Archive for June, 2012

The Field of  MEDALLIC ART – small M, small A,  is a French art. The first practitioners were French artists, as the leading medallic artists today are French.

Medallic Art  – capitol M, capitol A, the company – was founded by two French brothers working in New York City. Despite the fact Henri Weil, the oldest, was born here in America, Felix Weil, the youngest, was born back in France as the parents traveled back and forth in a ceramic business.

In studying and handling medals of the world for fifty years, I have developed a sense of nationalistic traits common to all medals of one country. Italy, for example, has the most talented medallic artists. Design of medals by Italian artists rise above all others.

At a speech given at a memorial service for Italian-born Marcel Jovine, I repeated that statement that I felt Italy produced the finest medallic artists. “There must be something in the drinking water in Italy to produce such superb artists,” I said. The audience broke out in thunderous applause as I realized most were Italian descendents or supporters.

Certainly some credit can be given to the national mint in Rome, the Zecca Mint. It maintains a school for coin and medal designers. Artists who wish to advance a career in the field, travel to Rome to study at the Zecca. American Elizabeth Jones, ultimately to be Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, was just such student at the Zecca.

While student work is often set aside for most artists in their own possession, Elizabeth tells me the Zecca school retains all the models by all the students at the Zecca. I wonder if these are used as study models by later students. They are trained to recognize good medallic art – study what has been created in the past – and to emulate only the best techniques in their own work.

German artists are technical machinists. Long noted for producing the best hand engravers, German artists continued to embrace hand engraving. Even after the French developed oversize modeling and pantographic reduction to cut dies, Germans still continued to cut their dies by hand.

One hand engraver, Fritz Eue, immigrated to America in 1926 after a successful career in his native Germany, cutting dies for four medal maker firms. It is said he could cut a die in two hours, complete. Further he could cut a die in cameo, in raised relief as well as incised, in negative relief.  He could hand engrave a die, or a hub, positive or negative, whatever was needed.

Eue’s work was typical of German medallic artists. While immensely satisfactory it didn’t rise to the artistic quality of Italian artists’ work.

Also Germans are noted for their medal making equipment. They invented the knuckle-joint press, now used for coining press technology employed throughout the world. German firms today produce the finest coining and medal making equipment.

British medallic artists’ work is stiff, prim and proper, somewhat like the British people themselves. Yet some of the greatest coin and medal artists are British. Thomas Simon (1618-1665) is an early example. In 1663 he engraved a pair of dies whose struck piece became known as the “Petition Crown.”

Simon was in competition with a Dutch artist, Jean Roettier, for the position of engraver at the Royal Mint. To prove his competence for the position he created a large silver crown with two lines of lettering on the edge of the piece pleading for the king, who was to make the decision, to appoint him over a Dutchman.

Despite a stunning portrait of the king on the obverse, the king made a political decision and Roettier got the job. But Simon’s work rose above anything Roettier ever produced.

St. George slaying the dragon on 1911 British Sovereign.

St. George slaying the dragon on 1911 British Sovereign.

While trained in Italy, the greatest British coin and medal artist of all time was Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855).  He created the iconic image of Saint George slaying the dragon, which became symbolic on British coins.

Pistrucci is also known as the engraver of the Waterloo Medal. Commissioned in 1815, he completed it thirty years later in 1845. It was so large – four and a half inches – they couldn’t strike it for fear of breaking the die. (It was issued as an electroform cast, and later struck in a reduced size).

British artists are also known for their family of coin and medal artists, the Pingos and the Wyons are examples. All of which held positions at the Royal Mint in London, but who also had family members who created medallic work outside the Mint.

The French artists, however, made medallic art a genre equal to painting and sculpture, and traced, as early as 1825, to the work of David d’Andres (1788-1856). His portraits were in relief in a size larger than any medal, eight to ten inches. Originally replicated by foundry casts, they were readily made as galvano casts when this technology became available, mid-century.

David d’Andes was followed by Herbert Ponsdcarme (1827-1903) who is considered the Father of the Modern Art Medal. His 1863 medal for the Academy of Inspiration for Beaux-Letters bearing the portrait of Joseph Nadet earned this title.

In the 1880s came a flood of French artists who not only practiced the art of large size medallic models (a la David d’Andres), but also adopted the new technology of pantographic reduction machines to reduce their models to a size that could be struck as medals.

