Monday, August 24, 2009

Coin Monday: "And now, a word from our designer…”

Aug. 24, 2009
Posted by John Dale

In the history of coinage, few designs have been as enduring as the portrait of Lincoln on the obverse of the cent.

While it has gone through a series of minor changes — no coin image could hope to last a century without details getting flattened out, touched up, strengthened, worn away, and so on — the essence of the Lincoln cent’s obverse in 2009 remains what it was in 1909: the bearded portrait of President Lincoln still faces right, faintly smiling, wearing a bow tie and coat.

The Lincoln portrait is the work of Victor David Brenner, a medalist born in present-day Lithuania who took his formal training in the West, starting in the New York City area (where a still-teenaged Brenner first arrived in the United States) and later in France. As a mature artist, Brenner established a studio in New York City and increased his already-considerable reputation for artistry. While his small-scale works such as medals and plaques brought him considerable fame in his lifetime, today his reputation endures largely because of his association with the Lincoln cent.

His studio was at 20 East 8th Street in New York City (FYI, when I was a young man I actually worked at a cafe' at 18 East 8th Street, not knowing I was mere inches away from numismatic history - Noah Fleisher), as noted on his business card, a copy of which Heritage is offering in its September 2009 Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction. What makes this particular card so appealing is the handwritten message from Brenner on the back: Please accept this / as a momento [sic] of / the pleasant eve / I spent with you. / With best greeting, / V. D B.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into Brenner’s day-to-day life, albeit one that poses more questions than it answers. Who was the recipient? Where did they meet? When was the note written? What was the memento? Why do so many artists have such terrible handwriting? (Not that I have much room to judge, considering the chicken-scratches I’ve inflicted on various teachers and professors over the years…)

While it’s impossible to answer any of those questions definitively (barring some dramatic revelation by a scholar of Victor David Brenner business card styles), this is the sort of note that invites speculation, and considering Brenner’s understandable pride in the Lincoln cent, he may well have used one as a small but meaningful gift to a favored acquaintance. An example of the 1909 VDB cent, so named because it features the designer’s initials at the bottom of the reverse, is included with the card.

This lot would make a great complement to a set of Lincoln cents or an intriguing addition to a collection of artists’ handwritten documents. If you’re looking to buy it, though, I’ll give you a bit of a heads-up: I want it too, and I’ve already placed my bid…

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-John Dale Beety

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