O’Brien Coin Guide: Publio Morbiducci’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)


Introduction:

In 1922 Ireland won its independence from Britain and, after the initial distraction of a civil war, the country began to move on and set about its primary task of nation-building. The process that followed was difficult and divisive and one of the things deemed essential for the new state was its own currency. On 13th April 1926, the Coinage Act of 1926 became law :-

  • empowering the Minister for Finance to provide and issue coins
  • the Act also prescribed the denominations, metal alloys and weights of the coins

This Act did not, however, determine their designs: it left the choice of designs to the Minister for Finance and gave him power to prescribe the designs by Order.

  • Two TDs, Michael R.T. Heffernan and Osmond Grattan Esmonde, suggested setting up a special committee of persons with artistic knowledge to advise on the designs.
  • Senator W. B. Yeats proposed a competent artistic committee for this purpose.

The Minister for Finance agreed and set up a 5-man committee:

  • Senator W.B. Yeats, who was asked to act as Chairman of the Committee
  • Mr. Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy
  • Mr. Lucius O’Callaghan, at that time Director of the National Gallery
  • Mr. Thomas Bodkin, one of the Governors of the National Gallery
  • Mr. Barry M. Egan, a member of Dáil Eireann for the City of Cork.

With both politics and society still polarised by the Civil War agenda, the competition, its participants and the design proposals were always going to be controversial and would attract criticism from some very embittered, but still influential people.  The committee would have to tread carefully.

The first meeting of the Committee was held on the 17th June, 1926, and was attended by Mr. Joseph Brennan, at that time Secretary to the Department of Finance and later Chairman of the Currency Commission.  Mr. Brennan said that he “wished to convey to the Committee three provisional decisions which had been arrived at by the Minister for Finance in regard to the coins, but which were not to be regarded as the final decisions of the Minister or the Government, or as binding on the Committee.”

These three conditions were :-

  • That a harp should be shown on one side of the majority of the coins, if not on all.
  • That the inscription should be in Irish only.  He also suggested “they consider the utility of having the denomination of the coin shown by means of a numeral, for the assistance of persons unfamiliar with Irish.”
  • That no effigies of modern persons should be included in the designs.
    • This, last proviso, caused a lot of controversy since those executed or killed in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and the then very recent Irish Civil War, were being elevated to ‘cult hero’ status by their followers and this was doing little to unite the people of the newly formed Irish Free State.

Having taken on board the three requisites above, the committee sought advice from far and wide. After much internal debate and deliberation, Yeats declared that they

decided upon birds and beasts, the artist, the experience of centuries has shown, might achieve a masterpiece, and might, or so it seemed to use, please those that would look longer at each coin than anybody else, artists and children. Besides, what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?

In the end, the committee decided upon the following subjects for the reverse designs :-

  • HALF-CROWN: Horse
  • FLORIN: Salmon
  • SHILLING: Bull
  • SIXPENCE: Wolfhound
  • THREEPENCE: Hare
  • PENNY: Hen, possibly with chickens
  • HALFPENNY: Pig, or a Goat/Sheep (added later)
  • FARTHING: Woodcock

The next controversy would be “who to invite to compete?”

  • How should the Government choose its artist?
  • What advice should be give?
  • It should reject a competition open to everybody.
  • They thought seven would be enough, and that three should be Irish.

In the end, they chose two Dublin sculptors of repute (Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard) and Jerome Connor (who had recently arrived in Ireland from New York.  The next part was more difficult as they had little knowledge of the ‘foreign’ talent. Like the Irish contenders, not everyone accepted the invitation and they eventually shortlisted the following :-

  • the great Swedish sculptor Carl Milles
  • Publio Morbiducci, designer of an Italian coin with the Fascist emblem
  • the American sculptor, Paul Manship, the creator of a Diana and her dogs
  • a little known sculptor, Percy Metcalfe (recommended by the Secretary of the British School in Rome)

Publio Morbiducci’s Background:

Publio Morbiducci was born in Rome on 28th August, 1889. He was the second son of Luigi, a metal worker, and Anna Maria Polizzi, who worked in a print shop. In 1900 he had to interrupt his studies for regular work as a coachbuilder as a result of economic hardship falling upon his family.

He continued, however, to study independently and, showing a talent for art, he then attended ‘L’Instituto di Belle Arti’, where he met Duilio Cambellotti who he would always consider to be his master.

  • In 1911 he was admitted to ‘Scuola D’Arte Della Medaglia’, where thanks to a series of grants, he studied until 1915
  • It was at this point that he exhibited two Roman bronze masks at ‘Secessione Romana’, it was these masks that launched his career amongst the sculptors of the time
  • After that he moved on to specialise in coins and medals
    • In 1923, he won a competition for the design of the Italian two-lira coin
    • In 1924, Ugo Ojetti presented his exhibition of medals at the American Numismatic Society in New York
    • By 1927, when invited to take part in the Irish coin design competition, Morbiducci was very well known in the coins & medals world

Between 1930 and 1940 he went on to become one of the great artists of the Italian fascist regime, and went on to be the protagonist in the exhibition to mark the tenth anniversary of the Fascist Revolution.

