Last week we highlighted a few of the historic medals from the upcoming Stack's Bowers sale of the John W. Adams Collection of Comitia Americana and Related Medals. With
permission, we are republishing here the catalog text preceding the lots with background on Adams and his comments on the collection, and cataloguer John Kraljevich's
Introduction. Thanks to Christine Karstedt of Stack's Bowers for passing the text along. -Editor
John W. Adams
John W. Adams was born on April 2, 1936, the
son of Weston Adams and Mildred Boyd Adams. His father was a stock broker and also president of the Boston Bruins hockey team. His mother was an ardent Republican and a
spectacular mother. His older sister, Abigail, became a well-known cancer doctor at Bryn Mawr Hospital. John attended the Haverford School, graduating in 1953. He furthered his
education, graduating from Princeton University in 1957 and the Harvard Business School in 1960. His professional career was largely in investment banking, founding Adams,
Harkness & Hill in 1966. He retired in 2006.
For nearly 40 years John was married to Mary Pierce Adams, with whom he had three fabulous children: Nicholas, John Jr. (deceased), and Alexandra. In 2000, two years after his
first wife's death, he married Regina Fromhagen Adams, with whom he has enjoyed nearly 20 very happy years.
His collecting career began early and over the years he assembled several notable collections. In 1982, Bowers and Ruddy offered his incredible collection of 1794 large cent
varieties in a special "fixed-price" catalog. John had a great interest in medals, including Indian Peace medals (offered in Stack's 2009 Americana sale) and Betts medals
(featured by Stack's Bowers Galleries in November 2015). As a proud and staunch patriot, John considers the Comitia Americana medals presented in the current catalog to be his
crowning numismatic achievement.
Some Words from John W. Adams
On Comitia Americana Medals
Most coins and medals are owned by the collector. Comitia Americana medals invert this relationship: they own the collector.
An individual who picks up a Comitia Americana medal must be captivated by it, as he or she is automatically drawn into a compelling story. These were our nation's first Medals
of Honor. All eleven recipients made pivotal contributions to the winning of our independence. All eleven made extreme sacrifices for a compelling cause.
Anyone holding one of these objects must be aware of the thousands of patriots who, in 1776, streamed to Boston to join the battle. They must be aware of the sheer bravado
entailed in the attack on Stony Point. They must be uplifted by the words: "I have not yet begun to fight."
Today, what we hope to become as a nation may not be as clear as it was then. Nor are our hopes as widely shared. Simply stated, Comitia Americana medals explain to us what we
may yet be and urge us forward.
A Collector's Perspective on "Raw" Medals
One of the first things that readers of this catalog will notice is that the medals are being offered "in the raw" – i.e. not encapsulated in plastic. There are multiple reasons
for this. First, edges, the so-called "third side" of a medal, can be the most important side. The edges of Comitia Americana medals tell the observer not only how the piece was
made, but possibly also by whom it was made as well as when and where. Prospective buyers may need to educate themselves on how these clues can be deciphered, but the clues are
there for those who wish to interpret them. Second, the Comitia Americana's are, above all, historical medals – they commemorate important people and events. By holding the raw
medal in the palm of the hand, it is possible to envision the past and even connect with it. This cannot be done easily, if it all, when holding a piece of plastic. Finally, these
medals are works of art and, as with any work of art, their many aesthetic dimensions can be fully appreciated only by direct observation.
Encapsulation in plastic is a perfectly satisfactory method of storage. However, over the many years we have owned them, we have wrapped these medals in tarnish-proof tissue
paper, then placed them in an inert manila envelope. This has provided safe storage and the manila envelope has served to carry all manner of relevant information. In addition to
protecting against the elements, the tissue paper serves as a buffer if the medal happens to slip out of its container.
How does one learn about Comitia Americana medals? A good place to begin is the book, Comitia Americana and Related Medals, by this writer and Anne Bentley. There are
numerous other written sources, plus there are the human oracles – people like John Kraljevitch, Neil Musante, Tony Terranova, John Sallay and, of course, Anne Bentley. All are
eminently approachable and teeming with answers.
by John Kraljevich
The history of the Comitia Americana medal series is not one history, but three. Those three histories, taken together, tell two formative stories: the birth of our nation and the
birth of our nation's love affair with numismatics.