The names of the French artists who became active in this period are legion: Jules Chaplin, Alexandre Charpentier, Pierre Dautel, Georges Dupre, Jean Daniel-Dupis, Rene Gregoire, Henry Nocq, Victor Peter, Georges Prud’Homme, Louis Oscar Roty, Ernest Tasset, Emile Vernier, Frederic Vernon, Ovide Yencesse.

Many of these artists embraced the technique of modeling oversize, having their models made into a hard metal pattern (by electrogalvanic casting), then mounting in a die-engraving pantograph cutting a die to be used for striking their images in medallic form.

Also at this time these artists experimented with applying a patina to their art medals. They used the same chemicals and techniques employed for their large size sculpture in-the-round. Worked just as well for for small size medals.

Here are the reasons therefore why medallic art is considered a French art:

  • The Paris Mint has struck coins and medals since the 1400s. It has been a leader in advancing minting technology and attracting the best engravers noted for their talent.
  • Indeed, the Paris Mint has a training program – not like the school at the Zecca Mint in Rome – but more of on-the-job training program that has been in progress since 1866.
  • The Paris Mint has encouraged medallists of the world to submit their models for possible striking; during its heyday in this program, administered by Piere De Hay was buying one new model a day to place into production.
  • The French artists invented the technique of modeling oversize and having these models pantograhically reduced to cut dies for striking.
  • Victor Janvier, a Frenchman, began improving the reducing machine and patents his machine 1899; became the industry standard.
  • Louis Oscar Roty trains medalists in this technique of oversize modeling; his most notable student is Victor Brenner, from New York, who travels to Paris twice in a four-year period to learn from French masters.
  • A French art critic, Roger Marx created the Societe des Amis de la Medaille francaise (the Society of French Medallic Art) in 1899, the first art medal series. It was copied by similar groups in Europe and America (the Circle of Friends of the Medallion).
  • The French created Federation International des la Medaille (FIDEM) immediately after World War II. This international organization of medallic artists sponsors exhibitions at their biannual conventions.
  • An small number of private minters, notably, Artrus Bertrand, and others, prosper in Paris striking medals for private customers.
  • At the exhibition of international contemporary medallic art at the American Numismatic Society in 1910 (IECM), 49 French artists sent exhibits almost equaling the number of Americans (56) where the exhibition was held. Frenchman Louis Oscar Roty had more items on exhibit (82) than any other artist. Five of the top ten exhibitors were French.
French Head, Medallic Art Company Logo

French Head, Medallic Art Company Logo

In an unusual conflux of words and names, the French Head, symbol adopted for Medallic Art Company by Clyde C. Trees in 1934 – but named for its creator, Daniel Chester French – continues the French Connection.

Thus the art the company produces is French and the symbol for the company is – French.


Read Full Post »

SUPERLATIVES cannot adequately describe the exhibition of medallic art held 102 years ago in New York City at the American Numismatic Society. An extraordinary effort was extended to display contemporary medallic art from around the world.

The occasion was the dedication of their own new building. The society had occupied rented quarters for half a century, but in 1910, thanks to the beneficence of philanthropist and member, Archer Milton Huntington, the numismatic society now occupied a two-story building. It was on Audubon Terrace, Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets in New York’s Upper Manhattan, along with two other museums and three organization headquarters surrounding a terrace with a sunken sculpture garden occupied by a statue of El Cid by Anna Hyatt Huntington, Archer’s wife.

To celebrate the event, a massive exhibition of coins and medals was planned. So large was the result the coins were exhibited in a neighbor museum’s exhibition rooms at the Hispanic Society of America. Medals were reserved for the Society’s own exhibition room.

In Autumn 1909 invitations were sent to medallic artists, numismatic societies and mints of the world to send examples of their recent work. An incredible 194 artists responded from 11 countries! Along with three national mints and three medallic societies.

They sent patterns and finished work, struck and cast items, galvano and foundry casts, hand engraved and etched pieces, plus a few items in ivory, marble, terracotta, stone, and wax under glass. The Philadelphia Mint sent the oversize patterns of current coins, in an unprecedented act of endorsement.

Each artist’s work was kept intact, photographed and mounted on panels. The medallic work was shown in the main exhibit area of the new building and overflowed to a balcony above on the second floor.

Printed catalogs were planned, but when time came for the exhibition to open – March 9, 1910 – only the coins were adequately described and the printed catalog available. The medalist’s names were listed but little else, no medal illustrations.

