World Coins

How to collect medals: Celebrate an individual

The following is the fourth 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. 

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.

We've already covered how one can build a set or collect an artist they admire, so let's move on to how you can focus on a particular medallic subject. 

Approach #3: Celebrating the individual 

In terms of quantity and diversity, portrait medals are hard to surpass. A look at the medals in a dealer’s inventory will reveal mostly portraits of men big and small, handsome and ugly; men of undeniable achievement and men who don’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

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Most collectors focus on the leading men, so to speak. For many collectors, Abraham Lincoln has proven an irresistible subject because of the vast number of medals and the different modes of depicting the great president.

More than 3,200 distinct items are cataloged in Paul Cunningham’s recent book Lincoln’s Metallic Imagery, starting with numismatic items produced during his first election in 1860. The book contains 37 chapters, each representing a distinctive category of items.

Some Lincoln medals remain available from the U.S. Mint. One impressive example measures 77 millimeters in diameter and features a traditional representation of Lincoln with a large, nude, bearded profile bust. The medal was initially struck in 1886. Sometime after George Morgan was named chief engraver of the U.S. Mint in 1917, Morgan’s name was added on the truncation of the lower edge of the neck. A modern restrike is available for purchase at the U.S. Mint for $39.95.

Some Lincoln medals are particularly beautiful. The centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909 inspired hundreds of medals and one of the most expressive is this one, designed by Bela Lyon Pratt (who also designed the famed Indian Head gold $2.50 quarter eagles and $5 half eagles with sunken designs the year prior). The obverse depicts a clothed, bearded bust of Lincoln facing right. On the reverse, in the upper field an eagle with outstretched wings holds an olive branch in his talons. Handsome bronze examples can be found for $50 to $75.

The Illinois Watch Company’s Lincoln Essay Medal is one of the more dignified and commonly seen large-sized Lincoln medals. The obverse portrait was based on a painting by Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk who was assisted by Charles Hinton in producing it in medal form. Thousands of these medals were made by the Whitehead & Hoag Co., in Newark, N.J., for Jacob Bunn, president of the Illinois Watch Company, to be awarded to high school students who participated in the Lincoln Essay competition. The reverse has an open wreath of oak leaves with a blank space for the name of the award recipient. These can be found online for $25 with some luck, sometimes with their original presentation box.

Since there are thousands of Abraham Lincoln medals and since inclusiveness is essentially impossible, a collection of Lincoln medals is an ever-expanding challenge, but unlike more specialized areas, it is a collection that can start with a visit to any local coin show. 

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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