Christian Gobrecht (1785 – 1844) was the third Chief Engraver and Sculptor of the United States Mint, serving from 1840 until his death. He was a talented and ambitious individual who created many important designs, several of which would become staples of American numismatic history.
Born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Gobrecht demonstrated an early inclination towards artistic and engraving work. As a young man he served an apprenticeship for a clockmaker in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Afterwards he moved to Baltimore, where he perfected his engraving skills in ornamental designs. In 1811, he moved to Philadelphia to join the prestigious bank-note firm Murray, Draper, Fairman and Company. There, Gobrecht established his reputation as a competent and talented engraver, earning the respect of many individuals within the numismatic community.
When Robert Scot, first Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, passed away in 1823, Gobrecht applied for the position. Though he was certainly qualified, the Mint appointed William Kneass instead. As consolation, Gobrecht was offered the position of assistant engraver, which he ultimately declined. However, Gobrecht kept a close working relationship with the Mint in several important ways. Not only did he make letter and figure punches for the engraving department, but also provided dies for the Mint as well.
In 1835, Kneass suffered a debilitating stroke and was unable to complete most of his tasks. Gobrecht stepped in as his assistant, completing all pattern and die work. Gobrecht served as assistant Chief Engraver until Kneass passed away in 1840. Later that same year, Gobrecht was officially appointed Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint.
During his tenure at the Mint, Gobrecht helped produce some of the most famous designs in numismatic history, most notably the Seated Liberty. The Seated Liberty design was originally conceptualized by Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson in 1835. Patterson envisioned the obverse design as an American variation of Britannia, Britain’s allegorical icon. Kneass produced a sketch of the idea before he suffered the stroke. Mint artists Titian Peale and Thomas Sully also produced their own versions of a Seated Liberty. Gobrecht based his design of the Seated Liberty on these sketches. Gobrecht’s final design was approved and made in pattern form in 1836. The image was used on the silver dollar from 1836 until 1839. These coins became known as the Gobrecht Dollars. Despite the short run of the Gobrecht Dollars, the Seated Liberty design was used throughout the 19th century for hundreds of different pattern varieties. Golbrecht’s Seated Liberty was a tremendously popular design that remained on U.S. coinage as late as 1891.
Gobrecht’s list of impressive designs also included the Flying Eagle and the Liberty Head. The Flying Eagle design was first used on the reverse of the 1836 Pattern Dollar. It later appeared on many other patterns as well as regular issue 1857-1858 cents. Renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens once wrote that he “was so impressed by it that I thought if carried out with some modifications, nothing better could be done. It is by all odds the best design on any American coin,” Gobrecht’s Liberty Head (also known as the “Coronet” or “Braided Hair”) design was used on the $10 gold coin of 1838, and later on the half-cent, the cent, and Gold $2.50 and $5 pieces.
Though Gobrecht’s official tenure as Chief Engraver was relatively short, his contributions to American numismatics were monumental. Gobrecht’s designs not only stood on their own, but inspired many later versions by other great sculptors. The Seated Liberty and Flying Eagle are American numismatic icons, resonating throughout history and preserving Gobrecht’s legacy for years to come.