World Coins

Artist Pistrucci meets his Waterloo on bronze medal

The Battle of Waterloo lasted a fraction of the time it took for the famous medal marking the event to be completed.

The Battle of Waterloo spelled the end of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule and closed a 19-year period of battle in Europe.

Italian artist and gem cutter Benedetto Pistrucci, who worked at the Royal Mint, famously was commissioned to create a medal after the battle.

However, work on the masterpiece was slow because of its intricacy and the designer’s obstinacy. When he finally finished the dies in 1849, the medal envisioned was too large to be struck, and its intended recipients had all died.

An example of an electrotype of the medal is offered June 19 as part of Fritz Rudolph Künker’s four-day, four-auction event.

A masterpiece of sculpture

The medallic project was conceived by Britain’s prince regent and later king, George IV. Four medals were to be struck in gold for the rulers of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, with two in silver for the British and Prussian field marshals.

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Pistrucci negotiated an incredibly high fee for the project. Initially a sum of £2,400 was agreed upon, with payments made in installments. The fee was later raised to £3,500, as the artist considered the task to be the equivalent of designing 30 medals.

That estimate is somewhat accurate.

If struck, the medal would have measured 139 millimeters in diameter. No medal of its kind and size had been struck before, nor for some time after the masterpiece design was completed.

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Delays in designing

A combination of Pistrucci’s nature and frustrations with bureaucracy greatly contributed to delaying the project.

Pistrucci desired to be named chief engraver, but the law prohibited him, as a foreigner, from serving in the post. Legalities did not keep Pistrucci from expressing his disappointment, and the situation between employer and employee became tense.

The retirement of an ally in 1823 threatened his employment, but one reason Pistrucci was retained is that the Waterloo medal remained incomplete.

Besides waging “war” with the mint, Pistrucci occupied himself fulfilling private commissions for cameos, spending about half his time on commissions and half his time on the Waterloo Medal.

Not before 1846 did Pistrucci begin to apply his full talents to the Waterloo Medal again, finally finishing in 1849, at which time the balance of £1,500 was paid to him.

The medal’s design is legendary, showing on its obverse the busts of George III of England, Franz I of Austria, Alexander I of Russia and Friedrich Wilhelm III.

Ancient icons and military rulers vie for attention on the reverse of the 133.66-millimeter wide medal.

Though striking examples of the medal was impractical and nearly impossible, the mint issued a small number of electrotype examples, this being one of them.

The electrotype weighs 865.21 grams and comes in its original octagonal case. The medal has a pre-sale estimate of €1,500 ($1,767 U.S.).

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