If Boston collector John W. Adams has one issue with the series of medals known as Betts medals, it is their abundance.
“The Betts series is so big, it kind of grew out of control,” he said.
While Adams was referencing the overall category (which is named for the researcher who first classified and cataloged the medals in a substantial way), he may as well have been discussing his own collection of some 2,500 Betts medals. A small part of Adams’ collection, 135 pieces, sold in Heritage Auction’s Jan. 9 auction in Orlando, Fla., together realizing more than $1 million.
What are Betts medals?
C. Wyllys Betts authored the definitive book American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals, which was published posthumously in 1894 (modern reprints exist).
In the book, Betts explores the history of the American continent, not just the United States of America but the broader struggle for colonial dominance pitting European powers and their contingents in North America.
Medals celebrating naval and military engagements occurring during this period of colonization are widely available, for the roles military and naval forces played in the settlement of the Americas.
The broad-ranging series of medals features work by some leading medallic sculptors of the day, like Thomas Pingo and Augustin Dupre, and includes the earliest medals designed and created in the United States of America. The book catalogs medals for the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, among others.
“The [series spans] three centuries, eight countries and eight languages,” Adams said.
Because of the scope, Adams’ advice for collectors considering the topic is: “You have to try to break it down into more bite-sized pieces.”
Possible divisions include the Comitia Americana medals that were authorized by the United States Congress, the Spanish colonial proclamation medals of King Ferdinand VI, or even medals of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War).
So where do collectors start?
Adams suggests the series of medals honoring Adm. Edward Vernon, especially for someone seeking an affordable challenge.
Admiral Vernon medals
The basis for one of four books on Betts medals written or co-written by Adams, Admiral Vernon medals commemorate the Royal Navy’s victory against Spanish forces in 1739.
Adm. Edward Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello was widely celebrated by the British, both in the British Isles and in the American colonies.
The city was a center of Spanish riches in the New World, resting near the bend of the Isthmus of Panama.
“Certainly no event in English history has evoked so many commemorative medals. They were worn by all classes, to express the national joy ...,” wrote Betts in the 1894 book, which lists at least 160 different varieties of Vernon medals (including medals for related battles that followed).
These sometimes crude medals reflect “an important piece of U.S. history that is not yet recognized as such,” according to Adams.
The Vernon subseries spans some 250 medals and varieties, as presented in the 2010 book Medallic Portraits of Admiral Vernon: Medals Sometimes Lie by Adams, Fernando Chao and Anne E. Bentley.
Admiral Vernon medals are a great series with which to start, “because they range from anywhere to relatively inexpensive to downright cheap,” Adams said. “I’ve picked them out of junk boxes — probably 10 years ago, but they’re still out there,” he said.
The number of varieties provides the challenge of attribution (especially for pieces in low grades) that some collectors of early American coins appreciate.
“People ... find great pleasure in low grade large cents, but not because they are beautiful; the Vernon medals [at a lower grade] are the same thing but without the zeroes [on the price tag],” Adams said.
Adams speaks with familiarity about the American large cent series because it was the 1982 auction of his large cent collection that propelled him toward Betts medals.
Adams credits the legendary dealer/researcher John J. Ford Jr. for encouraging his interest in Betts medals after the 1982 auction.
“He knew I might be looking for a challenge and I was. It just so happened Ford had a very large collection of Betts medals for sale — he was a very good salesman,” said Adams. “History was the main attraction. I got a lot more out of it than if I had collected anything else.”
Now it is Adams who promotes the series, through research and especially aimed toward someone coming from the early cents realm.
“You have die states [on Adm. Vernon medals] like you have on large cents. One cent coins are all copper. Vernon medals are brass, copper, silver, plated, and so on,” he said.
The historical allure is another fascination.
Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, served with Vernon as first officer. Lawrence Washington renamed his plantation after Admiral Vernon, Adams said.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Mount Vernon?
The Battle of Porto Bello was just one action in a series of wars between Britain, Spain and France and their respective colonies in the Americas, through the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763 was the American segment of this war).
After the conclusion of the long period of conflict, Britain attempted to raise taxes on its colonies to raise revenue to pay off its enormous debts. The raising of taxes was among the actions ultimately leading to the American Revolution. “The Vernon campaign was the first step toward ultimate independence of the colonies and here you have all these medals and varieties and [many of them are] relatively inexpensive to acquire.”
Vernon medals are not among the medals Adams has consigned to auction, but sales records from European and American auction houses suggest Very Fine examples of some Vernon medals are available for around $200 or less.
