By John Kraljevich – www.jkamericana.com
Medals have been collected as long as coins in America, in fact, for decades they were once even more popular. Before the Civil War, far more Americans pursued medals than coins, either foreign or domestic. Medals remained popular even after the death of the large cent created a wave of new date collectors, and for the remainder of the 19th century a cabinet was barely a cabinet without them. Most of the great name collections of the 20th century (Norweb, Garrett, Bass, Boyd-Ford, etc) had a significant medal portion as well.
American historical medals have been big business for at least a decade, since the $100,000 mark was first crossed for a large size Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace medal in the 2001 LaRiviere sale, which was also the first time a collection made up solely of medals brought over $1 million. Now, in the post-Ford era, such realizations are almost commonplace, with more and more medals selling for over $10,000 and the $100,000 mark crossed at least once annually.
Now that even 20th century coins hit six figures regularly and late 20th century pieces in top grade flirt with the $10,000 mark more often than anyone could have imagined a decade ago, it shouldn’t be surprising that rare, high condition, and historic medals would be hitting the same high notes.
2011 was another big year for medals, with nearly three dozen medals crossing the five-figure threshold at public auction. Surely many more traded privately at similar numbers as well.
1. The 1780 Virginia Happy While United medal. Offered for the first time publicly in the September 2011 StacksBowers Americana sale, this is the discovery specimen in silver for this rare early American Indian Peace medal. Conceived and shepherded through the production process by Governor Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Happy While United was distributed in silver to Indian tribes whose lands bordered Virginia during the American Revolution and for a few years thereafter. Though a couple of bronze examples have surfaced over the years – considered to be mold patterns or undistributed “proofs” of a sort – this silver example was the first that could have been assumed to have been given to a Native American. Despite its broken mount, its history and rarity carried it to the highest price of 2011: $109,250.
2. Another new discovery offered in the September StacksBowers auction, the only bronze 1781 Nathaniel Greene medal with provenance to its original recipient, brought $86,250. One of just 24 struck in 1787 from dies that were never used to make restrikes, this one belonged to Lt. Col
Lewis Morris and was accompanied by letters from John Jay and Charles Thompson. Writing as the Secretary of State and the secretary of Congress, the Jay and Thompson documents presented this example from the Continental Congress in recognition of Morris’ service as one of Greene’s staff. Each of Greene’s closest assistants received a bronze example, though this is the only one to survive with its paper trail – and it survived in a state that places it among the finest known. Greene was considered the most able of the Continental Army’s officers aside from Washington, and his victories in the southern theatre helped Washington and Lafayette successfully surround Cornwallis at Yorktown.
3. The Libertas Americana medal has pretty much always been the most popular medal in America. It was the unanimous pick for the number 1 ranking in the 100 Greatest U.S. Tokens and Medals book, and had the book been written 100 years earlier, the response probably would have been the same. Since the two gold specimens struck for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette haven’t been seen since the French Revolution, the best a collector can hope for is a nice example in silver or copper format. Silver examples are nearly an order of magnitude more expensive than bronze ones in similar condition. The nicest to sell in 2011 was sold in the March StacksBowers sale, bringing $80,500. It was graded AU-55 by PCGS, who announced in 2011 that they would be grading some medals but have seemingly only graded Libertas Americana medals so far. To the Federal coin collectors who are the most ardent pursuers of Libertas Americana medals, having these medals encapsulated makes their entry into the high-end medal market much less nervewracking. Needless to say, they make impressive display items next to the early Federal coins whose designs they inspired.
