First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature….
Essay by David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….
Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014 by Scott H. Miller
The American Numismatic Society (ANS) is now in its 157th year of service to the world of numismatics. It is the premier numismatic research institution in the Western Hemisphere and one of the global leaders in the study of coins and medals struck since ancient times.
To most collectors of American coins, the name ANS evokes images of profound research and in-depth publications, especially in the field of ancient coins where the Society is recognized world leader. Scanning a complete listing of ANS publications testifies to this undisputed leadership over a century and a half.
However, as author Scott H. Miller makes clear in his new study and catalogue of medals issued by ANS, the Society has also been an active participant and leader in the ongoing development of the American medal from the era of the Civil War down to our own time. Its 60 distinct medal issues form an important part of the American medallic experience.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Miller has devoted decades to study of British and American medals. A Fellow of ANS, he is a Past President of the prestigious New York Numismatic Club (NYNC). In 1998, he was among the founders of the first successful organization devoted to the collecting of medals, Medal Collectors of America (MCA).
His book on ANS medals is the second in the Society’s Studies in Medallic Art; the first was a book I authored in 2010, titled American Art Medals, 1909-1995, the Circle of Friends of the Medallion and the Society of Medalists. The two books represent the leading edge of modern in-depth research and publication in the field of the American medal.
ANS was founded in 1857, just as numismatic collecting took off in the U.S., triggered by the discontinuation of the large copper cents and half cents struck since 1793. Overnight, it seemed, hundreds of Americans started searching for these coins and many soon branched out from there into other areas, notably to medals and tokens.
The first medal collectors were heavily influenced by the patriotic impulse that also impelled collecting of U.S. coins. Medals of George Washington attained great popularity and collectors clamored to obtain the examples of privately produced Washingtoniana that appeared on the eve of the Civil War.
War slowed new medal issues and the infant ANS itself. The return of peace restored life and activity to both. Reactivated under the name American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, ANS was shaking off its wartime lethargy when the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln galvanized its members and gave birth to its ongoing medal program.
Organizing his subject from the most basic level, Miller defines 60 pieces as ANS medals, beginning with the 1866-1867 Abraham Lincoln Memorial Medal. Each medal is illustrated in full color with identification of its artist, medal manufacturer, diameter in millimeters, listing of metals known, issue prices and where the numbers struck if these can be found.
He explores the history of each issue in great detail. Miller’s thorough research reveals that the Lincoln medal was one of the most complicated of the entire series. In detailing its tangled story, he demonstrates great skill and determination to uncover the facts, eliminate many oft-repeated myths and present the full story in convincing and readable style.
The engraver of the dies for this 83 millimeter medal was New York’s Emil Sigel, whose other known works were mostly Civil War tokens and private merchant’s issues. He was one of a large number of German die sinkers working in New York City that were clustered in lower Manhattan.
A prolific engraver, Sigel created signed cent-sized Civil War Tokens hailing a cousin, the 1848 German democratic refugee General Franz Sigel as the “Hero of Pea Ridge,” a battle whose pivotal importance was muted by its trivial-sounding name.
Creating the dies for this medal of exceptionally high relief and broad diameter had to have been a challenge for a humble token engraver. The combination of heroic height for Lincoln’s bearded, frock-coated bust and the stark flatness of the obverse field were causes of almost insuperable difficulties.
Ripping through the hoary hand-me-down tales traditionally associated with this historic medal, Miller quickly explodes the long-repeated anecdote that the dies broke after only 16 medals were struck, forcing the nimble Sigel to convince the ANS medal committee of the need to cut entirely new dies.
Miller demonstrates that the breakage only affected the shoulder of the obverse die, which was still used to produce all known Lincoln medals, whether in bronze or softer “block tin.” New dies were made and paid for but were not actually used until 1915 and then only to strike two archival specimens in Lead for the collection. ANS learned costly lessons about engravers, medal-making and accountancy.
