Enduring metal allows medals to contradict Shakespeare’s
observation, “The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft
interred with their bones.” One example is a 61- by 89-millimeter
plaquette portraying the otherwise obscure lawyer-philanthropist
Algernon Sydney Sullivan. The medal was designed by French sculptor
Jules Edouard Roiné in 1907.
A leading figure in New York law and society until his death in
1887, Sullivan was born in the frontier settlement of Madison, Ind.,
on April 5, 1826. His forebears settled in Virginia in the 1700s, but
his father, Jeremiah, took the family west in 1816 where the older
Sullivan became an Indiana Supreme Court Justice.
Frail in health, Algernon was educated at home and later at Miami
University in Oxford, Ohio. He practiced law in fast-growing
Cincinnati, and invested heavily in local businesses that were later
wiped out by the financial crash of the late 1850s.
Algernon began again in New York City, where he was admitted to
the bar in 1857. City life included “down home” organizations such as
the New England, Pennsylvania and Southern societies, and Sullivan was
prominent in the latter. His death brought an outpouring of tributes
written in ornate “gilded age” style, gathered into a 137- by
190-millimeter blue hardcover memorial book also housing an example of
the Roiné plaquette.
Long forgotten, a few of these books were found several years ago
at the old headquarters of the American Numismatic Society.
The ANS began its own medal series in 1866. Some collectors saw
the Sullivan plaquette as a new discovery in that series.
Research found that the Southern Society had proposed that the ANS
bestow as many as five awards to top achievers in the New York Bar
exam each year.
In 1925, the Sullivan family foundation gave the project to the
Southern Society until that organization folded in 1973. Today, more
than 20 southern colleges bestow a Sullivan Award. Some feature the
1907 plaquette reverse design.
The 1907 obverse bears a Sullivan bust left in frock coat and
“flyaway” tie above the tribute HE REACHED OUT BOTH HANDS IN CONSTANT
HELPFULNESS TO HIS FELLOW MEN. The reverse shows him in Roman toga
with flaming torch, lighting another torch held by a youth holding a
law book, with inscription below of AS ONE LAMP LIGHTS ANOTHER NOR
GROWS LESS SO NOBLENESS ENKINDELETH NOBLENESS. LOWELL.
The plaquette shown (ANS 0000.999.4310, gift of Mrs. Robert J.
Eidlitz) bears a minute triangle edgemark, possibly identifying Arthus
Bertrand, Paris; others are marked DAVISON PHILA, (Joseph K. Davison’s
Sons). Medal and book are elusive, but convey medallic immortality on
a New York jurist whose name is nearly forgotten 125 years after his death.
David T. Alexander, is a Senior Numismatist and researcher for
Heritage Auctions, firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is author of American Art Medals, 1909-1995.