4. Speaking of medals of interest to collectors of Federal coins, there is perhaps no medal that speaks more to collectors of 19th century US gold coins more than the one struck to honor Captain William Herndon of the SS Central America. The “Ship of Gold” sank in a hurricane off North Carolina in 1857, and the recovery its enormous treasure of gold coins and bars is perhaps the biggest numismatic news story of the last two decades. Far less known than the 1857-S $20 gold pieces and the enormous ingots brought up from briny depths is the medal that the Commonwealth of Virginia authorized to present to Herndon’s widow. While just one specimen was struck in gold, at least two were produced in silver, along with a small number of bronze examples. Even bronze pieces are rare and command five-figure sums. No silver piece had surfaced publicly since the 1981 Garrett sale, but a specimen that had apparently never been offered at auction (or at least not within living memory) appeared in the August StacksBowers ANA sale as Lot 7193. It was paired with the original scroll presented by the Virginia House of Burgesses to Hernon’s window, which had been acquired by the consignor some thirty years ago. The price realized of $74,750 staggered many observers, and was a reflection of not only the medal’s gem quality and extraordinary rarity, but the interest in this wreck from well- moneyed collectors.
5. Any list of America’s best known and most well regarded medalists will include Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His first major medal was produced in 1889 for the centennial celebration of Washington’s inauguration. At the time, Saint-Gaudens was perhaps America’s leading sculptor, and convincing him to produce the celebration’s official medal was a coup. In keeping with his Renaissance inspiration, the medal he produced is the modern descendant of the works by Italians like Pisanello, who created cast portraits en medaille of many of the Italian Renaissance’s leading figures. The bronze versions of Saint-Gaudens 1889 Washington medal are plentiful and fairly inexpensive (under $750) despite their substantial size and masterful portrait of our first President. The silver examples, however, are very rare; just three have surfaced. One of them sold in the September StacksBowers Americana sale for $34,500.
6. Like number 3, number 6 is a Libertas Americana medal, though one in bronze, graded MS-64 BN by NGC. Pretty much any MS-graded Libertas Americana medal (regardless of actual wear or quality) is a five-figure item nowadays, after being underappreciated for decades. A few hundred bronze examples were struck in 1782, and Benjamin Franklin, who masterminded the project and paid for the medals’ production, regarded the bronze strikings as his favorite. The nicest example to sell in 2011 brought $31,625 in the August StacksBowers ANA sale. At the end of the year, MS-63 and MS-62 examples graded by PCGS brought $19,550 and $16,100, respectively.
7. The first 20th century medal to crack the top 10 brought $28,750, a gem matte proof 1925 Norse-American medal in gold offered in Classical Numismatic Group’s Sale 87, a mail-bid auction that closed in May. Just 47 specimens of this Congressionally authorized medal were distributed in gold; more than half of the 100 minted were melted at the time. Today, these tiny octagonal gold pieces are avidly sought by advanced collectors of US commemorative coins, who adopted the silver versions of the Norse-American medal into their type set decades ago.
8. Though Heritage Auctions no longer conducts token and medal sales, they still occasionally offer important (and expensive) medals in their auctions. Number 8 was actually offered not in a Heritage numismatic sale, but one of their Historical Americana offerings, an auction of artifacts and manuscripts conducted in May. Bringing an impressive $26,290, the medal was struck by the US Mint in 1854 to mark Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s successful visit to Japan. While bronze specimens turn up with relative frequency from a mintage of 107, just 20 silver examples are thought to have been produced. Most are pretty ugly, and this one was nicer than most, graded Extremely Fine by the auction house. Its price was surprising, particularly considering that a similar medal was then in a dealer’s stock in similar or finer condition at half the price. Such is the unpredictability of medal auctions!
9. Surprisingly, the august and avidly sought category of Indian Peace medals is not represented until number 9 on our list, a reflection of the dearth of high quality IPMs in today’s marketplace. Just four years after the largest collection of Indian Peace medals ever formed hit the auction block – the collection of John J. Ford, Jr. – these medals no longer appear at auction or in dealer inventories. Despite the significant expense that the purchase of even one authentic silver Indian Peace medal represents, all of Ford’s seem to have found collector homes. At $25,875, the silver Washington Seasons medal sold in the August StacksBowers ANA sale brought less than it did when sold in 2006, surprising considering the extraordinary history and rarity of the medal. Three types of Seasons medals were produced, each designed by the famous American artist (and Revolutionary War hero) John Trumbull and struck in England by Boulton and Watt. This particular one was the so-called “Spinner,” which Trumbull called “Home,” depicting a domestic scene inside an 18th century American household. The first use of these medals wasn’t until the Adams administration, though they were authorized during Washington’s presidency. Some were carried west by Lewis and Clark. This is the only American Indian Peace medal issue to be distributed officially in both silver and copper. Silver ones, as here, are the most avidly sought. Ironically, they are similarly scarce as the large size Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace medals, which almost always bring six figures and have brought as much as $345,000.
