US Coins

Letter clarifies who created 1906 Benjamin Franklin medal

Recently scanned correspondence from the ANS reveals Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ son Homer challenging the level of the famed sculptor’s involvement in designing the 1906 Benjamin Franklin Bicentennial medal. This example sold for $5,520 in 2020.

Images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and the American Numismatic Society.

The Newman Numismatic Portal continues to build the legacy of the great numismatist Eric P. Newman, and on May 28, Wayne Homren, the editor of the weekly newsletter The E-Sylum, pointed out newly scanned resources on the portal related to the 1906 Benjamin Franklin Bicentennial medal long credited to the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Several 1927 letters from the sculptor’s son, Homer, in the recently scanned American Numismatic Society’s member correspondence files challenge the idea that the medal should be attributed to Augustus Saint-Gaudens and indicate rather that it is primarily the work of Augustus’ brother, Louis.

The medal was conceived in 1903 and authorized by the U.S. Congress the next year. There are several varieties. A gold congressionally authorized example was produced for presentation to the French state, and 150 in bronze were struck by Tiffany & Co. with the jeweler’s name on the edge for distribution by the American Philosophical Society, of which Benjamin Franklin, who appears on the obverse, was once a member. The society needed more medals, and 200 were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in February 1907, with these later examples lacking the Tiffany edge mark.

The design has traditionally been given as a collaboration between the brothers Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens. Michael Moran wrote in his 2008 book Striking Change: The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens that the medal was Louis Saint-Gaudens’ commission, with Augustus helping in the initial design stages. When offering a large uniface bronze cast of the reverse design in 2021, Stack’s Bowers Galleries wrote, “Louis completed the plaster models of both obverse and reverse by August 1905, turning them over to his brother, and then went ‘west,’ leaving the medal in the hands of Augustus for completion. At this point, Augustus made various modifications to the model before forwarding to Deitsch brothers for preparation of the dies.” The auction house suggested this cast represented “the reverse version immediately prior to Augustus’s tinkering.”

Dated April 22, 1927, and on the letterhead of the Carnegie Institute, Department of Fine Arts in Pittsburgh, where Homer Saint-Gaudens was director, the letter is addressed to the ANS. The letter responds to an April 18, 1927, letter from the Medallic Art Company that acknowledged that the reverse of the medal was the work of Louis, but cited sculptor James Earle Fraser (of Indian Head 5-cent coin fame who was also an associate of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) who relayed “the obverse side was entirely changed by Mr. Augustus Saint-Gaudens and that beyond question the portrait was his work, and that Mr. Augustus Saint-Gaudens supervised and saw the entire medal through to completion.”

The Medallic Art Company sought to avoid any controversy by illustrating the medal “as being done merely by “Saint-Gaudens” since the planned booklet including the medal would not permit “a lengthy description.”

Augustus Saint-Gaudens died in 1907.

Homer Saint-Gaudens wrote: “the medal is primarily the work of my uncle, Mr. Louis Saint-Gaudens, and my father always considered it so. It is unjust, therefore, to both Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his brother, not to have the medal credited to Mr. Louis Saint-Gaudens.”

Stack’s Bowers Galleries wrote in the offering of another example of the medal with the Tiffany edge mark that realized $5,520 in 2020, “Augustus had originally accepted the work on the Benjamin Franklin birth bicentennial medal on behalf of his brother Louis, who, though admittedly a better sculptor than Augustus, had no taste or mind for the details that would drive a sculpture or medal project from inception to completion.”

At the time, the ANS credited the medal to Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Homer replied, “I’m writing them at once asking them to correct their label,” adding, “My father always considered it the work of his brother, and I should certainly reflect his feeling in the matter, in justice to him and his brother.”

A terse response from the ANS a few days later achieved the desired results, promising that the labels would be changed and that the action was “desirable not only from the point of view of accuracy but from that of justice.”

Homren neatly summarized the letters, writing, “The whole thread is reminiscent of the authorship of the Beatles’ catalog. John and Paul sometimes provided differing stories as to who composed what. The Saint-Gaudens clan was likely not operating under the same level of mind-altering substances, but the salient point is that in a commercial operation with many moving parts, the details of exactly who did what are sometimes lost to history.”

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