Lumping art medals in with tokens and the multitude forms of tokeniana was never a good fit in the first place. I know how it came about and the reason why all forms of non-coin diestruck pieces are called “exonumia.”
But I believe it is now time to undo the connection between the two fields. There are a multitude of reasons for such a separation, both technical and commercial. To support this proposal I will examine the characteristics of each, list my reasons to part ways, and offer the reader a pledge in this editorial appeal to disconnect the two, to change a very large segment of established numismatics.
While I would like to see Art Medals divorced from all other forms of numismatic collectibles under the collective umbrella of “exonumia,” I recognize the problem is akin to separating Siamese twins. Tokens and medals go together like bread and butter, Laurel and Hardy, night and day.
The problem is with the word “medals.”
The problem is not with the word “tokens,” but rather “medals.” The word medal has changed meaning and has been misused for nearly a thousand years. I wish it had a finite definition, like dynamite, and would have remained that precise meaning for all time. But such is not the case.
A form of medal – medallion – first meant a trophy brought back from the Roman wars carried on a staff above the heads of the victorious warriors. In 1438 Pisanello (Antonio Pisano, 1397?-?1455) created a small metal relief portrait object to be hung around the neck like a pendant. His cast object was soon called a medal. (Later Pisanello earned the title, Father of the Art Medal.)
Royal families in Europe liked Pisanello’s relief medals so well they commissioned other artists to copy Pisanello’s format. These families exchanged such family portrait medals with other royals like we exchange family photographs today. A handful of Renaissance artists kept busy fashioning such portrait medals for royal families and wealthy merchants who imitated royal princes.
Later the term meant obsolete coins. British author, poet, man of letters and member of Parliament, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), wrote a book – Dialogues on the Usefulness of Ancient Medals – that was on ancient coins. (To their discredit librarians have assigned it a Dewey decimal number under medals not coins!)
Worst of all perhaps, today unknowledgeable people use the term medallion for just about any form of medal (when it means a large medal). Current usage has so further corrupted, transformed and misused medals in so many forms the word today does not have a clear meaning at all. Just click on Views in Google, type in Medal and see what comes on screen. The result turns my numismatic stomach.
I hold the word medal in high regard, having a decade of hands-on experience working in a medal plant in the 1960s-70s where I was trained in medalmaking. I learned the extent to which craftsmen must perform their tasks with great skill and devotion to fashion the finest art medals. I was trained to appreciate these manufactured products as art objects.
The experience brought me in contact with a vast archive of the finest 20th century art medals. I had to catalog these art medals and I was exposed to a cadre of modern American medalists, the sculptor-artists who created these miniature works of art with their bas-relief models from which these medals were made. My medallic education was not complete until I learned to appreciate both art medals and the artists – the medalists – who created them.
Just what is an art medal? Working with William Louth, president of Medallic Art Company, together we formulated a definition that took us months to put into words (I wrote of this experience in a previous article published in TAMS Journal, September/October 2011):
Art medals are medallic works of art, ranging in size generally from two to ten inches; they must be reproducible – by casting, striking, or other metalworking techniques – but one important thing they are not: They are not struck on coining presses.
Token-Medal marriage and the birth of the private mint.
With medal the elder of the two terms, medals became joined at the hip with tokens when a coin shortage in England caused enterprising Birmingham metalworkers in somewhat of a cottage industry to carve dies and strike British penny-size discs.
Hard-pressed merchants employed these tokens bearing the name or nature of their business to make change. Endless varieties of these homemade coin substitutes exist as the demand by merchants spread throughout the English commercial nation.
An Ipswich businessman and part-time minister, Reverend James Conder (1763-1823), began collecting these and cataloged them. They became known as Condor tokens. The minister joined the two terms forever in the title of his catalog, An Arrangement of Provincial Coins, Tokens and Medalets, first published in 1798. Tokens and medals as a compound term have been married ever since.
Birmingham also became famous in the numismatic field, not only for the term “Birmingham minters” which was a pejorative for false coin, but very much so for the birth of the private mint. It was Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), who established his Soho Mint in Birmingham in 1789. Numismatists owe their most esteemed gratitude to Boulton for he did more to advance numismatics – coins, tokens and medals – than any other living soul.
Boulton’s contribution to numismatics.
Matthew Boulton had inherited, at age 29, a metalworking factory from his father. Boulton joined forces with James Watt (1736-1819) who had invented and patented the steam engine. Boulton built a separate factory (1775) to manufacture Watt’s steam engines. He then proceeded to seek new ways to use – and new products to create – using these steam engines. An early product was buttons, this lead to his desire to strike coins.
He build coining presses, based on the screw press in use at the time, powered by Watt’s steam engines. These were so successful they enabled him to obtain his first coinage contract (1786). In effect he established the first private mint, the Soho Mint (1789). Boulton hired accomplished engravers, first Jean-Pierre Droz (1789), then Conrad Heinrich Kuchler (1793); he won a British coining patent (1790), and struck Britain’s cartwheel copper coinage (1797).