  • In 1937, he was appointed a member of ‘Accademia di San Luca’
  • In 1939, he was commissioned to create the big marble frieze at ‘Palazzo degli Uffizi’
  • In 1940, he was commissioned to produce one of the groups of ‘Dioscuri’ for ‘il Palazzo della Civiltá Italiana’, whose execution was suspended for the war and completed in 1956.
1950 Vatican - Pope Pius XII - Jubilee Year of Remission by Publio Morbiducci and the Lorioli Fratelli mint

In 1950, Publio Morbiducci designed a Vatican medal for Pope Pius XII, commemorating the Jubilee Year of Remission. The medal was produced by the Lorioli Fratelli mint.

Publio Morbiducci died in Rome on 31st March, 1963.

Publio Morbiducci’s Irish Coin Designs:

Morbiducci's full set of eight plaster models (Irish Coin Design Competition, 1927)

Morbiducci’s full set of eight plaster models (Irish Coin Design Competition, 1927)

Morbiducci put forward eight reverse designs: namely a farthing, halfpenny (sheep/ram), penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and halfcrown design. Modern reproductions (3-D prints) of his original plaster cast models can be seen at The Central Bank of Ireland’s wonderful Irish Coins exhibit at their new headquarters on Dublin’s North Wall Quay.

  • The name of the exhibit is: “Pounds, Shillings & Independence
    • This exhibition celebrates the work of the Currency Commission, which was established in 1927 to design, issue, manage and control an entirely new and independent Irish currency.
    • According to the Central Bank of Ireland’s publicity material:
      • Visitors can learn how a uniquely Irish economic situation lead to the development of two separate sets of banknotes – the Ploughman’s series of notes and the Series A Banknotes – each with a unique design.
      • The exhibition also takes visitors on a journey through the development of the first Irish coinage, the Saorstát pound, whose designs are still renowned for their distinctive artistic qualities.

Morbiducci’s Patterns/Proofs:

In addition to providing the Committee with plaster models, Morbiducci went a step further and privately commissioned the production of coin patters/proofs in a variety of metal alloys. He produced six patterns – penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and halfcrown. No farthings or halfpennies were produced (that we know of).

Morbiducci Irish Pattern Coin Set (obv + rev) - one of each coin type.

Morbiducci Irish Pattern Coin Set (obv + rev) – one of each coin type.

Publio Morbiducci took a much more comprehensive approach than the other artists insofar as he presented the committee not only with a set of 10 plaster casts (including two different obverses for the halfpenny) but also with two sets of proof pattern coins of his designs, struck in silver in the designated sizes.

He had arranged to have these pieces minted by Lorioli Castelli, a leading Italian medal-making firm in Milan. Apart from the two sets he presented the committee, he also had some additional sets / individual pieces made for himself – for a variety of reasons:

  • Some he kept for himself
  • Some he presented to friends, patrons and members of his own family
  • Some he later sold to raise cash
    • The first recorded sale of one of these patterns took place in 1946
    • Since then, small numbers have turned up on the market from time to time
    • They always attract strong premiums, by Irish coinage standards
    • There has been no known sale of a Morbiducci halfpenny or farthing
    • Multiple examples of all six other coins have changed hands

For further details of these beautiful Morbiducci patterns/proofs, see:

 

Alternative Use for Morbiducci’s Irish Designs:

Of the seven designers that submitted coin designs, Morbiducci was the only one of them who already had prior experience of having his designs used for actual coinage. This was noted by the judges and it was also one of the reasons he was invited to take part in the competition.

Morbiducci's design for Italy's 2 lira coin (1923-1935) for King Vittorio Emanuele III

Morbiducci’s design for Italy’s 2 lira coin (1923-1935) for King Vittorio Emanuele III

Apart from designing the reverse of the above coin, Morbiducci put his rejected Irish coin designs to good use, when he re-purposed some of them to design medals for fascist Italy’s Ministry of National Economy in the 1930s.

Award medal of the Ministry of National Economy opus Morbiducci. Silver 30.78 mm

Award medal of the Ministry of National Economy. Morbiducci’s silver medal (30.78 mm) features his rejected Irish shilling design for cattle shows.

Award medal of the Ministry of National Economy opus Morbiducci. Bronze 24.82 mm

Award medal of the Ministry of National Economy. Morbiducci’s bronze medal (24.82 mm) features his rejected halfcrown design for horse shows.

Morbiducci didn’t stop there. He also produced four reverse designs for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests’ agricultural shows – utilising animal depictions was taken from his sketches which he presented to the Irish Free State coin design competition of 1927.

Ministry of Agriculture & Forests medals - Ovina, Bovina, Avicola e Equina (Morbiducci)

Ministry of Agriculture & Forests medals – Ovina, Bovina, Avicola e Equina (Morbiducci)

These medals were produced in gold, silver and bronze (presumably plated over a cheaply produced base metal) for 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes at various agricultural shows throughout Italy. At an average selling price of €50 a piece, they are a very affordable alternative to Morbiducci’s extremely rare + highly sought after Irish (proof) patterns.

 


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