In the Introduction to his new book on the medals of the Lusitania
Greg Burns describes how he became interested in the medal and ended up writing a book. He kindly forwarded the text for The E-Sylum
Near the end of November, 2002, I was in a local coin
shop and noticed an odd-looking medal with the image of a
skeleton on it. I remembered having seen one like it perhaps
twenty years before in the book, The Beauty and Lore of
Coins, Currency and Medals, by Elvira and Vladimir ClainSteffanelli. It’s a large beautiful book, illustrated with wonderful color photos on glossy pages, and filled with myriad
stories dotting the landscape of all of numismatics: primitive
money, ancients, medieval and modern coins, paper money
and medals. You should peek at it if you ever get the chance.
While the Clain-Steffanelli book hadn’t passed along any of
the details of the story behind the gruesome medal, it did devote an entire page to showing the obverse and reverse of the
medal, and had attracted my eye at the time because of it’s
macabre image. It was distinctive and I had remembered it.
Now here before me was what appeared to be the same
medal, and the bid board listing for the piece was only $20.
No one had bid on it yet, and with but a day or so to go
before the bid board closed, I wrote my bid number and the
$20 reserve price down on the medal’s ticket. A few days
later I went to the shop and was happy to find that no one had
bid against me and I had won the piece. I took it home, put
it in a new plastic flip with a label for storage, and stuffed
it in a box alongside numerous other pieces which shared a
common theme of having been impulse buys. It might have
languished there and this book never been written, except for
a short trip I took a couple of months later.
In early 2003 I traveled from my home in Upland, California,
up to San Jose to attend the semi-annual convention of
the California State Numismatic Association (CSNA). I had
recently agreed to take on editing and publishing the journal
of the CSNA1 and wanted to attend their gathering to introduce
myself to the various movers and shakers in the association
and get to know them. While I was at the first day of the
show (a Saturday/Sunday affair), I wandered the bourse floor
looking over the offerings of the various dealers. I’m usually
not too interested in display cases filled with slabbed coins,
but often stop to look over the cases that have unusual and
strange looking things in them.
As I glanced at a case that had caught my eye, what did
I see? Not one, but two medals that looked similar to mine.
Now this was strange. I hadn’t seen one of these pieces for
twenty years after first seeing it in the Clain-Steffanelli book,
and here within a couple of months I had stumbled on a treasure
trove of them.
Intrigued, I asked the dealer standing near
the case if I could look over his two medals. He pulled them
out of the case and handed them to me, explaining, “They
have two different dates.” It was true. One showed the date as
“5 MAI” and the other as “7 MAI.” Now here was a puzzlement.
For the life of me I couldn’t remember what my medal back home showed as a date, and here were two medals with
differing dates, and both medals looked to be in better condition
than the one I owned.
I asked the dealer how much for each of the medals. He
responded with something like $55 for one and $65 for the
other. I don’t remember what the point of distinction was,
but being a frugal man I opted for the cheaper of the two. It
turned out to be the one marked “7 MAI.” In fact, I bargained
the gentleman down to $40 for the piece. I was pretty happy
with my lucky buy and resolved to compare it to my previous
purchase when I returned home late the following day.
However, later that Saturday night, something bothered
me. If you’re a collector I’ll bet you’ve experienced the same
thing, too. You see, I knew that there was another medal in
that dealer’s case, and it wasn’t the exact same design as the
one I had bought. Plus, it was a nicer looking one than the
one I had back home. I fretted for a while, not quite knowing
what was bothering me, but soon lit on the source: if I didn’t
possess that third medal, I might never know what I had
passed up. It must be a different variety of the medal, and as
you know, collectors like nothing better than to be able to say
they have a complete collection. I wanted that third medal
and knew I would know no peace until I had it.
Early the next morning I went straight to the dealer’s
table. He wasn’t there. The remaining medal was in the case
with a soulful look to it, seemingly begging me to take it
home. I patiently waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, after
I waited for twenty or thirty minutes, the dealer sauntered
up and asked what he could do for me. I explained that I had
bought his medal’s mate the day before and now wanted to
buy the other. He was nice about it and let me have it for $50.
I was so pleased. I rushed to a quiet spot in the bourse area
and pulled out my previous day’s purchase so I could compare
the two. I noticed that the patina didn’t look the same,
and you remember the dating was different. I could barely
wait to get home so that I could compare all three medals, one against the other. The drive home later that day seemed
to take much longer than usual.
When I got home I pulled out my original medal and
compared it against the two new ones. I noted that the two
I had bought at the coin show each had an edge stamp of
“K.Goetz,” yet my very first purchase from the bid board
did not. The two later medals also had the German spelling
of “MAI” for the month, while my first used the English
My bid board specimen was also much rougher and
cruder in appearance. Gradually I noticed, feature by feature,
many differences between the three medals. I was quite
happy that I had bought the two medals at the coin show.
I later determined that the first medal I had purchased
from the coin shop was a spurious counterfeit. Happily
though, the two I bought at the coin show were both genuine
Goetz medals worth much more than I paid for them, though
I didn’t know it at the time.
As the old saying goes, the die was cast. I was bitten by a
bug and had to learn all about the event depicted on my new
treasures. I wanted to know who the people were, and all
about the circumstances that lead to the sinking, and all about
dozens of other things relating to the medal and it’s maker.
I spent several years compiling records, corresponding with
various experts and other collectors, reading many dozens
of books, and gradually building up an understanding of the
piece and it’s place in history. Along the journey I became
somewhat of an expert on the many varieties and their makers,
and have had the pleasure to advise other collectors,
museum curators, and Internet adventurers about the various
fine points of these pieces.
My purpose in writing this book is to put down on paper
some of what I’ve uncovered, so that others can more easily
see the panorama of the medal varieties and the stories
behind the people associated with each of them.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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