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Art Medal

Art Medal.  A medallic item made from artists' models, generally multiple struck or cast and given a patina finish to enhance its total appearance. Art medals are distinct from token-like (or coin-like) medals which are usually single struck and have no patina or finish other than that produced by a coining press. While art medals are miniature works

of art created by artists and craftsmen (with many hand operations), token-like medals are mass-produced, mechanical diestruck objects. The major difference between the two types of medals are the press on which they are struck Art medals are never struck on coining presses and exemplifies the field of medallic art.

In the United States the first use of the term "art medal," in the above meaning, was in 1914 in a list of medallic work produced in 1913 and published in the American Journal of Numismatics. The article – written by Thomas Louis Compartte, then curator of the United States Mint numismatic collection – was divided into three sections: Coins, art medals and commercial medals. The term art medal first appeared on two American medals late in 1929, both by John R. Sinnock, then chief engraver at the United States Mint, Philadelphia. Both art medals bore portraits and were struck by Medallic Art Company, New York City: the first was for the official visit to America by J. Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minister of Great Britain, the other, a Thomas Alva Edison Plaquette.

The term fell somewhat into disuse until August 1966 when the president of Medallic Art Company, William T. Louth, at a speech before the educational program of the convention of the American Numismatic Association, pleaded for the return of the use of the term by collectors and the numismatic press. The numismatic field responded. Collectors and writers have, indeed, used the term more extensively ever since.

How art medals differ.  Art medals differ from nonart medals at every step of production. The major difference is the press upon which they are struck and this influences every aspect of their design, production and appearance. Nonart medals are usually struck on coining presses, art medals are struck on medal presses, or produced by other methods of reproduction (casting, electroforming, niello, others). Thus there is a limitation or restriction on nonart medals that does not exist for art medals. (In fact art medals inspired the creation of medallic objects which go even farther in pushing the creative design of glyptic objects to the utmost form and appear to have no restrictions at all in their creation.)

Thus nonart medals are very limited, restricted, constrained, while art medals do not have these restrictions. The type of press influences many things: the dies used in their striking, how the die is made, the size of the piece, the kind of relief, the need to be produced with a single blow, the use of a collar, the shape of the edge, the need for a rim, and ultimately, the kind of finish.

In contrast, without these restraints; art medals do not even need to be diestruck!

From concept to execution the artist is encouraged to be as artistic as he wishes. Typically an art medal is modeled oversize and reduced by die-engraving pantograph which can then be struck with permanent dies. Nonart medal dies are, typically, made by tracer controlled engraving from a two-dimensional drawing or template and the relief added afterwards. Modeled designs can be more realistic, lifelike and artistic. Tracer-controlled designs appear more stiff, stilted and frozen.

            Art medals may even omit any lettering (these are called anepigraphic). The

design must tell the entire story, like a painting, sculpture or other work of art without the need for a caption. While inscriptions are a characteristic of all coins and most medals, art medals have the option to omit this.

In addition to the kind of press on which they are struck the attached table spells out in more detail the distinction between art medals and nonart medals.

________Art_Medal_______            ______Nonart_Medal______

Medal, medallion, plaque,           1.         Coin, coin-like medal;

plaquette                                  ITEM      token, token-like medal

Highly artistic design,                 2.          Distinctive design (to

modeling and execution     ARTISTIC  distinguish from other

                                             ASPECT    coins, tokens); often lacks

                                                                 artistic design

No denomination                        3.         Usually has denomination

                                              VALUE    or value, expressed or implied

Cast, struck, multiple                  4.         Most always single struck

struck, other method;              HOW      (in a coining press);

often elaborate process;         MADE     simplest coining method

but never struck on a

coining press.


Has patina finish                        5.        Has no patina or finish

                                             FINISH    other than that produced by


May be any size, mostly           6.         Almost always smaller

larger than 2 inches               SIZE       than 2 inches

Full range of relief,                   7.         Very low relief required

from intaglio to high           RELIEF   (for single strike relief;

most often high                                      coining)

Full range of edge                    8.         Limited range of edge

treatments; almost never      EDGE    treatments (from collar);

reeded                                                  most often reeded

Variety of borders, rims,          9.         Rim (for stacking) almost

or none at all                         RIM       always required

Can be decorated with            10.        Never intentionally

wide variety of items;         DECOR- decorated or mounted

enamels, jewels, stones,      ATION

appliques; many types of



NC5 {1914} Comparette.

O56  {2010} Maier.

Classical – Design with emphasis on harmony, proportion, balance, and simplicity. It places great importance on beauty. First employed by artists in Greek and Roman times, and certainly evident in their coin designs. Thus it is the oldest of all formal art movements. When it was revived in Europe in late 18th and early 19th centuries it was called neoclassical. When it is copied in modern times, perhaps with less emphasis on beauty, it is called pseudoclassical.

Art Movements. Artistic styles having common methods of expression or presentation and employed by a number of artists. Determining an art movement depends on recognizing a style used by more than one artist in the treatment of their subjects; for coin and medal design it is the use of similar shapes, texture and artistic mannerisms. Naming these styles aids the art community in writing and speaking of each art style as its own entity. The artists who create in similar style are often close in time or location (as one artist may imitate another whose style he admires). When close in time it is sometimes called a “period” or a movement.

Art movements have changed with time. Early art stressed religious themes in fixed style. The Renaissance served as a rebirth with freer expression. In later years new movements arose as artists experimented more, giving birth to those art movements listed here (and many others). Artists sometimes trained together giving rise to a collective work of a school of art. In other forms of art, as painting and sculpture, these styles are often called “ism” as impressionism.

Some typical art movements – classical, renaissance, abstract, modern – indeed do apply to medallic art; many others do not, as constructivism, cubism, dadaism, minimalism, pop art, surrealism for example. The requirements of coins and medals, predominately that being reproduced in metal of monochromatic color, prohibit some art movements in medallic design. Thus the art movements of painting, where color is so dominate, do not transfer to medallic art, the art movements of sculpture, however, are more inviting. (Color in medallic art can be implied by texture; there is a set scheme of line direction that indicates color. See HERALDRY.)

In modern times strict art movements have somewhat disappeared, replaced by contemporary art, where individualism and diversity prevail. Thus coin and medal artists develop their own personal style of medallic design (and no other artist as yet has imitated their style). See STYLE and TECHNIQUE.

Native American Art Movements. “Federal Style” should be mentioned (see list) since it was a truly American creation. The first coins struck at the early U.S. Mint were created in a somewhat neoclassic style. However, the use of the head of Liberty, the stylized eagle and stars as subsidiary devices – even though influenced by French coin designs – were uniquely American in presentation.

Lesser known, the Philadelphia School of Art occurred in the second half of the 19th century. It was influenced by the Federal Style but without subsidiary devices. It was usually of a single obverse device, and otherwise pseudoclassic. Obviously, it flourished among Philadelphia coin and medal artists, both inside and outside the U.S. Mint, but the work of all private medal makers in Philadelphia following the Civil War was of this stark, stiff style devoid of decoration and embellishment.

MEDALLIC OBJECTS can be traced to the eight productions by six American artists in 1965. Perhaps this can be said to be the first modern art in American art medals. While America created the first medallic objects, the French developed this new media to a fine art in its own right.

References: CLASS 03.2

D21 {1971} Vermeule. Introduces term ederal style for early American coins.  E25 {2014} Johnson, Who’s Who Among American Medallists . Introduction identifies eight art movements employed in American coins and medals.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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