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Oct 04 2017

The Portal Opens #2 (John Kraljevich): Robert E. Lee in Numismatics

Public art reflects the identity, history, and priorities of the nation that produced it, from the largest statue to the smallest coin. As a discipline, numismatics helps us understand the imagery that appears on coins, medals, and paper money: who designed it, what inspired it, where it was used, and by whom.

The current debate about the disposition of monuments erected to honor the Confederate States of America enables us to examine what coins, medals, and paper money have in common with other forms of public art, along with the evident differences. The most obvious contrasts are scale and location: there are no numismatic items that are 10 feet tall, nor any that dominate a public square. On the other hand, government issued coins dominate the theoretical public square in a way that no single statue ever could.

The lack of a standard book, monograph, or article written on the coins and medals that depict Robert E. Lee is an intriguing omission in the literature. The resources of the Newman Numismatic Portal can help fill that gap. If an author ever wished to catalogue Lee’s numismatic memorials, this would be a prime place to begin.

The first reference to a numismatic item related to Lee appears in the Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia for May 1865 through December 1866. (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/515661?page=16). The minutes of the January 4, 1866 meeting record that among the donations made to the society were “seven white metal medals by [Philadelphia dealer and medalist] Mr. Charles K. Warner,” including one depicting General Ulysses S. Grant on the obverse with a reverse inscribed “SURRENDER OF GEN. LEE TO GEN. GRANT APRIL 9 1865.” This same reverse was later muled to obverses depicting both Washington (listed as Baker-625, https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/512400?page=245) and Lincoln.

The first medal depicting Robert E. Lee was issued in 1871, shortly after his 1870 death, though the exact circumstances of its issuance remain undiscovered. Like most of the 19th century medals related to Lee, this portrait piece was issued to support the fundraising for a Lee commemorative statue, a process that typically blurred the lines between public and private spheres. Sold to support the construction of a Lee memorial in New Orleans, the 1871 Lee tribute medal depicted his bust facing left on the obverse with an inscription that included “Who Will Ever Live in the Hearts of His Countrymen” and the names of four of his principal battles: Manassas, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, and Wilderness. The reverse showed the seal of the state of Virginia with Lee’s birth and death dates. The marketplace for this medal, which is known in white metal and bronze, was clearly outside of the numismatic marketplace, as reflected by the length of its absence in the NNP auction catalogue database. The first auction appearance was in Ed. Frossard’s March 23, 1881 sale, a full decade after the medal’s creation, where an example brought 95 cents, a strong price that reflects its then-perceived rarity. One wonders what Frossard, a former captain with the 31st New York Infantry (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/PersonDetail/776), might have thought of it.

The New Orleans statue for which the 1871 Lee portrait medal was struck was honored with another medal when its construction was completed, issued upon its unveiling on February 22, 1884. The date chosen for the ceremony, George Washington’s birthday, was hardly accidental. The medal is today quite common and is listed in the So-Called Dollars book by Hibler and Kappen as HK-758. The first appearance of the 1884 unveiling medal recorded in the NNP was listed in Lyman Low’s sale of June 3, 1886 (https://www.archive.org/stream/catalogueofcoins00lowl#page/28/mode/2up/search/new+orleans), where examples were offered in both bronze and white metal. Low noted that the medal depicted an “erect statue of Lee on tall column,” a faithful rendition of the statue as installed. Low, a member of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry, faced Lee’s army at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and elsewhere. The New Orleans statue was dismantled on May 19, 2017.

Lyman Low’s June 1886 sale also included the first appearance of the 1883 statue to mark the installation of Lee’s statue in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee had been the president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University. Low describes the medal as showing a “recumbent statue of Gen. R.E. Lee,” perhaps the only American medal that depicts a soldier asleep in his uniform. The statue by Edward Valentine remains in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee. The Confederate flags that once surrounded it were removed in 2014.

 The final Lee statue represented on a 19th century medal was issued for the May 29, 1890 dedication of the statue that today (August 17, 2017) remains on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Just over a year later, the first one turns up in an NNP-listed auction catalogue, the July 17, 1891 sale of the Mrs. Thomas Warner Collection by Henry and Samuel Hudson Chapman (https://nnp.wustl.edu/Library/PersonDetail/420). It brought 90 cents.

 Though medals sometimes brought high prices the very first time they were offered, there generally wasn’t much numismatic appetite for medals depicting Lee or other Confederates in the 19th century. An April 1892 offering (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/auctionlots?AucCoId=26&AuctionId=513830&page=54) of 13 miscellaneous Confederate medals, including three depicting Jefferson Davis, three depicting Robert E. Lee, two showing Stonewall Jackson, four of the (now very popular) Wealth of the South tokens, along with several others, brought just 45 cents. A single 1887 Pennsylvania National Guard medal in bronze in the same sale brought nearly three times as much.

