Weaver showed Monroe at an 1818 reception for the reopening of the mansion. By that time, it was informally known as the “White House” (because its smoke-damaged exteriors were painted white during its restoration).
Weaver’s design, sculpted by Mint engraver Charles Vickers, is a beautifully crafted mixture of ornamental details and finely wrought portraiture. The First Lady wears furs, pearls, formal gloves, and an ostrich-plumed headdress in front of a richly carved mirror frame and vase. In the Proof version, the mirror is cleverly given a polished reflective finish, with the surrounding architecture in matte.
On the obverse, Joel Iskowitz’s portrait of Monroe, sculpted by Don Everhart, shows the First Lady as an attractive and stylishly dressed socialite, very much the daughter of a wealthy New York City family and wife of a famous American statesman. The artist based this portrait on a painting by neoclassicist John Vanderlyn.
Giving a glimpse into the artistic process, Iskowitz recently reminisced with me about his preparatory research for a reverse design proposal for the Elizabeth Monroe coin. (As noted above, Donna Weaver’s design would ultimately be chosen for minting.) “I was trying to draw the connection between France and Mrs. Monroe, who the French affectionately called ‘La Belle Américaine,’ because she had rescued Madame de Lafayette from the guillotine.” Iskowitz wanted to feature the famous Blue Room armchairs and the large, gilded bronze Monroe Plateau, a centerpiece of the White House dining room. “I found getting good images for the Monroe extremely frustrating,” he said, “as none of the picture references showed the elaborate detail very clearly. Of course, this was an artifact I wanted to describe accurately.”
After the November 2007 East Room unveiling ceremony that included the Elizabeth Monroe gold coin, Iskowitz recalled, “First Lady Laura Bush invited all the guests to partake of refreshments in the dining room. It was there and then that I noticed, amongst the lavish spread, the tiniest croissants I had ever seen, set upon the high tiers of—yes—the actual Monroe Plateau! There was my reference staring at me in perfect vivid three-dimensional detail!”
A few months later, with the February 2008 release of the freshly minted Elizabeth Monroe coins, it was evident that demand for the First Spouse program was softening. The Mint removed its household ordering limits in an effort to spur sales. The April 15 issue of Numismatic News, which hit newsstands in early April, listed purchases as 3,632 Burnished and 6,180 Proof. By the time the Mint closed sales for the Elizabeth Monroe issue in early 2009, the mintage stood at 4,462 Burnished and 7,800 Proof—less than half that of the immediately preceding Dolley Madison. Of course, in the market for ultra-modern coins, low sales today can translate into high prices tomorrow; the Elizabeth Monroe was the first of the First Spouse coins to break away from the family and, over time, enjoy markedly higher and stable premiums in “raw” form (ungraded, in original Mint packaging).
Joel Iskowitz’s search for reference materials as he worked on the Elizabeth Monroe designs highlights the historic weight of these special coins. Recalling his encounter with the Monroe Plateau, he said, “It occurred to me that I had come face to face with not only my illusive reference material, but also with an artifact of history itself. That was the tastiest little croissant I have ever enjoyed!”
Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, LLC, a Fellow of the Academy of Political Science, and a Life Member of the American Numismatic Association. His column “Behind the Scenes: First Spouse Gold Coins” covers the United States Mint gold coin program that honors America’s presidential spouses. Whitman is the Official Supplier of the congressionally chartered American Numismatic Association. The firm produces many standard references relating to the art and science of numismatics (the study of coins and related objects). Numismatics is a field that touches on American financial and banking history, economics, artistry and design, technology, mining and metallurgy, political history, society, and culture. Other columns by Tucker include “Notes Published” (about books and publishing in general, with a special emphasis on antiques and collectibles) and “From the Colonel’s Desk” (about the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s position within American numismatics).