BILL Louth, president of Medallic Art Company (1961-1976), was a consummate salesman. He was constantly on the alert for a fresh opportunity to sell the products of the family firm he headed. Even in his daily activity and certainly in the business connections formed in his career, he transformed as many of these contacts into medal, plaque and sculpture sales.
His family roots were deep in Indiana where he had been born and raised and where his uncle Clyde Trees who acquired the company in 1927 hailed. Bill was a pedigreed “Hoosier!” In New York City, where the firm was located until 1972, he was an active member of the Sons of Indiana, New York Chapter, which named him Hoosier of the Year in 1968.
He was also made a director of an Indiana firm’s branch, Lincoln National Life Insurance Company New York City Division. In this capacity he learned of the Lincoln Museum that the company sponsored.
Somehow Bill Louth learned about a Lincoln Relief the company owned. Perhaps he learned of it when he took his wife and two sons sightseeing in Fort Wayne, where the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company maintained a museum of all things Lincoln — Abraham Lincoln artifacts, books, prints and photographs, and, of course, Lincoln medals.
When the firm was founded, in 1905, it was given a photograph of the 16th president by his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, along with a letter authorizing the company’s use of the Lincoln name. This was the watershed document for the firm’s Lincoln collection. That Lincoln photograph was the same as to appear on the U.S. $5 bill.
In 1928, Lincoln National Life president Arthur F. Hall hired Dr. Louis A. Warren, a Lincoln scholar, who a year later, oversaw the purchase of two large collections of Lincoln books at the time. The collections grew under director Warren’s guidance until it reach museum proportions.
The Lincoln Library and Museum was dedicated February 11, 1930. Dr. Warren, a Christian minister, gave talks on Lincoln and wrote extensively on Lincoln. Housed in a room near the entrance of Lincoln Life building, it outgrew this space and was moved to a separate building.
Meanwhile, a large oval bas-relief of Lincoln’s head 24 x 19 inches had been acquired in 1893 by L. G. Muller of Chicago. It was signed only “Pickett / 1873.” Fifteen years later, on the approach of the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, Muller copyrighted the work of art.
Whether by subterfuge or sheer misinformation, he claimed the artist was a “C. Pickett.” No such “C. Pickett” was an artist in America in 1873. Muller issued prints of the Pickett Lincoln portrait, and exhibited the plaque in Chicago, where he lived, and later in Seattle where he relocated for a short time, returning ultimately back to Chicago.
He submitted one of these prints to the U.S. Post Office in 1909. It was chosen to appear on a one-cent postal card released in 1911 (cataloged as UX23 by Scott) and was revised in a different color on a similar one-cent card in 1913 (UX26).
In 1923 that Arthur F. Hall acquired the plaque from Mueller and placed it in the Lincoln Life Museum, prominently displayed with a description which stated:
The Pickett Plaque
The original bas-relief is inscribed “Pickett” with the date “1873.” The artist was of French descent and was associated with the sculptor Leonard Volk either in America or France. The United States Post Office Department used the design of the Pickett Plaque for the one-cent postal card from 1911 to 1917.
In the May 1955 issue of Lincoln Lore, a quarterly publication of the Lincoln Nation Foundation, Dr. Warren wrote as much information about the Picket Head he was aware, relating many of the facts given above.
Further he stated: “Much effort has been put forth through the years to learn some biographical facts about the sculptor but to no avail. … No other work by Pickett has come to our attention.”
It was this plaque and its description that sightseeing Bill Louth observed when he visited the Lincoln Museum in the early 1960s. On his return to New York he immediately wrote the management of Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in Fort Wayne.
He mentioned his directorship of their New York City affiliate, that the Lincoln Plaque in their museum could be rendered into a quite handsome fine art medal. He extolled the virtues of his firm and also mentioned it had made many medals by Paul Manship, who Arthur Hall had commissioned in 1932, to create a statue, Young Lincoln.
Louth’s sales effort succeeded. He received an order for a Pickett Head Lincoln Medal, a three-inch vertical oval medal. This would be given to agents and visiting dignitaries who visited their Fort Wayne headquarters.
Shortly after, that valuable plaque, the original 1873 casting, arrived at Medallic Art’s plant on New York’s East 45th Street. Art Director and Vice President Julius Lauth took it under his control. He immediately had staff sculptor Ramon Gordils make a rubber mold of that bas-relief image of Lincoln.
Once they were certain they had a satisfactory mold casting, they returned the original plaque. Then they made a plaster cast from the rubber mold. The image of Lincoln was nearly 13 inches in height. Sculptor Gordils was able to examine that plaster cast and touch it up, removing any casting imperfections. No bubble craters allowed. He added the lettering that formed the legend around the perimeter of the oval medal: THE LINCOLN NATIONAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY.
In tiny incised letters Gordills added the name PICKETT and below, the date 1873. Company policy – identify the artist, include a signature, name or initials wherever possible.
Gordill’s perfect plaster model then was placed in a electrolysis tank to make a galvano, a dieshell. This was mounted on one of the firm’s three Janvier die-engraving reducing pantographs. Not only did it reproduce that entire image – portrait and lettering – it cut the 3-inch oval die in the same operation.
