David Thomason Alexander submitted this discussion and review of his recent book on American Art Medals. Thanks!
AMERICAN ART MEDALS, 1909-1995. The Circle of Friends of the Medallion and the Society of Medalists. By David Thomason Alexander. Studies in Medallic Art 1, American Numismatic Society, New York, 2011. 294 pages, hard cover, profusely illustrated. Retail $150.00, discounts to dealers.
Warning: the reviewer is also the author of this book, which will contain some necessary auto-biography. American Art Medals must be regarded as a breakthrough for medal research and cataloguing and an exciting stride into the future for its publisher, the 153 year-old American Numismatic Society (ANS). This new title is the result of study that began in 1974, with I acquired my first group of Society of Medalists issues while a new staff member at Coin World in Sidney, Ohio.
I first encountered SOM in 1956 while visiting the old ANS museum at 125th and Broadway. There I first viewed Paul Manship’s 1930 Hail to Dionysus (SOM 2) and Carl Paul Jennewein’s 1933 Fame and Glory (SOM 7) with its nearly life-size Cicada. I was planning college study of biology, and the cicada seized my interest. Medal references were then virtually non-existent. Periodicals such as The Numismatist and Numismatic Scrapbook gave some attention to SOM new issues and after 1960, Coin World’s founding Editor D. Wayne Johnson treated medals and SOM itself very generously. Joining the Coin World staff, I became increasingly fascinated with medals and became an eager SOM member late in 1974. This Society had developed as an appanage of Medallic Art Company, then still fortunately located in New York City.
As an SOM member I first bought several back issues at relatively hefty prices before discovering that the same issues could be had for a song at bourses around the country. I acquired whole collections from such veteran numismatists as the late Jake Sureck of Oklahoma and Frank C. Darner of Dayton, Ohio. It became immediately apparent that dramatic varieties existed that no one had seemed to notice. For instance, my example of Manship’s Dionysus, purchased from SOM itself in 1974 displayed a dark brown patina and a sharply squared edge, while the Sureck and Darner pieces were clear saddle-brown with boldly rounded rims. A hint into how this happened was provided by abundant die rust on the medal from SOM. Simply stated, an SOM medal struck in 1930, 1940 or 1970 would necessarily show considerable variation in patina and edge.
Next came discovery of the Circle of Friends of the Medallion (COF). Their medals were issued two per year from 1909-1915 but were housed in tan-covered books with fascinating prose and poetry relating the subjects and themes of the medals. It was obvious that COF was a predecessor of SOM, but these older medals were truly scarce and there was next to nothing available in print about them, and even SOM Executive Secretary Mary Louise Cram denied any knowledge of this earlier series. I was able to provide an in-depth review of COF in the 1991 ANA Centennial Anthology.
One of the great appeals of these two series was and remains their pivotal role in the world of sculpture and the arts. Simply stated, COF and SOM medals are “affordable art,” as all are the work of America’s greatest 20th century sculptors, whose sculpture in the round is simply beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy lovers of the arts. Long undervalued, these large, hefty and wholly fascinating medals will now be far more accessible to many collectors who may have been waiting for the opportunity to plunge into this area of medal collecting, once a systematic, readable and profusely illustrated modern guide was provided.
Observation is a basic principle of science. Without printed references, observation of actual medals yielded a wealth of basic information. Becoming a full-time cataloguer with the trail-blazing firm of Johnson and Jensen in 1981, I was at once exposed to thousands of medals with limitless knowledge to be derived by observation. In the 1970’s true pioneers began to fill the void in medallic literature, notably R.W. Julian with Medals of the United States Mint, the First Century (1977) and H. Joseph Levine with his auction catalogues and Collectors Guide to Presidential Inaugural Medals.
Levine enunciated an important basic principle that would attract coin collectors to the medal field. His work with official inaugural medals demonstrated that medallic topics with clear boundaries attract collectors comforted by perceptible limits in time and space. Clearly marked limits allow “completeness” as a collecting goal, rather than open-ended areas without boundaries. Both COF and SOM medals offer such limits and today stand with clearly defined beginnings and endings. COF flourished 1909-1915; SOM, 1930-1995.
American Art Medals opens with an introduction to the medal in general and offers concise histories of the two organizations. New facts emerge including the correct founding date of SOM, 1928 rather than the endlessly repeated 1930. The two groups’ founders and philosophies are explored, along with the key role both played in the development of Medallic Art Co. The COF series trickled into oblivion in 1915 for yet-unexplained reasons, SOM faded away in 1995 as a result of corporate change and resulting upheaval. Both are now closed series, offering a stable collecting target for newcomers who until the new book appeared had no accessible guide to either series.
Another basic goal of American Art Medals was to explore and record the hitherto ignored varieties in color (patina) and strike and to examine the wealth of varied edge markings. Some issues offer major variations in diameter and metal, notably the Richard Recchia and Carl Schmitz medals struck during the copper shortages of 1943-1944. Then there is the disappointing tale of the full-size .999 silver “Restrikes” that were launched with such optimism in the 1970’s, only to stumble and fall thanks to the spectacular surges in the 1970’s silver market.
The variations in color are captured in life-size color digital images, captured with supernal skill of photographer Robert Krajewski, former staff member at Stack’s in Manhattan, with additional images by ANS photographer Alan Roche. A photo record and detailed written listing of edge markings of both series is the first to be published. Each medal issue and all variations are numbered. Thus, John Flanagan’s 1932 Aphrodite-Swift Runners is SOM issue 6. Deep red-brown with sea-green highlights is 6.1; glossy hematite red is 6.2; bright malachite green, 6.3.
The exploration of the last SOM issues clarifies these little known, poorly publicized medals and reveals varieties down to the final medal, Geri Jimenez Gould’s 1995 Last Supper Plaquette, SOM 129, now known to have been released with no fewer than three edge varieties. Also listed are the Special Issues for SOM anniversaries and a few derivative pieces including Medallic Art’s nearly forgotten medallic paperweights of the 1970’s.
Each medal listed is accompanied by a biography of the artist, linking the medalist to the larger worlds of art and numismatics and reminding collectors of other works that each sculptor created. The artists’ own views of their designs and their significance provide insights into their thinking as they developed these medallic sculptures. Detailed numismatic descriptions of each issue include numbers reportedly struck (listed where known), with the caveat that such totals must be regarded as approximate rather than definitive. Simply stated, this nearly 300-page book provides as thorough a delving into these two great series as might be possible, opening up both COF and SOM to a new world of informed collecting.
Thanks are due to ANS leaders including Executive Director Ute Wartenberg-Kagan, Deputy Director Andrew Meadows and Curator Peter Van Alfen, who took an active role in developing American Art Medals. Deserving special thanks is David Yoon of ANS, a trained archaeologist who also possesses an amazing talent for editorial preparation, layout, composition and design. Page layout, cover design and the color dust jacket are all Yoon’s work. Q. David Bowers worked to expedite the ANS interest in publishing the manuscript.
Response to American Art Medals has been encouraging. At the recent Chicago American Numismatic Association 120th Anniversary Convention, the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) presented their Robert Friedberg Award to author Alexander for his book. The Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) followed suit with the 2011 Award for Best Token and Medal Book.
With its coated stock, wealth of full-color art, hard cover and colorful dust jacket, American Art Medals has certainly shown a new direction for ANS publications, and will soon be joined by additional Medallic Studies that will show the world just how successfully modern medallic publication can be achieved.
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