The United States Mint is the nation’s coin factory, but almost from the beginning it has made medals to honor important people and events
By David Schwager for CoinWeek …..
Although medals might seem like a sideline, the U.S. Mint website lists about 100 types for sale, with enough variety to prompt the buyer’s guide you are now reading. With the Mint allowed more aesthetic freedom with medals than with coins–plus the ability to make high-relief designs–many are quite artistic and appealing, especially seen in hand. A glance at the Mint’s online catalog reveals the following categories of medal sorted according to subject matter:
We collectors like well-defined sets, making presidential items the Mint’s most-collected medallic offerings. These objects honor each president’s time in office, with a separate medal for each term. Presidential medals stay on sale indefinitely, in what the Mint calls “list medals”, meaning they are struck to order instead of remaining on sale for a limited time like most other numismatic products. New dies are made as needed to strike medals going as far back as George Washington.
Currently, collectors can buy medals for all recent presidents from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama. The Mint continues to make medals for popular earlier presidents including Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The Washington and Jefferson medals are copies of their respective Indian Peace Medals, which were intended as gifts for Native American leaders. Later presidents have medals made specifically to honor the chief executives, always with a portrait on the obverse (and frequently a presidential quote on the reverse). All medals come in 1 5/16 inch (33mm) sizes for $6.95 or hefty three-inch (76mm) sizes for $39.95.
You won’t, however, see inaugural medals in this list. Made as souvenirs of the start of a president’s term instead of to commemorate his entire time in office, these are issued by inaugural committees instead of by the U.S. Treasury. The committees contract with a variety of private mints to make and sell inaugural medals and the United States Mint is not involved in any way.
If the brass Presidential dollars of 2007 – 2016 were entry-level collectibles available at slightly over face value, the accompanying First Spouse half-ounce $10 gold coins were decidedly more patrician. So that Presidential dollar collectors could more easily add the First Spouse series to their holdings, the Mint made bronze medal versions of each gold coin. Struck only in the smaller 1 5/16 inch size and sold singly for $6.95, they also come in sets. The mint offers a package for each presidency with a First Spouse bronze medal and an uncirculated Presidential dollar for $9.95, or a set with all of the First Spouse medals issued in one year for $16.95.
Bicentennial and Centennial
This section has five medals, all in the large three-inch size for $39.95 each. Four commemorate the 200th anniversaries of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Coast Guard, with the fifth for 100 years of Yosemite National Park. Like the presidential medals, these are list medals still in production many years after the observed anniversaries. The Yosemite medal, for example, is labeled “Act of Congress 1990,” showing it has been on sale for over 25 years.
Like most of the following, all the pieces in this category are bronze duplicates of Congressional Gold Medals. With no fixed schedule or requirements for design or recipients, Congress occasionally votes to award a unique gold medal to a person or group. The mint makes the single gold medal and also produces bronze copies for sale to the public. Under Historical Events, the mint lists three separate 2011-dated 10th anniversary medals for the victims of 9/11 in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, along with a 2013 medal for the four young victims of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing in Alabama. All come in both the large $39.95 and small $6.95 sizes.
Humanitarian and Cultural
Most of these are also Congressional Gold Medal duplicates, given to a wide variety of religious, humanitarian, scientific and political figures, with most coming in both sizes. This is the largest category of medals, and if you can’t find someone you admire in this list, you’re not looking hard enough. Several recent medals honor key figures in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Rosa Parks and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) marchers. Religious honorees include Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (the highest Eastern Christian leader) and Pope John Paul II. Several world politicians get medals, such as South African President Nelson Mandela, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Burmese revolutionary Daw Aung San Sui Kyi.
The medal subjects range from the well-known (Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of people during the Holocaust), to the unjustly obscure (Norman Borlaug, whose work increasing crop yields feeds millions), to the understandably obscure (Constantino Brumidi, designer of murals in the US Capitol).
This category also includes several noteworthy athletes: track and field star Jesse Owens, baseball great Jackie Robinson and golfers Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus.
The last three Secretaries of the Treasury also have medals on sale, just in case you are a huge Jacob Lew, John Snow or Henry Paulson fan.
Instead of honoring individual achievement, each of these medals (again, available in small 1 ½ inch $6.95 and large three-inch $39.95 sizes) commemorates a group, often an under-appreciated ethnic military unit. Nearly everyone has heard of the Navajo code talkers who used their tribal language to send secret messages for the military during World War II. Most of us, however, had no idea that 31 other Native American code talker groups existed, and each received their own 2008 medal.
Similar medals are for the Nisei Soldiers of World War II (Japanese-Americans who fought in Europe – an especially well-executed medal by artist Joel Iskowitz) or the Borinqueneers (an army regiment recruited in Puerto Rico).
Additional medals honor military units from the well-known, such as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders (of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo fame) to the less well-known, such as the Civil Air Patrol (civilian airplane owners who volunteered their aircraft for the military).
This last category could be the most interesting section, because there is nothing in it. The main page has an image of the 2016 American Liberty Silver Medal. Click on that link, however, and you go right back to where you started on the main medal page. The space is reserved for one of the year’s most anticipated items, the more affordable silver medal version of the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary one-ounce gold coin.
Combining all of the medallic products currently available leads to a conclusion: the mint makes more different kinds of medals that it does kinds of coins. More than a sideline, medals are a major part of the Mint’s work and a valuable addition to a U.S. coin collection.