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Medal Collecting

Medal Collecting.  Acquiring and bringing together a number of medallic specimens of some related theme, as a topic or thematic. Unlike coin collecting, which is dominated by dates and mintmarks within series, at least in the United States, medal collecting is far more dramatic. It encompasses a universe of varying designs, larger sizes, higher relief, more artistic treatment, far more topics to collect, and better condition of specimens (since, unlike coins, medals do not abrade by circulating). Once only royal families collected medals, exchanging gift medals among themselves. Today medal collecting can be enjoyed by people of all walks of life. However, it does require immense curiosity and a strong intellect for the art and history that medal collecting entails.

Medals’ inherent allure.  Much of the allure of medals is their mystery. Thousands of medals have been created that numismatists have never seen. They come on the market – when they do surface – often from nonnumismatic sources: from estates of recipients, in antique dealers’ stock, even at flea markets and tag sales. One never knows where or when a medal, otherwise unknown, can surface.

Often they are one-of-a-kind. Coin collectors accustomed to multimillion mintages are amazed medals have such rarity. It is never evident how many medals of one kind were made; it could be one, one hundred and one, or a thousand and one (more than that quantity would undoubted have surfaced in the numismatic market). There are no mint reports from medal makers that reveal quantity struck (mintage of medals is very infrequently revealed). Thus, rarity is evident in every medal. (And medals awarded and inscribed make every recipient’s medal unique!)

Medallic inscriptions are usually shortened to reveal only the briefest statement about the event or person portrayed. This also adds somewhat to the mystery. Determining the event – why the medal was issued – is often not that obvious and uncovering this reason, and related facts, is part of the thrill of medal collecting.

But the greatest thrill of all is medallic beauty. Medal designers are less constrained (than coin designers) because they have greater liberty in size, height of relief and technological requirements to create miniature works of art. Medallic beauty abounds!

Medal Collecting in Europe.  Collecting medallic items began in Europe when royal families built large collections by issuing their own medals and exchanging these with other royal families. Many of these were personal medals, bearing images of family members. Others, of course, commemorated important events. A medal prior to the 17th century was, in effect, an early photograph, often a portrait, which could be cast in as many copies as necessary to fulfill family or memorial needs. Large royal collections of medals were created.

The first medals were cast – in 1438 – as were all until the screw press was devised in 1506, both events in Italy. Ever since then, medals have been made by casting, striking, hand engraving, or niello. European artists raised this field to a fine art. It was an art supported, not only by royalty, but by a growing merchant class who were the early private collectors.

National mints in Europe struck medals right from their inception, not only for national events but for private firms as well. The Paris Mint struck medals for collectors since the 17th century. The first private medal manufacturers were European and these flourished in Italy, France, Germany, and England; later in Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Holland and Belgium.

Medal Collecting in America.  Medals were issued in America even before Washington came into office. These were for the public, to be enjoyed by people in all stations of life, not like European royalty. The first medal made in America was advertised March 3, 1790 in The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser. It bore Washington’s portrait and was offered by Jacques Manly of Philadelphia (the medal has been known ever since as the “Manly Medal”). The engraver was Joseph Wright (who later would become the first chief engraver when the United States Mint was formed two years later). Wright engraved the portrait from a Washington painting made in 1784.

From this early beginning, interest in Washington medals grew. But, surprisingly, most were struck back in England at what was to become the first “private mint” – the Soho Mint in Birmingham of Matthew Boulton. He and his associate, James Watt, improved on existing coining presses, the process of making blanks, and the engraving of dies. However, since none of the English die engravers had a picture or likeness of Washington, their depictions of George took on a variety of illusions. He looked like a Roman emperor on one, a uniformed military general on another, a country bumpkin on another, or, on one, even their own ruler George III!

The popularity of George Washington and the many medallic memorials issued in his honor attracted the public’s attention to American medals. This continued, somewhat, for later presidents, particularly Andrew Jackson, and for medals issued for presidential political campaigns.

