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Nothing Says Happy Valentine’s Day Like Death

Obverse and reverse of the only known example of James Cook’s first memorial struck in gilt copper between January and September 1780. It will be offered for sale by International Auction Galleries in March. Images courtesy & © IAG 2020.

The catalog of International Auction Galleries’ March sale is a must for all collectors of Captain Cook ephemera.

A small collection of top-grade historic Cook medals is on offer. They include a number of rarities. Among them is an unusual example of a posthumous ‘Courage & Perseverance’ medal, and that on offer appears to be the only known example struck in gilt copper.

The 37 mm medal is understood to have been minted following news of Cook’s death arriving in Britain. A report of this tragic event was first published in Büsching’s Wöchentlichte Nachrichten in 1780 following receipt of dispatches sent back by Captain Charles Clerke and Lt. James King from Kamchatka. Clerke commanded HMS Discovery and took control of the entire expedition following Cook’s death.

News of his death soon passed from Berlin to England. Until Resolution and Discovery returned to England in September 1780, the principal source of details of Cook’s killing at Kealakekua Bay was two 1779 letters (pamphlets) penned by German biologist Peter Simon Pallas who was working in Russia at the time.

The “Courage & Perseverance” medal dates from the period between the contents of Pallas’ letters reaching England, c. January 1780, and the return of Resolution and Discovery. It is one of two such medals struck in this interval. Both are the earliest known memorials of Cook’s life and death. Presumably, both are the first numismatic items related to Hawaii.

The obverse of the medal on offer features a three-quarter portrait of Cook in naval uniform facing right with the caption CAPT: JAMES COOK. The reverse carries the legend in three lines: COURAGE / AND / PERSEVERANCE / with BORN 1728· DIED 1779· in exergue (Betts-555; BHM-218; Marquess of Milford Haven. British and Foreign Naval Medals 375; Mira. James Cook, His Coins & Medals pp. 38-39).

Examples in bronze are known from at least two institutional collections. At least three others in bronze have been sold in the past couple of decades. One example described as struck in tin and a second in white metal have also been offered over the same period. The age and lack of any corrosion on that described as being in tin makes it likely this is also in white metal.

No other example in gilt copper has been located by the cataloguer. That on offer comes graded EF and has an estimate of A$10,000-12,000.

The second contemporary Cook memorial medal shows the same obverse image as that on ‘Courage & Perseverance’ but the reverse carries the legend KILL’D BY THE INDIANS AT O’WHY’HEE FEBURARY 14 / 1779. This must be the first direct numismatic reference to Hawaii.

Incidentally, it is not known which medal was issued first or whether they were contemporaneous. What most catalogs agree on is that “Courage & Perseverance” is superior in lettering and balance to that of “Kill’d by the Indians.”

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