Dollar may jingle into next century

Pa. engraver's design will grace new 'millenium dollar' coin

August 04, 1999|By Jack Brown | Jack Brown,Knight Ridder/Tribune

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- Taking his change -- $1.25 -- from the waitress, Thomas Rogers turned a quarter over in his fingertips and admired the sheen on its silvery copper-and-nickel facade.

"It's beautiful this must have been an early strike," he said, pointing at the mirror-perfect finish on the flat surfaces of the coin. Only the first few impressions struck by the coining presses that mint the nation's pocket change achieve that kind of finish, he said.

Rogers should know. He is the engraver at the Philadelphia Mint who designed the reverse side of what is called the "millennium dollar" -- the coin that next year will replace the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony coin, and eventually, some experts say, the dollar bill.

The 53-year-old New Britain, Pa., resident, an artist and designer who has spent eight years creating medals and commemorative coins for the mint, says he is uninterested in the fate of his design, which has been widely praised by collectors and coin afficionados.

"I just feel enormously privileged -- there are actually people who have worked at the mint for 30 years who haven't been lucky enough to design a circulating coin," he said.

Although the new coin will be the same size and weight as the Anthony dollar, it avoids some of the problems that made that coin unpopular. The new coin's edge will be smooth so that it can be easily differentiated by touch from quarters and other coins. And it will be gold-toned, although officials have not decided what metals will provide the color.

The images on the front and back of the new coin, selected with the help of more than 100,000 responses to an Internet query, are a departure from current coins as well.

Sacagawea, an American Indian who helped guide early explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, is shown in a natural-looking three-quarter profile by New Mexico sculptor Glenna Goodacre. Sacagawea's baby, Jean Baptiste, sleeps on her back.

Rogers' eagle, caught in mid-flap, soars across the back of the coin, striking a pose completely unlike the heraldic-looking eagle on the back of the quarter.

"It's really a beautiful design," said Steve Bobbitt, a spokesman for the American Numismatic Association, which represents 30,000 of the country's serious coin collectors. "What we really liked about that eagle was the way it captures the sense of an eagle in motion."

Bobbitt said the association believed that the new coin would replace the dollar bill in the next few years. He said the Treasury Department had redesigned and introduced $100, $50 and $20 bills, with $10 and $5 bills to come, but "there are no plans to redesign the dollar bill. That gives us some indication that they are considering eliminating the paper dollar."

In recent years, he said, Germany, Canada, France and other countries have eliminated their lowest-denomination bills and replaced them with coins.

"If the experience in those countries is anything to go by, we, the American people, are not going to like it," Bobbitt said. "We will cry and complain for awhile, but unfortunately it is economically a necessity that we eliminate the paper dollar."

A 1993 report from the General Accounting Office, the fiscal watchdog for Congress, recommended that the government introduce a dollar coin, appoint an advocate to sell the American public on the new coin, and eliminate the paper dollar.

The GAO said the government would save nearly $400 million a year on average if it eliminated the dollar bill. Although coins cost about twice as much as dollar bills to produce -- about 4 cents -- they last far longer. Coins circulate up to 30 years before they need to be replaced; bills generally wear out within 18 months.

Mint officials say the coin is intended to coexist with the dollar bill, although the 1997 legislation that authorized the $1 coin originally tried to eliminate the bill before Congress removed that provision.

"My boss is of the opinion that unless you take away the dollar bill, people won't use the dollar coin," said Fran McNaught, chief of staff to Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), the House Appropriations Committee member who sponsored the 1997 legislation. "But the other side of it is that apparently people don't want to give up the greenback. My personal opinion is that there is an emotional attachment -- it's just something they believe in."

McNaught also acknowledged that the weight of several dollars in coins could pose an inconvenience.

Kolbe does not plan to try again to eliminate the dollar bill until after the introduction of the coin, McNaught said.

So what does Rogers think about the possibility that his design might replace the fabled greenback?

He said he did not care. By designing a coin and putting his initials on a small work of art that will sit in the pockets of millions of Americans for decades, he has reached the peak of his craft.

"If there is a high point in an engraver's career," he said "this is probably it."

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