10. Just as the Libertas Americana medal has two entries, so too does the 1889 Washington Inauguration Centennial medal by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. A $23,000 auction realization in the September StacksBowers Americana sale places this one at a tie for number 10 among the year’s most expensive medals, but number 1 on a much more unusual and esoteric list: that of medal patterns. This particular entry is for one of Saint-Gaudens prototype medals in bronze, one of just two or three known. While the general design is the same as the issued medal, the letterforms are less refined and the positions are different, suggesting an earlier state of Saint- Gaudens (and assistant Philip Martiny’s) design process. Call it a pattern, or a die variety, but it’s certainly one of the most valuable bronze medals from the 19th century.
10T. The only 20th century to hit the top 10 list is a third entry by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: the majestic medal he produced to celebrate the 1905 inauguration of his friend and partner-in-crime, Theodore Roosevelt. Just 125 were cast by Tiffany, and this modern rarity has become the king of the inaugural medals, bringing as much as the rare 1801 medal produced for Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration. Federal coin collectors will recognize the eagle on the reverse, which Saint-Gaudens recycled for use on his Indian $10 gold piece. The obverse legend AEQVVM CVIQVE is a rough translation of Roosevelt’s campaign promise of a “square deal.” Joe Levine’s Presidential Coin and Antique Company got $23,000 for this piece in their June Baltimore auction.
http://www.maineantiquedigest.com/catalogs/Auction81MAD.pdf (Lot 342)
The following medals represent the rest of the top 30.
12. 1921 Warren Harding Inaugural medal. Presidential Coin and Antique Company, June 2011. $21,850.
13. 1925 Calvin Coolidge Inaugural medal. Presidential Coin and Antique Company, June 2011. $20,700.
13T. 1905 Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural medal. StacksBowers, September 2011. $20,700
13T. (1777) George III Lion and Wolf Indian Peace medal. StacksBowers, September 2011. $20,700.
16. (1782) Libertas Americana medal. StacksBowers, November 2011. $19,550.
17. (ca. 1740-50) Louis XV Honos et Virtus Indian Peace medal. eBay, November 2011. $17,990.12
18. 1931 American Academy of Arts and Sciences Count Rumford Gold medal. StacksBowers, September 2011. $17,825.
19. (1782) Libertas Americana medal reverse splasher in tin. StacksBowers, August 2011. $17,250.
19T. 1921 Warren Harding Inaugural medal. StacksBowers, March 2011. $17,250.
21. (1782) Libertas Americana medal. StacksBowers, November 2011. $16,100.
21T. 1628 Capture of the Spanish Fleet by Piet Heyn medal. StacksBowers, September 2011. $16,100.
25. 1951 National Academy of Science Alexander Agassiz medal in gold. StacksBowers, March 2011. $12,650.
26. 1925 Norse-American medal, large size, silver-plated bronze. StacksBowers, August 2011. $11,500.
26T. 1925 Norse-American medal, large size, silver-plated bronze. StacksBowers, August 2011. $11,500.
28. 1862 Abraham Lincoln Indian Peace medal in silver. StacksBowers, August 2011. $10,925.
29. (1777) Carlos III Al Merito Indian Peace medal. eBay, November 2011. $10,100.
30. (ca. 1761) George III and Charlotte Indian Peace medal. StacksBowers, September 2011. $8,625.
John Kraljevich is a full time professional numismatist specializing in early American and colonial coins, American historical medals, and numismatic Americana. His website is www.jkamericana.com.