Archive for September, 2012

IN March 2006 President of the Closter New Jersey Belskie Museum of Art and Science, Myron J. Lewis, named me a curator of the museum. The museum’s board approved that appointment April 13, 2006. The official title was Curator Numismatics Art. That was intended to cover all medallic and related items the museum had in their collections.

Abram Belskie

Abram Belskie at work.

I had learned of the museum four years earlier from the National Sculpture Society and wrote to museum about Abram Belskie as a medallist. I mentioned I had known the artist, had visited him in his studio several times and was very familiar with his medallic work since I had cataloged his medals for Medallic Art Company which had produced most all of his medallic creations.

This led to a telephone call from Mike Lewis and we exchanged phone conversations for four months. We discussed Belskie’s work and I learned how the museum came to be established (revealed below). But I guess I proved to Mike’s satisfaction I really knew about Belskie’s medallic creations. In August 2002 I requested permission to come to Closter to examine and take notes on the medals in the museum’s collection.

Mike granted approval and set an appointment for Friday, August 30, 2002. I came prepared with wife Shirley to assist, a list of Belskie’s known works and paraphernalia for taking notes including magnifying glasses for examining minute detail and scales to weight silver specimens.

We did examine all the medals and started on the plaster models but it took all day Friday. We came prepared, as was required, for a second day. We stayed at a nearby motel and worked the Saturday examining the plaster models in the museum’s basement storeroom.

I measured image size of plaster models and dictated details as Shirley recorded a description lengthy enough to identify the medal made from each model. That also took the full day.

Back in Connecticut I wrote a 51-page catalog of Belskie’s medals and sent that to Mike Lewis. Not only did it include a list of all medals and models with complete details but a bibliography of all published references mentioning these I could find, plus a glossary on the medallic terms used in cataloging.

My phone conversations with Mike Lewis continued. That led to my 2006 curatorial appointment. Since then I have suggested two other medallic estates which the museum should acquire. New Jersey sculptor Roger Brown had died and the family wanted to know what to do with his trove of tools, medals, and models. The other was a much larger archive of an artist who was still alive (but resided outside the state of New Jersey).

Mike Lewis followed up for both of those collections, visiting each in turn. Unfortunately he became ill and neither resulted in a donation to the museum.

Exhibitions are the paramount purpose of this museum. Exhibitions of art of every kind are shown throughout the year. Obviously an exhibition of Belskie’s medallic work was called for. so an exhibit was planned for Fall 2009. To make this exhibit even more meaningful, the American medalists who had exhibited at the international symposium of F.I.D.E.M. (the International Federation of Medallic Artists) that year leant their medallic works to show as well.

Grants for a publication was obtained from the Bergen County  Department of Parks, Division of Cultural & Historical Affairs, Capitol One bank and the Van Pelt Foundation.  I wrote a 12-page brochure on Abram Belskie Numismatics: The Art of Coins and Medals. It illustrated some of his work, contained a very brief biography, told how he prepared his models, a glossary, and a timeline on the artist. The two-month exhibit was on view from September 13 to November 15, 2009.

Marcel Jovine

Marcel Jovine at work in his studio.

Closter New Jersey was also the home of another famous modern sculptor, Marcel Jovine, who lived only two blocks from the museum. He, too, became, like Aram Belskie, a medallist late in life. But Jovine created coin models that became United States coins of commemorative interest, in addition to highly artistic medals.

Jovine died January 2003. His two daughters have kept his Closter home intact, where his models are stored. In the Fall of 2008 the Jovine daughters hired me to catalog their father’s medallic works – medals, coins and models.

This required more than just a written description. We had to build new shelving to store plaster models – photography every item – plus a full written description. I hired a photographer who with a helper photographed all items in three day’s time. I delivered that illustrated catalog early in 2009.

For years I had been in touch with the family of sculptor Joseph DiLorenzo. A third generation sculptor, he lived and worked nearby in Alpine New Jersey, less than three miles from the Belskie Museum.

Here then were three of America’s top metallic sculptors, all neighbors! I came to learn they were all friends of each other, often traded tips, encouragement, and even commissions! among each other.  If one was too busy, he would pass off a job to his close friend. For a large commission, like a series of medals, two would often do half the design and models.

