How many paintings have you seen that are 2,500 years old? Well, there are cave paintings that are that old, but I am asking about oil-on-canvas paintings. Answer: None. Statues that old exist but are missing limbs and sometimes heads. Buildings that old are called ruins for good reason. It is quite evident that art and architecture do not last for eons.
With the vicissitudes of time, the art treasures of the past do not last for centuries. There are fires, floods, war, and the devastation of man’s foibles. Art objects crumble, disappear, are destroyed. Too bad. Art that is destroyed, however it happens, is a great loss to mankind.
In my post last week, I mentioned that we know Cleopatra was not the raving beauty of an Elizabeth Taylor and that a contemporary medal exists with the portrait of Columbus. Cleopatra appeared on a coin, Columbus on a medal. Coins and medals have the characteristic of being saved; mankind tends to preserve these artifacts.
For 2,600 years, coins have touched the daily life of every advanced citizen on earth. No other manmade objects have such longevity, nor such daily usefulness. Medals – similar in size, shape and manufacture to coins – have a similar appeal to mankind. Both of these objects – in a class of knowledge unto themselves called numismatics – have proved to have greater longevity than any other art form or object manufactured by man!
Numismatic objects surpass all other artifacts in preserving what is pictured and stated on their surfaces.
Coins are saved, obviously, because they are money. Nobody throws away money. Before banks were in existence, coins were buried in the ground. Hoards – an entire branch of numismatics – are studied by historians of these unearthed caches of coins. Today we have millions of coins still in existence all the way back to 640 BC when the first coins were made, mostly from these unearthed hoards.
Some ancient coins are so plentiful they can be purchased today for a few dollars. These coins have an extremely great longevity because they were saved. They still exist for their permanent characteristics – they are made of hard metal, have historical significance, have an identifiable design, and were used as money. Also, because of their small size, they were convenient to save.
Some rulers who appeared on coins of the past are only known by their images on coins.
Without contemporary drawings – and certainly no photography – these notables are known only by their numismatic image.
Many had the advantage of ordering the finest portrait possible to appear on the coins their subjects would use. We wonder at some: did Peter the Hog Mouth really look like that, or did they venerate ugliness in his time?
Be that as it may, thanks to the longevity of coins, we now have a least a coin portrait to remember them by.
Medals are similar. But where it seems all coins have been saved, at least those that escaped the melting pot for re-coinage into other coins, not all medals have been saved. Yet, medals also have great longevity.
Among the reasons medals are saved are beauty, historical significance, image (especially portraits), charm (appeal as miniature art), event commemorated, and the artist’s importance. Perhaps, we can add their relative small size and ease to save and collect as well.
Since we now have 2,600-year-old coins and 500-year-old medals, how far into the future can we project that these existing artifacts will last? I once prophesized this could be tens of thousands of years. I then answered my own question with another: How long is forever?
If you have the ability to talk to someone ten thousand years from now, what would you say? We answered that question, somewhat, when man first walked on the moon: we left a medallic item, a plaque, on the moon’s surface! It bore the design of a man and woman and a design of the solar system identifying the fact the human who stepped here came from the earth (third rock from the Sun). The problem of language was overcome entirely by the use of images.
Mankind has the ability to communicate with any intelligent being of any period of time anywhere in the solar system with medallic art!
Thus we face the fact that the objects we create today with such long-lasting capability should meet these characteristics that they deserve to be saved. Are we creating medallic items of medallic beauty, of historical importance, of miniature charm, of significant image?
Well, it seems the coin, medal and coined ingot bullion items have a short life expectancy only until the next great surge of precious metal price. If another pair of Hunt Brothers came along to drive up the price of silver I’m certain a great quantity of bullions items would be shipped to refineries. But that is what they were intended to do. They served their term as a caterpillar, now they must become a butterfly.
In the 1970s when the Hunt Brothers silver surge was in full swing, one of the coin dealers on New York’s 56th Street was a big buyer. (He made $6 million in profit one day, $1.3 the day before; Brink’s parked a truck in front of his coin shop and replaced it when it was full.)
One of my best friends was a friend of the dealer who allowed him to come over every lunch hour from his office in Rockefeller Center (he was an accountant for the Rockefeller family). He was permitted to go through all that silver flotsam – most of which was Franklin Mint medals – and pull out anything he wanted to save for the cost of the silver alone.
He spent three hours there one day. And came away empty handed. “I didn’t find anything I wanted to save,” he told me.
I’m afraid to mention much of the other medallic work I observe from most mints in America today lack those defining characteristics mentioned above for a long-lasting medallic item. Where is the beauty, the history, the charm in some of the 2D or 3D products?
Medallic Art Company’s early heritage embraced the fact they were created by prominent sculptors – important now, if they didn’t bear that imprint at the time. They created medals for significant events with designs of great medallic beauty. These are the medals that will be around for a long time. They are saved now, venerated by a wide group of admirers, housed in large number of great museums, and studied by artists, numismatists and authors.
This will certainly not be the case for a lot of modern product. Since these items exist, it is inevitable they will end in a coin and medal dealer’s stock in trade at some time in the future. Most dealers dump these items, either wholesaling large lots or placing in a box on the counter with a low price – in the inevitable, ignoble junk box.