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    1915-S Pan-Pac Round Fifty, MS64
    Masterful Robert Aitken Design

    1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific 50 Dollar Round MS64 NGC. For all that is written about the production and sale of Panama-Pacific fifty dollar gold coins, equal attention ought to be paid to the man responsible for their famous design. Robert Aitken is one of San Francisco's famous artistic sons. Born in 1878, Aitken developed a taste for sculpting at a young age and was accepted into the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art after graduating from high school. There he studied both drawing and sculpture, received honorable mention for his work, and was told "the Institute had little, if anything more, it could teach him."

    The young artist set up a studio in San Francisco in 1896 and began exhibiting to great acclaim. By the age of 23, Robert Aitken had secured major commissions, including a monument to Admiral George Dewey in Union Square, and been hired to succeed his mentor, Douglas Tilden, at the Mark Hopkins Institute. As an instructor from 1901 to 1904, he continued to work on various projects. It was at this point that the Bohemian Club, a gentlemen's club whose members include artists, journalists, businessmen, and politicians, became one of Aitken's leading patrons. Indeed, The Wasp magazine once called Aitken "the special pet of the Bohemian Club." More on that later.

    Robert Aitken continued to accrue commissions and awards from the late 1900s through the early 1910s. The respected Californian was among the first artists invited to participate in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Aitken's Four Elements sculptures were prominently displayed and well-received, and his designs for the U.S. Mint's fifty dollar gold coins are treasured by numismatists more than 100 years later.

    The obverse features Minerva, the Roman goddess of industry. Her companion owl, representing wisdom, graces the reverse, perched atop a branch of western pine. One contemporary critic suggested these classical motifs failed to reference any distinct American theme. That argument has a certain ring of truth. Although Minerva is appropriate as the goddess of industry and a reference to the state seal, the fact that her owl dominates the reverse seems a curious design choice to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. It could easily have occupied a smaller position on the obverse.

    Consider Robert Aitken's membership in the Bohemian Club and the club's support of his work over the years. Further consider the Bohemian Club's mascot, the owl. Perhaps Aitken's design was a nod to his patron club. The fact that the first sketches Aitken submitted included an intricate spider web around the owl seems to support this line of thinking, after all, the club's motto is "Weaving spiders, come not here." Ultimately, the spider web motif was rejected. According to Treasury Secretary McAdoo, it was no longer an accepted symbol of industry. But Aitken's initial proposal and his decision to feature the owl so conspicuously certainly raises a few questions.

    This luminous near-Gem displays shimmering mint luster over each side. The strike is fully impressed, and few major marks are seen over warm yellow-gold surfaces. A couple of minute ticks barely prevent an even higher grade for this marvelous example of Robert Aitken's masterful design.
    From The Cherry Grove Collection. (Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# BYHP, PCGS# 7451)

    Weight: 83.59 grams

    Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    View all of [The Cherry Grove Collection ]

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    Auction Dates
    January, 2018
    3rd-8th Wednesday-Monday
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