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Should You Collect Medals?


By David Thomason Alexander, Founder of Medal Collectors of America for Coinweek….

Medals remain a mystery to many American coin collectors in 2015.

Part of the dilemma faced by open-minded collectors thinking of expanding their interest into the medal field is difficulty in finding reliable general information and even an accurate definition of just what medals are. Writers have labored over the years to provide a working definition, devoting much space to first showing why a medal is not a coin.

A safe general definition might stipulate that a medal is an object, generally (but not always) made of metal, often round but not always so, struck or cast to honor some person, commemorate some event, recognize merit or merely to express an artist’s thoughts or ideals. It must not bear a mark of value or have been intended to circulate as money.

It should be noted that wearable military and civilian awards form a different branch of collecting and are properly referred to as Orders and Decorations although they are often carelessly described as medals.

Medals in the western world first flourished in Renaissance Italy, intimately tied to her turbulent city states and ruling families, Popes and clergy, noblemen and artists. The medal spread to the Germanic world, the Netherlands and on to the British Isles, Spain and Portugal, Scandinavia and elsewhere. The medal blossomed richly in France, where the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint) has long remained a recognized world center of medallic art.

Medals relating to the Americas appeared during the age of colonization and continued through the American Revolution and ultimately to the birth of the United States and the Philadelphia Mint. When numismatics emerged in America during the 1850’s, pioneer collectors were people of wide interests including the medal.

American collectors of the 1850’s were likely to be interested in ancient Greek and Roman coins, European crowns and British coins, most of which were served by at least some kind of catalogs, however sketchy. Collecting American coins began as a kind of patriotic exercise, seeming do-able since there were only about 60 years of coinage to seek.

No one was absolutely sure what U.S. coins actually existed. Large cents were collected by date and for years collectors sought coins of 1815, innocently assuming every year after 1793 had to be represented. Augustus G. Heaton really fixed the direction of American collecting with his 1893 book, A Treatise of the Branch Mints of the United States, usually called “Mint Marks,” that riveted coin collecting by “date-and-Mint” onto most of the collecting public.

By the 1930’s, definitive books such as Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins had eliminated much of the mystery and since 1947, the widely distributed Guide Book of U.S. Coins (the famed “Red Book”) made basic knowledge available nearly everywhere.

Token and medal interests were not so well served. The earliest collectors eagerly sought such collectibles but the vastness of the field precluded a “Red Book” style universal guide from being published. We will examine U.S. medal collecting as a separate study, to be followed in a later segment by an examination of world medals and their collection.

washingtonPropelled by the same pervasive patriotic impulse as affected coins, medals relating to George Washington were especially popular in the 1850’s, with dozens of privately struck Washington pieces being produced for a booming market. Even here, reliable information on medals was hard to come by.

The first major book on this topic was James Ross Snowden’s A Description of the Medals of Washington; of National and Miscellaneous Medals, published in Philadelphia in 1861. U.S. Mint Director Snowden was obsessed with Washington pieces, and arranged production of many great U.S. coin rarities to serve as trading stock to expand his beloved Washington Cabinet of Medals displayed at the Mint.

Viewed today, his book was little more than a deluxe checklist with engraved drawings omitting much detail and text offering minimum information on the medals included. Today, modern Washington medal collectors puzzle to link medals in their hands to the minimalist descriptions Snowden offered.

Collectors of well documented coin series such as Large cents, Lincoln cents, Buffalo nickels, Morgan and Peace dollars find what they see as chaos in the world of American medals daunting. Fortunately, since the late 1960’s there has been a Renaissance in U.S. medal books and catalogs that has begun to soften this perception.

Books play a particularly vital role in medal collecting. Without presenting a complete roster of important books now available, a few notable titles must be mentioned, and other titles will be cited from time to time in this narrative.

Much information was retrieved from rare book department oblivion by reprints of key 19th century works, including C. Wyllys Betts’ American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals and William Spohn Baker’s Medallic Portraits of Washington.

A key to success in medal collecting is limiting one’s objective.

