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Medals offer artistry, history, rarity

I only own two medals but consider them both to be a very special part of my collection. Generally, the artwork is vastly superior to many of the modern coin issues these days. Especially when compared to recent non-circulating legal tender (NCLT) issues, many of which have some sort of gimmick.

There is something about coins with paint, gemstones, and moving parts that simply leaves me aghast. Can anyone doubt that it’s only a matter of time before a NCLT issue is released that requires batteries? Medals, on the other hand, really are authentic pieces of artwork produced along time honored guidelines.

In addition, the traditional medal offers some of the best artwork around for typically very modest prices. For anyone who has admired the exceptional beauty of a high relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle, many of the medals out there bring on a similar visual sensation for a tiny fraction of the price.

And then there is the history and rarity of the medal to consider. It is absolutely astonishing how inexpensive historically significant rare medals can be. The first medal I purchased was at the CICF about 12 years ago. It depicts Aphrodite (aka Venus) in high relief on the obverse and Eros, son of Aphrodite, on the reverse. Weighs 38.5 grams, 44 mm wide, and is one of perhaps 3 dozen outside of museum collections according to the dealer who sold it to me.

It was designed by Anton Bovy, the die sinker who went on to design many of the Swiss Shooting talers in the 19th century. Only this piece was produced much earlier in his career, when he was still an apprentice under James Pradier at Studio Pradier in Paris. I learned this after doing some research at the Spencer Library of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum here in Kansas City.

The connection to Pradier alone makes the medal highly desirable, as Pradier was hands-down the absolute superstar of sculpture back in 1840s France, dominating many of the salons and generating a tremendous amount of discussion in social circles, some of it for the perceived “profanity” of his works.

The cost of the medal back in 1997 was something on the order of $175 which is a lot of money for a medal. But, when compared to a cleaned 1914-D penny in Fine condition for the same money, there is no question which I would want in my collection.

The second medal I have illustrated is a very recent acquisition, bought at auction from the Johnson County Numismatic Society’s monthly club meeting. Struck to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Fire in 1971, it would appear to be made of light colored bronze, with perhaps more tin in the metal than other darker bronzes. Opening bid was $15, and my son and I were the only remaining bidder when the hammer came down at $17. It was the only thing we bought at auction that night, though there were other interesting coins up for bid.

For us, the significance of the medal was related to our planned journey to Chicago the following week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Our plans included a trip to the top of the John Hancock building, and here was a medal that wonderfully depicted the Hancock building.

What’s more, the medal cost less than most of the junky Chinese imported souvenirs we were sure to find in the gift shop once at the building. The medal measures approximately 65 mm and weighs a massive 128 grams. The box which came with it, indicated the medal was produced by the Medallic Art Company of New York.

The 1971 Chicago Fire Centennial Medal is by no means rare. At any given moment, you can typically find half a dozen of them listed on eBay, often times starting at a dollar. What makes the medal unusual from a Chicago perspective, is that there were only four years when the Hancock building was the tallest building in the city. The Hancock was dedicated in March of 1970 and by 1974 it had already been eclipsed on the skyline by the Sears Tower.

Interestingly enough, when I brought-out the medal at the Thanksgiving table a few weeks later, we were able to identify most of the other buildings depicted on the medal, including Marina Towers, Lake Point Tower, 1st National Bank of Chicago, the Prudential Building, and the Kemper Building. That left about half a dozen buildings, mostly on the right periphery of the medal which we could not identify.

I only wish all of the world coins in my collection had as interesting of a story that I could relate. Some of them do have great stories to be sure, but some are nearly anonymous with the only information being a KM number, date, perhaps mintage and weight along with mint master or mintmark.

A few I remember as having been purchased while traveling. They certainly have historical significance to the extent of the contemporary history of the particular era they were struck, but in many instances I have had difficulty researching much beyond that.

Bruce Walker
is a hobbyist in Kansas City.
Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Numismatic News.
Send e-mail to david.harper@fwmedia.com.

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