Visitors to the exhibit could purchase the printed catalog of coins but had to subscribe for the printed catalog of medals. The catalog of the medallic works was publish a year later – in 1911. But it was worth the wait.

The catalog had sumptuous illustrations of virtually every medallic item, either individually or on the panel of the artist’s group. Full page illustrations even had tissue overlays with each item identified by catalog numbers printed on the tissue.

In every aspect, it was superbly planned and carried out with well organized detail of each item as furnished by the artist. Agnes Baldwin Brett wrote the Introduction in an overview, not only of the exhibition but also on the status of glyptic Art at the turn of the 20th century. She even covered a bit of the technology of medal making including the working of that magical medal-making machine of that era – the Janvier pantograph.

A photograph of the Janvier, the first imported into America, the very Janvier of Medallic Art Company, operated by Henri Weil, was illustrated in the Introduction.

One thousand catalogs of that medallic exhibition were printed. The Society continued to sell them well into the 1950s. But by 1960 they had exhausted their supply. Now, on the secondary book market, one of the original thousand could fetch $500 or so. In the 21st century the catalog has been digitized and is available free on the internet.

Here is the citation for that catalog:

American Numismatic Society.  CATALOGUE OF THE INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION OF CONTEMPORARY MEDALS … MARCH, 1910.  New York: American Numismatic Society.  With introduction by Agnes Baldwin Brett. (1911) 412 pages, illustrated.

It had 2,052 numbered items listed, nearly every one of the items exhibited. These were the finest examples of medallic art at the beginning of the 20th century, the best medallic work of 194 medallists of Europe and America who accepted an invitation to exhibit their creations in New York City.

Perhaps because the full name is a mouthful, “Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Contemporary Medals,” it has been abbreviated to “IECM” by curators and writers in the numismatic field.

It was highly industrialized countries whose artists responded to the Society’s invitation they were all from Europe. Here are some facts;

IECM Statistics

Participating Countries 11
Medallic Artists Exhibiting 194
Mints Exhibiting 3
Medallic Societies Exhibiting 3
Medallic Items Exhibited 2,052
—- Coins Exhibited 3,506
Days Exhibit Open 24
Museum Buildings Involved 2
Number visitors 5,547
Catalogs Printed 2nd Edition 1,000
Types of Medallic Items Exhibited:
Struck items 44.94% 918
Cast items 30.30% 619
Galvano items 15.61% 319
Plaster models 6.75% 138
Hand engraved items 0.39% 8
Jeweled items 0.39% 8
Wax models 0.34% 7
Terracotta items 0.29% 6
Porcelain items 0.15% 3
Ivory items 0.10% 2
Other 0.73% 15

One could speculate if a similar exhibition could be mounted today. While 56 American medallic artists exhibited in 1910, today, six times that number of medallic artists exist in America alone. Current FIDEM exhibitions draw just under 1,000 items on exhibit. In theory, exhibited item are supposed to be recent work of the previous two years between FIDEM exhibitions (but this restriction is often overlooked).

A major exhibition of the magnitude of that 1910 ANS exhibition could well be five thousand items (instead of two thousand) from more than five hundred artists worldwide.  A formidable undertaking!

Read Full Post »

ONE hundred fifty years ago a catalog listing in an art auction might read “one medal.” Not today. Auction buyers want as much information about a medal up for sale as possible.

Buyers want to know size, composition, who made it, and much about its design and subject matter. Why was it issued? Has it been cataloged in numismatic literature and does it have a catalog number (for easy reference to even more information).

Also they want to know the condition of the piece at hand. While all the previous data applies to all specimens of this variety, condition  applies significantly to the one piece under consideration. If the medal is of precious metal – silver or gold – it is important to know the exact weight as well.

Finally, information about the artist who created the piece – the engraver, sculptor or medallist whose creativity became this work of art in metal. To make all this more meaningful, a photograph is of benefit, adding appeal to the prospective buyer.

This did not come about all at once. But we have one person to thank for the fuller descriptions of numismatic items up for auction. Following World War II a returning veteran who had served in military intelligence, sought a job with a coin firm in New York City. John Jay Ford Junior, worked first for Stacks, then switched to New Netherlands Coin Company joining in partnership with Charles Wormer.

John Ford began writing long descriptions of the coins the firm was offering at auction. His motto was “The more you tell, the more you sell.”

