Yesterday I bestowed a gold medal to a life-long numismatic friend. It was a dual pleasure. I received as much pleasure in presenting this medal as my friend displayed in receiving it.
The gold medal was presented to Eric P. Newman, Saint Louis businessman, lawyer and philanthropist, but not for any of those fields. It was awarded to him for the thirteen numismatic books he had written. The medal was sponsored by the Rittenhouse Society, a group of numismatists who encourage numismatic literature.
Best of all it was presented to him on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday!
The medal bore his portrait on the obverse. At the sides were symbols of a quill and a lamp of knowledge. The quill was symbolic of writing, the lamp of knowledge for the knowledge he had captured in his books and was passing on to future generations. Lettering on a flowing ribbon contained the inscription of his name and the fact his centennial year occurred in 2011.
For the reverse – and here I had input from his family who had suggested the theme – were displayed two shelves of books, thirteen of which bore the names of the books he had written. On the top shelf was also a tiny statue of David Rittenhouse, first director of the United States Mint. The sponsoring group, the Rittenhouse Society, was named after Director Rittenhouse.
Below was an open book in an area numismatists call the exergue – that’s the space formed by the curve of the medal and straight line above. The open book bore an image again of David Rittenhouse taken from a very famous painting by Charles Wilson Peale. Rittenhouse was a scientist in his day, he is shown with a telescope, just one of his scientific interests. (Obviously it is not a TV camera as it might first appear to a 21st century observer, that would be a gross incongruity.)
Issuing a medal for a member’s one hundredth year was suggested by one Rittenhouse member, Joel Orosz. The organization does not have officers, formal structure, or even a treasury. Another member spoke up, Q. David Bowers, who suggested I oversee such a medallic project. If we had titles, that would mean I was named Rittenhouse Medal Chairman. But we do not have committees, nor chairman. We bask in the casualness of the society’s lack of structure.
With a lack of a treasury, we had to access ourselves a fee for the production of the intended medal. Another member, John Adams, agreed to solicit and receive donated checks. Within days of his email message more than half of the members had pledged the suggested amount. It was enough to obtain the best medallic artist in the country and obtain the best-made dies for striking the medal.
Here is where my past medallic experience came into play. I knew of a seasoned medallic artist who could design and model the exquisite medal I envisaged. He had to be a good portrait artist who could model oversize so his plaster pattern could be reduced to include a great deal of minute detail.
In addition to an accurate portrait, the minute detail greatly adds to the charm of a medal. A medal designer has to be a master of symbolism, know what symbols are appropriate and how to weave these into the design, yet not to overwhelm the portrait as the featured device.
I commissioned Luigi Badia, a sculptor of more than a hundred medals among his portfolio of reliefs, statues and full size figures. Born in Italy, he came to America with his family as a 10-year old. (I once stated there must be something in the drinking water in Italy to spawn so many talented medallic artists.) He is largely self-taught, but has mastered his chosen art to become a full professional member of the National Sculpture Society.
This was Fall 2010. At the time I planned for the medal to be needed for the following year’s Rittenhouse Society meeting at the annual convention of the American Numismatic Association in August in Chicago. We had planned to bestow the medal to Eric Newman at that time. Artist Badia had ample time to work this model at his leisure, among his other assignments and commissions.
But then we learned Eric was not planning to attend the Chicago convention. So I decided to make the presentation on, or near, his May 25th birthday. That decision required to advance the time required for the completion of the model. Consummate professional that he was, sculptor Badia was able to do this.
It was the reverse design, however, that just wasn’t right. Badia had made three reverse design drawings of the book theme. I wanted a little more interest in the design. Here is where I enlisted the aid of another medallic artist, Joel Iskowitz, to add more interest to the reverse. He suggested the Rittenhouse statue and rearranged the ribbon containing the lettering.
With full knowledge of artist’s egos, I showed Joel’s proposed sketch to Luigi. “Would this work for the reverse?” I asked Luigi. I needn’t have worried. He immediately saw the improvement over his own design and readily accepted the sketch to model.