His employment of Swiss die engraver and engineer Jean-Pierre Droz (1746-1823), enticing him away from the Paris Mint, was an inspired move for many reasons. Droz not only prepared dies, but also improved equipment, created new coining methods and processes. Only one of which was edge thickening of blanks, which the British called “rimming” (but Americans call “upsetting”), necessary for automatic feeding of blanks at the time (which Droz and Philippe Gengembre had invented back at the Paris Mint in 1783) and for high speed coining later on.
Droz inspired Boulton and Watt as what could be done at a private mint, not only to be able to strike coins and tokens, but also large size medals. Droz created the Battle of Trafalgar Medal bearing Lord Nelson’s portrait which Boulton gave to each of the military officers (with edge lettering made by a segmented collar mechanism, virole brisée, invented by Droz). Droz became, in effect, not only the first factory artist in the coin and medal field, but also minting technology’s most ingenious engineer.
Boulton’s development of the steam engine and his metalworking factories – including the Soho Mint – was to make him a leader in the Industrial Revolution. His innovations at the Soho Mint, aided by Droz and Watt’s help, led to improvements at every step of coin and medal manufacture, from die engraving, to hubbing, to blank preparation, to striking.
Not only did Boulton strike coins – and make the equipment to manufacture them – he also sold that equipment to national mints, even setting up complete mints in Spain, Denmark and Russia. It can be said, without question, that Matthew Boulton was the Father of the Private Mint.
Boulton spurned many offers to make tokens like those coin substitutes his fellow Birminghamers struck off in their cottages. Instead he advanced minting technology, and when he issued medals, they were the finest his advanced technology could produce. He recognized, at this early stage, medals – particularly high relief art medals – were different and should be respected more so than native tokens.
The need for a non-coin term.
The term “exonumia” was coined in 1960 by numismatist Russ Rulau. He was seeking a term to cover all the items numismatists might collect that are not coins. At that time a new organization was being established just for the collectors of these non-coin numismatic items.
At first, it was planned to include paper money, but this class of numismatic collectibles was quickly spun off; paper money collectors ultimately formed their own specialized organization. Everyone then recognized that paper money did not fit with what the organizers had in mind, the tokens and medals that were to be the prime interest of the new organization.
The organizational meeting was held during the 1960 Atlanta American Numismatic Association convention (at Atlanta coin dealer Blaise Dantone’s home, who had invited all numismatic notables for a pre-convention gathering). I was there and observed the proceedings. Choosing a name was one of the first items of discussion.
Should the new organization be called Tokens and Medals or Medals and Tokens? Numismatist Eric Newman spoke up at the meeting noting the inevitable use of initials for the organization’s name. He said: “TAMS are what you put on your head, MATS are what you step on.” So tokens took top billing.
Russ Rulau reasoned he wanted a single word to apply to this class of collectibles, and their adherents, even if he had to coin a new word. He chose exo- a prefix meaning from or outside of, and numia, meaning money or coins. The person, therefore, would be an exonumatist.
At the time I was editor of Coin World, where I took a slightly different view of exo- plus numia. To me it meant outside of numismatics. I said so in a Coin World editorial, critical of the term.
Time has been kind to Russ’s coined word, however – it has been accepted by numismatists, included in Webster’s dictionary, and even widespread use on the internet (including Wikipedia). He has had the last laugh over my original criticism (and he doesn’t let me forget it!).
But more to the point, in the intervening five decades, the Token And Medal Society has concentrated more on tokens than on medals. The pages of its journal – and the books it has published – have weighed for heavier on the token side of the scale than on is companion medal side (with one major exception: Bob Julian’s Medals of the United States Mint, The First Century).
The distance between the two fields was evident when, in 1998,
a new organization was established for medal collectors alone, Medal Collectors of America. This was intended to fill the niche, the void, that the medal field was not adequately covered by any national specialized collectors’ organization.
Medal collectors adopt a new organization.
Collectors of medals, particularly art medals, embraced the new organization and it has prospered. It now has its own monthly organ, MCA Advisory, still somewhat slim and devoid of advertising, but the content is strictly medal oriented. No tokens are to be seen.
This brings us to the point: Just what are the differences between the two similar collectibles? Mostly they are both struck from dies, but differ in their use and intent. Tokens have a value, expressed or implied, intended to serve a local area, in effect, a substitute for coins. Granted, some of their expressed value is in merchandise or services – good for a loaf of bread or some service. Collectors call these “good fors.”
Medals have no expressed value. They are not substitutes for coins – despite the fact they sometimes look like coins, made of the same metal compositions, and are often struck on the same presses.
Frequently they are struck at the same national mints that create coins, or at private mints. Medals serve a commemorative, historical, or award purpose. Or, they are medallic items of art – miniature works of art as art medals.
In that article, mentioned before, I explained this difference between art medals and token medals in an attempt to develop a definition of art medals. The difference I learned – after months of careful determination – was the press on which they are struck. Token medals are struck on a coining press, art medals require a far more sturdy press, of greater pressure, and often of multiple striking.
