Mysteries are many in the medal field, including thought-provoking
pieces of the recent past.
One of these is an enigmatic 32-millimeter bronze medal bearing
the portrait of a demure woman of uncertain age wearing a simple smock
trimmed in lace.
She has a smile recalling that of the Mona Lisa but is wholly unidentified.
The artist’s signature, RALPH J. MENCONI gives the first clue,
followed by the reverse inscription, PRESIDENTIAL ART MEDALS INC., W.
The edge identifies the maker as MEDALLIC ART CO., still located
at that time in New York City.
Dayton, Ohio, coin dealer Frank Darner, along with former Ohio
Gov. Michael V. DiSalle, Max Humbert and R. James Harper, founded
Presidential Art Medals.
Although the woman’s identity was never publicly disclosed, Harper
told this columnist in 1974 that the mystery piece was called the
“Lovely Lady Memorial Medal,” and was struck in 1964 in honor of the
late Annie Darner, wife of W. Frank Darner. She had died decades
earlier, and her grieving husband never remarried.
Some of these medals are found in a brass-trimmed black
leatherette case gold-stamped “Memorial Medal” and “Lovely Lady,” with
the Presidential Art Medals logo and “Englewood, Ohio,” on the inner
lid, but still no name of the person depicted appears.
Presidential Art Medals issued several series of medals devoted to
U.S. presidents, states of the Union, Declaration of Independence
signers, medicine, World War II, space exploration and a Great
Religions of the World series. Initially setting the pace was the
deliriously popular John F. Kennedy medal of 1961 that launched a
mini-boom in modern medal collecting.
Too many issues from copy-cat competitors sank the short-lived
boom and the bustling arrival of the aggressive and newly formed
Franklin Mint doomed Presidential Art Medals.
Another blow was the death of Ralph Menconi in 1972 at the age of
57. This fast-working, quality-seeking sculptor proved hard to
replace, although other artists such as Boris Buzan were recruited to
complete some of the series.
Presidential Art Medals’ end was accelerated by the costly launch
of Art Medals Inc. of Brookfield, Conn., a spin-off from Medallic Art
Co. that had a short and stormy existence.
Today, Presidential Art Medals and Darner are virtually forgotten,
although listings of their several medal series appear to be bringing
encouraging prices when posted for sale on online sites.
The “Lovely Lady” also remains, smiling her bronze smile and is,
at least officially, still as mysterious today as she was in 1964.
DAVID T. ALEXANDER is author of American Art Medals, 1909-1995 and
a fellow of the American Numismatic Society. He is a
numismatist/researcher for Harlan J. Berk Ltd.