An exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club on the relationship between
art, security engraving, and printing was the subject of a lengthy
story in The New York Times of Feb. 24. It is rare when the
general media devotes as much space as the Times did to a subject of
numismatic interest, but a look at the exhibit, its accompanying color
catalog, and the story behind it shows that the attention is warranted.
Images of Value: The Artwork Behind U.S. Security Engraving
1830s–1980s, is based on the collection of Mark D. Tomasko, a
retired lawyer and longtime collector who is also the exhibit’s
curator. The uniqueness of the exhibition is in how it reveals the
history behind a financial document’s image — be it federal currency,
obsolete currency, a stock certificate, or a bond.
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Tomasko calls the exhibition “a panorama of 150 years of art.” On
display for the first time is a remarkable range of original wash
drawings and paintings, period photographs and prints used by the
engravers when engraving the images used on documents of value.
Accompanying these are the paper money and certificates on which the
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The exhibit offers examples from the United States and 14 other
countries, including Argentina, China, Italy, Spain, and Venezuela.
All the examples were produced in the United States between the 1830s
A world leader in art
A historian as well as a serious collector, Tomasko explains that
security engraving was one of the first arts in which the United
States became a world leader — as far back as the middle of the 19th
century. He attributes this to the chaotic pre-Civil War banking
system in which banks in every state issued their own notes, thus
creating an enormous need for secure, engraved bank notes. The prime
beneficiaries of this demand were firms in New York and Philadelphia
and, from the 1860s on, the American Banknote Co. and the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing.
On a trip through the exhibit the visitor passes through a series of
distinct eras, starting with “The Early Years: Miniature Drawings,
1830s–1840s.” The art here had to be done in the same size as it would
be engraved. These vignettes were usually either allegorical figures
(mostly female), or genre scenes of early Americana — rural,
agricultural, or historical.
“The Golden Age of Vignette Art, 1850s–1870s” shows the period
during which seven American bank note firms were producing hundred of
bank notes for the issues of state banks, and later, the federal
government. The advent of photography allowed the drawings to be made
larger since they could be photographically reduced to engraving size.
Among the art shown are works by the prolific Felix Octavius Carr
Darley and James D. Smillie.
Next came the “Prints and Salon Art of the Mid-to Late Nineteenth
Century” when the increased availability of images from an expanded
variety of books, journals, and prints and photographs provided a
wider array of images than ever before possible.
Finally, by the 20th century, photographs became more commonly used
as the artwork source. On view are photographs of Chinese subjects
turned into engravings on bank notes for China but produced by
American bank note firms, especially the American Banknote Co., for
whom China was a best client.
Here we find the star of the show, muralist Alonzo E. Foringer. His
large oil paintings of allegorical females produced from the 1910s to
the 1940s were seized on by picture engravers who from his work
created the best allegorical engravings of the 20th century — a
marriage of engraving and art that the Grolier Club says has never
been equaled. Although he is known today primarily for a World War I
Red Cross poster, Foringer’s real achievement was his bank note art on
the stocks and bonds of hundreds of American companies and on at least
50 foreign bank notes.
Robert Lavin followed Foringer and became the second greatest
security engraving artist of the last century. His allegorical
paintings and paintings of working people from the 1960s through the
1980s (described as “Capitalist Realism”) became the leading picture
engravings for stocks and bonds in the late 20th century. Some
examples of other artists’ work of the 1950s and 1960s are also shown.
Images of Value will be on public view at the Grolier Club, 47
E. 60th Street, New York City, until April 29. Hours are Monday to
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is open to the public free of charge.
The club’s phone number is 212-838-6690.
A full-color catalog, Images of Value: the Artwork Behind U.S.
Security Engraving 1830s–1980s, with a preface by art historian
William H. Gerdts, is sponsored by the Grolier Club’s Committee on
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and is available for $40 at the
club, or by mail from Oak Knoll Books, 310 Delaware St. New Castle, DE 19720.
The book’s frontispiece is an intaglio print of the exhibit’s
“signature image,” Abundance, an engraving by Robert Savage of a
painting by A.E. Foringer. Both the engraving and painting were done