I’m certain if one had  rush job and was short of plaster …  or clay … he could call on his fellow sculptor for a cup … or bucket full, instead of having to travel the New York City for a fresh supply. Friends would do that.

DiLorenzo died December 2001. His widow died two years later. Thus I was in contact with his three children. DiLorenzo was the most productive of all, creating just under 400 medals over a 32-year career.

I learned he had destroyed his plaster models before he retired to Florida in 1988, but he had a large collection of medals. Before he died he even invited me to Florida to come catalog his medals there. “I have a closet full,” he relaed.

In 2009 son Michael DiLorenzo informed me they have cleared out their parents home in Florida. I stated that if he could bring the medals and related items to me I would catalog them. On January 2, 2010 he delivered to me the medals, a few plaster casts and sketches.

This began a two-year period of cataloging, refurbishing, and some photographing of the family collection. In addition to the medals DiLorenzo had created there were nearly 150 study medals in the collection  by other artists.

The wheels were turning in my mind. As a curator I can imagine an exhibit  I would like see occurr. The theme would be The Three Closter Medallists –Belskie, DiLorenzo and Jovine.

Perhaps, I thought, the families would want to donate those medallic items to the Belskie Museum – for the Jovine and DiLorenzo items to join those of Belskie already ensconced.  Meanwhile I would persuade the museum officials to put such an exhibit in their upcoming exhibit schedule.

Early in the year 2014 would be ideal. You see, in 1964 DiLorenzo and Jovine created the Closter New Jersey Tercentennial Medal. It only had one side but designed and modelled by the two sculptors. Year 2014 would be the 350th anniversary of the town. I see a new medal, perhaps incorporating their 1964 design, motif, or even that as one side of a new anniversary medal!

We must Plan Ahead. It would benefit the exhibit. And benefit the town!

How the Belskie Museum came into existence is interesting. There was a group of local citizens who had breakfast every morning at a favorite eatery. Belskie was one of those participants. Others were prominent businessmen, some were members of the local Lion’s Club.

When Belskie died November 1988, the Breakfast Group learned his house containing his studio and all its contents were soon up for sale. Belskie’s two sons were not interested in preserving the studio or contents containing much of their father’s work. It would go to whoever purchased the house.

The Breakfast Group generated the idea “Let’s build a museum and put all Belskie’s art work in it.”  It could be a project of the local Lion’s Club. The sons were receptive to donating the entire contents of he studio.

The seed of an idea grew. Construction company members of the Lion’s Club began plans. The City of Closter had land adjacent to their library that would be ideal. If they built it would the City accept it?

Good things sometimes happen. Lion’s Club members pitched in, volunteering help, often physical labor. The museum got built before the Belskie house was sold.

Mike told me they took truckload after truckload out of that basement studio and hauled it to the new museum building. The museum is owned by the City, largely due to the local Lion’s Club. It was named after Abram Belskie, who used to sit with many of his neighbors for breakfast on frequent mornings.

The museum is operated entirely with volunteer help. On my infrequent visits to the museum, I am enthralled by the camaraderie, enthusiasm, dedication, devotion and interest of those volunteers. That’s community spirit!

For more information visit the Belskie Museum web site.


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COMPUTERS have become the greatest tool for numismatists who want to catalog a group of medals. Previously hand-written notebook sheets or cards, both of varying sizes, have been used to enter the data being recorded for each medal.

With their computers first-time catalogers, however, have a tendency to want to use spreadsheets for gathering that data. They will come to learn that staring at empty little boxes for one medal will be in contrast to an overabundance of data for another medal. The information never comes in uniform packages that fit spreadsheet cells.

Far better, I have learned, is a checklist. So the creation of a checklist is the first step in cataloging medals. Just what information do you want to gather for every medal?  Some data is standard. Size and composition is usually necessary for every medal. A history of how the medal came into being issued can range from near nothing to pages of text.

Checklist essential for gathering data.  As the gathering of data progresses a checklist aids in not overlooking an essential datum. A checklist also aids in the sequence of data for uniformity. Listed here is a checklist for a collectors catalog, where a maximum information is desired to be gathered and published. A catalog for an auction catalog, on the other hand, may not include all this, but would concentrate on data which would help sell the medal.

