George T. Morgan is a name that should be familiar to virtually all collectors of American coins. He is most famously known as the seventh Chief Engraver at the U.S. Mint from 1917–1925 as well as the creator of numerous U.S. Coins. Probably the most famous would be the Morgan Silver dollar, a coin minted from 1878 to 1904, and then again in 1921. It is one of the most popular and well-known silver coins simply because the Morgan Silver Dollar appears in most Hollywood Westerns.
During his time at the U.S. Mint, Morgan designed several varieties of 1877 half-dollars, 1878 Silver Dollars, the 1879 “Schoolgirl” Dollar, and the 1882 “Shield Earring” Coins. He also created medals commemorating the administration of every U.S. President since Rutherford B. Hayes. He had a long, successful career, but it was the design that never was, in the coin world it’s sought after like the Holy Grail, a $100 Gold U.S. Coin.
No such coin was actually ever produced by the U.S. government, but recently, a long-forgotten sketch was discovered at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington. It is a pencil sketch of Lady Liberty, seated and facing right with a ship coming into the harbor, signaling commerce, and clearly shows a denomination of $100. Jeff Garrett uncovered the sketch by Morgan during the summer of 2006 while conducting research on the National Numismatic Collection for a book on gold coins. To his surprise, he had found the original design concept for a hundred-dollar denomination created by George T. Morgan, arguably the greatest and most well know American coin designer. These sketches, hidden within an original sketchbook for nearly a century, represent perhaps the grandest American coin ever proposed.
Morgan will always be remembered for his famous Morgan Silver Dollar, but until recently, the world knew nothing of Morgan’s larger-sized and higher-denomination $100 Union concept design. Who knows what such a magnificent piece would be worth today if it had made its way from Morgan’s sketchbook into U.S. coinage. Imagine examining artifacts in the Smithsonian Institution and finding a never-before-seen sketch of the largest and highest-denomination American coin ever proposed.
George T. Morgan and His Sketches
George T. Morgan was born on November 24, 1845, in Birmingham England. While growing up, he was taught at the Birmingham School of Art and learned the art of modeling and sculpting. His talents were so impressive that he was awarded a scholarship to attend the South Kensington Art School. After graduation, George worked at the British Royal Mint working as an assistant there under the supervision of Messrs. J.S. & A.B. Wyon, both of which had started a dynasty of engravers, which lasted generations at the Tower Mint. With excellent teachers, George Morgan became exceptionally talented in the art of engraving and designing coins. The $100 Union Coin drawing is the only documentation that exists and if created, such a coin would strictly have been used for commerce between countries, rather than general circulation, due to its hefty weight.
The sketch is one of many drawings contained in the George T. Morgan sketchbook. At the time, it was probably only an artist’s sketch that was mulling over something he was asked to work on. But a century later one can only imagine. If the mint had produced the coin, it would have been quite a hunk of metal. In gold, it would have weighed nearly one-third a pound when one considers a $20 gold piece weighs 31 grams. There also is the possibility that the coin was intended to commemorate the centennial of the country, looking at the markings on the sketch.
So why wasn’t the coin ever produced?
In 1877, to try to stem a shortage of paper currency in California, the government did play with the idea of a large-denomination gold coin. It actually made two experimental $50 gold coins, but neither was ever produced. Why, because 1877 was the low point of the 1873-79 economic depression. There were a lot of people out of work so no one needed a $50 gold piece, plus, later; the movement toward paper currency made the matter a moot point for good. We know that Morgan joined the U.S. Mint in October 1876, so this sketch was probably one of his first assignments.
If you would like to see more of Morgan’s sketches, they can be found in the book; The Private Sketchbook of George T. Morgan, America’s Silver Dollar Artist, published in 2013. It was written by Karen M. Lee with a foreword by Dr. Richard Doty, Senior Curator of Numismatics at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and it is full of information on Morgan’s life and labors. There is A Fantasy Version of the $100 Gold Union coin…Just because there was never a $100 Gold Union coin produced doesn’t mean the museum is passing on a chance to do some commerce. The Smithsonian partnered with a private mint to produce a "fantasy souvenir item" that mimics how the coin might have looked. But this is only designed as a souvenir since only the U.S. Mint can produce actual legal tender pocket change.