Issued from 1962 to 1977, a virtually forgotten medallic series
rich in sculptural art and history brought together a great
university, a New York City and national landmark, 42 top-flight
sculptors and the nation’s then-leading medal-makers and marketers to
create a series of unmatched, and unachieved, potential.
A 94-medal medal series issued for the Hall of Fame for Great
Americans at New York University program, portraying America’s
greatest statesmen, scholars and the like, should have been a triumph
of art and history, but was a monumental commercial failure.
The Hall of Fame itself was launched in 1900 as America’s answer
to Britain’s Westminster Abbey. The hall centered on the Stanford
White-designed Gould Library and a 630-foot long colonnade that would
house bronze busts of immortals chosen by an electoral college in
“classes” elected from 1901 to 1977. NYU abandoned its Bronx Campus in
1977; the colonnade program was discontinued by the new campus
occupants soon after.
The medal program was headed by a director of NYU and an art
committee chaired by the great medallic sculptor Donald De Lue.
Medallic Art Co. struck all the medals, which were distributed by
Coin & Currency Institute of New York City. Several fatal
decisions made at the beginning impeded the series’ success, including
an overly ambitious game plan calling for striking each HOF medal in
three sizes and two metals: 44-millimeter .999 silver, and 76- and
44-millimeter bronze. Also restrictive was the requirement that each
had to bear the 48-letter, 10-space designation the hall of fame for
great americans at new york university, which was distracting.
The cast of characters contained other challenges. Medals
commemorating George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee
would sell briskly, but pieces for lesser known people, less so.
An example of a somewhat obscure honoree was James Buchanan Eads.
The medal design by Robert A. Weinman bore a portrait patterned after
the Hall of Fame bust by Charles Grafly: a muscular, bearded bust of
this great hydraulic engineer and builder of the first bridge over the
Mississippi River, his feats represented by a massive merman
struggling in a newly dredged river channel with legend the mighty
mississippi is tamed by his knowledge and by his works.
Weinman created six HOF medals, two medals for the Society of
Medalists and many others including Coin World’s U.S. Mint Medal
Series. Hall of Fame for Great Americans medals are now available on
the numismatic market at highly reasonable prices.
David T. Alexander, a longtime numismatic researcher, is a
researcher/cataloger for Stack’s Bowers Galleries.