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
|1.1||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!|