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Bowers on collecting: Collecting medals in 2018 and in 1789

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Today in 2018 the collecting of medals is at an all-time high. This is due to several aspects. First, an extensive collection of medals can be formed for a low cost. One of the most important sets ever produced is the Society of Medalists series issued from 1930 into the 1980s at the rate of two per year. Strikings were made in bronze (the most attractive to my eyes) and silver.

Society of Medalists Issue 31: Flag Raising on Iwo Jima. Image by Heathmacalpine. Hover to zoom.

Well-known American sculptors and artists were invited to produce medals with designs of their choice. This was a remarkable opportunity, as the standard arrangement was for a patron or sponsor to hire a medalist and direct him or her as to what to depict. A full set of Society of Medalist issues, well over 100 specimens, costs less than $10,000. While that amount of money is not trifling, the same amount will not get you very far in building a type set of United States coins or even a collection of American Gold Eagles from 1986 to date.

Three-Inch U.S. Navy Bicentennial Bronze Medal available on the Mint’s website.

Today, medals can be obtained from many sources. The U.S. Mint website has a marvelous selection of medals with historical subjects, all at reasonable prices. Auction companies, the Internet, and other sources beckon.

I recommend that you join the Token and Medal Society (of which I was a founding member in 1960). The cost is nominal, and you will be rewarded with copies of the TAMS Journal as they are issued, each with interesting articles.

Don’t take my word for the pleasure of medals. Here is what John Pinkerton said in 1789 (yes, 1789) about the subject in An Essay on Medals: or an Introduction to the Knowledge of Ancient and Modern Coins and Medals. . .

The Pleasure of Medal Collecting

The amusement arising from medals is so common and universal that we meet with few people who have not formed a little collection of some kind or another. As no axiom is looked upon as more certain than that even the minutest principles of the human mind have been the same in all ages, we must be induced to suppose that the study of medals is almost as ancient as medals themselves. . .

The principal and most common source of pleasure arising from the science of medals is their workmanship. The motives of delight which owe their origin to the other efforts of imitative art will here likewise of course predominate. A philosophic inquiry into the prime causes of our pleasures arising from art, though it would make an admirable subject for a treatise. . .

Not to enter then into that profound subject, this we know, that the most barbarous nations are more pleased with the rudest efforts of art than with the most admirable works of nature; and that, in proportion to the powers of the mind that are large and various, such, likewise, are the pleasures which it receives from those superlative productions of art, which can only be the offspring of vast genius. It follows that the creation of art alike pleases the most uninformed and the most cultivated mind.

The chief and most common amusement, therefore, which attends this study, originates from the strength and spirit, from the finish and beauty, which the engraver has displayed.

But, beside this, there are many other sources of entertainment in the science of medals. Such is the personal acquaintance which, so to speak, it gives us with all the great men of former times. Nothing can be well more amusing than to read history, with contemporary coins before you. It brings the actions, in a manner, before our eyes; and we fit, as in a theatre, with the actors before us. . .

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