It proved correct. His auction catalogs became models for other numismatic auction firms to emulate. This certainly holds true for medals, even more so because medals are more pictorial and symbolic.

Name That Medal!  The first step to describe a medal is to name it. Medals are like people, they have names, but more importantly they all have a last name, named for the type of medallic item it is. The most common are: medal, medalet, medallion, plaque, plaquette.

Too often numismatists use a title for a medal – not its name. An example is the Julian catalog of U.S. Mint medals. They are all listed by their title, like all the generals who were awarded Congressional medals, are listed by the name of the general, not the name of the medal. [I lost that argument with author Robert Julian in 1976 prior to the publication of the book a year later.]

Next is to determine the date. If it is on the medal, fine. If not hit the literature to see if it has been cataloged and the date is given. If not, does the content of the medal give a clue? All exposition medals are the year the expo was held. You must be resourceful, but if all attempts to date the medal fail, it must be designated n.d. – no date.

Describe one element at a time.  Start in the center of the obverse. Describe the main device first. If several elements are present start at the top and work down. The chart following gives tips for any chore of describing medals.

Rules & Guidelines For Describing Medals

1 Medal Name
1.1 Last Word. All medallic items have a last name. It is the type of item it is. Obviously these include medal, medalet, medallion, plaque, plaquette, and the less common ones: galvano, relief, decoration, badge, emblem, ingot, medallic object, paperweight, plate, seal, token, key fob, watchfob. One of these is the last word in a medal name.
1.2 Put last name first of the name of a person that is also the name of the medal; all other elements of that personal name within parenthesis. A second person’s name in the name of the medal can be given in normal sequence. This rule grew out of a need to alphabetize thousands of names quickly and accurately.
1.3 Capitalize the first letter in each word in the medal name (articles are exceptions).
1.4 Put the name in bold face type in a listing (not necessary the second time it is used or in normal text).
1.5 No abbreviations in the name of medals. Spell out Saint, Street and all abbreviations. This eliminates confusion.
1.6 No personal titles in medal names (no admiral, no doctor, no mister, no reverend, no military rank – exception made for Cardinal, however, use full formal names). (Otherwise we have too many President X or King X medals in alphabetical lists).
1.7 No nicknames in personal names; use full formal names. (Exception: Jimmy Carter who insisted on the use of “Jimmy” on his Inaugural medal [like he wore brown shoes to a black tie function! Names and medal inscriptions are formal, all in capital letters].
1.8 Identify pseudonyms and stage names within parenthesis. If Mark Twain is the name of medal, put Samuel Clemens within parenthesis.
1.9 Use minimal punctuation in names. (A firm with three or more names with a comma or two in the firm’s name is the only exception that comes to mind.)
1.10 City identifiers are used to identify certain types of medals (e.g., storecards) and certain themes or devices; use name of city – and sometimes state where clarity is necessary in the name of medal to indicated such things as: expositions, monuments, public statues, conventions, buildings, churches, newspapers, Olympic Games (and sometimes bridges). The city of Springfield always needs the state name.
1.11 No comma between city and state in medal name (this is a name, not a mailing address).
1.12 Names of things — ships, plays, songs, airplanes, statues, works of art and such — which are italicized in normal text are not italicized in medal names. They can be italicized in the description.
1.13 Omit the word “Award” in a medal name. Such award medals are identified in descriptions by giving data within parenthesis. It is the Pulitzer Medal not the Pulitzer Award Medal.
1.14 Omit the word “Official” in a medal name. A description should be sufficient to identify the medal from any non-official medal.
1.15 Keep medal name as brief as possible. Keep the number of elements of a name to no more than three such elements if possible. As: issuing organization, named after person’s name, type of medal or award. (If there are four or more elements, pick the three most important.)
1.16 Proper sequence in naming a medal.Most medals are easy to name by the person or event featured. Other medallic items have as many as four elements that were necessary to be incorporated in the name, as: the sponsoring organization, its parent organization, the name of the award and perhaps an individual portrayed or honored. Here is an example:

The Edward F. Adolph award in physiology of the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Rochester contains four elements (in 19 words). Its proper name as a medal (reduced to 13 words):

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry Edward F. Adolph Physiology Medal