The medals issued before America became a nation were struck in Europe. These American colonial medals were gathered and cataloged by an American numismatist more than a century after our founding. We call these medals by their cataloger, Betts medals, after C. Wyllys Betts. Having been struck and collected in Europe, it was more than a century before these were collected in America.

Just prior to the Civil War, however, Washington medals were so popular that the United States Mint at Philadelphia issued them in several sizes, including a dime size, called cabinet medals. These were struck in bronze, silver and gold and mated with other presidents on the reverse. Buyers placed them in watch crystal cases and made pendants of them.

In 1859 the top mint official, Superintendent James Ross Snowden, created a Washington medal exhibit at the Mint, wrote a book on the subject, and even struck a medal for the occasion – the Washington Cabinet Medal, 1859. This event was unique in American history: a mint official who became a medal collector, a numismatist, an author and medal issuer!

Despite a flurry of Washington medals issued on the centennial of his taking office in 1889, the collecting of Washington medals began waning in the 1870s. Prices of prized specimens dropped dramatically, and it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that it again attracted sufficient collector’s attention (and prices regained, and even surpassed, 19th century values).

Medals issued for political campaigns, mentioned earlier, grew as the nation grew. A small cottage industry of engraving and diesinking shops sprung up to make token-size medals. Their small presses, however, limited the size they could strike but poured forth medals that candidates could distribute (much like celluloid buttons invented two generations later). Presidential campaigns spurred hundreds of varieties. These same firms also created the thousands of varieties of cent-size tokens caused by the coin shortage near the time of the Civil War.

But the largest impetus for collecting medals, however, occurred at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892-3. Over 600 medals were issued for this occasion, both in foreign countries and in America. In fact, this one event gave rise to the beginning of medal industry in America (see medal manufacturing). These pieces ranged from crude (from makers who had never made medals before), to very elaborate and exquisite pieces from the most talented medalists. Later expositions included medal issuing as well, but not on the scale of the Columbian Exposition.

In 1909 occurred a reason for collectable medals to be issued – the centennial of the birth of Lincoln – and many were. A collector of these, Robert Hewitt Jr., built a large collection, issued two medals, and, as an innovation, bound these two medals in books on Lincoln. His collection was donated to the Smithsonian.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when an explosion in medal collecting occurred with the popularity of proof surface medals. Thousands were issued to supply a market among the public that had been hyped on silver medals as an investment, not necessarily for their art or historical interest.

Simultaneously with the public interest in proof medals came along the American Bicentennial. Medals were issued by everyone imaginable! The nation. States. Cities, Counties. Historical societies. Fraternal organizations.  July 4, 1976 was a magical date.

But the medal boom did not last long past this date, and most of the silver medals were melted in the great silver meltdown of 1980 when the price of silver soared ten times normal. Medal manufacturing companies sprung up to cater to this demand, just as quickly disappeared.

How medals are collected.  Washington medals, campaign medals, exposition medals, or even bicentennial medals, are topics, themes by which medals are acquired and systematically arranged. They are not collected like coins (by date and mint), but by their subject matter. Since literally millions of medals have been made (usually in the most advanced industrial nations), it is impossible to collect them all. In many instances, as with award medals, there may only be one or two issued.

Collectors pick their own topic. They carve out a group, from the many millions of past medals, and choose their own individual collecting specialty. While they define their personal topic, there are, perhaps, 250 or more, popular medal collecting topics. These include: sports (and Olympics, of course), expositions, naval and ships, art, aviation, space, architecture and buildings, animals, religion, music, Masonic, medical – and dozens of other professions – and hundreds of geographical areas (particularly the country their ancestors came from, or the state where they were born or currently reside). These topics for medal collecting are included in a code (which includes tokens as well) called mat code.

If a new collector hasn’t defined what his topic is, he can collect Americana (just about every medal produced in or about America) until he hones in on a more manageable topic. No one can tell a medal collector what to collect, he must choose his personal topic himself.

