For those of us who have been serious aficionados of one coin series or another, often for years or decades, the world of medals might be one we know of but have never really dug into all that deeply. After all, coin series have specific start points, and for those that are not current series, specific ends. The common dates are known, as are the key and semi-key coins. Medals may seem like a very different animal by comparison. Price lists and mintages figures are not there, easy to be found. Subjects and prices vary widely. Even the term is used loosely – for awards from sporting events, to military decorations, to what are called art medals. And yet there are many connections between understanding and collecting medals, and doing the same for coins. Perhaps the most obvious are the artists, the people who create them.
Every two years, the world’s largest organization of medal artists and other aficionados of the medal comes together at the FIDEM congress. The acronym is a French one: “Federation Internationale de la Medaille,” which is pretty easily translated to: International Federation of the Medal. Held at a different location each time, this year’s federation or medals congress was in Ottawa, Ontario, hosted in large part by the Royal Canadian Mint and the Canadian Museum of Nature. It featured artists, scholars, collectors and others who are interested in any aspect of medal making and collecting.
As with many professional gatherings, there were also some events and attractions specific to this particular meeting. This FIDEM gathering was opened by several dignitaries, including an Algonquian grandmother-healer who gave a native blessing to those assembled. As well, a traditional town herald in 18th-century regalia opened the first evening reception in the Rotunda Room of the Museum of Nature, where the full display of artists’ medals were first seen.
The Congress Medal
As might be imagined, one of the stellar aspects of a medals congress is the official congress medal. For FIDEM 2018, the official medal is the work of Susan Taylor, the recently retired Senior Engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint. The massive, five-sided medal honors both Canada and women, as the theme of the meeting was “Women in Science.”
Despite the beauty and skill of the design, one can imagine that choosing a single medal to be the official one for this congress had to be tough, as there were many others from artists around the world that were also extremely impressive. Eugene Daub and Jim Licaretz were just two of the highly accomplished U.S. artists whose visually stunning work was also displayed. Others well known among medals collectors and aficionados whose work was at FIDEM included: Mashiko, Marie Jean Lederman, George Cuhaj, Anne-Lise Deering, Heidi Wastweet and Jeanne Stevens-Sollman.
The technical program
A medals congress is more than just the display of medals, however. Since it is a gathering of artists, as well as other interested people, it only makes sense that there are talks and workshops on everything from different techniques in creating medals to appreciation of the artistry and artwork of people who have gone before. There is a wealth of information for anyone, novice or expert, who wants to learn more about this aspect of numismatics. And, of course, any meeting of folks in a specific field means there are plenty of chances for individuals to get together, talk about their art and craft, re-connect with old friends, and make new ones.
How to collect?
For any of us who have focused exclusively on coins, and are thus new to medals, perhaps the biggest question will be, when expanding our collecting interests from those various coin series to something like medals, how do we do it? Since there are no books or holders with pre-cut holes, and no defined series, how do we go about determining where to start such a collection, how big we should make it, and where might we wish to stop?
The easiest answer to a large question like this is: collect what you like. If your interest is in a specific subject, such as animals, well, there are certainly many representations from which to choose. If you are interested in a specific theme – such as medals of the Olympics, for example – again, it’s really just a matter of taking some time and finding medals related to that theme (and yes, there are plenty of medals from past Olympic Games that an interested person can purchase).
As a further example, as mentioned, the recent FIDEM congress had “Women in Science” as its theme and had hundreds of medals submitted all addressing it in some way or another. There have been plenty of depictions of women on medals prior to this meeting, although there are quite a few more now.
But if even this seems like too broad an approach, why not go to a place most of us are very familiar with, the United States Mint – or at least its website? Like many national mints, the United States Mint produces not only the circulating coins for the country and the collector issues but also a series of medals. Often those authorized by Congress, the Mint has numerous medals for sale, often as 3” bronzes or less expensive 1½” bronzes.
In the past few years, the Mint has produced what we can fairly call a series of medals that honor the men and women who fought in the Second World War. More than one medal has been produced for the Native American code talkers, who helped win the war in the Pacific. Virtually all the designs are eye-catching, and in building a collection of them, a person will learn a great deal more about that conflict than we can by watching old war movies. Plus, the prices make such an endeavor quite affordable. Take a look at the Mint website (www.usmint.gov), as there are many other medals there, honoring different people or groups, as well.
That word “affordable” can be a real key when it comes to collecting medals, whatever the theme or focus of your growing collection is. Using another theme as an example, there is a long history of medals made to honor one pope or another. It doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize that there are probably a lot related to Pope John Paul II, since he held the papacy for decades.
It probably takes no imagination at all to realize that his medals will cost much less than those made for any pope from the 19th century or earlier. We use this example to point out that what might be called the upper limit for the cost of a medal will differ from one collector to the next. Is $100 the most you wish to pay for any one piece?
That’s a prudent way to start out. But when looking for older pieces to add to a collection, or for pieces that were made in very small numbers, we may have to go higher. As you start a collection, talk with dealers who have a good stock of medals, or troll some of the online bidding sites where medals are for sale. We all eventually find our comfort zone, both in terms of price and in terms of subject.
However you choose to collect medals – whether focusing on a specific artist who presented his or her work at FIDEM 2018, whether looking to find medals from a more distant time, or whether buying direct from the United States Mint – there truly is something for everyone here. If you choose to jump into these waters, have a blast!
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
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