Colonial America column from Oct. 26, 2015,
issue of Coin World:
Question: What rare medal is dated 1776, not listed in C. Wyllys
Betts’ American Colonial History as Illustrated by Contemporary
Medals, but is listed in R.W. Julian’s Medals of the United
States Mint: The First Century 1792–1892, as being struck in Paris?
The answer: the United States Diplomatic Medal, struck in 1792.
Originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson and personally approved by
George Washington, the Diplomatic Medal was intended to be struck in
gold and used as the official gift of the United States to recognize
foreign diplomats for their service. Such gifts were customary at the
time: John Adams received a large gold medal from the Netherlands in
1788 to recognize his service as minister plenipotentiary, a medal
that survives in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
When Jefferson returned from Paris in 1789 and was elevated to the
position of secretary of state, he left his post in the hands of
William Short, his longtime deputy. Soon thereafter, with gifts he had
received from the French still fresh in his mind, Jefferson hatched
his idea for a substantial gold medal, to be hung on a large gold
chain whose length depended upon the diplomat’s term of service. The
gold chain would be tantamount to a cash gift, but the medal could be
retained as a keepsake.
Corresponding with Short in Paris, Jefferson asked that the medal be
executed by Augustin Dupré, who had earlier gained fame
among the Americans for his work on the Libertas Americana medal and several of the
medals voted by Congress to recognize military success during the
Though records show two gold medals were struck, neither has
survived. Both medals were given to French aristocrats who served as
ambassadors to America, and scholars today assume they were destroyed
during the French Revolution. The surviving paper trail also indicates
that six bronze medals were struck. Four of those are known today: one
in Princeton University, three more in private collections. The finest
of them, and the only one to retain its original loop, was recently
sold in an October 1 Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction for $188,000.
In 1876, Charles Barber engraved new Diplomatic Medal
dies, enabling the U.S. Mint to sell “restrikes” from the new dies.
The brothers Henry and S.H. Chapman, who owned an original Diplomatic
Medal, condemned the new medal as a “counterfeit” at the time, but
today even these copies are avidly sought by collectors who cherish
the history of this great rarity.