World Coins

How to collect medals: Profile a historic event

The following is the fifth 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 setcollect an artist they admire, or focus on an individual subject that fascinates them. We're wrapping up our series with an event-based approach.

Approach #4: Tell the story of an event 

A rich collection of medals can be assembled around an event. Some collectors collect the beautiful and artistic Art Nouveau inspired medals of World War I, while others prefer International Exhibitions and World’s Fairs. Adding related material, like postcards or advertising memorabilia only enhances one’s collection. The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, provides rich collecting opportunities, both medallic and otherwise.

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The event celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and a centerpiece of the fair was a large pool. The layout was a prototype of a city and covered 690 acres, using mostly white finishings on the buildings that gave the fair the nickname the “White City.”

The grounds included nearly 200 temporary buildings, mostly in the Neoclassical style, and 14 “great buildings.” It served both as a show of national strength and as a testament to the fortitude of Chicago’s people, who had lost much of their city in the great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The fair opened to the public May 1, 1893, and millions were drawn to its magnificent buildings lit with electricity, gorgeous art, the original 264-foot-tall Ferris Wheel and various national and state exhibition buildings. Attendance exceeded expectations, and Oct. 9, named Chicago Day, drew more than 750,000 people. In total, more than 27 million people attended the fair, and while few of the buildings remain today, the Palace of Fine Arts was reopened several decades later as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Among the most popular collectibles of the fair — beyond the 1892 and 1893 World’s Columbian Expo commemorative half dollars — were the large bronze official award medals designed by famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens served as an adviser for the Fair’s sculpture program, and he completed the medal design prior to the fair’s closing in November 1893.

The obverse of the medal met with near-universal acclaim. It shows Columbus arriving triumphantly on the shores of the New World. Three male figures are seen at the lower right, one bearing an unfurling banner, and above them are the symbolic Pillars of Hercules with the three Spanish caravels and the inscription PLUS ULTRA (Spain’s national motto).

However, the United States Senate Quadro-Centennial Committee took issue with the artist’s initial reverse depiction of a nude male youth. Variant designs that covered up the nude were presented, but ultimately U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber was tasked with the creation of a less offensive replacement design. The artistic result is that the two sides don’t necessarily match, but that inconsistency has done little to dampen the popularity of the medal with collectors today.

The medals have a line where the recipient’s name could be incorporated, and while the hubs and dies were produced at the Philadelphia Mint, the medals were produced by the Scoville Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Conn. Today, average examples sell for $225 to $275 and those in their original boxes may sell for $275 to $350. Exceptional examples or those awarded to significant individuals can sell for even more.

The diversity of medals issued related to the Columbian Exposition is staggering and many depict the highlights of the fair. Medals with intricate Ferris wheels, exact depictions of buildings, and heroic depictions of Columbus are most often seen and these are reasonably priced with even the most beautiful medals of larger sizes available for $100 to $200 and hundreds of smaller medals that can be found for $15 to $50 each.

So, next time you’re at a coin show, ask a dealer what medals he or she might have in inventory. Picking out what speaks to you could be the start of a new and rewarding collecting adventure.

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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