Note: the word “award” does not necessarily have to be included in the name. The medal is the award.
2 Date of Items
2.1 The date may appear before the name or after. Before is preferred in a chronological list; after is preferred in a topical or by other format.
2.2 If exact date is unknown use “ca” (circa) following an estimated date (no space between). This implies the date should be 12 to 13 years plus or minus from this date as one of the 16 quarter centuries medals have been issued in America.
2.3 But even if an estimate cannot be made, use “n.d.” (for no date).
2.4 For items bearing a date but struck later give date on item first then (struck xxxx) within parenthesis after the date and before the name.
3 Describe the Items
3.1 Describe obverse first, then the reverse, and finally the edge.
3.2 Start in the center, describe the main device, if there are several devices start at the top and work down.
3.3 Use accepted numismatic terms in all descriptions. Know the difference between legend and inscription. Legend is the lettering around the perimeter of the piece, inscription is all other lettering.
3.4 Know the difference in directional indicators — top and bottom are obvious, right and left are the viewer’s right and left. Also know the difference between above and superimposed. The saint’s halo is above the head, the sacred heart in superimposed on the saint’s chest.
3.5 Describe any subsidiary devices. Mention any logo or trademark or any other symbols or symbolism shown.
3.6 Identify all people shown; most important to recognize and give full name (and title if appropriate). Identify any attribute used by artists to aid quick identification of people as the trident of Neptune.
3.7 Identify everything shown on the medal if possible. For example, if an animal is shown identify generic, or what kind or breed. If any object has a name it should be given in the description.
3.8 Know the difference between panel and cartouche; A panel is any compartment or section of a medal design, usually separated by a frame; a cartouche is an open panel where lettering may be inserted before or after the medal is struck.
3.9 Do not confuse edge, border and rim. Edge is the thickness of the piece; border includes all the elements near the perimeter of the piece; rim is the outermost element of the border, usually flat.
3.10 For large medals identify elements of the border; these have special names and some reference to literature may be necessary
3.11 Do not overlook any tiny letters, as these may be mint marks, hallmarks, or makers’ marks — mandatory data for any full description.
3.12 Describe the reverse in a similar manner as the obverse, identifying as many elements of deign as possible.
3.13 Following the reverse, describe the edge; it is important to include all the lettering — figures, letters and symbols found on the edge. This is useful data for the savvy numismatist.
3.14 Note Orientation; this is the relationship of obverse to reverse, medals are customarily top-to-top, called medal turn, in contrast to coin turn of top-to-bottom for coins.
3.15 Search the literature; be sure to include any catalog number where this medal variety has been the subject of a previous description or history.
3.16 Be aware of the total medal; is it different from normal in some way? Is it a relic medal — made of some relic metal? Is it a box medal — does it open? Has it been plated after it left the mint or medal maker? Be aware.
Good luck describing your medal!

Read Full Post »

What great contribution has Medallic Art Company made to the world of Art? For eight decades the firm served American sculptors by rendering their bas-relief creations in any permanent form those artists required – be that relief plaques in the exact size as their original model, or, by pantographic reduction, to a die to strike multiple impressions – medals or plaquettes – in any size and composition required of that relief model.

The technology of electrogalvanic casting had existed in America, in somewhat crude form (powered by batteries) to make metal copies of sculptural reliefs, called galvanos. But it was employed in America in more refined form for art objects by Jules Edouard Roiné, a French-born sculptor specializing in bas-reliefs.

By applying commercial electric current, which had only recently become available in 1889 (thank you Thomas Edison), Roiné had a consistent supply of low voltage electric current necessary for depositing metal on an artist’s pattern. A tank was required to hold an electrolyte solution, plus a supply of copper metal (from anodes which supplied copper molecules to form the cast piece).

St. Gaudens Galvano

St. Gaudens Galvano 10 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches.

By 1894 Roiné had gathered all the equipment, chemicals and technology knowledge necessary to produce electroforms. He cast his relief model, Marguerite Delpech Plaque, that year, believed to be his first galvano production, at least in America. Where he learned that technology, we do not know for certain. But we strongly suspect it was back in France under the tutelage of Frederic Vernon, who had been producing bas-relief galvanos as early as 1889. Vernon had 28 of the 48 items he submitted to the 1910 Exhibition of Contemporary Medallic Art at the American Numismatic Society were galvanos.

The technology of electrogalvanic reproduction of medallic items was well established by 1910. As 346 items of 2,052 items total on exhibit (17%) were galvanos. (The others were struck, cast or hand engraved.) The technique was widely used in France, as acceptance by artists elsewhere was beginning to occur.