The author also explores the history of the reductions of the Lincoln Medal in seven-, 16- and 35mm diameters that were made in England by J.S. and A.B. Wyon that have bewildered collectors ever since. He shows that the minute pencil eraser-sized 7mm medals were uniface with no reverse design in place.
After recovering from the stress of the Lincoln medal, the Society contracted with the famed die sinker George Hampden Lovett in 1876 to produce its first Membership Medal, a 42mmn design struck in gold, silver and bronze. Its obverse presented an early version of the Society’s seal, three oak leaves and three acorns below the Latin motto PARVA NE PEREANT, Let not the Small Things Perish.
Miller also clarifies the historical record of the mysterious 42mm Cleopatra’s Needle Medal of 1881. Struck in gold, silver, bronze and white metal, this medal commemorated the placing in New York’s Central Park of an obelisk of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III that was a gift of the Khedive of Egypt.
Financing the complex task of transatlantic shipment of the multi-ton monolith was William H. Vanderbilt. Handling New York arrangements were two other members that became prominent in ANS activities: Robert Hewitt Jr. and Algernon Sidney Sullivan.
There was a heavy Masonic flavor to this event, which might explain Bauman F. Belden’s omission of Cleopatra’s Needle from the first list of ANS medals. The unique gold example surfaced in Stack’s 2012 Americana auction, catalogued by the reviewer, and was purchased for the Society.
ANS medals now began appearing with some regularity, including Swedish sculptor Lea Ahlborn’s contributions, her 1883 medal for the Centennial of the British Evacuation of New York; 1884 Memorial Medal of ANS President Charles Edward Anthon; and 1890 46mm medal honoring ANS incorporator and scholar Daniel Parish Jr.
The name Tiffany & Co. appears with the 1893 Christopher Columbus Quatercentenary (sic) Medal. It was criticized for hailing manufacturer Tiffany on its obverse while ignoring designer James H. Whitehouse and engraver William Walker. It was struck in the wake of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where a proposed numismatic display never took place.
The name of Victor David Brenner appears of six ANS medals, starting with the 50mm medal for the Opening of Saint Luke’s Hospital in 1896. A Jewish immigrant from Russian Lithuania, Brenner first prepared his dies by cutting by eye directly into the die steel. After study in Paris under Louis Oscar Roty, his later works were created by sculpting large-diameter models for reduction by the Janvier Reducing Machine.
The Saint Luke’s medal was also notable for its distinctive portrait of the patriarchal William Augustus Muhlenberg. Miller’s illustrations include a reproduction of an oil portrait of Muhlenberg attributed to F.O.C. Darley and joins a fascinating studio photo of youthful artist Brenner. Photos of presentation cases, boxes and publicity shots appear throughout the book and add substantially to its appeal.
The author turns up some remarkable facts. The 64mm Greater New York or Charter Day Medal of 1898 by Edward Hagaman was struck by Tiffany to mark the consolidation of the five boroughs. A gold example was presented to the aged Andrew H. Green, “Father of Greater New York,” whom Miller tells us “was murdered by a man who had mistaken him for another elderly gentleman who had stolen the killer’s girlfriend.”
Consolidation also inspired ANS President Andrew C. Zabriskie’s attempt to fold ANS into the New-York Historical Society, obliterating the Society and its work. This move failed thanks to a members’ uprising that brought forward Archer M. Huntington as the great benefactor and leader of a still-independent ANS.
Brenner went on to create other outstanding ANS medals and plaquettes honoring Prince Henry of Prussia (brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II), explorer Amerigo Vespucci and Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones that are among the most sought-after by modern collectors.
Jules-Ėdouard Roiné is another name that appears in the roster of ANS medalists in the early 1900’s. Miller clarifies the long-disputed status of his 1908 plaquette honoring Algernon Sidney Sullivan (1826-1887), Indiana-born jurist and philanthropist with deep Virginia connections who spent much of his legal career in New York City.