The first story is
military, a narrative of triumphs big (Saratoga) and small (Eutaw Springs). It is a campfire tale of an overmatched army picking spots to inflict world-changing damage upon a
superpower, on fields from upstate New York to the South Carolina lowcountry. Every military story has two sides, that of the soldiers who sacrificed for their achievements and
that of the politicians who attempted to capitalize upon them. The Comitia Americana medals feature both, with you-are-there depictions of military victories authorized by the
Continental Congress in the majestic afterglow of conquest, conceived to both recognize battlefield heroics and to fight a propaganda war highlighting American successes that
proved all too rare over the duration of the war. The stories of these medals begin at the moment a sword leaves a British hand to be delivered in defeat into an American one.
They describe, idealize, and announce battlefield wins. They anoint heroes, hand-picked by the desk jockeys in the Continental Congress. They not only recognize a historic moment,
but choose what history is told.
The second story is
diplomatic and follows the Revolutionary War. Its characters are not the Continental Congress, pounding on desks in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but Americans abroad: Thomas
Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the less heralded David Humphreys. The co-stars are French engravers like Dupré, Duvivier, and Gatteaux. This is the story of a new and nearly
bankrupt nation asserting itself on the world stage, seeking to present a national identity in the royal courts of Europe, and attempting to create objects of enduring artistic
value. This is the story of the Comitia Americana medals' execution, which followed their conception by more than a decade in some cases.
The last of these stories bridges the gap from the useful lives of these objects — as performative largesse to Americans and Europeans alike — to collectibles. This story is as
complex as the movement of militia troops through the backcountry, fraught with restrikes from original dies made in Paris, productions from the Philadelphia Mint from dies old
and new, and scholarship whose veracity has rarely matched its enthusiasm. This story extends from James Mease's first description of these medals in 1821 to the modern day state
of the art, encapsulated in the work Comitia Americana by Anne Bentley and John W. Adams.
This catalog will not be the final say, but it is the final word on this collection. John W. Adams began assembling the medals of the Comitia Americana some four decades ago.
His cabinet has been a numismatic estuary, both taking in nutrients to nourish future generations and letting go enough to let the current generation thrive. This assemblage not
only inspired his masterwork, but also an endless array of talks, essays, articles, and published musings on the topic. Long-underappreciated, these medals found a welcome home
with John, like so many abandoned puppies who were too cute to leave behind. As such, a novice might see it as rife with duplication, a testament that these astounding rarities
are somehow more numerous than collectors think. The opposite is true. Each of these is unique in some way: die state, composition, metrology, or provenance. With John's capacious
resources of both time and money, these were all the medals he was able to acquire. This is both a completist's passion and a scholar's study collection. Were any of these medals
not present, his research would have been less fruitful. They represent more than 40 years of dutiful acquisitions, and in more than one case represent the entire collectible
population of a particular type.
The medals are now free to find new homes, with collectors who seek to capture a piece of history, or those whose scholarly curiosity has carved a niche in their cabinet that
only an Adams medal can fill. Some of these medals are cognates of those in other collections, near duplicates of similar pieces that have sold in recent years. They will be easy
to evaluate and compare to known populations. Others are nearly or entirely unique. They may have been acquired privately or in a great auction of the past. They will herein be
described with suitable fanfare, but the ultimate evaluation will be left to the bidder: How do you price something whose place in American history is literally induplicable? How
do you weigh the opportunity versus the cost, when the choice is acquiring the Adams specimen or a collection forever going without?
This offering is historic, in every meaning of that sometimes tortured word. This catalog, we hope, is equal to the occasion. It would not exist without John Adams'
scholarship, foresight, or decades of mentorship to its author and countless others. We're grateful for his friendship and for this opportunity.
I had been in the employ of our predecessor firm, Bowers and Merena, for all of a few weeks in 2000 when Q. David Bowers came to my desk, asked me if I knew anything about
Betts medals, and invited me into our Wolfeboro conference room to meet a kind gentleman named Lucien LaRiviere. While early American medals had been a long-term interest even
before that, fostered by the friendship of Mr. Adams, Richard Margolis, Tony Terranova, and others – pulling open the drawers of LaRiviere's fully-laden medal cabinet revealed a
brand new world to me. Michael Hodder once told me that John Ford called to correct the mistakes in my medal descriptions because he thought I was worth correcting. I've learned a
lot in the last 20 years, but still have much to learn. The errors and opinions in the catalog that follows are based upon my experiences and are, thus, entirely my own.
Fort Mill, South Carolina
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
JOHN W. ADAMS COMITIA AMERICANA MEDALS (https://www.coinbooks.org/v22/esylum_v22n43a18.html)
Wayne Homren, Editor
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