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Medals

In 2010, the world will see a new U.S. circulating commemorative series, America’s Beautiful National Parks quarter dollar series. The act was created in 2008 to celebrate one national site in each of the states and territories. All 55 sites must be of historic or natural significance.

One unique aspect of this law is that for the first time in U.S. numismatic history, each quarter will be accompanied by a kind of legal-tender medal, or “coin-medal.” The same quarter designs will be reproduced in five ounces of silver. These will technically be 25-cent coins, but three inches across in size. Don’t look for any vending machines capable of accepting them.

Is an increase in medal collecting coming?

These beautiful behemoths will be a combination of precious metal bullion investment and work of art. The weight and fineness will be stamped on the edge. Imagine how the Grand Canyon will look engraved upon one of these.

Collectors of U.S. coins will be in for a new treat, but world coin and medal collectors are already familiar with these palm-sized heavyweights. Nations like Canada, Mexico, Russia, China, France and Singapore have minted them since the 1980s, as coins or medals or both.

A side effect of the issuance of 5- ounce silver coins from the U..S Mint will undoubtedly be an increased interest in other 5-ounce coins and medals. The down side is that prices for older ones could rise but on the plus side, with greater interest will come more availability. Other world mints may release new monster medals and coins to accommodate demand.


Medallic Advantage

Medalists will tell you that the objects of their desire are coins without restrictions. Medals can be produced privately without government approval, which exempts them from much of the political wrangling that coin design must endure. Medals are free to be more creative and innovative, and simply more stunning. Medals don’t have to fit in the pocket, so they can be any shape and size.

Medals come in many price ranges. Happily, since collectors only amass one of each design, as opposed to coin folk who must purchase many of the same due to date and mintmark differences, there is more bang for the hobby buck.

Certain medals and medal types can be a fine investment. Since they are not circulated in the same way that coins are, medals are more likely to be uncirculated or nearly so, many decades after minting. Thus, they retain their highest values longer. Some types sell for surprisingly high amounts, for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Indian Peace, coronation, inauguration, military, space-flown, Olympic, and Carnegie hero medals are just a few examples of types from which very valuable examples originate.


Top 10 list

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules for what makes a great medal. But there are general features that a lot of medalists look for. Here are just 10 of those features, and an example from somewhere in the world to illustrate each.


1. Infinite space and optical illusion

A well designed medal can make use of optical illusions to create an infinite space. This 150-year old brass Italian commemorative manages to transport the viewer inside a cavernous 3-D temple; yet the vehicle is only about two inches in diameter.

The reverse of this medal says it was made in Padua, Italy, in 1842 to celebrate the Fourth Annual Science Convention. Depicted below the wording is the Palazzo della Ragione, with its great hall on the upper floor, said to have the largest roof unsupported by columns in all of Europe. On the obverse is an ancient Roman temple. Padua (Padova) was once an ancient Roman stronghold, and an important medieval and Renaissance city.

 
2. Evoking Emotion

Some medals capture what no trap can hold: Human emotion. Their role is to tell a story, illustrate a feeling, and leave us thinking. This is no easy task but when the artist accomplishes it, the result is powerful and unforgettable.

This 1.5 inch diameter copper U.S. Mint Red Cross commemorative is the smaller collector version of the centennial medal minted in 1981. The legend, “People Helping People” is brought to life by the depiction of a volunteer embracing a victim of disaster. This is more than just a hug. This worker is offering solace, security and comfort. It is easy to imagine how relieved and grateful the recipient of this help must feel. The simple reverse shows the famous international symbol of aid, the Red Cross cross.

 
3. Creative approach to a difficult subject

There are subjects that are often seen on medals and that because of their shape or size, can be very challenging to portray in an interesting manner. When it comes to animals, snakes are a good example. Whether used as part of a Chinese lunar horoscope of animals, in a biblical story of Adam and Eve, or in a collection of wildlife or endangered species, snakes are tough to depict in any creative way. Their bodies are simple, thin and long, not exactly conducive to the metallic arts.

