US Coins

Rare Sawyer galvanos in Bonhams sale

Bonhams will offer an eclectic mix of coins and related items at its June 5 Coins and Medals auction in Los Angeles. 

Among the most intriguing lots are two galvanos depicting Native Americans as sculptured by Edward Warren Sawyer. Sawyer trained with Hermon Atkins MacNeil — designer of the Standing Liberty quarter dollar — at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1890s and after 1900 would live predominantly in France.

Dick Johnson wrote in 2010 in his Medalblog, “One of the most famous medal series, but also one that no collector owns, is the series of Indian bas-relief portraits by sculptor Edward Warren Sawyer. The series is known simply as ‘Sawyer’s Indians.’ They are known only in museums!”

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As the American Numismatic Society wrote in a press release upon its November 2013 digitization of its collection of Sawyer’s portraits, “This exceedingly rare collection of uniface medals was produced in the first decades of the twentieth century as an attempt to preserve the likenesses of prominent Native Americans in a medium acceptable to them.”

Sawyer would travel to the American West at least three times, where he lived with Indian tribes to gain their confidence and create portraits. Johnson explains, “This was not an easy task as the Indians believed such reproductions also captured their spirit. Thus they disliked, even prohibited, being photographed. Sawyer had to first gain their confidence — by living amongst them — then gently urging his chosen model to sit for him. Perhaps that action didn’t seem to extract the [spirit] from the body he was modeling with his clay. It was not like a photograph. His subject could see the slow progress in replicating his features and his adornment in the slowly mounting clay.”

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Lot 264 depicts the Navajo Chief Tja-Yo-Ni and Lot 265 depicts Sunka-Hanska of the Oglala Sioux. Both galvanos measure 70 millimeters in diameter, are set in a wood frame, and each carries an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000.

Johnson explains, “Galvanos are a necessary intermediate step between an artist’s bas-relief model and the die to strike a coin or medal.” The exact details of many of Sawyer’s galvanos have been lost to history, creating an opportunity for future research.

In his essay “My Work among the Indians” published in the 1913 American Journal of Numismatics, Sawyer wrote of his 1904 trip where he visited Navajo country, and he recorded that, although he modeled many heads, Chief Tja-Yo-Ni was among the most important.

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He modeled Sunka-Hanska in 1912. As Sawyer recalled on his visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation to work among the Oglala Sioux, “I arrived at Pine Ridge just as a big council was being held and Indians from all the surrounding country were there. I drove out with an Indian farmer who knew all the Indians and pointed out to me all the celebrated men, among others being old Red Cloud’s son.

I picked out three or four good types and made all arrangements to have them pose when an agent for a Wild West Show came along and hired all the Indians he could. I saw it was useless to stay, so I took the stage and went north to Manderson on the edge of the Bad Lands where I could be out of reach of the Wild West Shows. I stopped with the Indian Trader, who was very much interested in my work, and helped me get three good types, Chief Sota (Smoke), Sunka-Hanska (Long Dog), and Hunpe-Ka (Picket Pin).” The artist would then return to Paris to finish the medals in bronze.

Today Sawyer’s approximately 40 medallic depictions of Native Americans are celebrated, and groups of the artist’s work are held at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Though, as the Art Institute of Chicago has observed, “Sawyer produced idealized profiles rather than ethnographic records.”

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