Data for the early part of the checklist can be obtained from the medal itself. Later items require research, in numismatic literature, in history books, and elsewhere. Research in specialized libraries may be required. An extensive amount of correspondence often is necessary to gather this information. Who would have this knowledge? A cataloger needs to be resourceful in his task of fact gathering.

Typical Checklist

  1. Working Name (subject to change with additions; name in boldface)
  2. Date Issued  (in boldface)
  3. Size (and shape if not round)
  4. Composition (and weight if precious metal)
  5. Artists (Identify: Designer, Engraver. Sculptor, or Modeller)
  6. Obverse description
  7. Reverse description
  8. Signed (how, where)
  9. Edge plain or any reeding, lettering)
  10. Maker and/or Issuer
  11. Comments (history, events)
  12. Years issued (if award medal)
  13. Biography (of any person shown)
  14. Patina (finish)
  15. Mounting (if present)
  16. Collection (e.g. public collection)
  17. Exhibited (where, when)
  18. References (in books, articles)
  19. Auction records (list auction house, auction number, lot number, date)
  20. Author’s collection.

Naming  the medal. Every medal has a name, as every other object in the art field does. Yet first-time catalogers have the tendency to use the medal’s title instead of its name. Today you can see examples of this even in published catalogs and current auction catalogs.

An example is Bob Julian’s monumental work on the Medals of the United States Mint, The First Century. I lost the argument with the author before publication, who insisted on the title for each medal, not the name. In the Military Medals section (MI-1 to MI-33) you find 30 medals with a military rank as the first word, General, Brigadier General, Colonel and such. Here is the difference for MI-10 as an example:

Title:   Major General Andrew Jackson

Name: Andrew Jackson Battle of Cowpens Medal

A stand-alone medal with a title doesn’t reveal much (and could be the title for dozens of other Andrew Jackson medals). While a medal with the name in full applies to only this one variety of Jackson medals.

It’s specific. It’s precise. It’s definitive.

Note the medal name eliminates any rank or title (otherwise in an alphabetical list we would have far too many president X medals, or king X medals). It also adds the subject of the medal, and includes “Medal” as the last word in the name.

That last word is like a person’s last name, a family name. In the medallic field we have a dozen or so “families:” medal, medalette, medallion, plaque, plaquette, and the less common ones: galvano, relief, decoration, badge, emblem, ingot, medallic object, multi-part medal, mixed-media medal, paperweight, plate, seal, token, key fob, watchfob. One of these is the last word (or words) in a medal name.

A name identifies precisely what the object is, as a name identifies a person. Say a list of household objects had one medal (say that Andrew Jackson medal). Listing it by its title would be meaningless. Including a medal by name could be listed with any other objects and be immediately identifiable.

It is even more important when the list is composed entirely of medals of one person. This is a challenge for catalogers of Washington, Lincoln or single person catalogs. An attempt should be made, however, to make each name unique if possible. But we recognize with hundreds or more similar specimens, this may be impossible.

Other name hints.  Spell out abbreviations. Spell out Street and Saint. This eliminates confusion. Don’t use nicknames. A medal is a formal document, destined to be around for 10,000 years. An exception was President Carter’s Inaugural Medal. He personally insisted it read “Jimmy Carter” not “James Earl Carter” as had been the custom of previous presidents.

Use minimal punctuation in medal 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.)

Use city identifiers 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 name of a 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.

When both city and state are in a name don’t use a comma between the two. It’s a name not a mailing address.

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: the issuing organization, named after person, type of medal or award. (If there are four or more elements, pick the three most important if possible.)

Naming a medal has a proper sequence.  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 extreme 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.

Determining the date of a medal. Most medals bear a date. Use that. There are instances where a medal was struck before that date, or, perhaps, restruck later. Still use the date on the medal. America’s first coin, the Pine Tree Shilling was dated 1652. John Hull struck these for years later and never changed the date.

An astute cataloger should known approximately when the medal at hand was struck. Perhaps he could estimate the quarter century it originated. If exact date is unknown then 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. That is a “best guess estimate. Use that. Later research may learn the actual date.

Describing a medal.  Start obverse first. Start in the center or with the most prominent device. Here is where a knowledge of numismatics and the ability to identify a multitude of objects is useful. Use accepted numismatic terms. Know the difference between legend and inscription, for example. (Legend is the lettering around the perimeter of the piece, inscription is all other lettering.)