The snake on this bronze medal grabs your attention and keeps it. Made by the Shanghai Mint in 2001 for China’s “Year of the Snake” celebration, the mintage is only 3,000. The reverse says “snake” in Chinese and in English. The medal is large, thick and heavy. Size is 3 1/8th inches across.

The artist matched the round shape of the cobra’s hood to the roundness of the medal, to the betterment of both. The relief is high and the scales of the snake, which can be a challenge to do well, are realistic and detailed. There isn’t room for much more than the terrifying visage of a cobra about to spit venom into its prey’s eyes, but the artist managed to squeeze in the date, 2001, three leaves, and a large scarab beetle holding on to one of them. This setting is not unbelievable as cobras can and do climb trees in pursuit of their favorite meal: Other snakes.

 
4. Use of color

Color is a tool that medal makers use more readily than coin designers. There are three basic ways to employ color. The first involves different colors of metal, such as a bimetallic made with silver and bronze or gold-plating over another metal. Secondly, metal can be finished or polished to create color, i.e., a proof bronze with subtle shades of red, gold and brown. Finally, color is used in the form of enameling and painting.

A medal doesn’t necessarily need color to wow us, but sometimes, color adds a touch that nothing else can accomplish as well. When color is used wisely, the effect is a delight to the eyes.
Color is used with elegant simplicity on this medal, and the effect is dramatic. Only one match tip is red but this is all that we need to know instantly what is depicted here.

This 2005 square bronze medal is 3 3/4 by 2 1/8 inches in size. Made in the shape of a matchbox, it was created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. There are at least two Andersen tales to which this design pays homage: the “Leaping Match” and the “Little Match Girl.” The obverse shows Andersen surveying various scenes and locations from his stories.

The Shanghai Mint sold this medal (mintage, 666) with a booklet printed in Chinese and English that contains a set of Chinese postage stamps depicting the different fairy tales of Andersen. Why would China honor a Danish writer with both medal and postage stamps? In Chinese culture, folk tales, fairy tales and story tellers are very important. The English translation of the Certificate of Authenticity says, “… the writer is immortal.”

 
5. Creative perspective

Teachers of “gifted and talented” children know that creative perspective is a sign of high intelligence. G/T kids will often draw everyday objects from a unique viewpoint, i.e., an automobile from the back, instead of from the side. Fortunately, everyone enjoys a creative view, no matter what their IQ. And when a medal shows us an ordinary scene from a creative perspective, the result is serendipity, a happy surprise.

The challenge to putting a tall building like the Empire State Building in New York City on a small round medal is obvious. How do you capture the beauty of the building without making it so small it looks like little more than an architectural blob?

This medal solves the problem with creative use of perspective. We look down on the building, a viewpoint that gives us an excellent sense of its height, relative to other buildings.
Made by the Danbury Mint, this 1.5 inch diameter sterling silver medal commemorates the completion of the Empire State in 1931, the tallest building in the world at that time.

 
6. Unexpected perspective

An unexpected perspective is a creative viewpoint turned upside down and inside out. It is not just a surprise. It may momentarily confuse us. Unexpected perspectives invite us to study the medal, turn it around, think about it for a minute and then say, “Ah … I get it!” These medals take chances and aren’t afraid to be daring.

This is a bug’s eye view of downtown Philadelphia. Unlike the New York City medal that shows us a downward view, this perspective is straight up. One would almost have to lay down in the middle of an intersection to get this perspective in person. Interestingly, the reverse is the opposite of a bug’s eye view. It is more like an astronaut’s eye view, showing Earth from space.

This silver 1.5 inch medal was struck by the Franklin Mint for the Philadelphia Convention and Tourist Bureau. It celebrates the U.S. Bicentennial of 1976.
 

7. High relief

High relief is a technical term for the depth of the images on the medal. High relief medals are struck many times to create elements that plunge deep into the metal.

