US Coins

American Numismatic Society launches World War I medal site

To mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the American Numismatic Society launched a new web-based research catalog Aug. 12 comprising thousands of art medals, commemorative medals and tokens produced in response to this major conflict. 

“Art of Devastation,” online, is being directed by Peter van Alfen, the ANS’s Margaret Thompson Associate Curator of Greek Coins, with help from curatorial assistant Sylvia Karges.

The creation of this new web tool is the work of ANS database developer Ethan Gruber.

At launch, Art of Devastation incorporates the roughly 1,400 relevant items in the ANS’s collection. In collaboration with other institutions, such as the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the catalog will continue to expand. 

A comprehensive catalog

“ ‘Art of Devastation’ aims to be the first comprehensive catalogue of this abundant and varied material, one that takes full advantage of the web environment and linked open data,” according to ANS officials. 

“Intended to help identify medals and tokens in users’ hands, ‘Art of Devastation’ offers unique catalogue numbers for types and variants for future referencing, and illustrates, where possible, multiple examples for comparison.”

Users of the “Art of Devastation” catalog will encounter mapping tools to assist identifying where the item was created, and where the events associated with it took place.

The online catalog incorporates links to other websites that include information about the individual medallic artists, as well as the people, events, and things, like weapons or symbols, that a medal depicts.

“Art of Devastation,” according to ANS officials, also serves as an invaluable tool for non-numismatists.

Means of communication

For centuries before the onset of the Great War, as World War I was known until the advent of World War II, medals and tokens served as a significant means of communication where easy and durable forms of mass communication did not exist.

“Whether issued by states, organizations, or individuals, their commemorative and propagandistic function was already well known and understood,” according to the ANS. “Increasingly, by the turn of the century, the medal had also become an important medium of more reflective and private artistic expression.”

Art medals were distinguished from traditional types of medals by their frequent lack of words, nonelite representation, greater emotional intimacy, experimental shapes, and cast production rather than striking, according to the ANS.

The war triggered the production of medallic art and tokens reflecting both sides of the conflict, often employing scarce metallic resources normally reserved for military purposes.

The sinking of the Cunard passenger liner RMS Lusitania by the German submarine SM U-20 on May 7, 1915, attracted considerable artistic output on both sides of the conflict.

French artist René Baudichon responded with a medal with themes paralleling those of Allied atrocity propaganda, depicting a drowning child avenged by Ultrix America, portrayed on the medal as the Statue of Liberty with a sword. The reverse depicts a view of the Lusitania sinking. 

On the German side, the emotions were more complicated.

“The artists Karl Goetz and Walther Eberbach derided Allied hypocrisy on purported bans on armament shipments on passenger liners with their satirical takes on the sinking, while Ludwig Gies cast enmities aside to focus solely on the human tragedy of the event,” according to the ANS.

Van Alfen said it is interesting to note that the German medals depict the Lusitania wrongly sinking by its stern, instead of the bow.

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