 Offerings of Lee medals became far more commonplace in the 20th century, as the supply of medals and badges depicting Lee that were produced for meetings of Confederate veterans and related groups (like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy) swelled and came to the notice of numismatists. As an example, the November 2002 Presidential Coin and Antique sale (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/auctionlots?AucCoId=511514&AuctionId=511923&page=60) offered two Lee portrait badges from reunions of the Union of Confederate Veterans, one from the 1900 reunion of the Union Confederate Veterans in Louisville, Kentucky, the other from the 1902 Dallas gathering that was attended by more than 114,000 people.

While all of the previously mentioned medals appear to have been issued privately or by semi-public local entities charged with erecting public monuments, the Federal government has likewise honored Lee on multiple occasions. Until Booker T. Washington was honored on commemorative half dollars in both 1945 and 1946, Lee was the only non-President to have ever appeared on two different United States coins: the 1925 Stone Mountain half dollar and the 1937 Antietam half dollar. Even today, that group is a small one, as Christopher Columbus appeared on his second U.S. coin in 1992 and Benjamin Franklin joined the club in 2006. The Civil War Centennial Commission, created by Act of Congress in 1957, authorized and distributed a medal depicting Lee and Ulysses S. Grant that was struck not at the United States Mint but by the privately owned Medallic Art Company. Federal discomfort with overseeing what was sure to be controversial celebrations of the Civil War devolved most of the celebrations to state-run or semi-private entities. Grover Criswell’s correspondence with Eric Newman was written on letterhead that mentioned Criswell’s membership on the Florida Civil War Centennial Commission (https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/521643?page=82).

While these numismatic tributes are little known by today’s public, they reflect the same culture that erected the visible monuments so physically prominent. As such, they provide additional context to the works of stone and marble more familiarly recognized. That many of these numismatic pieces are directly tied to the monuments through fundraising or commemoration is particularly telling – it reflects a society wishing to commemorate historical figures in a variety of media. 

History itself is indestructible, and repositories like the Newman Numismatic Portal help researchers better understand American history through the broad lens of numismatics. Numismatics, like other forms of public art, helps tell the story not only of historical actors and events, but also how those actors and events were interpreted over time. The modern controversy over statues has helped many more citizens understand that history is not simply the past, but rather how the past is presented to the present and into the future.

Link to previous edition of The Portal Opens: https://nnp.wustl.edu/blog-post/514743.

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Nov 17 2017

Newman Portal Search of the Week

A Newman Portal user this week entered the date “July 12, 1709” into the NNP search. As happens weekly, the search stumps me – I might have done better if they entered “1909-S V.D.B.” instead. It turns out this refers to the inaugural appearance of Connecticut paper money (more precisely a bill of credit), issued pursuant to a May 1709 act “to pay for an aborted expedition against Canada,” per Eric Newman’s Early Paper Money of America. The notes were valid for satisfying tax obligations but not as legal tender. The example illustrated sold in Heritage Auctions’ Newman VII sale (October 2015, lot 18024), for $15,275. Newman’s working notes on this emission are found in the Harley Freeman colonial currency inventory. Newman acquired the Freeman collection in 1963 and extensively edited Freeman’s inventory, leading to the first edition of Early Paper Money in 1967.

Link to Heritage sale: http://currency.ha.com/itm/colonial-notes/connecticut/colony-of-connecticut-july-12-1709-3-shillings-raised-to-10-shillings-fr-ct-3a-pcgs-very-fine-30-apparent/a/3539-18024.s

Link to Harley Freeman inventory on NNP: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/520762?page=174

 

 

 

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Nov 17 2017

Newman Portal Adds American Numismatic Society (ANS) Centennial History

Several weeks ago a Newman Portal user expressed surprise that the ANS Centennial History (1958) was not found on NNP. With the kind permission of the ANS, this volume is now available. The work was published by ANS as a commemoration of its 100-year anniversary and contained papers on a wide range of numismatic topics. Among U.S. authors, Eric Newman and Walter Breen were granted the honor of making contributions on American numismatics. Breen wrote on the early New York engravers Ephraim Brasher and John Bailey, while Newman tackled the mystery of British insignia appearing on post-revolution Vermont state coppers. The problem had vexed researchers as long as the ANS was old, and Newman used a recently excavated example of a counterfeit British halfpence to demonstrate punch-linking between that series and the Vermont coppers. The reconciliation of the historical record with the evidence of the coins themselves is the essence of the numismatic research, showcasing Newman’s ability to attack a problem from multiple directions, advancing the science of numismatics and establishing a high standard for future efforts.

Link to ANS Centennial History on NNP: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/538305

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