Dutch 1672 bronze medal depicting politics as a blood sport in auction

Medal displays de Witt brothers’ horrific murder
By , Coin World
Published : 05/20/17
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Politics is a blood sport, and no better example of that truism exists than the story of the Dutch de Witt brothers of the 1670s.

A bronze medal recalling the horrors visited upon the brothers for opposing William of Orange is offered in Dix Noonan Webb’s June 14 to 16 auction.

Collector/researcher Ben Weiss details the biography of the brothers at his website, historicalartmedals.com.

According to Weiss, Cornelius de Witt (1623 to 1672) distinguished himself when he accompanied Adm. Michael de Ruyter in naval battles against the united English and French fleets.

His brother Johan de Witt (1625 to 1672) was an adherent of the republican states-rights party, which opposed the princes of the house of Orange, who represented the federal principle and whom the mass of people supported.

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Johan de Witt’s diplomatic skill (he served in a role similar to prime minister) led to the Triple Alliance between the Dutch Republic, England and Sweden in 1668, which halted the French invasion of Spanish Netherlands. However, in 1672, after persuading Charles II of England to abandon the Dutch, Louis XIV of France suddenly declared war and invaded the United Provinces.

As Weiss notes, when French armies overran Holland, the Dutch people turned to William III of Orange for leadership. The de Witt brothers opposed William III, leading to violent demonstrations against them.

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Cornelius was arrested on charges of conspiring against the prince, was tortured and banished. When Johan came to visit him in the Gavengenpoort at the Hague, a crowd burst in, seized the two brothers and tore them to pieces, Weiss wrote. Their mangled remains were hung by their feet from a lamp-post.

Other stories suggest the attackers participated in cannibalism on the brothers.

The brothers’ saga is remembered today because of featuring in the novel The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas.

Busts of the brothers appear on the obverse of the large (72 millimeter diameter) bronze medal by French artist Pierre Aury.

The murder scene is depicted on the reverse, the brothers in the act of being killed by a many-headed monster composed of savage animals.

The auction house classifies the medal as Good Very Fine and notes an estimate of £500 to £700 (approximately $645 to $903 in U.S. funds).

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Older Comments (1)
This historical medal is representative of a persistent theme in medals, for which there is no term, but involves depictions of the Human Body at its most inelegant. I have had 17th century Dutch medals showing desecration (of graves), decapitation (of heads, of course), defecation (yes "Number 2"), and defenestration (of windows --no wait; maybe not this). The Dutch satirized Louis XIV continually, delighting in exposing his ample buttocks, and on a 1655 medal showing him with his head on Lady Britannia's lap, performing a "course oral act" whose precise terminology I leave to the likes of...hmmmm.....Stephen Colbert??.

The John Law series of satirical medals likewise contributes to this arcane specialty, and a ca1740 Wuerttemburg piece shows the unfortunate Jud (Jew) Suss, strung up on a high gallows, where his body hung for SIX YEARS.

An 1816 French piece features disembowelment (by an eagle, eating Napoleon's (Prometheus') guts). WW! satirical medals by Karl Goetz and others revived this delightful numismatic tradition. A contemporary British medalist (& illustrator), Ronald Searle, did a medal on approaching blindness in the form of an extracted eyeball, and another on cannibalism, and I believe a particularly amusing one for castration.

I myself collect medals with the theme "Decapitati in Nummis", which I began when i acquired three metal varieties of the famous Dutch jeton from 1579, with the severed heads of the Counts Horn & Egmont on poles, above their nude, headless bodies. Equally gruesome is one the head of Louis XVI hoisted before the crowd, while blood gushes from his neck in the guillotine.

In addition to Ben Weiss' contributions, there is a British Museum catalog on Numismatic Odium.

As for the medal in DNW's auction, it is relatively common --I've had a few, and have one now-- but the estimate is a half to a third of the true value.

--Paul J. Bosco