Or perhaps Roiné learned of this technique from Louis Oscar Roty, who was noted for training other medalists. Roty had 82 items on exhibit at ANS in 1910, with only two galvanos, preferring foundry casts instead. So he was aware of the technology to pass on this knowledge.

Roiné and Weil Partnership. Irrespective of where Roiné learned the skill of making galvanos from his bas-relief models, by the 1910 ANS Exhibition he was active in its use. Also he had just joined with Felix Weil the previous year to form the sculptural partnership of Roiné, Weil and Company.

This partnership was ideal. Not only were the two Frenchmen friends, their skills complimented each other. Roiné was kept busy designing and modeling, Felix Weil was kept busy manning the tanks. He quickly gained skill in electrogalvanic casting. This was not an easy task because of the many variables: chemical composition of the electrolyte solution, its temperature, pH factor, and control of the electric current.

Roiné modeled in clay. Either one of them could make a plaster cast from the clay model. The image on the plaster cast was coated with powered graphite. This is where the copper will deposit and build up to make the solid copper galvano. The plaster would serve as the core pattern (called a mandrel in electroforming parlance) upon which ions of copper would leach from the copper anode and deposit on the pattern (which would be the cathode).

The core pattern would be wired in contact with the graphite with a wire to be attached to a bus bar over the tank from which the prepared pattern was hung. The copper anodes were hung from another bus bar at the side of the tanks to descend into the electrolyte solution. This was prepared to contain copper ions in the solution, as well as cyanide to aid the deposition.

Since electricity from an outlet is alternating current, a rectifier is necessary to change AC to DC and to lower the voltage. A complete circuit is required. Once the electric current was turned on it travels from the rectifier to the bars at the side of the tank to the anode, through the solution, onto the cathode, up the connecting wires to the overhead bus bar back to the rectifier. It required three days or more to build up the copper medal thick enough to sustain a permanent galvano.

Felix became a master electroformer, with a required knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy and electricity.

Early success. That first year Roiné and Weil prospered for all the activity in New York City in 1909. Not only was it the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, a year-long activity honoring Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton, it was also the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Plaques, badges – and medals! – were required of both.

Where a medal was required Roiné would design and model, Felix would make a dieshell – by the same process as making a sculptural plaque. The only difference: a dishell was made from a positive model, a plaque was made from a negative model. The electroforming process reverses polarity.

For a medal job Felix would then deliver the required dieshell to brother Henri at his workshop blocks away in lower Manhattan. In 1909 Henri still worked for the Deitsch Brothers (he didn’t acquire the Medallic Art Company until the following year).

Henri mounted Felix’s dieshell on the Janvier he operated in the Deitsch workrooms, cutting a die the required size. The pair would do this for both obverse and reverse. Once the dies were cut and approved, Henri would contract the striking of the medals to one of the metalworking shops nearby [Felix mentions the name Leidel as such a shop in his memoirs]. The struck medals were delivered to Henri who would them “color” them.

This took the form of sandblasting, relieving, or torch finish, as required by the customer, with a final step of a light lacquer coating to preserve the patina and protect the metal surface.

Roiné and Weil made six works that first year for Hudson-Fulton and at least ten for the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. They weren’t limited exclusively to making models for brother Henri at Medallic Art. They even made models and dieshells – but only one each – for Davisons in Philadelphia, and Whitehead & Hoag in Newark.

History of electrolysis in America. A German physicist and engineer working in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Moritz Herman Jacobi (1801-1874) develops the electrolysis process he called “galvanoplasty” in 1837. Three years later in England John Wright, a Birmingham surgeon conducted chemical experiments and developed the use of potassium cyanide in the electrolyte solution (replacing earlier acidic solutions).

In 1840 British cousins George Richards Elkington and Henry Elkington, working with and using John Wright’s process deposit a contrasting coating of metal on a base metal to effect electroplating. They receive the first British patent for silverplating, marking the date 1840 the first commercial development of electroplating. Such early electroplating was done with primitive batteries.

In 1842 Franklin Peale makes the first electrotype in America at the Philadelphia Mint of the Anthony Wayne Stony Point Medal (Julian MI-3) perhaps as early as January 1842. He had undoubtedly learned this technology at mints in Europe. That same year other electrotypes made at the Mint by William E. Du Bois (1810-1881) of rare coins in the Mint collection to illustrate a book by Eckfeldt and Du Bois, A Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations published in 1842.

