Nothing is ever entirely forgotten in numismatics, not even the
short-lived medal boom begun by the 1961 inauguration medal of John F.
Kennedy, designed by the great sculptor Paul Manship, chosen by new
first lady Jacqueline Kennedy who knew his earlier work from college studies.
Manship’s medal sold out, triggering a boom in modern medal series
led by Presidential Art Medals of Englewood, Ohio, whose
small-diameter, high relief Presidential series was conceived by
veteran dealer Frank Darner of Dayton and designed by Ralph J. Menconi
of Pleasantville, N.Y.
Presidential Art Medals soon branched out into many other areas
with great success, bringing imitators devoted to state capitals,
presidents and first ladies, heroes of peace, presidents-states
combined, Civil War battles and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans
at New York University series in three sizes and two metals.
One of the most startling relics of the medallic boom has recently
attracted some attention in specialized collector literature: the U.S.
Mint coin designers’ series of the late Toivo Johnson.
Johnson was a Finnish-American from “Down East” Maine. An active
coin dealer during the commemorative coin boom of 1936, he remained a
significant player in the field thereafter. His medals would have
honored coin and medal designs by such greats as Augustus
Saint-Gaudens, Victor D. Brenner, James B. Longacre, Christian
Gobrecht and Charles E. Barber. Johnson planned to simply copy classic
coin and medal designs, gaining a finished product at minimal cost.
Medallic Art Co. in New York refused both concept and contract, so
Johnson headed to Rochester, where Metal Arts Co. agreed to a contract.
Designs were created by mechanical pantograph operator Robert
Schabel, and medals were struck in 76-millimeter diameter in .999
silver and bronze.
The first medal (of six in the series that were issued) honored
Saint-Gaudens with a replica of the obverse of his double eagle rising
over Aspet, his New Hampshire studio-home. The reverse copied the
sculptor’s 1893 Landing of Columbus obverse from the World’s Columbian
Exposition Award Medal.
The Secret Service took a dim view of the coin imitation and after
a stern interview, Johnson abandoned further coin copying. Sales were
never strong and soon evaporated, leaving quantities of unsold
remainders. It is probable that most collectors found the designs
busy, cluttered and unappealing. Indeed, most modern collectors first
viewing them express amazement that such medals could ever have existed.
David T. Alexander, is a longtime numismatic researcher and author
of American Art Medals, 1909-1995. He can be reached at Alexander.Numismatics@gmail.com.