An independent review of Medallic Washington, Volume I,
1777-1860; Volume II, 1861-1890, 830 pages, by Neil Musante,
published by Spink & Son, London and Boston 2016:
The following is as much an appreciation as a review, introducing a
dramatic new addition to American medallic literature.
I learned long ago that independent book reviews are of the
greatest value to enquiring readers, though few independent reviews
Books have been the bone and sinew of American numismatics since
coin and medal collecting first began in the United States.
Pioneering books on coins, medals and tokens began appearing
somewhat erratically in the mid-19th century on a hit or miss basis.
Dealers published some premium lists disguised as books, and a very
few dedicated specialists published their own studies for the few
The most serious efforts were those created by the few learned
societies then existing, notably the New York-based American
Numismatic Society. Then Augustus G. Heaton’s Treatise on the Mints
of the United States appeared as a private publication in 1893
and permanently turned most American collectors exclusively toward
U.S. coins by date and Mint mark.
Washingtoniana leads the way
A note on vocabulary: “Washingtonia” is a tall palmate-leafed palm
tree seen in southern California and Florida; “Washingtoniana” are
objects relating to the life and career of the Father of Our Country.
A trivial point that aids clarity.
In pre-Civil War United States, interest in medals had already
developed, particularly in medals of George Washington. The first
deluxe book on the subject was James Ross Snowden’s A Description
of the Medals of Washington; of National and Miscellaneous
Medals, published by the U.S. Mint in 1861.
Mint Director Snowden created an exceptionally handsome large format
reference based on the Mint’s own medal collection. A treat to the
eye, the book actually presented many sketchy or inaccurate descriptions.
Generally imprecise engraving made do for illustrations and much
basic information it might have been expected to provide was absent.
I was able to examine a nearly pristine copy of Snowden in the
library of Stack’s in the firm’s Midtown New York City office in 1995
while preparing my article for the American Numismatic Society’s
Coinage of the Americas Conference. I could see that while possession
of the Snowden book conferred glorious bragging rights for its owner,
it actually offered little truly useful information to the researcher.
Before dissolution of the Stack’s library in 2012, I also glimpsed a
mournful sight — an original printing of William Spohn Baker’s 1885
Medallic Portraits of Washington, housed in a stout manila
envelope to keep its sea of disintegrating paper in one place.
In active use was the 1965 Krause Publications hardcover Baker
reprint-update on glossy stock with revisions and illustrations by the
late Dr. George Fuld.
Baker divided Washingtoniana into topics or categories from Colonial
coins through spielmarken. He numbered each entry continuously without
leaving space for future additions. “Baker” numbers were thus riveted
onto the field, first in Fuld’s 1965 effort and then in the far more
ambitious “Centennial Edition” of 1985 and the final 1999 volume
prepared by Fuld and the late Russell Rulau.
As their listings expanded, it was harder and harder to preserve
Baker’s numbers, which now became confused and virtually incoherent.
The reader had to memorize the newer editions’ layout to be able to
find any desired item as numbers were not continuous.
My independent review of the 1985 Baker was joined by my examination
of another strange opus by one Francis Pessolano-Filos offered by Eros
Press, that offered an oddly assorted and colorfully misdescribed run
of Washington medals. Little used, this effort contained and therefore
perpetuated numerous factual errors and bizarre attributions. It sank
from sight except for copies lurking on a few library shelves.
In 1999, what was really a third edition of Baker appeared from
Krause though still styled “2nd Edition.” It had been promised that
this new volume would contain many additions and corrections made
available by this reviewer and other interested researchers, but the
new hardcover book was rushed to press to coincide with a promised
auction of the Dr. Irving N. Schuster Collection, which never took place.
Neither Rulau nor Fuld were enthusiastic at the prospect of
extensive change, and in fact none appeared. Baker had now achieved
the status of “holy writ,” making “tampering” with traditional wording perilous.
Both Fuld and Rulau have since died. Rulau had received all rights
and materials relating to Baker from Krause’s later owners before his
death. Never comfortable with computerization, Rulau had kept the
Baker pages and source materials in hard copy including typed and
handwritten file cards in his home office.
As we will see, the final Rulau-Fuld edition will remain a necessity
for collectors interested in post-1890 Washingtoniana, omitted from
the 2016 Musante volumes.
Musante and the 21st century
Massachusetts researcher Neil Musante’s challenge must be called
daunting, as it certainly was to predecessors that may have considered
Fortunately, he was not easily deterred and had the stamina to see
the task to completion within the parameters he had established.
It was not Musante’s intent to simply “revise Baker,” copying or
extending his format or listings. Those had been bare-bones and
without illustrations in 1883, and were still limited in Fuld’s 1965 work.
Presentation of all needed basic information in Musante’s
introduction is wonderfully concise, rational and consistent.
Photography is superb throughout both volumes. Published
measurements include 21st century metric diameters and weights and
their equivalents in units Washington would have understood.
One great annoyance has been cleansed thanks to Musante’s hands-on
familiarity with the many small-diameter Washington medals created for
the booming medal trade of the 1850s. These include George Hampden
Lovett of New York, Joseph Merriam of Boston and John Adams Bolen of Massachusetts.
Particularly refreshing is his detailed listing of Lovett’s pesky
10-medal sets of Washington’s Headquarters medals with varying
obverses that were presented with particular incoherence in the later
editions of Baker.
The decision to simply eliminate listings of post-1890 medals was
courageous though it may draw resentment from “completists,” though
more than one veteran Washington collector suggested this step in
Let’s hope that some dedicated researcher will now come forward to
extend the “Musante treatment” to medals of 1891 to 2000.
“Catalog values” do not appear in the text of Medallic
Washington. All Krause editions of Baker included valuations.
Those in 1965 were gathered into three columns per page in an
addendum; later editions presented dropped-in values with most listings.
Many of these estimates were controversial, others went years
without change and their actual usefulness could be and were
It has been announced that a printed price guide will soon be
completed and sent to purchasers of the two-volume set.
Medallic Washington is offered at $165 plus $10 for shipping.
Money matters always invite argument, but it should be noted that book
publishing today is vastly more costly than unthinking critics may realize.
My own American Art Medals 1909-1995 was ticketed at $155 by
ANS, a figure constantly heckled by one major figure in the writing
community. If the critics had a son or daughter in college in 2016
they would find themselves paying a similar price for a paperback
science textbook without a second thought! How much more glorious is a
deep-blue hard cover two-volume set with glossy stock and color
Simply stated, if there was a Nobel Prize for the most glorious book
of 2016, Musante’s Medallic Washington would be a prime contender!