Art medals differ from other medals and all tokens.
It is this later class of medals I would like to single out, to separate from the class of single-struck tokens and token-like medals struck on coining presses. It can be stated, the field of medals is so large that it covers a broad spectrum. Also medals have been manufactured by every production method possible. In addition to being die-struck – on every type of press – to casting, by every method of casting, to hand engraved, and even by photoetched and drop hammer metalworking technology.
There are medals struck on coining presses. So-Called Dollars fall into this category. They can remain in the category of exonumia. I wish to distinguish the art medals – those that are multiple struck, of higher relief, and given a finish or patina – those of somewhat greater substance from these single struck, lower relief medals.
The adjacent chart lists the differences of the two classes, but of more importance is the preparation of the dies. Token dies are often of simple design, sometimes of lettering alone. Medal dies are of more complex design, with devices and symbols, often with portraits, in addition to the required lettering, requiring far more preparation, far more artistic content.
Token dies require little planning and brief execution. A competent diesinker can make a token die in a few hour’s time. With simple equipment as letter punches, or more elaborate equipment, as machine milling pantographs – a Gorton or a Datron – a diesinker can even make a pictorial die in a morning’s time.
An adequately equipped toolroom located in any metalworking shop can make a token die. In fact thousands of token dies were made in America by rubber stamp firms in the 19th and 20th centuries with the simple equipment they possessed.
This was subordinated even further by the “stamp and stencil” firms who made what they called “medals” embossed on one side only on thin sheet metal. (Schwaab Stamp & Stencil in Milwaukee made such medal badges for two dozen U.S. state delegates to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892.)
Medal dies differ from token dies.
By contrast, medal dies require far more planning and execution. It is not unusual for a medallic artist to mull over in his mind a proposed medal design for weeks, often while doing other work, before he even attempts an initial sketch.
The artist imagines what he wants the finished surface to contain, images, symbols, lettering with emphasis on the main device. At the sketch stage he may modify the design over and over until he sketches an outline – called a cartoon – of what he will render into glyptic form later.
One seasoned medallic sculptor, Albino Manca, prepared over one hundred sketches for a proposed medal for the Museum of the City of New York 50th anniversary. Often the element of symbolism on a medallic item is of supreme importance. Not only must a medal design be pictorial, it must be significant in its symbolic meaning, appropriate to the subject at hand.
So the medallic artist has the freedom of unlimited images he may try out – in his mind or on paper – before he accepts one he is most comfortable with. He modifies and polishes the images until he is satisfied. Then he renders the sketch into bas-relief form by modelling, either in clay, or wax, or plaster, or more recently, on the computer. It is in the modeling stage the artist can add detail and texture to his images – this is what gives medals their charm!
From this oversized fixed image a hard-surface pattern is made (formerly in metal, more recently in epoxy). This pattern is mounted on a reducing machine – the best is the Janvier – on which the die is cut to the required size. This amazing process renders the modulated relief in that metal pattern with supreme exactitude while simultaneously cutting cavities in the steel die in reduced size to form the images to be stamped into metal blanks.
Token makers seldom employ this artistic effort or employ the luxury of detailed relief charm found on art medals. I can think of only one or two tokens that were modeled oversize and reduced. Thus the difference between tokens and medals is evident in stark contrast.
For all these reasons, the author proposes the field of art medals should be separated from the field of token interest. Since the field of tokens – and their related collectibles – is now so closely connected to the term exonumia, the only path seems for art medals to go it alone, to distance the art medal field from the exonumia field.
Strong reasons to separate the two fields.
But the differences in design, die preparation – and the press on which they are struck – are not the only reasons to single out art medals from the multitude of exonumia items. They differ in other characteristics and physical appearances as well – most obvious of all, by the finish or patina applied to the medal after it is completely struck up.
Art medals – like bronze statues – are clothed in one of many patinas which add color, protection and further significance to the total work of art. Tokens, on the other hand, have no applied finish, their two surfaces, both obverse and reverse, are left to tone naturally.
Some writers have attempted to make size a diagnostic of the two numismatic forms. Art medals – as stated in its definition mentioned above – are, generally, more than two inches diameter; token medals are, generally, less than two inches. But these are not hard rules. Both kinds can exceed these boundaries.
Every collector in the numismatic field, it seems, knows art medals differ from token-like medals. But for the last fifty years collectors have kept both types in the same family, in the same company of each other. They collect both kinds, as they should, often within the same topical or specialized collection.
Therefore, I proposed the field of art medals be a separate field unto itself, divorced and no longer be lumped in with all the items of exonumia. I do not propose that any collector limit what he collects, I could never presume to do that. Every collector chooses his own topic, collect both, collect all in one topic, several topics, or whatever.
But please consider this proposal: Whereas, art medals are in a class unto themselves based on every aspect of their existence – how they are made, their artistic content, the status of their creators – they rise above most exonumia objects. If that is considered elitist by some collectors, so be it. Even if art medals are not considered a class above token-medals, they should be considered in a class by themselves.