US Coins

Stack’s Bowers sells Slovick Indian peace medals

Stack’s Bowers Galleries offered the Ronald A. Slovick Family Collection of Indian Peace Medals on March 25, showcasing a range of these historical pieces.

Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs wrote in 1829, “The practice of distributing Medals among Indians is as old as the first intercourse of the French with these People. The British continued the practice, and it has been followed by our own Government.” He explained, “They are, besides this indication of Government Friendship, badges of power to them, and trophies of renown.” The Slovick collection contained 23 genuine silver Indian peace medals, 19 of which are of the American series, distinguished from bronze restrikes that were produced for collectors.

Slovick recalled in the catalog that he was introduced to 19th century hand-colored lithographs of Native American chiefs by his brother-in-law. “I was intrigued by the eminence and stature of these chiefs, and the fact that they had been singled out by our presidents, from George Washington through Benjamin Harrison, to be awarded medals offered in peace and friendship,” he said, adding that his son’s interest in the history of the medals proved to be an unanticipated bonus.

Leading the bidding at $63,000 was an original silver 1801 Thomas Jefferson Indian peace medal, second size, measuring 77 millimeters in diameter, graded Extremely Fine by the auctioneer. These were produced by joining two thin, separately struck shells around a soft core that was then banded with silver to make it appear to be a unified whole. The resulting surfaces are wavy and irregular, with small abrasions and scratches consistent with its intended use, and it retains its suspension hanger.

Perhaps a dozen of the silver second size medals are known, making them the rarest of the three sizes, and cataloger John Pack writes, “They are also particularly historic, as they are documented to have been carried across North America and distributed by legendary explorers Lewis and Clark.”

Madison & Monroe Medals

A silver 1809 James Madison Indian peace medal, first size, measuring 75.6 millimeters, and graded Very Fine by the auctioneers has a neat piercing at the top for suspension. The first size medals were reserved for the highest-ranking chiefs.

Here, “The surfaces exhibit the usual scattering of marks consistent with indigenous use, but there are no heavy nicks or rim bumps that would be worthy of mention,” and it’s called a “really lovely Peace medal for the grade, requiring no apologies.” It sold for $36,000 as did a silver 1817 James Monroe first size medal graded Choice Fine.

The large silver Monroe medals are among the rarest, with only a few known. Another, well-worn example surfaced at a Pook and Pook auction in May 2023, where it sold for $20,000, with a family provenance that said it was given to a chief named High Backed Wolf.

Of the 32 medals of this large size that are believed to have been struck, 24 were returned to the Secretary of War when the Office of Indian Trade was abolished in 1822. With just eight distributed, and a surviving population of four possible examples, it is among the rarest of Indian peace medals intended for indigenous presentation. This one is glossy, “with an almost waxy appearance from ancient polishing,” along with lots of small marks and rim marks, again consistent with use, though none are individually offensive.

Polk & Lincoln Medals

A standout among the medals of less-famed presidents in the collection is a silver James K. Polk Indian peace medal, first size, graded About Uncirculated that is possibly the finest survivor not in an institutional collection. The Polk portrait, designed as a wax model by New York artist John Gadsby Chapman, was in high relief. Pack writes, “Naturally, this would be harder to strike up fully and this particular high-grade medal shows just how challenging this was for the Mint,” as close examination reveals evidence of as many as six strikes. The offered medal sold for $36,000 and is one of just eight known of this size, “with medium gray surfaces generously accented by pale blue and gold toning across both sides,” along with some prooflike reflectivity in the fields. 

Always popular are the Indian peace medals issued during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and the Slovick collection had a sharp first size 1862 medal that was graded Extremely Fine. Two reverse dies were used for the first size Lincoln medals, a second being produced after the original one, used also for the James Buchanan medals, failed after it struck eight Lincoln medals.

The design depicts what’s often called a “scalping scene,” with two Native Americans circling the edge, surrounded by instruments of war with a crying woman at the bottom. In the central portion, a Native American family adopts “American” values with a man plowing a field while his children play baseball in the background.

One Lincoln, first reverse silver medal survives, alongside 36 examples struck with the second reverse die, a count that may include some later restrikes produced to meet collector demand. The offered example, with the second reverse, “is clearly an original in every respect, and shows the evidence of at least some use by the original Native American recipient.”

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