How often do you read a numismatic book outside of the fields you actively collect?
Some hobbyists stick to their favorite subjects—if they collect Morgan dollars, they read books about Morgan dollars, and don’t stray very far into Buffalo nickels, commemoratives, world coins, or medals and tokens.
Many other hobbyists are like numismatic sponges, happy to absorb as much knowledge as they can from all directions. We see this at Whitman Publishing all the time. Some collectors have favorite authors and would buy a Ken Bressett book whether it’s about U.S. paper currency, English coins, or money used in Biblical times. Some are completists—for example, once they start collecting the volumes in the Bowers Series (two dozen and counting) or the “100 Greatest” lineup, they have to fill the holes in their bookshelf just as they would in a Whitman blue folder of Wheat cents. Many others simply love the history, the artistry, the drama, and all the other factors that make coins so interesting. A book on counterstamped large cents or on Mexican silver pesos fires their imagination even if they’ve never bought one or even seen one in person.
Speaking from my own experience as an author, I’m pleased that collectors of modern coins and medals enjoy my book American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date. But it’s especially gratifying to hear people say they’d never had any interest in such-and-such a series—or maybe hadn’t even heard of it—but now, thanks to my book, they’re starting a new collection. (One of the pleasant “dangers” of the coin bug is that it mutates into new forms if you give it half a chance!)
There’s a book about Indian Head gold coins that deserves a place on your shelf even if you don’t actively collect early-1900s quarter eagles and half eagles. (And if you do, or you’re thinking about it, then you definitely need this book.) Allan Schein’s The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt is a volume for everyone who loves American history and art.
In this 416-page book, numismatist Schein has crafted a compelling narrative and wrapped it in a blanket of rich historical imagery and excellent coin photography. The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt can be read as a history book or as a coin-collecting guide, or as both. It breaks new ground in each presentation.
On the historical side, Schein casts new light on Bela Lyon Pratt, who, like many talented American artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s, worked in the shadow of the influential and more famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the greatest sculptor of the “American Renaissance.” One of Schein’s goals with this book is to elevate Pratt to his deserved recognition as an immensely talented, innovative, and creative artist. He accomplishes this with a colorful biography that begins with a remembrance by Pratt’s granddaughter and family historian, Cynthia Kennedy Sam, who gave Schein access to her treasure trove of archives including hundreds of the artist’s personal letters to friends, family, and business associates. The biography is illustrated with crisp, detailed historical photographs, many of them set at full-page size, offering a gallery of Pratt’s sculptural work, sketches, and other content. Schein tells of Pratt’s childhood in Connecticut, his early gift for art (making beeswax sculptures at the age of five, then quickly moving to clay and wood), and his formal education as an artist, including at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Fortunately for readers today, Pratt was a prolific correspondent, sending letters every week to his mother back in Kansas City. From these primary sources, we hear in the artist’s own words about his old teacher from the Art Students League of New York, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who encouraged Pratt in 1892 to return from Europe to the United States, where opportunities awaited him. The story of Pratt’s work on sculptures for the huge World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and other commissions is a fascinating immersion in the American art world of the 1890s and early 1900s. Saint-Gaudens, William Frederick MacMonnies, Hermon MacNeil, Francis Davis Millet, and other well-known American artists—Pratt’s colleagues and friends—figure prominently in his frequent letters home. We also learn of his personal life, meeting the young lady whom he later marries, and the births and growth of their children. We see Pratt grow from a struggling young student to a respected and influential artist in his own right.
Pratt’s correspondence reveals his character. In a January 1898 letter to his mother, he tells about a poor sculptor he’s befriended: “When I came across him he was almost penniless and had no place to work. So I offered to let him have the little studio back of my big one, which we were not using at all. . . . His work is very true, spirited and good. . . . He is quite a model young man and has no bad habits, neither drinks, smokes, swears, or anything, but he has seen hard times. In Cincinnati, he lived on 25 cents a day for eight months. . . . We had him come to dinner Saturday night and he ate so much that he had a headache. He never gets a meal for himself that costs more than a few cents.” The starving young artist was Gutzon Borglum, who thirty years later would design and oversee the creation of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In 1902 we get insight into Pratt’s honesty and integrity in the competitive art world. He writes to his mother: “Yesterday the Art Commission wanted me to give my opinion on a sketch for a statue that is to be placed somewhere in the city [Boston]. I knew that they were not pleased with it and that if they refused it the work would most likely be given to me. The sketch was by Paul Bartlett and it was good and I had to tell them so! $17,000 out! O my! If only it had been just good, but it was real good!”