High relief is the antidote to boring. It makes use of the metal in the medal, as opposed to low relief designs that may look more like lines scratched into the surface. People who enjoy high relief medals say there is no such thing as too much of it. High relief equals drama and excitement because the three-dimensional effect is more reminiscent of the actual object it portrays.

At first glance, this medal reminds many people of President Nixon, but the man depicted only visited America. He was, however, a president.

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) became president of Argentina in 1868. Before that, he traveled widely and studied educational systems, especially those in the United States. He was known in his country as a great educational reformer. The obverse is complemented by a Tree of Knowledge on the reverse, Sarmiento’s name written across a ribbon, and the dates marking the centennial of his death.

At its widest point on the edge, it is 7/16ths of an inch. There are several areas where the relief on the obverse is more than a quarter of an inch deep.

The Argentina Numismatic Association sponsors medals of many shapes and sizes with themes that are far-ranging. Some of them, like this one, are highly creative. Signed on both sides by the artist, Pages, and the medal factory, Piana, this huge silvered bronze medal is 3 1/8inches across.


 8. Detail, detail, detail

The more detail, the more realistic a medal’s portrayal becomes. And the more realistic something is, the more we can identify with it and thus, enjoy it. Detail is always a challenge for both the artist and the mint charged with preserving details in every medal struck. But when detail is a priority, the result can be breathtaking.

Birds are a popular subject on coins and medals, but rarely do the designs do them justice. The reason is feathers. Feathers are never easy to sculpt or draw, but this medal does a fine job of showing each of the bald eagle’s feathers in their full glorious detail.

This U.S. Mint 1.5-inch copper medal is from the 2003 National Wildlife medal series. This highly successful medal series was a fast sellout in the limited edition silver, in part, because of the amount of detail in the animals depicted on them. The animals included the canvasback duck, salmon, elk and bald eagle.

 
9. Effective use of the round   

Medals come in all sizes and shapes, but like coins, are more likely to be round than anything else. Occasionally, a subject is found that was meant to be commemorated in the round or is sculpted in such a way as to take proper advantage of the shape of the planchet. When the artist makes full use of the round, the results are a joy to behold.

Human beings have always gazed at the stars but Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to gaze at the planet from outer space. His April 12, 1961 flight in the Vostok I lasted a bit less than two hours, but that was long enough to change everything. Eight years, three months, and eight days later, an American astronaut would be the first to walk on the moon.

Since his untimely death in an automobile accident, Russia has honored Gagarin on many different coins and medals, but this high relief version of him in his space helmet is particularly popular. This design is a perfect marriage of subject and medallic shape.
 

10. Creative use of different shapes

There is no rulebook for medals. They can even be made up of more than one part. A few medals have two or more parts that fit together like a puzzle. Usually, each part can stand alone but the grouping of all parts is more dramatic.

Hand fans are used in China for various ceremonies and can have great cultural importance. This puzzle medal features a round panda design in the center surrounded by six fan-shaped medals. The design on one side of the fans is floral while the other has a selection of animals, both real and mythical.

This septuplet medal is evidence that deception can be beautiful, and medals can be counterfeited like coins. It was designed to look like a genuine solid gold and silver set when it is actually silver and gold plated bronze. The enameled panda center has the Temple of Heaven on its reverse, a design common with many Chinese gold and silver coins. To the right of the panda’s head is the marking “24K.” The silver-plated fans are marked with purity and weight: “.999 Ag 1/2 oz.” As with most counterfeits, the weight is off, in this case too low.

I was lucky. This interesting puzzle medal was sold to me by an honest Hong Kong merchant who described and priced it as a plated bronze replica, but many of these have appeared at online auction sites portrayed dishonestly. Medal collectors have to be cautious, too.

 
Summary

Medals are coins unbridled and yet they still educate and celebrate, just like coins. As a non-collector friend noted when viewing the medals in this article, “These are like coins on steroids!” Creative medals will always have that kind of effect on people. That is exactly what they are meant to do.

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