With the deadline fast approaching, Luigi finished both models to my approval. He shipped the plaster models to Medallic Art in Dayton, Nevada. We got the best artist, who created magnificent models. It was natural we wanted the best medallic producer. They cut the dies and struck the medal in time for yesterday’s formal presentation.
The Newman family had gathered in New York City for a Memorial Day weekend celebration of Eric’s 100th birthday. Asked what he wanted for this special birthday, Eric responded “barbecue ribs and all my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren around me.”
The presentation of the gold medal was made to Eric Newman in his New York City hotel suite. Present was his wife Evelyn, daughter Linda, son Andrew, and grandchildren. (Smaller members of the Newman clan were in another room.)
Rittenhouse Society members Scott Rubin and John Kraljdevich joined me in making the presentation among the intimate family members gathered. Photographs were taken, I said a few words, how I had met Eric in 1955 and we had long conversations about numismatic books at the time. Eric said a few words and more photographs were taken.
I got the feeling I was part of numismatic history. The pride in the part I had played in giving pleasure to this 100-year old friend rose within me. I could see the pride, the pleasure, Eric had when he first viewed his portrait on his medal.
“That looks like me!” he said.
Medallic art has the unique trait of giving extreme pleasure to a recipient of a medal. No matter if it bears the portrait of the recipient or not, it is recognition of the achievements in one’s lifetime. This is increased many fold when it is, indeed, the recipient’s own portrait.
It is well known, medallic art has great longevity. I mentioned this fact in my remarks. I stated this medal will last for centuries, it lets the world know we recognized the person portrayed on this medal as the great numismatist he is. That his peers recognized this, that this imperishable miniature work of art documents that fact.
Eric displayed his pleasure in receiving the medal. I shared that same human feeling in being able to bestow that medal to him.
A previous event. I recall a similar event many years ago when the former president of Medallic Art Company was given a medal. William Trees Louth was the member of the New York City Rotary Club. Even as a manufacturer of medals he was bestowed a medal by this organization, I don’t remember what for, but in his acceptance remarks he said:
“I don’t know how this got all the way through the plant without me knowing about it. But his makes me feel so good I am going back to the office and raise all the prices on all the award medals we make!”
Bestowing a medal bestows great pleasure along with it.
But award medals are not the only pleasure offered by medals. There is pleasure in commemorative medals as well. Mankind likes to remember notable events of the past, particularly events that changed the course of mankind’s existence. Work that event into an artistic scene, show that on a medal, fashion that in an artistic way as a miniature work of art, you have an object that deserves veneration. And preservation!
Issue that as a fine art medal on a significant anniversary – that is reason enough to create such an object – and you have the formulae for a successful medal. Thus we recognize medallic art is so closely related to anniversary celebrations.
We need only remember the great event of the American Bicentennial of 1976 which spawned the massive issuance of medallic memorials. Medals were issued by everyone, the nation, by states, cities, communities, organizations of every kind. We celebrated with permanent metal art objects. It is a way of communicating to future citizens we honored this event, and memorialized it in a very permanent way.
Owing such a commemorative medal is a tacit endorsement of the event or celebration and a personal joy to recall that by the medal in the owner’s hand. The artistic design further heightens the symbolic significance to the medal’s owner and to all who view it. While a significant historical artifact, it exudes pleasure to the owner.
This pleasure is compounded – as could be expected – to the owner of a medal collection. If he owns one medal that gives him pleasure, think what a well-formed collection would be. If the medals are well designed, well struck, of an artistic nature, and of similar theme that has some great meaning to a collector, you can understand his great pride.
Collectors often choose themes of personal interest, personal meaning. It could be of their profession, or ethnic or national heritage – no matter what his collecting specialty, he alone has chosen his subject.
It is my pleasure to view these collections. I recognize the effort and the commitment that went in to forming medal collections. Pull out a tray and show me your medal collection.
I am blessed. I am associated with a field that generates so much pleasure. At every level.