Henri Weil Working for the Deitsch Brothers
IN THE BEGINNING Medallic Art Company was not controlled by the founders, Henri Weil and Felix Weil. It was originally the property of another pair of brothers, two German brothers – Edward and Charles Deitsch – for whom Henri worked. They were leather manufacturers, primarily ladies handbags, but they also made leather cases, covers, book bindings and such in a variety of leathers.
They ornamented their leather goods with silver and gold decorations, called “trimmings” in the trade. They hired Henri Weil in 1903, to make these trimmings. He cast the little cherubs and fancy scrolls and leaves and decorations that would embellish their leather products. These were top quality, expensive items, for New York City’s carriage trade.
Henri, although born in America, often returned to Paris as he strongly retained the family heritage and connection with France. It was on a vacation to Paris in 1906 he learned from a fellow sculptor there of a new method of making little bas-reliefs, like what he was producing back in New York. That was the method of reducing relief patterns by a “reducing machine.”
Once Henri viewed one of these machines he immediately realized it would greatly improve the making of his trimmings. From an oversize model the reducing machine cut a die. His trimmings could be struck far quicker and at lower cost than casting each one individually – and each one would be perfect – eliminating the problem of imperfect castings. These rejects occurred often no matter how skilled he was as a casting craftsman.
From Paris he telegraphed the Deitsch brothers back in New York. They responded with the instruction to acquire the machine, learn its operation, and bring it back when he returned. Henri visited the factory and met the mechanical genius who had developed and patented the machine seven years earlier, Victor Janvier.
Following his employers orders, he purchased one of the machines and was trained at the Janvier factory, perhaps by Victor Janvier himself. This acquired skill and that single machine was to dominate the remainder of Henri Weil’s life, the fortunes of his family, the course of his business, and, in effect, the direction of coin and medal making in America for the 20th century.
Simple acts often have long term consequence.
In setting up the machine on the floor of his workroom in the Deitsch building, 7 East 17th Street, he learned the instability of the floor caused the reducing machine to malfunction. Henri’s solution was brilliant. He strapped it to the wall! The floor vibrated, the wall was stable. It worked.
But Henri was not to make leather trimmings for long. As often occurred in the field, fashions changed! No longer were silver trimmings needed for ladies purses. Within months that machine – one thought to be a money-saver – was suddenly unnecessary. So was Henri’s employment as the maker of those trimmings.
Henri had a brilliant idea. This machine could cut dies from sculptors’ models. And he knew dozens of sculptors in New York City. He sold the idea to his employers. “Go find work for that machine if you want to stay working for Deitsch Brothers!” they stated.
He put out the word. One of his closest sculptor friends, Adolph Weinman was receptive to the idea. Somehow the word spread to Boston, and a sculptor there, Bela Lyon Pratt, had a model for a medal in hand that was destined to be struck by Tiffany & Company, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Medal for the Cambridge Historical Society.
Henri cut those dies and sent them off to Tiffany. We don’t know for sure if Tiffany actually struck those medals, or, perhaps contracted that to one of the metal stamping shops in lower Manhattan. There is the possibility Henri applied the patina to these medals, coloring them like he had given a finish to bronze statues for sculptors he worked form for the last two decades.
That was the first medal. Adolph Weinman’s model of the Three Heads Medal for the American Institute of Architects was the second. The third was a medical medal honoring Gustav Killian for the American Laryngological-Rhinological and Otological Society.
For that last medal the model was created by Jules Edouard Roiné, Henri’s brother Felix, had joined forces with a French countryman, and the two formed a sculpture partnership, Roiné & Weil, operating out of a small shop not far from the Deitsch’s location.
The parts were in place. Deitschs were the businessmen. Henri cut the dies and could finish the medals. When he needed a model he had Felix’s partner model it for him. The actually striking was done elsewhere by metal working shops.
Henri made three medals that first year, 1907. He made two that we know of in 1908, but in 1909 he made twelve. Reason for the increase was the Hudson-Fulton celebration, then in progress in New York City that year, and also it was the centennial of the birth of Lincoln. He was cutting a lot of Lincoln dies for several entrepreneurs who sold these to collectors and the public.
One of those entrepreneurs was Robert Hewitt, Jr. He had made his fortune in New York City real estate and was a Lincoln collector. He had the Deitsch Brothers strike several medals of Lincoln’s portrait, He even had these placed in books that he had a friend, newspaperman Charles deKay, write.
It was Hewitt that had suggested to the Deitsch Brothers that the name of their business should be Medallic Art Company. They incorporated the name in February 1909.
WITH increased activity, the Deitsch Brothers possibly recognized they could sell off their little sideline business. It was not a good fit with their leathergoods trade after all. They found a buyer in Joseph K. Davison’s Sons in Philadelphia. They had sold the Davison firm a Janvier die-engraving pantograph the year before so it was already an established relationship.
The Davison firm bought the business. What they didn’t buy was the Janvier, after all they already had one, and the Medallic Art Company name. Their name was well established since their founder started the business shortly after the Civil War.
We can only imagine the inner feelings in Henri Weil. He bought the Janvier machine he had been working on all along. He thought he got the business as well. He thought he got the name, all the dies he had made and all the tooling. Not so.
He opened his new business and called it Medallic Art Company. Only to received a letter from the Deitsch’s lawyer to cease and desist using the MACO name. After having been shut out of the medal business – Davison was exploiting all the ongoing business formerly promoted by the Deitsches – and not getting any of the dies and tooling, here were the Deitsches claiming they owned the name and he couldn’t use it.
Henri was crestfallen. So much in fact he refused to face the Deitsch Brothers in person. It was brother Felix who went to see Edward Deitsch. He demand one thousand dollars for the Medallic Art Company name.
Felix exact words, decades later when he wrote his memoirs: “[we] bought the right to the name Medallic Art Company and paid the Deitsch Brothers $1,000, which was a lot of money for us at the time.”
HENRI HAD CUT the dies for 17 medals before the Deitsches sell off the business.