Usually a collector will collect several topics at any one time, dropping one (and selling off these specimens), to maybe start another, all the while he develops one that becomes a first love, a topic of life-long attraction. This becomes a desire to add to at every occasion, for, unlike coins, a medal collection, it seems, can never be “complete.”

Medal collectors.  There are perhaps 3,000 medal collectors in America, however, no more than 600 to 800 are actively buying at any one time (at end of 20th century). Some coin collectors buy medals for the closeness of medals to coins. Some art collectors buy medals, particularly those created by prominent sculptors. (Collectors of paintings have turned to collecting smaller objects, like medallic art, when their walls are full and they have no more room, for medals are easy to display or store.) Some historians buy medals for the association of a medal to a historical field or subject of their interest. But, always, the dedicated medal collector acquires specimens to be included in his chosen topic.

There have been some prominent medal collectors in America. Philanthropist John Pierpont Morgan was an active collector. ...

It must be noted that medal recipients are different from medal collectors. Prominent inventors, for example, receive many awards. The Edison and Wright brothers estates each have a large medal collection, yet none were medal collectors. These were strictly award medals.

Medal collections in American museums.  It seems every local museum has medals in its collections. And perhaps this is proper, it is serving a local area, it should have medals of local interest. There are, however, some quite large medal collections in public museums. Adjacent is a brief list of American museums with medals in their holdings (major collections noted).

∙ Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC – very large; contains some intact collections: National collection, King Collection of Lincoln, Kress Collection of Renaissance (in National Gallery of Art), Lilly Collection, others; many duplicates.

∙ American Numismatic Society, NY City – extensive; Eitlitz Collection of Architecture, medals of their own issue.

∙ American Numismatic Association, Colorado Springs, Colo. – large; from many donated sources.

∙ Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY City – American, European, high artistic content.

∙ New-York Historical Society, NY City – Extensive, U.S. Obviously many New York City medals.

∙ Museum of the City of New York, NY – New York City medals.

∙ Jewish Museum, NY City – Extensive Jewish medals, Samuel Friedenberg Collection medals and plaques.

∙ Newark Museum, Newark, NJ – large, includes Frank Liveright Collection, Whitehead & Hoag (a producer of medals in the city, donated by Whitehead family).

∙ Yale Collection, New Haven, Conn. – large, as department within the library.

Johns Hopkins University Evergreen House Foundation, Baltimore, MD – Medical medals.

   ∙ College of Physicians of Philadelphia, PA – Medical medals.

∙ University of Illinois Classical and European Culture Museum, Urbana, IL – Classical medals.

∙ R.W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, LA – Modern medals.

∙ Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME – Large Malloinili Collection of Renaissance medals.

∙ Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD – Art medals, plaques.

∙ U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, MD – Naval medals, Malcolm Storer Naval Collection.

∙ United States Military Academy, West Point Museum. West Point, NY – military


∙ United States Airforce Academy, Colorado Springs – aviation medals.

∙ Baker University Library, Baldwin, KS – Small, Arthur B. Coole Collection Oriental medals.

∙ Boston Medical Library (as part of Harvard Libraries of Medicine), Boston, MA – ∙ Medical medals (4,000), Malcolm Storer Medical Collection.

∙ Delta State University Department of Art, Cleveland, MS – James A. Townes Medal Collection.

∙ Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit – Detroit medals.

∙ Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis – Lindbergh medals.

∙ Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ – Small, Arthur L. Newman Collection aviation medals.

∙ Knights of Columbus Headquarters Museum, New Haven, CT – Columbus medals.

∙ Historical Soc of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – W.S. Baker Collection of Washington medals.

    ∙ Franklin Mint Museum, Franklin Center, PA – modern medals.

∙ Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, CA – Jewish medals of their issue.

∙ Miami University, Miami, FL – Theodore Spicer-Simpson collection of medals.

∙ Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, SC – medals as art objects.

∙Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. John E. Marqusee Collection of American art medals.

ME. John E. Marqusee Collection of American art plaques.

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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