Rarity fascinates collectors everywhere. The designation “rare”
elevates the ordinary and warms the heart of the possessor, bringing
with it dreams of profit.
Collectors quickly learn, however, that rarity and value are
cousins, not sisters. Take, for example, the president’s medals of the
Rochester (N.Y.) Numismatic Association, which celebrated its
centennial in 2012.
A century ago, the American Numismatic Association was well into a
growth spurt and was seeking ways to achieve further and faster
expansion. Annexing already-existing local groups and encouraging
formation of others was one way to do it, and holding ANA conventions
in smaller cities was another.
Rochester, N.Y., was a go-getting industrial city with many
hometown boosters, including a successful gynecologist and large cent
collector, George P. French, whose fame still resounds among
aficionados of early copper. French is sometimes remembered for the
hostile nickname “the jolly abortionist” applied to him by a later
guru with his own character issues, William H. Sheldon.
The new RNA lost no time in striking a 2-inch medal honoring its
founder, designed by medalist Joseph A. Koeb. This launched an
enduring tradition of issuing a portrait medal for each succeeding
president. Since RNA presidents serve a one-year term, the full roster
of medals existing a century later is surprisingly large.
All RNA medals were struck in limited numbers, but a major rarity
emerged unexpectedly among the early issues: the 1920 medal of the
ninth president, local businessman John C. Woodbury. Apparently the
number struck was similar to the other early issues.
However, the Woodbury medal is essentially noncollectible today.
RNA Past President Gerard Muhl’s research found that a daughter,
Margaret Woodbury Strong, held onto the vast majority of the issue and
seemingly donated the medals to some museum, but not Rochester’s own
Today, only 14 examples of the Woodbury medal are known to be
extant among collectors. Shown here is the American Numismatic
Society’s medal (ANS 1925.69.3, gift of RNA).
RNA medals from 1920 through 1978 were designed by German-born
engraver Alphonse A. Kolb, longtime employee of Rochester-based
Bastian Brothers. A 61-year member, Kolb received nationwide publicity
for his decades of medal designs, which only ended with his death in
1983 at the age of 91.
Although there are plenty of other RNA medals to go around, the
Woodbury medal is sure to remain the lodestar and challenge for
David T. Alexander, is a Senior Numismatist and researcher for
Heritage Auctions, at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is author of
American Art Medals, 1909-1995.