Schein weaves the story of Pratt’s life with richness and detail and humanity, exploring his work habits (he once had a tailor reproduce the cloak of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop from old paintings, “so he could recreate every fold of the garment with perfect accuracy”), his personal life (in particular his love of the outdoors, music, farming, and family), and his growing confidence as an artist. Schein makes good use of his access to Pratt’s letters, which can be surprisingly frank. In one letter from 1906, the sculptor criticized the work of his contemporaries, including Daniel Chester French and even the venerable Saint-Gaudens (“at his best, there are none better, but he is sick and old and I don’t think his work interests him as it used to”). Pratt softened his critique: “Remember that I don’t talk this way to anybody but my Mamma and then only at times.”
In August 1907 Saint-Gaudens would finally succumb to the very same cancer that had weakened him. Later that year, Pratt would write to his mother about the teacher he had idolized and learned so much from: “I don’t feel like being humble before any American sculptor now that St. Gaudens is gone.” The old master had died before finishing a series of new U.S. gold coins commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt, who wanted the United States, the greatest nation in the world, to have beautiful and powerful coinage on par with that of the ancient Greek and Roman empires. Before he died Saint-Gaudens revitalized the designs of the $10 and $20 gold coins with boldness and innovation, but the $2.50 and $5 coins remained in the old and tired “Liberty Head” style used since the 1840s. In January 1908 Pratt was invited to create new designs for these remaining gold denominations. “Dr. Sturgis Bigelow, who is a friend of President Roosevelt’s and has an idea about some new coins for the U.S., has asked me to help him carry it out,” he wrote to his mother. “Wouldn’t it be great to be paid with my own money? Dr. Bigelow says he will pay all expenses. I think this means a trip to Washington and possibly an interview with the great Teddy. The Doctor thinks that the designs are sure to receive full consideration, as he is a warm friend of the President.” For his designs, Pratt used a style never attempted in U.S. coinage, that of sunken relief. The sculpted details (of the Indian on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse) are sunk into the coin—the designs are sculpted in relief, but the relief never rises above the coin’s flat surface. Schein’s account of the coins’ development, production, and distribution is very informative, with further insight provided by the artist’s own words.
Bela Lyon Pratt’s gold coins were a popular success. Minted from 1908 to 1929, they were neither the end nor the high point of his work as an artist. He continued to create statues and monumental sculptures, and his studio expanded. In June 1913 Pratt wrote to his mother after being elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—a huge honor that he took in stride. “I was made a member . . . last week. . . . I am in so many of that sort of a thing that I’ve almost lost count.” Later that year he seemed more proud of his Massachusetts farm’s potatoes (“even better than we hoped”) and his new piglets (“six of the finest little black pigs you or anybody ever saw”)! Plenty of commissions, honors and accolades, and a happy home life were Pratt’s in the years following his innovation in U.S. coinage. (Text continues below images.)
Since reading this book I’ve used the life story of Bela Lyon Pratt as an encouraging lesson for young artist friends who have moments of self-doubt. In the early 1890s, Pratt was striving to build his reputation as a sculptor and to earn the praise of his teachers, including the legendary Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He was working so hard in December 1892 that he forgot his own 25th birthday until he was writing letters home. He shared his worries with his mother: “At least a third of my life is gone.” He admitted to feeling old and tired. We can hear his disappointment in his current state and his anxiety about the future: “I hope to be able to give a better account of the next 25 years if they should be granted me.” In reality, at age 25 Pratt’s life was not just a third gone—it was more than half over. He would die of heart disease in 1917, a few months before his 50th birthday. The moral is twofold: “Don’t lose faith in your own abilities” (Pratt emerged from his self-doubt to build a remarkably successful career) and also “Get to work!” (he succeeded not only through his artistic gifts but also through dogged perseverance and constant labor).
