Indian peace medals in Stack’s Bowers Galleries sale have stories to tell
- Published: Oct 30, 2020, 8 AM
On Nov. 10 Stack’s Bowers Galleries will offer the Larry Ness Collection of Indian Peace Medals, which the auctioneer ranks as easily among the finest collections of peace medals ever assembled.
Ness began his collecting journey at age 8, receiving an arrowhead from a relative and then learning about the history and life of the Plains Indians, especially the Sioux.
“Living in South Dakota provides him with the opportunity to study the tribes and enjoy the companionship of many natives on a personal basis,” the catalog explains. His research fueled his interest in the subject, with his collection driven more by an object’s “character” and provenance than condition. “He loved to hold a medal in his hand and wonder at its past, as well as its former owners,” the cataloger adds.
The first sizable group in the collection is a selection of Indian peace medals of Great Britain issued between the American Revolution and the War of 1812. “It is a group of British medals most closely tied to the American issues, medals that were used as tokens of loyalty to the crown as the tides of war were set in motion in the American colonies,” Stack’s Bowers explains.
These medals of King George III were royally sanctioned and specially made for solidifying loyalty to the British among Native American tribes. They served as inspiration for the American series.
Among the pieces in this section is an undated (1777) silver Lion and Wolf medal, struck on a solid, thin silver planchet with rims added afterwards. The 1999 book Indian Peace Medals of George III or His Majesty’s Sometime Allies, by John W. Adams, lists the offered medal as Adams 10.1, pairing Obverse 1 with Reverse A.
The 61.1-millimeter medal is holed for suspension, though the original hanger is lost, and it is graded Fine by the auctioneer, who writes, “Once the original hanger was lost, this piece continued to be worn for a long time, eventually wearing through the original hole. As a remedy, two additional holes were neatly pierced in the recess of the border, close to the original hole, allowing for a new suspension attachment.”
The obverse depicts the bust of the king facing right, in armor. The reverse shows the British lion roused to attention by a slinking wolf who seems to threaten a settlement in the background.
The Ness Collection includes a second example from the same obverse die, but struck from Reverse B, and with its original hanger intact, graded Very Fine by Stack’s Bowers who calls it “a rather sharp piece, and perhaps a bit better detailed than our grade might suggest, but there are areas of porosity mostly affecting the obverse.”
Thomas Jefferson medal
Among the U.S. government peace medals and related issues, inspired by the long-term traditions established by the French, Spanish and British, are medals issued for presentation to leaders of Native Americans.
The earliest original, large oval medals of George Washington are prohibitively rare. The Ness Collection starts with the medals of Thomas Jefferson, which bear his portrait. The collection continues through the Benjamin Harrison administration (the last president to issue the medals) and includes private issues made for use in the fur trade, among other related types.
A historic silver largest size 1801 Thomas Jefferson Indian peace medal, measuring 100.7 millimeters, has a provenance that traces back to the mid-19th century when it was owned by Col. Jesse Leavenworth and passed to his descendants before being presented to the Leavenworth Museum, which subsequently deaccessioned it.
The manufacture of these large-sized medals was innovative for the time, as the auction house explains: “The obverse and reverse pieces bearing the designs were each individually struck at the Mint on thin silver sheets. In each case, this was accomplished by the impression of a single steel die likely opposed by some relatively soft material such as wood or leather that would resist the die, yet give enough to allow for the designs to be imparted. They were not struck by two steel dies in opposition, and the clearest evidence for this is the general lack of crispness in the design features. Once the obverse and reverse shells were made, they were hand-assembled into a single medal by way of an edge band that was fused around the circumference.”
The result is a relatively fragile medal and the two hollow shells seem to have nothing in between them.
“We can see into this medal and there are no visible remnants of any interior filler, and while it is coming apart in places, it is not wide enough apart for some interior wood form (as has been proposed) to have fallen out. Even if rot had occurred to such a wood form, remnants would continue to lose dust or fragments. The same would be true of a beeswax core. Had such dried and crumbled, it would undoubtedly still be producing grains from the interior, yet nothing falls from this piece or rattles within,” the cataloger concludes.
The fragile nature of the medals likely led to many falling apart, especially if subjected to daily wear and suspension. It is graded Very Good with the cataloger writing, “The medal shows no evidence of repair and is thus in its completely natural state. This alone has value to purists, as the quality and condition hide nothing. It is exactly as it should be and, in fact, it is a rather handsome example of this immensely historic artifact.”
A known recipient
Another extraordinary offering is an undated, circa 1890 Benjamin Harrison silver medal, provenanced to the original recipient, that measures 76.6 millimeters and is graded Choice Very Fine. It is one of 27 Harrison silver medals struck, seven of which are known today.
Stack’s Bowers says the medal in the auction has “one of the best provenances of any American Peace medal,” acknowledging, “While the figures involved are not famous, there is a great deal known about one of them, and his is a fascinating story.”
Some of the Harrison medals had the names of the recipients engraved on the reverse and while THREE / FINGERS is visible, below can be seen the faint remnants of BUFFALO / MEAT, who is named as recipient in contemporary records. “It is unclear why the name was altered, but the medal obviously became the property of Three Fingers at some point,” the cataloger points out. While Buffalo Meat and Three Fingers were contemporaries — they were photographed together in Washington, D.C., in 1895 — the specifics of this medal’s history and the relationship between the two men will likely never be known.
Charles Barber’s reverse design of a Native American and a settler with “a civilized house and occupation” was an attempt for the design to model desirable behaviors.
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