At the low end you can buy one for $25.
“The problem is finding dealers that handle them,” Adams said. Even gem examples, ranging from $2,000 to $3,000, are priced nowhere near the upper threshold for some of the other Betts medals.
“There are no $20,000; $50,000; or $100,000 medals in the Vernon series,” he said.
Another series that is attractive for its affordability as well as from an artistic standpoint are the French medals honoring Louis XIV, known as the Sun King or Louis le Grand (Louis the Great).
More than 300 medals were produced to promote the ruler’s accomplishments (not all are classified by Betts).
Because they mark important events in France, not directly involving America, Adams notes they “might not turn on too many American collectors, but they are lovely, they are numerous and they are relatively inexpensive.”
Adams said being able to read French only enhances one’s ability to enjoy this series.
Many examples in the Very Fine to Extremely Fine range sold in the Heritage auction for around $500 to $900, indicating that, while not as affordable as the Vernon pieces, they are within reach for many collectors.
Another area of Betts medals with affordable issues is the series of medals marking the Anglo-Dutch capture of New World silver and gold in Vigo Bay, Spain.
The coins struck from the metal contained in the treasure are rather famous rarities in the English series, but may overshadow the many medals celebrating the event. Brass and bronze examples of some of the medals (ranging from VF to EF) sold in the Jan. 9 auction for prices ranging from $250 to $500.
A collector getting deeper into the topic will learn which medals Betts included but that researchers believe don’t belong in the Betts classification, and conversely those medals that Betts omitted but shouldn’t have.
Adams said, “As you can tell from the sales, I collected it all.”
In addition to representing many languages and nations, Betts medals are noted for the wide array of metals used in their production.
The list includes the traditional bronze, copper, silver, gold and many more.
Bronze and base metal medals are far more common, on the whole, in the Betts series than silver or gold pieces, simply because the precious metal versions were so much more expensive at the time, Adams said.
Silver medals might have a population 1/50th (or 2 percent) of the number of bronze medals, and gold medals are even rarer than the silver medals, researchers suggest.
One major outlier is the Libertas Americana medal, the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin and the capstone to the Comitia Americana grouping.
The ratio of bronze to silver Libertas Americana medals is about 3-to-1 — the lore and design (it was ranked the No. 1 American medal in a survey of experts) mean it has a price tag out of reach for most collectors, as pleasing bronze examples may cost more than $10,000 each.
While many of Adams’ medals are accessible to collectors of nearly all means, some of the choice rarities have realized astonishing sums.
The star of the Adams auction is the 1643 to 1644 oval silver medal depicting Cecilius Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore.
The medal, which reveals a map of Maryland on the reverse, was the first Indian peace medal for the United States. It was presented to the Susquehannock Indians and is one of three examples known (another in the British Museum is without the loop and one in the Maryland Historical Society is a different variety and size).
The Adams example is almost certainly the example “that spent more than 30 years in the hands of the powerful Susquehannocks, who could have easily overrun the new and under-populated colony of Maryland but for the pledge of peace represented by this historic piece of silver.”
Classified as Betts 35 and in EF condition, the medal realized $176,250, including the 17.5 percent buyer’s fee.
Other Indian peace medals formerly in Adams’ collection were sold by Stacks in a 2009 auction; with few exceptions, prices for various medals presented to North American First Peoples realized multiple thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Collectors wanting to know more about the series might search out Adams’ book on Indian peace medals, published in 1999 and now out of print: The Indian Peace Medals of George III or His Majesty’s Sometime Allies.
His body of research also includes The Medals Concerning John Law and the Mississippi System, which explores 17th century medals concerning Scottish economic theorist John Law’s failed attempt to create a paper money system for France. Published in 2006, it remains available from the American Numismatic Society for $75. Comitia Americana and Related Medals: Underappreciated Monuments to our Heritage, by Adams and Bentley, was published in 2007 and remains available for $135 from Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers, who also have the Admiral Vernon book for $95.
The depth of Adams’ collection has fueled his research. Adams has been slowly dispersing the collection in auctions, with another 75 pieces slated to appear in a Fritz Rudolph Künker auction later this year. “It’s a big upper to see these in the hands of new collectors who are excited by these things,” Adams said.
With an estimated 2,000 more medals remaining in his collection, Adams is a long way from finished with Betts medals.
Adams said: “I’ll continue to be an active collector for a long time.”