Last week unintentionally turned into a bit of a money themed week, so I felt it only fitting to finish it off with Brenner. You see, when I was a boy, developed an early fascination with coins. My grandmother had given me some coins that my grandfather had collected from countries around the world while he was in the navy and I found them fascinating. However, since I didn't have money to collect high denomination coins, I collected pennies.
Here's how it worked – from the money I earned doing my paper route I would have my parents go to the bank and get about $20 in rolls of pennies (50 in each roll). In my spare time, I would sift through the rolls pulling out any wheat pennies, and replacing any I removed with newer pennies, rerolled the coins and finally made a small pen mark on the outside of the roll. Usually, the rolls contained little of interest, but occasionally I could find something good, maybe even a steelie or the rare Indian Head.
(Example Penny Book - not mine, just an image from the Internet)
Before long, I bought a penny book and placed the coins into their appropriate slots often replacing better specimens for worse ones. The United States had mints in three cities that commonly produced Lincoln pennies: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Mint marks are found under the date with "D" for Denver, "S" for San Francisco and no mark for Philadelphia, so each year typically has three pennies to collect (e.g. 1914, 1914-D, and 1914-S).
The value of the coin is determined by by a variety of factors including the quality of the coin (less handled, the better) and the quantity minted (the fewer made, the greater the value). For me, part of the fun was in the find, so I never bought any coins from a dealer. I was able to find every penny this way save one, the elusive 1909-S VDB. Which brings us back to Victor David Brenner.
Brenner was born in 1871 as Viktoras Barnauskas in a Jewish home in what is now Lithuania. His family left Russia due to anti-semitism and he adopted an American sounding name in hopes of obtaining citizenship. The family trade was gem and seal engraving, so when he came to America, he took up sculpture and medal making and became well regarded for his work.
In the Summer of 1908, President Roosevelt sat for Brenner in his studio so Brenner could make some sketches for a Panama Canal Medal that Roosevelt was having made.
While completing the work, Roosevelt saw a bas-relief Brenner had made of President Lincoln in hopes of capitalizing on the centenary of Lincoln's birth.
Roosevelt was a big fan of Lincoln. Teddy had seen Lincoln's funeral as a boy and considered himself his political heir and Republican standard-bearer. Roosevelt even possessed a ring containing actual hairs from Lincon's body given to him by John Hay.
(Roosevelt's Lincoln Ring)
In 1905, the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens had been chosen to redesign several coins including the $20 gold piece and the penny. Saint-Gaudens completed a double eagle, but died in 1907 before he could redesign the penny. So when Roosevelt noticed Brenner's Lincoln medallion, he decided that Brenner's work would become the new penny.
Brenner's Lincoln penny was groundbreaking in many ways. For starters, it featured a real person and most previous U.S. currency depicted allegorical imagery like liberty personified, eagles, or nondescript Indians. However, after it's release people lodged complaints, particularly people from the South who objected to having a depiction of the former tyrant on their currency. Some objected to the stylistic wheat design on the reverse bearing little resemblance to real grain. But the greatest number of complaints came from those who took umbrage with the prominently placed artists initials, "V.D.B.," at the bottom of the reverse between the wheat stalks.
The Philadelphia and San Francisco mints produced 103,006,618 pennies in 1909 (which sounds like a lot, but for comparison in 2008, the mint produced over 5.4 billion pennies). Of the pennies produced in 1909, only 28,479,000 were produced with the offending "V.D.B." initials and of these a meager 484,000 were produced in San Francisco making the 1909-S VDB, one of the most sought after pennies by collectors and ironically bringing renown to the mysterious Victor David Brenner. Eventually by 1918, the controversy had subsided and a very tiny "V.D.B." returned to the penny's front side where in can be found today at the bottom of Lincoln's bust at about the 7 o'clock position.