Reviewing Johnson's U.S. medal designers book

Fellow author and medal collector offers independent review and critique
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/05/16
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Guest Commentary from the January 18, 2016, issue of Coin World:

I believe there is a place and a need for “independent book reviews.” Book buyers deserve impartial, objective and independent reviews to guide their steps, especially with the skyrocketing cost of new books today. I have done independent reviews of many titles, including the Russ Rulau-George Fuld update of Baker’s Medallic Portraits of Washington in 1982, the bizarre Francis Pesolano-Filos books on Washington and U.S. Mint Medals; more recently Richard Margolis’ Benjamin Franklin in Terra Cotta; and Scott H. Miller’s Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society. Now it’s time to review the just-published Who’s Who among American Medallists. The Artists of Our Country’s Coins and Medals, 1652 to Date, by D. Wayne Johnson.

I have collected medals since 1953 and have written extensively in the field. In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Dick Johnson and his partner Chris E. Jensen as director of publications and auction cataloger for their partnership of Johnson & Jensen, leaving in 1981.

Johnson has labored long in the field and introduced many brilliant ideas for which he has seldom received the credit deserved. He was the first editor of the weekly newspaper Coin World. His formulation of methods for coherent and replicable cataloging of medals transformed the auctioning of these collectibles although it could not prevent the bankruptcy that ended Johnson & Jensen.

Right or wrong, Johnson seldom shrank from controversy. Behind the title page appears a 10-line statement, “Spelling of the word “medallists.” He begins by stating quite correctly “In America the word is spelled with one L. In England the word has two Ls.” He then asserts that he is using the “two L” form throughout, “this continues a tradition established in 1907 when the Medallic Art Company chose this spelling, continued in 1930 with the creation of the Society of Medallists, both with two L.”

Two things: the adjective “medallic” with one L would be improper anywhere in the English-speaking world. The bold assertion that “medallists” with two L’s “continued in 1930 with the creation of the Society of Medallists” is startlingly wrong, as can be seen in my book American Art Medals, 1909-1995, Circle of Friends of the Medallion and Society of Medalists, American Numismatic Society, 2012.

Listed with incorrect spelling of author’s middle name Thomason as “Thompson,” this book is listed as Johnson M60 on page 371, with the perplexing notation, “An unauthorized edition.” Unauthorized by whom? Since when have medallic references needed “authorization” by anyone for historical research and information in the public domain?

The first published story about the Society of Medalists gave its birth year as 1928, its first medals appeared in 1930. No news report, promotional blurb, medal brochure or box housing any of the society’s wonderful medals from 1930 through 1995 ever used the spelling “medallists”! The challenging introduction of a fundamental error even before the book’s preface is disquieting but prepares the observant reader for other uncertainties in the book.

An alphabetical listing of hundreds of artists of varying lengths occupies most of the book, ranging from a single paragraph for many to three pages devoted to the late Abram Belskie, and nine devoted to Victor David Brenner. Here we learn that VDB was “Russian-American” though he is later correctly identified as a member of the great Lithuanian Jewish community whose enemy was Russia.

Not all works of all artists can be included in any book, however ambitious, and no book is free of typos and slips of the pen. Most puzzling is the failure to record Geri Jimenez Gould’s creation of the last medal of the Society of Medalists, following Afghan sculptor Amanullah Haiderzad’s uniface, rectangular SOM medal, Kabul Bazaar.

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