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The E-Sylum:  Volume 8, Number 7, February 13, 2005, Article 20

SOME PROSE AND CONS ON PLASTERS

Recently, I was part of an email exchange with Joe Levine
and Dick Johnson regarding the merits of collecting original
artists' plaster or wax models and galvanos for coins
and medals. I own exactly one plaster, created by U.S.
Mint Sculptor-Engraver John Mercanti for the 2004
Pittsburgh ANA Convention medal. Eventually I'll get it
framed and hang it in my office. Dick pointed out several
negatives on the collecting of plaster and wax models, and
Joe and I offered some counterpoints. Below is a reworking
of our discussion. Comments, anyone?

Dick Johnson writes: "It is NOT recommended for
individuals to form collections of plaster and wax models
of coins and medals for the following four reasons:

1) They are impermanent. They easily break, chip, scratch,
dent and are very easily damaged. It is not recommended,
particularly for a new collector. They must be handled and
stored in a professional manner, which most collectors do
not have this knowledge or capability.

2) They do not hold their value. There is no aftermarket.
You cannot easily sell them when you wish to dispose of
them. See comments below.

3) They are purchased for the wrong reason. Burning in the
mind of everyone who buys models (and dies) is often the thought
-- "Since this is the original I am going to reproduce this."
Some even think of having a die made from a plaster model
to strike specimens they can sell (a la Robert Bashlow
restriking the Confederate cent from both dies). Most
reputable medal makers will not accept this business. If you
find a shady firm that will, you are courting disaster. While
not counterfeiting, it is certainly a disreputable practice of
restriking, shunned by seasoned collectors.

4) Plasters are so easily replicated. You never know if you
have an original or a replica. It takes about 40 minutes and
40 cents worth of plaster to reproduce a plaster model. You
can then sell either the positive or the negative. On the other
hand making a galvano from a plaster takes some skill, an
electrogalvanic tank, copper anodes and three day's time.
The galvano is metal and permanent!

Even I – with four thumbs – could replicate a plaster. I
can’t make a galvano.

Maybe my concern is WHO is buying plasters. For
seasoned collectors, as I stated, should have ONE as
an example of how a coin or medal is made. I do not
see collectors with large collections of plasters. Such
a collection would have so many problems!

The most notable example: Michigan numismatist Joseph
Lepczyk accepted a consignment of plaster models from
the studio of James Earle Fraser and listed these in one
of his numismatic auction sales, complete with pictures.
These included some of the Fraser Buffalo nickel models.
(Did he wonder why this came to him instead of being
consigned to one of the big name auction houses?) A
Coin World article at the time heightened the interest for
these unusual items.

A dentist in Texas bought most of these plaster models.
He paid dearly for them. When the dentist went to sell
them he could not find a buyer, even at a substantial loss.
To get out from under a bad situation he wanted to donate
them for a tax writeoff. He could not find any appraiser
who would give him anywhere near the appraisal of what
he paid.

Note: The metal galvanos made from some of these plaster
models is a completely different story. Walter Breen even
mentioned the Buffalo nickel galvanos in his Complete
Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins and
created the term "electrotrial" for these pieces.

These galvanos are unique, tell a delightful story of Fraser's
testing the design, and command realistic substantial prices.
(It was the founder of Medallic Art Company, Henri Weil,
who made these for Fraser -- even silver plating copper
galvanos to look like nickel -- and were mentioned in the
manuscript history of MAco by brother Felix Weil.)

However, it has been my recommendation that a seasoned
collector should have ONE plaster model or galvano and
ONE die in his collection just to be familiar with the
technology of how a coin or medal is made. But I would
not recommend a large number of plasters – as a collection
-- for the average collector. "

Countering some of these points, Joe Levine replied: "I
can't say that I wholly agree with Dick's condemnation of
collecting plasters. Just because they are easily broken is
hardly a good reason not to collect them - Liverpool
pitchers are easily broken too!"

I agree -- it is part of the risk one takes as a collector.
My library can and does suffer damage from too much
light, handling, etc. from time to time, but this is par for
the course. On the valuation point, Joe Levine writes:

"Nothing holds its value if it is initially purchased at a
very high price! If the guy had bought the Fraser materials
on the cheap back then and offered them for sale now,
he would probably have shown a nice profit."

Dick is right that the market is exceedingly slim for these
items, and that finding buyers is always tough. But I also
agree with Joe's point. Over time, rare items will come
to have their day in the sun. Time was when many of the
items which comprise my numismatic library were unwanted
and unappreciated by the mass of collectors of either coins
or literature. But now, things that I bought for $25 or less
now bring $200 or more. And anyone who bought say,
a rare plated Chapman catalogue for $9,000 many years
ago would still be waiting to make money off the purchase.
The material in each case remains very desirable, but
paying top dollar at market peaks is never a good way to
invest..

As for the ease of replication, I have no plans or desire to
strike duplicate medals using my plaster, and doubt many
collectors would either, but it does remain a possibility.
It is a difficult task, though, and that also limits the likelihood
of this happening. As for reproducing the plasters
themselves, this is far easier than reproducing a galvano or
die. In fact, my plaster is one of THREE made.

Joe Levine writes: "Who is to say what motivates someone
to purchase a plaster? I have sold a number of them for
various Official Inaugural Medals and I don't think even one
of my customers had in mind creating a galvano or a die from
them.

I agree with Dick about the ease of replication -- however, if
the pedigree can be ascertained with some degree of certainty,
I don't have a problem with authenticity. It's like the lock of
Kennedy's hair that is accompanied by a letter from his barber
authenticating it. A letter from the artist's son would be the same."

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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