Uniface bronze medals were stamped and given a highlighted bronze finish.
Years later, in 1972, I cataloged the medal for the company records (assigning it catalog number 1963-009), also adding it to the archive collection of every medal struck by the firm. I encountered the same problem Dr. Warren had faced. No data on who the artist was; Pickett remained a mystery. I compiled the catalog card, but the artist line had to read simply “Pickett” – no first name.
Frequently I walked the five blocks over to the New York Public Library at 42nd and 5th Avenue. On one of my data gathering trips to their art division, I took a chance to look up Pickett in their card catalog.
Bless some cataloger who, perhaps 60 or even 80 years earlier, had noted a 3-page auction catalog had two items signed “Byron M. Pickett.” I called for the catalog from the stacks and held the slim pages in my hands. Could this be our missing Pickett artist?
No photocopies were available then; you had to order photostats. I still have a copy of the MACO purchase order addressed to the NY Public Library, Photographic Service, dated “April 3, 1972. For “one positive photostat from your negative film *ZM-29; Joseph Mozier, Catalogue of marble statuary, comprising eleven pieces, of the late Joseph Mozier, esq., also busts and medallions by R.R. Park, esq., and Byron M. Pickett … to be sold at auction … March 22, 1873. The Messers. Leavitt, auctioneers. 2 leaves.”
Further search found no other Pickett sculptor active in 1873. (And, despite Muller’s attribution, certainly no “C. Pickett”).
I contacted Dr. R. Gerald McMurtry, then Director at the Lincoln National Life Museum of this discovery. He agreed with my attribution of their Lincoln Plaque now could be assigned to Byron M. Pickett.
I wrote an article on this subject emphasizing the source of the Lincoln image on postal cards issued by the U.S. Post Office, mentioned on the exhibit description of the Lincoln Plaque. This article was published in Linn’s Stamp News, Pickett Head of Lincoln Was Model for 1911 Postal Card (March 24, 1980 issue).
That 1911 one-cent postal card was cataloged in the philately field as Scott UX 23. A second variety in a different color was issued in 1913 (UX 26). All this was related in a second article in Postal Stationery (May-June 1980).
Fast forward now to 2006. It was one of those articles that attracted the attention of Ron Haney of Rochester, New York. Ron is a great grand-nephew of Pickett and was seeking data on his relative when he stumbled on to my article. He wrote and we began an active email correspondence.
I was as eager to learn about Byron M. Pickett as an artist, as Ron was as eager to learn a bout his predecessor. I immediately sent Ron the listing I had on Pickett in my American Artists Databank.
I recognized his eager interest so in 2008 sent him a packet of all the material I had in my Pickett file, including photos: of the 1873 Lincoln bas-relief plaque, Medallic Art Company medal struck in 1963, a calendar published by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company with the Lincoln Medal illustrated on the cover, even a calendar card for the year 1966.
Plus, of course, photocopies of that 1873 auction catalog, a 1955 Lincoln Lore publication on the Picket Head plaque, and a photocopy of a page from a Manhattan New York guidebook illustration the Samuel F.B. Morse statue, which is Pickett’s most famous work of art, other than the Pickett Head of Lincoln. (He did other sculptural work, as a bas-relief Peace and Unity mounted on the monument to the 66th New York Infantry, a granite shaft, located on the battlefield in Gettysburg.)
In 1983 the Lincoln National Life Company reorganized, now part of the Lincoln Financial group. The Fort Wayne company was now Lincoln National Reinsurance. The earlier medals, created two decades earlier were now obsolete for bearing an incorrect name.
A new medal order was issued to Medallic Art. Change the name on the obverse and add a reverse design. This chore fell to staff sculptor Gladys Gunzer. She pulled up the galvano from the 1963 medal, cast it in plaster, removed the old name and added the new: LINCOLN NATIONAL REISURANCE.
For the reverse she modeled a design from the days of Arthur Hall, the seated Young Lincoln reading a book, Paul Manship’s statue of 1932. The reverse bore a legend from a poem by Edwin Markham Lincoln, Man of the People: “HE HELD HIS PLACE – HELD THE LONG PURPOSE LIKE A GROWING TREE.”
The new medal retained the vertical oval shape and would continue to be a memento for visiting dignitaries. It was cataloged as MACO 1983-171.
Meanwhile Ron’s Pickett research continued. He kept me in the loop, and sent copies of each new Pickett item – personal or sculpture – he uncovered. It was a delight to open each new email from him.
This week I received the latest from him – the capstone of our Pickett research. Ron had learned where Pickett was buried, but also learned it had no headstone. He ordered and paid for a headstone that reads:
BYRON M. PICKETT
EARLY AMERICAN SCULPTOR
AUG 03. 1833 – MAR 03. 1907
WIFE ELLA LEFFLER PICKETT 1827 – 1910
So this brings to a close the Saga of the Pickett Head. From the sale of a medal by a Medallic Art President, who recognized a giant bas-relief portrait originally created in 1873 would make a handsome fine art medal, to a tombstone in the Brookside Cemetery in Tenafly, New Jersey. With some eager research results along the way