Sullivan was a figure beloved figure by young and old especially in the circles of the Southern Society and in the legal community. His son George H. Sullivan set up a Memorial Fund in his father’s memory to present these plaquettes inserted in hard-cover books each year to five of the most deserving young lawyers who had launched careers in the city.
Reading this book today reveals that the honoree was a man of almost messianic greatness and virtue. His son expected ANS to administer this medal program, select annual winners and present the medals, a task beyond the Society’s purview.
A hoard of 40 medal-books went into dead storage until 1983 and when they emerged a lively debate ensued over their place in the ANS series. Presenting the issue’s complete history has now resolved this question and validated the ANS connection.
Miller decided otherwise in the question of the 1910 Actors’ Fund Medal, a 69mm piece designed by the great sculptor Chester Beach. Archer M. Huntington commissioned this medal and examples are known with a minute ANS seal in the field below the figure of Tragedy on the obverse.
Medals are also found without the seal, leading the cataloguer to conclude that this feature was an accidental or unplanned addition to the design triggered by Huntington’s known interest in the fund. His role with the New Theatre of New York was enough to make its sumptuous 1909 Opening Medal an ANS issue.
Collectors will welcome the coverage of the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Medal, one of the most amazingly common of all medals ever issued in the U.S. Miller shows that this issue by Austrian-born artist Emil Fuchs exists in six diameters and five metals from four-inch silver to three-inch gold on down to 1¼ silverplate.
A 1910 plaquette by Belgian medalist Godefroid Devreese was dedicated to the International Medallic Exhibition hosted by ANS. Two are reported struck in gold and bronze with no explanation for the failure to issue more. Its obverse shows Columbia standing on clouds with a laurel branch and flag while a nude male with lyre appears to be falling from the sky at left, an uncomfortable design that may simply have turned off the ANS committee.
World War I saw a number of ANS medals honoring Allied leaders. Adolph A. Weinman created the coveted J. Sanford Saltus Award Medal in 1919, the same year as John Flanagan’s medal on the New York visit of Britain’s Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor.
The late 1930’s and the years 1945-1976 saw few ANS medals, and the 1958 ANS Centennial Medal by Laura Gardin Fraser stands nearly alone. Its design was praised by many observers although the late Cornelius C. Vermeule deplored “the ill-proportioned square-faced brute” discovering a split fossil on the obverse and “the twin mountains of muscle bending over their great anvil and huge casting-type dies on the reverse.” (Numismatic Art in America, second edition revised by David T. Alexander, Whitman Publishing, 2007, p. 170).
Miller shows that ANS medals appeared in intermittent bursts: nineteenth century, Gay ‘90’s, early 20th century. World War I and related issues. The Roaring 20’s were busy, with an ongoing sprinkling of Society-related commemoratives and members’ medals spanned the decades.
Much of this pattern is traceable to the active interest of such member-benefactors as J. Sanford Saltus, whose death in 1922 left an unfilled void in both leadership and financing of medal projects. The Great Depression (“the invisible scar”) and Second World War had a numbing effect throughout American life.
The World War II years were a particularly sterile era for Society medals, and only in 1976 was activity resumed with such issues as the city and state Bicentennial medals, Eugene Daub’s majestic Statue of Liberty Centennial oval and Marcel Jovine’s imposing 125th Anniversary Plaquette of 1983.
Comprised of only 60 medals, the series might be considered relatively brief, yet it contains unlimited treasures of numismatics, art and history. Rarities abound and there are almost certainly additional discoveries to be made. As author Miller observes, the story of the American Numismatic Society and its medals is not over, but continues into the future.
Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014: Studies in Medallic Art 2
By Scott H. Miller.
182 pages, hard cover, profusely illustrated, photographs by Alan Roche. American Numismatic Society, New York, N.Y.
Retail price $70 to ANS members, $100 to non-members.
To place an order, visit the American Numismatic Society’s online store.