How to collect medals: Building sets a natural approach

Issues of the Society of Medalists make for a solid example
By , Coin World
Published : 11/21/16
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The following is the second in a multi-part series from our Dec. 5, 2016, issue of Coin World about collecting medals:

As we explained last week, medals can be a daunting area to col­lect but taking the right approach can result in a very rewarding collection. 

In this month's Coin World cover feature, we're outlining four ways that one can organize a collection of medals. From building a set, to collecting the work of a single artist; from collecting medals depicting a person to those celebrating an event — breaking down a large field like medallic art into segments provides a manageable entry point into the wide field of medal collecting.

Let's attack the first way to go about collecting medals.

Approach #1: Build a Set

Collectors love assembling sets because sets provide order and a built-in method of organizing a collection. The issues of the Society of Medalists allow collectors to complete an accessible set while building a small museum of the leading sculptors and artistic movements of the 20th century.

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The Society of Medalists was formed in 1930 to encourage sculptors and to disseminate their work to the public. Between 1930 and 1995 the group issued medals twice a year, along with special issues marking the group’s anniversaries. The group had its genesis in the Circle of Friends of the Medallion, which was active between 1908 and 1915, and Medallic Art Company struck the medals for both groups.

The selected artists were allowed to choose the subject matter and style of their medals, and as a result, the series includes a diverse range of subjects in a variety of styles. The series began on a tame note in 1930 with Laura Gardin Fraser’s bronze medal depicting a hunter and his dog on the obverse, with a ruffled grouse on the reverse.

The second medal of 1930, Dionysus by famed sculptor Paul Manship, is considered one of the masterpieces in the series.

Manship’s medal is a classic representation of the artist’s distinctive Art Deco style that favored mythology, as is also exemplified by his iconic 1934 sculpture of Prometheus that dominates Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Manship’s Dionysus medal depicts a bearded, grape-crowned Dionysus — the Greek god of wine and festivities — on the obverse with two satyrs stomping grapes on the reverse. Of the satyrs, the artist explained, ”Their stupid faces, pointed ears, goat legs, and tails, betray the dominance of animal instincts which their master Dionysus exemplifies.”

The medal was issued during the Prohibition era when the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverage was banned.

Set within this framework, a medal celebrating wine is provocative, and it inspired some public controversy. The artist added, “The medal is not conventional, it is subtly humorous and is symbolic of a present-day attitude toward certain restraints of the times. Thus it is commemorative of an era.”

As David T. Alexander writes in his 2010 book American Art Medals, 1909-1995, Manship’s medal inspired a hearty public controversy, and this brought the Society of Medalists attention that likely benefited future issues. In total, 2,000 examples of Dionysus were reportedly produced; 1,950 bronze and 50 silver examples. The bronze examples now sell for $250 to $400 while the silver ones can sell for $600 to $900.

Other issues were less controversial, such as famed animal sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington’s 1943 medal African Water Hole. The 27th issue in the series, it depicts an elephant eating on the obverse and a watering hole with zebras, a gnu and a warthog drinking on the reverse, and examples can occasionally be found for under $100 in online auctions.

In 1944 while World War II was in full force, Edward Recchia’s medal titled Inspiration – Aspiration captured a late Art Deco style and tried to inject optimism in a series that didn’t shy away from depicting heavier topics. Recchia explained that the obverse “shows the man’s mind stretching upwards, to and beyond the flight of the wings of imagination and passing time and depicting man’s dreams seeking higher realms of inspiration.” Several different sizes exist and it is a handsome medal that captures the streamlined aesthetic of the time.

The Society of Medalists continued through 1990s and it is in the final years that some of its most innovative examples can be found.

Marcel Jovine’s 1990 medal, the 122nd in the series and Jovine’s third Society of Medalists medal, is titled Creation. The largest medal created by the group, the ambitious medal sets an interpretation of Michelangelo’s depiction of the biblical story of creation against a starry sky.

Jovine explained the reverse design: “I have created a spiral of life-forms, starting with the simplest one-cell creatures and progressing through the trilobites, dinosaurs, reptiles, mammals and culminating with man. The ascent of man fulfills the Biblical prophecy that man should have domination over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The massive bronze medal, the most technically complex of the series, measuring 102 millimeters, sells for around $250 today.

The final medals of the group challenged collectors’ definition of medals, and this may have caused the series’ demise. As dealer Steve Tannenbaum told Alexander, “for decades, collectors knew SOM medals as generally round 76mm pieces, distinguished by familiar size and reasonable issue price. As impressive an innovative as the last several issues certainly were, the dramatic changes in size, shape and above all, cost, undoubtedly alienated many collectors.”

Today the issues of the Society of Medalists present a worthy collecting challenge while providing a clear beginning and end and many tantalizing subsets within the group. One could limit the pursuit to medals depicting animals, those created by artists who also designed U.S. coins, examples within an Art Deco or Art Moderne style, ones with biblical references, or many other categories. Examples are often found in non-numismatic places, like antique shops and local auctions, often in their original boxes. 

Enjoy our entire series on how to collect medals:

Approach #1: Build a set
Approach #2: Collect an artist 
Approach #3: Focus on an individual subject
Approach #4: Profile an event

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