The E-Sylum:  Volume 8, Number 11, March 13, 2005, Article 8


Dick Johnson writes: "A tribute should be given to the New
York Public Library Picture Collection and I am glad to learn a
part of it has been placed on the Internet as mentioned in last
week’s E-Sylum and the New York Times March 3, 2005.
This was, and is, a national treasure. Our field is indebted to
the NYPL Picture Collection for design research for literally
thousands of American coin and medal designs.

Medallic sculptors – as well as American artists among 40,000
viewers a year – have used this collection to "look up" what
people looked like (portraiture), for authentic period costumes,
for historical scenes and events, for seals, symbols, logos, for
a myriad of design details. These could be found so easily in
that third floor room at the NYPL at 42nd and Fifth Avenue.
With a library card you could check out the illustrations you
found, take them to your studio or office, photocopy them,
adapt them for your design project at hand -- or simply use
them for artistic inspiration -- and return them in the required

Case in point: At the height of his medallic activity, medalist
Ralph J. Menconi was creating at least one new pair of medallic
models a week. Sketch the design. Get the design edited and
approved. Then create the models in clay. Cast the clay in
plaster. Not only was he creating five medallic series at once,
he worked on several medals in varying stages at once. All this,
in addition to his normal medallic – and art – commissions! This
frenzied activity required help. His solution was close at hand,
his wife Marge.

Ralph’s New York City studio was on 56th Street, 14 blocks
south was the NY Public Library. Marge Menconi would go
there to pour over the well organized table-high bins of
illustrations filed in large gray folders. She would find as many
illustrations for Ralph’s designs as practical. The illustrations
were prints and photographs, items cut from discarded books,
magazines, catalogs and from and hundreds of other sources.
This was the only way Ralph could get the meticulous accurate
detail in his medallic designs, in as quick time as he did, for all
five medal series!

Other medallic artists knew of this amazing resource and used
its facilities in similar fashion. It was a boon to New York City
artists. It became their gigantic "clip file." Art directors sent
their staff artists and art researchers there.

The picture collection was open to the public. Anyone could
search here. (Medallic Art’s plant and office was six blocks
away when it was in NYC – I occasionally did just that,
search on a spare lunch hour. I even donated some MAco
sales literature with many medals illustrated which I thought
would be useful.) But this picture collection also served
Medallic Art’s numismatic interest in another way. And
there is a story behind that.

As a Medallic Art employee I was charged to catalog their
medallic archives. President Bill Louth wanted it in a form he
could see the image, in addition to required data, along with
clients’ name and location. That was a tough challenge.
Remember, this was before PCs, some computer cards at
the time did exist with a film negative inserted, but both Bill
and I rejected it as not "human readable."

I realized I was cataloging medal images, so I made an
appointment with the lady in charge of the NYPL Picture
Collection. This was 1967 and I learned the lady was
Ramona Javitz, who had created the collection in 1929.
despite her advanced years, she had some useful suggestions
for Medallic Art’s medal image catalog. She encourage topic
categories (much like how collectors now collect medals).
She retired officially the following year, having placed five
million prints in the collection (but lived 12 more years,
she died 1980).

We called on Eastman Kodak for their aid. A salesman
understood our problem, took me to Time-Life to examine
the catalog of their massive photo collection (of, I believe 8
million photos). Their solution was to reproduced in postage
stamp size on a 3 x 5 inch photo print with their required
details (negative number, photographer, subjects, event
and such).

From these two concepts I devised a format of taking 35mm
photographs of archive medals, both sides. From contact
sheets we cut out the medal image and pasted these down on
cards we typed with the name of the medal, size &
composition(s), artist(s), client name, location, and some
topics (like how a numismatist would collect). We had special
card stock made so we could photocopy four of these at a
time on a special photocopy machine. When cut apart we filed
these cards in a 3x5 library card file cabinet. It worked.

A separate set of cards was kept in the storeroom. When I
purchased the storeroom surplus medals in 1977 I received
this card file as well. It has 7 trays containing over 5,000 cards.
I still find this useful in medal research. The wooden card file
cabinet with perhaps 30,000 cards filed by categories went
to Medallic Art Co, now in Nevada, but in the meantime
everything on those cards has been entered into the firm’s
computer database.

All thanks, in part, to the founder, Ramona Javitz, of the
NYPL Picture Collection. Her story in a press release for a
1997 exhibition can be read at: Full Story

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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