One specialty that has expanded dramatically is the official U.S. Presidential Inaugural Medal, a feature of the beginning of each administration since the 1880’s. Studies by the late Hank Spangenberger, Richard Dusterberg, Neil MacNeil and H. Joseph Levine have opened up fascinating vistas for inquiring collectors.

Among his other contributions, author and auctioneer Levine spelled out one great basic principle: collectors will jump into a new collecting area if it shows clearly defined boundaries, including beginnings and endings within demonstrable limits. Trying to collect the whole world at one go is a frightening turn-off for most beginners.

Aspiring collectors need to get an idea of what actually comprises a given collecting area and what its value may be. The relatively short and concise Inaugural series perfectly fitted these realities and with the new books in hand, these medals have taken off to dramatic heights.

The most significant breakthrough of all was the 1977 Medals of the United States Mint by R.W. Julian of Logansport, IN. Published by the Token and Medal Society (TAMS), it was a definitive, methodical examination of medals of the Philadelphia Mint listing nearly all known issues, identifying issuers, sculptors and engravers, and detailing the inside story of hundreds of once-mysterious medals.

U.S. coin collecting in the age of the “slab” generally requires little research or even knowledge other than market data and ceaselessly debated population reports. Medal collecting demands a great deal of basic information to begin collecting and expanding the collector’s horizon.

Wonderful things quickly come to light. For example, U.S. Mint engraver Anthony C. Paquet is known to most coin collectors solely for his single obscure reverse for an 1861 gold double eagle ($20 piece). Julian’s work identifies many elaborate medal designs by this engraver that showcase the full measure of his talents and abilities.

1861_paquetCommercial sale of medals had lagged far behind until the 1970’s. For decades medals were considered “junk box” material in coin shops and blown off by auction houses in group lots with minimal description. In the 1970’s, progressive auction houses established medal departments and new specialized auction firms entered the field, several of them expanding from the equally chaotic token field.

To succeed, medal auctions demanded development of clear cataloging styles that would present needed descriptive data in clear, concise and replicable order. Readers needed to know that they could find this basic information with minimal struggle to determine which pieces they wanted, assure efficient movement of auction lots and profitable sale of the medals.

A major pioneer in this aspect of medal auctions was the Danbury, CT partnership of Johnson & Jensen, (J&J) operated by D. Wayne Johnson and Chris E. Jensen. Producing catalogs on newsprint with many black and white images lowered cost to a nearly affordable level, concise and orderly descriptions made collectors familiar with the medals offered. Lacking adequate capital, however, this promising effort ended in bankruptcy.

NASCA (Numismatic and Antiquarian Service Corporation of America) was an early star of the new medal market, offering U.S. and world coins and paper money as well as medals. Much of NASCA’s methodology was created by the late John J. Ford Jr. and among its award-winning catalogers was Carl W.A. Carlson.

Established general auction firms making early contributions included Q. David Bowers’ American Auction Association with its 1974 sale of Washingtoniana from the Stanley Scott Collection. Bowers’ later sale of the great Garrett Collection advanced the frontier of U.S. medal collecting by light years.

The New York firm of Stack’s and its subsidiary Coin Galleries took an increasingly prominent role in fostering interest in historical medals, especially after Carlson joined its staff in 1980. I signed on in 1990. Fixed price lists and a series of increasingly popular Americana sales and the 23-catalog epic of the John J. Ford Jr. Collection kept the spotlight on significant U.S. medals until Stack’s faded in a series of corporate mergers in the early 21st century.

fordstacksBefore it affected auctions, the Julian book focused attention on several areas of U.S. Mint medals, notably Indian Peace Medals (IPM) that were a key element of interaction of the U.S. government with Indian tribes from Thomas Jefferson through the 1880’s. Silver IPM’s were presented to friendly chiefs and war leaders and are generally rare today. Copper-bronzed examples with mahogany or chocolate patinas were struck for collectors through the 19th century.