In another angle to his historical narrative, Schein tackles the ever-popular question, “Where do coin designers get their portrait models?” This is a topic of perennial interest to collectors. Was the Indian on the Buffalo nickel a composite, or an individual? Was the “buffalo” modeled after Black Diamond, an American bison from the Central Park Zoo? Did James Longacre put his daughter on the Indian Head cent, and Anthony de Francisci his wife on the Peace dollar? Is a schoolteacher on the Morgan dollar and an actress on the Mercury dime? Opinions often take the place of facts in cases where the designers didn’t specifically name their models, or if their own accounts changed or were confused over the years. Factual errors, once put into print, have a habit of being picked up and repeated by later researchers and writers. For the identity of the Native American on the Indian Head gold coins, Schein pored through Pratt family photographs, read the artist’s hundreds of letters, and examined receipts and other primary sources to piece together the identity. This allowed him to dispel generations of erroneous information repeated from one numismatic article or book to another. (Some of the errors quoted in Schein’s book are a hoot—for example, the 1917 New International Encyclopedia misidentified a Blackfoot named Thundercloud as the model for the Indian Head gold coins, and Victor David Brenner as their designer!) Schein explores the misattributions of Thundercloud, Chief Red Cloud, and others, along with other theories (including the idea that the model is unknown), and lays out the case for the coins’ model being Hollow Horn Bear of the Brulé Lakota people. His case is supported by research in the Rochester, New York, Historical Archives, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Cowboy Museum, the Library of Congress, and many other collections and archives, not to mention Bela Lyon Pratt’s own correspondence. Schein reviewed hundreds of photographs and prepared transparent overlays in Photoshop to compare portraits. He argues quite convincingly that Hollow Horn Bear was “verifiably the primary image portrayed in the design on Pratt’s gold Indian coins”—and therefore the first identifiable individual on a regular-issue U.S. coin.
On the coin-collecting side, The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt includes a catalog that starts with a detailed comparison of the designs used on the quarter eagle and the half eagle. Some numismatic resources have described the two coins as “identical”; Schein shows high-resolution enlargements to illustrate numerous small differences in their details. He also shows a side-by-side comparison of Pratt’s original galvano and a well-struck half eagle, to show the numerous tiny changes made by the Mint’s chief engraver, Charles Barber, to prepare for the coins’ production. Barber did this without consulting or informing Pratt, and the artist was incensed. In an October 1908 letter to his mother, he described Barber as a “butcher or blacksmith” and said the Mint had “made a mess of it.” Barber “changed it from a thing that I was proud of to one which I am ashamed”—although he noted, “Still it is the best coin the U.S. has ever had.” Even with Barber’s changes (likely made with the goal of improving coinability), Pratt’s designs are a marvel. As the Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) says, “Today Pratt’s design is recognized as part of the early 20th-century renaissance of American coinage.”
Further serving the coin-collecting reader, Schein includes in his book a chapter on grading Pratt’s gold coins, with a discussion of professional third-party grading and factors such as CAC qualification. This is more than just a list of grading standards; Schein includes engaging personal stories and anecdotes about the history of gold coin production and distribution. He delves into “original skin” and “dirt” on gold coins, numismatic conservation (as opposed to “coin doctoring”), surface texture, strike quality, and other aspects of grading and collecting. Pratt’s sunken-relief style gives these coins special requirements for grading, and Schein addresses these intricacies in great detail and with engaging prose. His narrative reads as if you’re sitting down with a very knowledgeable coin-collector friend, regaled by years of firsthand observation, study, and experience.
In his coin-by-coin catalog, Schein compiles data including survival estimates, relative rarity rankings (by series and by grade), condition-census information, finest known examples, price-range charts, and auction records. He describes die varieties and other anomalies, typical color, strike, and surface and eye appeal, and other characteristics specific to each date and mintmark (circulation strikes as well as Proofs). His observations are from his own study of these coins, as well as research by David Akers, Ron Guth, Jeff Garrett, Mike Fuljenz, Doug Winters, Roger W. Burdette, Bill Fivaz, and other numismatists. This chapter is heavily illustrated with enlargements, close-ups, and comparison photographs.
The chapter on counterfeit gold Indians is worth the price of admission by itself. The Indian Head quarter eagle is recognized as the single most counterfeited series of U.S. gold coins, accounting for some 40 percent of all fake gold pieces submitted to PCGS for authentication. The Indian Head half eagle is also among the most frequently counterfeited gold coins. Schein discusses the situation in detail, covering cast fakes, digitally manufactured dies, electrotypes, transfer dies, spark erosions, one-to-one copies, and fraudulent alterations such as “sandwiched” counterfeits and added or converted mintmarks and dates. Weight, specific gravity, key anomalies to look out for, and side-by-side comparisons of counterfeit and authentic coins provide valuable education for the serious collector.
The book is nicely rounded out by an illustrated appendix showcasing some of Bela Lyon Pratt’s most popular medallic designs, including the Shattuck Daughters medallion, the Yale Bicentennial medal, the whimsical Tavern Club medal, and others.
As a publisher, I always like to see books that successfully bridge the gap between “mainstream” American history and numismatics. Allan Schein has artfully made that connection with The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt. His book deserves a place on your shelf whether you actively collect these fascinating coins or are simply interested in the wondrous world that’s wrapped up in American numismatics.