The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 17, April 26, 2009, Article 17


Regarding last week's question on "made-from" or "relic" medals, Dick Johnson submitted the following excellent (as usual) observations. -Editor
To answer Don Cleveland's specific inquiry, I have found only one article published on relic medals. The word "relic" was not in the title so it may be easily overlooked by anyone searching for information on these fascinating medallic items. The April 1868 issue of American Numismatic Journal contains the article On The Historic Material of Certain Coins and Medals, page 106-07.

I am certain there are many others, but this early publication could be the embarkation platform for a research project that could easily occupy the rest of one researcher's lifetime. I believe there is that much hidden material -- in publications and the actual specimens themselves -- to indeed make this a lifelong pursuit. You would have to examine a library full of auction catalogs in many languages. Catalogers, it seems, delight in describing relic items, their inscriptions give the clue to the unusual composition such specimens are struck or cast in.

I was sitting in the waiting room this morning for my six-month eye examination and mentioned to Good Wife I wanted to reply to Don's inquiry. "Be sure to define relic medals," GW said. So for those of you who want to be up-to-speed on the numismatic meaning of "relic" terminology here goes:

A coin, token or medal -- or any numismatic item -- fashioned from a previous man-made artifact of a different form.

Medals are ideal for relic metal use. Typical relic medals are made from captured cannon, the bronze propeller or other marine hardware from a famous ship, the metal from a bell or roof, or metal from a famous object, such as the Statue of Liberty. Bronze, iron, precious metal, space alloys have all been fashioned into relic medals.

I copied that last paragraph intact from the entry on "relic metal" from my Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology. So if you want to write about it put it in your own words. Those are mine. In all I wrote a page and a half on relic items. I learned certain ancient coins were made of relic material.

Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, the father of numismatic literature (based on his 18th-century 8-volume work) was honored by a portrait medal made by Anton Scharff in 1880 Vienna struck in melted ancient coins. Perhaps this could be the keystone of such a relic medal collection (and illustrated as the frontispiece in the catalog?).

For years as I have encountered relic medals I have casually added these in a separate database and now have recorded two dozen such items, mostly American. I would be delighted to turn over this brief list to that scholar who would take on the pleasant chore of writing the book on the subject. Such a list would surely grow to more than two hundred I estimate.

There are collectors and collections of relic medals. One, dredged up from my memory of the past, was in the possession of medal dealer Hank Spangenberger. At a convention once he showed me a group of relic medals that blew my mind. I offered him a ridiculously high price if he wanted to sell them, but could not budge him. They were worth more than money to him, and I understood. (Had I owned them, I would not have sold them either.)

It seems every mint and every medalmaker has been confronted by someone who wants some item struck in relic metal. Invariably such relic metal has aged, or weathered or effected by seawater or some harsh environment to become unsuitable for striking. It is more than "work hardened" the term metal workers use. In a word it is a "bitch" to strike (casting does not present such problem).

Case in point: The firm Gold Leaf Ltd, contracted for all the scrap copper sheeting, iron supports and concrete from the Statue of Liberty when it was refurbished in 1985 under Lee Iacocca in preparation for its 100th birthday a year later. I don't know what they did with the concrete, but medals were struck in the Statue's excess copper and iron.

I can still recall the swearing of the pressman in the coining room at Medallic Art Company, which struck a couple varieties of the medals. He just could not bring up all the relief in the die in the coining process. They looked worn the instant they were struck.

Incidentally, I tried to convince the officials of Gold Leaf they were using the wrong term. They had included "authentic materials" in the inscription on all their relic items. I was unsuccessful in convincing them to use the term "made from" in which every collector is familiar - one of the reasons, to my mind at least, their venture was not profitable.

Don mentioned there are religious "relic items" as well. These include a small case, called a "reliquary," to contain a religious artifact inside (or such a locket worn about the body). It would be the cataloger's choice to include these or not. If he didn't I understand he would want to include only the more numismatic items, struck or cast.

A word for Don Cleveland: I would hope you would step forward and volunteer. Tag -- you're it! Why don't you undertake the project to compile the catalog you so much want to have?

Coin World News Editor Bill Gibbs writes:
I began collecting relic medals not long after I joined the staff of Coin World in October 1976. After researching the topic, I wrote a catalog that appeared in the Collectors' Clearinghouse column in the issues of Nov. 29, Dec. 6 and Dec. 13, 1978, and in the issues of Oct. 31 and Nov. 7, 1979.

Additional catalog listings appeared (not in Clearinghouse) in the Dec. 3, 1980, issue of Coin World. I've also written articles on a number of individual relic pieces during my time on staff. Relic medals are a fascinating series, and while I no longer actively collect them, I still have my old collection. I am sure that many relic medals have been issued since my catalogs were published, so new cataloging efforts would be welcomed by the numismatic community, if someone wants to start working on a new catalog.

Wayne Homren, Editor

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