These were struck in pure copper, then treated with a secret-formula powder and baked to produce prooflike surfaces often inaccurately called “Proof” by eager dealers. Circa 1913 the Philadelphia Mint introduced real bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and zinc and continued striking far less exciting versions of IPM’s for the next century.

Made with notably inferior patinas, these latter-day strikes are of minimal value though hundreds appear on electronic trading forums such as eBay described as originals. Caution should be exercised, especially with supposed originals that come with beads and feathers as these are nearly always later strikes.

Early Mint medals relating to the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, early Presidents, colleges, expositions and special subjects soon began coming into their own. Thanks again to Julian, spectacular increases in value were charted in such sales as Garrett, Schinkel, Wayte Raymond, Kessler-Spangenberger, Gil Steinberg and the Stack’s sales of the vast John J. Ford Jr. holdings.

While collector interest in classic Mint medals continues to grow, the same cannot be said for modern issues of the Mint which remain virtually unknown to today’s collectors. In the 1960s a quasi-series appeared of coin-relief silver medals greatly resembling the now-defunct commemorative half dollars. Cataloged by Howard Turner, some bore Mint marks to boost their appeal but are today unfamiliar to the coin collectors they were intended to please.

Struck today are a number of large diameter bronze Mint medals hailing a bold variety of persons and events including Evangelist Billy Graham, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, Pope John Paul II and Frank Gasparro’s medal honoring Canadian Ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor who rescued American citizens from the wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini. These equally unfamiliar to collectors. What a remarkable waste!

In addition to the expansion of medal literature, flourishing medal auctions and the rekindling of interest in classic U.S. medals, attention should be paid to the sudden expansion of new medal issues triggered by the dramatic success of the official 1961 Inaugural medal of President John F. Kennedy.

Designed by famed sculptor Paul Manship, this large, high relief medal introduced real medallic art and Medallic Art Company (then the premier medal-maker, located in New York City) to the general public and thousands of American coin collectors.

The JFK Inaugural medal introduced many collectors to the important roles of sculptors, limited issue, medallic relief and serialization. Its success inspired Presidential Art Medals Inc. of Ohio (PAM), headed by former Governor Mike DiSalle, Max Humbert and Frank Darner. PAM’s secret weapon was the incredibly prolific sculptor Ralph J. Menconi who created series of 39 millimeter medals honoring the Presidents, States of the Union and Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

somAdditional series soon followed by other artists devoted to medicine, World War II and other topics. PAM’s success triggered mushroom growth of rival companies eagerly hawking every kind of series of wildly varying quality to create a short-lived 1960’s medal boom that soon collapsed. Most of these medals are of minimal interest and value today.

Medals in series were nothing new; remember the Washington series of the 1850’s. Still functioning but unknown to most 1960’s collectors was the Society of Medalists (SOM), founded in 1928 by George Dupont Pratt to foster interest in high quality American medallic art. Inviting only the greatest U.S. sculptors to submit designs, SOM issued two large-diameter art medals (76mm or more) each year to its members from 1930 through 1995.

SOM was a bridge between the worlds of art and numismatics and was never a commercial success. When Medallic Art Company failed in 1990, its name and assets were acquired by a bullion fabricating firm in Sioux Falls, SD, in whose hands the SOM series languished and died.

Fortunately, most SOM medals remain accessible to 21st century collectors. In 2012, the American Numismatic Society (ANS) published an in-depth catalogue raissoné by your humble author, American Art Medals 1909-1995, Circle of Friends of the Medallion and Society of Medalists that told the story of these two great medallic series.

That book was number one in ANS Studies in American Medallic Art. Now in its 157th year, the Society’s own rich medallic legacy will soon be explored in the second title of this series, Medals of the American Numismatic Society by Scott H. Miller, New York collector and researcher.

Medals of American numismatic organizations are many. Some, are outstanding examples of medallic art, including ANS, New York Numismatic Club, Chicago Coin Club, Rochester Numismatic Society medals and the large non-wearable American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention pieces. Many more medals of state and local clubs are single-strike, low relief items with neither significant design nor sculptural excellence but which appear to their members and well-wishers.