These electrotypes Du Bois made served as patterns to be mounted in an instrument similar to a rulling machine to prepare drawings – the process known as anaglpytography. The drawings exhibit the rise and fall of relief on the patterns. By using electrotypes the original coin or relief was not damaged by the tracing stylus.

Outside the Mint, in Waterbury, Conn. Scovill Manufacturing, in 1844 became the first American firm to import electyrolysis process for electroplating. It uses this technology to plate copper, silver, nickel, zinc replacing the firegilding process of antiquity that the firm used as early as 1820. More than likely Scovill acquired this technology from England and the Elkingtons.

The electroplating process for the tableware industry is brought to America, acquired from the Elkingtons in England by Rogers Brothers in 1847 who incorporate this date in their trademark.

Beginning in 1851 of an active period of electrotyping of U.S. coins at the Philadelphia Mint mostly by William E. Du Bois for various purposes. Later that decade saw the first use of electroplating in the jewelry industry in America for the production of costume jewelry.

But the most notable use in America was made by a New York City electrotyper and gilder Samuel H. Black (active 1859-61). He fashioned plaques – some as large as 18 x 13 inches – from existing medals adding extensive lettering. He also made store-cards smaller than one inch. These were made in either of two ways: (1) he strikes or cast these in lead and copperplates, or (2) he makes copper shells and backs with lead fill-in.

The technique declined then for two decades. Not until 1884 was it resurrected by Alfred Vester when he established Providence Galvanic Art Company with Antonin Tabouret. It became the first active private firm in America devoted entirely to electroforming. The firm was in business until 1896 (in 1890 John Garst brought in the firm).

Previously a diesinker in Providence, Rhode Island, Vester was somewhat self-taught as an electrotyper. We have record of only two medals the firm produced – 1884 New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition Medal (HK 144) and 1886 Providence Rhode Island Mayor Thomas Arthur Doyle Memorial Medal – but unaware of any other galvano products.

Medallic Art Company’s early galvanos. Other than Roiné’s productions before and after the turn of the 20th century, little was made of this technique in America. As onetime sculptors’ assistants both Henri Weil, working alone, and Felix Weil, with partner Jules Edouard Roiné, were ideal candidates to encourage the use of this technology among the sculptors of their acquaintance.

The trio were still active among the New York City circle of sculptors early on in the 20th century. News of their new and useful technique spread among the field’s practitioners. Sculptors had a choice of sending their bas-reliefs to a local foundry – or even to Gorham in Providence – to be foundry cast. Or they could turn over to their reliefs to the Weils to be electrolytically cast. They had somewhat the only game in town.

The cost between the two methods of reproduction were similar, but there was a dramatic difference in detail. Because of the nature of molten metal, foundry casting could reproduce detail down to a 100th of an inch. Electrolytic casting could reproduce detail down to the width of a molecule!

For large reliefs, as for the sides of buildings or monuments, such detail was unnecessary. But for smaller reliefs – and for medals! – such minute relief was a blessing. Sculptors learned it gave a sharp, crisp edge to their reliefs which often improved the total appearance.

They learned the mantra: “If it’s in the model – meaning even the tiniest detail – it’s in the medal.” That held true for plaques as well.

The same artists who had medals made by the Weils – both during the time when Henri was working alone, and 1915 when Felix joined him after his partner Roiné became ill and went back to France – also had the Weils make their plaques.

Present situation. Unfortunately the galvanos were never cataloged by the company. We have record of virtually every medal the company made – the author was charged with this responsibility 1966-76 – but we do not have this knowledge about the galvanos. And yet these plaques have now found their way into museums and collectors’ hands.

While a great may dies are in the company’s die vault, the galvano molds are only those made of metal and only a portion of the galvanos made over the years. A few original plaster molds may be in the vaults but since plaster is not permanent even these may not be serviceable or even recognizable.

The last time the author saw these galvanos was in an airplane hangar in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. To his credit, Bob Hoff, owner of the company at the time, had rented a vacant hangar, directed an employee to lay these out to be organized, and made a computer entry for each of these. This is the “G-number” in the company’s archives databank.

Yet the task remains for these galvano reliefs to be cataloged by a person knowledgeable in art. These are, indeed, art objects of the finest form, by the finest American sculptors of the 20th century.

These galvanos are, indeed, the greatest contribution of Medallic Art Company to the field of American Art.

Read Full Post »