Another medal category, So-Called Dollars, consists of popular medals of the approximate size of the U.S. silver dollars, struck for a spectrum of subjects from the opening of the Erie Canal through numerous fairs and expositions, colleges, industries, aviation and every kind of national and local anniversaries.

scd9Most were struck in base metals and received their name from the late Richard D. Kenney around 1953. This name was fixed when authors Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen made it the title of their book published by Coin & Currency Institute in 1963.

The mere existence of a reference book boosted collecting interest in the 1960’s and since, though So-Called Dollars waited until 2008 for a much needed update. By then slabbing of these conveniently sized pieces was a reality and the key to eagerly anticipated value increases within the category. Some effort went into slabbing medals of more generous diameter, creating what some collectors have called “Slabs on steroids.”

Mention must be made of another category of medallic collectibles: issues of the Franklin Mint. Merchandizing genius Joseph Segel created this juggernaut of marketing as General Numismatics Corporation (GNC), in the mid-1960’s. GNC’s first successful product was gaming tokens for casinos severely impacted by the disappearance of silver dollars in the silver crisis of the 1960’s.

GNC went public when its first stock was floated on the National Stock Exchange by the securities firm of Hill, Darlington and Grimm, whose young stock broker John L. Alexander brought the infant GNC to management’s attention in 1966. GNC was soon renamed the Franklin Mint Inc. and enjoyed spectacular expansion without close relation to the larger numismatic world and marketplace.

High issue prices and the abject failure to create and sustain a secondary market for Franklin Mint material resulted in serious losses to buyers seeking to sell their holdings. Morley Safer’s television documentary Sixty Minutes brought the pitiless spotlight of television journalism to the plight of the owners of over-priced sets and series and in a few years the Franklin Mint faded from the scene. Tens of thousands of their medals flowed to refineries during the Hunt Brothers’ epic 1979 silver speculation.

A rare Bicentennial Gold Medal being shown at the Stack’s Bowers lot viewing room.

Another short-lived medal specialty was created by the American Independence Bicentennial. Scores of medals were released for the nation’s 200th birthday, issued by the Federal government, states, cities, counties and organizations of every kind. There were many noteworthy designs, including medals of major states and Frank Gasparro’s National Bicentennial Medal, which reintroduced gold medals for public sale during 1976.

Unfortunately many more mediocre medals appeared, and the overall category proved to be another flash in the pan. There was a Congressional grant available for preparation of a definitive catalog of Bicentennial medals but no individual or group stepped forward to claim this prize and today the whole Bicentennial experience is generally forgotten.

These are but a few of the major areas available to medal collectors. No one needs to plunge in to collect them all, and most collectors will choose among them for material interesting to them. There is somewhat less compulsion than for collectors who have been told they “must” collect all Lincoln cents, Bust half dollars or Morgan dollars.

U.S. Medals offer another opportunity to collectors wishing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. There are hundreds of writing and research opportunities waiting to be claimed both in centuries-old medals and neglected issues of the more recent past. The years since 1960, for example, present many medals about which amazingly little information is at hand.

Consider the medals of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University, a series struck circa 1962 – 1975 comprising 94 pieces struck in 76mm and 44mm bronze and 44mm .999 silver. Designed by America’s top medallic sculptors under the leadership of Donald De Lue, HOF medals honored a pantheon of greats in fields from statecraft through war, science through poetry, theology through civil rights, engineering through invention, political and social reform through diplomacy.

A huge commercial failure at time of issue, HOF medals today should be treasured as a medallic monument to American achievement. A completed manuscript on the series exists today which took several years to complete and if a publisher can be found, it would introduce an artistic-historical treasure to collectors of today. Many other such opportunities await the determined medal collector.

If you wish to explore collecting of U.S. medals, take your time, see what is out there, find what you like, learn and collect what you enjoy. Medals may well be for you!

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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  1. I have a george washington silver medal with a red white & blue pin from the service and on the top it says german american friendship week ncoa goppenn 1975 …
    Do u have any idea wat its for ?¿


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