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 is superimposed on the saint’s chest.

Identify all people and all objects shown on the medal. It is most important to recognize and give full name (and title if appropriate) of any person. Identify any attribute used by artists to aid quick identification of people, as the trident of Neptune.

If an animal is shown identify whether it is generic, or what kind or breed. If any object has a name it should be given in the description.

Proceed from the center outwards. Do not overlook any tiny letters, as these may be mint marks, hallmarks, or makers’ marks – mandatory data for any full description. This identification may require hitting the reference books. If you can’t learn the meaning, start asking experts, a museum curator is a good source to start with.

Follow the obverse with a similar process with the reverse, describing each design element, device, subsidiary device, symbol. Transcribe all lettering exactly as it appears on the medal. If it is in a foreign language, translate and record that (within parenthesis).

Follow the reverse with a description of the edge. Any lettering or symbols on the edge reveal much useful information. Record it all.

Be aware of the total medal; is it different from normal in any aspect?  Could it be 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? How is it mounted or housed? If it is in a case, is there a name on the case? Be aware of every scrap of evidence.

This article is only a brief overview. There is much more to the chore of cataloging and describing medals. Learn to ask. And learn to search. The information you are seeking is out there. Your task is to find it.

As a further aid, I have previously written in June 2012 a set of rules and guidelines which may be helpful for you. Check out MEDAL CATALOGING for that list.

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Carl Carson Award

Carl Carson Award

In gratitude for receiving the Carl Carlson Award Medal (shown above) bestowed by the collectors organization Medal Collectors of America at the recent convention of the American Numismatic Association, I would like to offer this article to encourage others to prepare medal catalogs. It will be followed by another article, How To Catalog Medals.

NUMISMATISTS catalog medals for four purposes. Inventory. Collectors’ catalog. Appraisal. Sales catalog. I have prepared all four such catalogs in my medallic career spanning the last four decades.

I tried to calculate how many medals I have cataloged in the last forty years since I was hired by the president of Medallic Art Company to accomplish just that chore – catalog all the medals the firm had made since it produced its first medal in 1907. Since this was accomplished before I left the firm in January 1977, I know that exact number: 6,121.

Of course, medal production is an ongoing statistic. But the number the firm has created since that time is not a fixed number, as the firm passed through two new owners, and their dedication to accurate cataloging records were not always a high priority.

The figure had risen, however, to over ten thousand by the time I returned to the firm 33 years later.

Cataloging archive medals. President Bill Louth had some fixed ideas in mind for a company medal catalog. He made certain I would include these criteria as I planned a cataloging project:

First, the image of both sides of the medal had to be visible (to a human viewer). Second it had to contain useful data for use as a sales tool for future and repeat sales. Third, he wanted it indexed in some way of the pictorial devices shown on the medal. And fourth, he wanted to establish a company archive of one of every medal.

Since I would be cataloging images, each medal’s obverse and reverse, this would entail a photograph, a picture. One of my first consultations was to set an appointment with Ramona Javitz, the head of the print department of the New York Public Library.

By the time I met Ms Javitz, she was in her nineties. She had established this collection in the 1930s and had overseen it ever since. Her suggestions stressed the topics of the images, as that is how she filed the prints in her department.

[The  prints came from many sources, often pages from magazines or books. These were placed in folders with similar prints and these in large envelopes, arranged in trays on long tables – all arranged by topics. If you had a New York Public Library card, you could check out as many prints as you wished. The collection grew in time to over a million prints.]

This collection served artists very well. If fact sculptor Ralph Menconi, who at the height of his medal activity was creating one new medal a week, had his wife searching that NYPL picture collection for the images he required to design and model that many new medals he was commissioned to produce.

Photographic image.  Since my requirement for an image of every medal sounded like a photographic need, I contacted Eastman Kodak for my second consultation. The Eastman representative understood exactly what I needed after what I explained to him we were attempting to do.

His first suggestion was an “aperture card.” This was a photo negative mounted inside a computer card. He wanted to show me how this worked. Time-Life had six million photos on file. He took me to the Time-Life Building cross town and to their photo archives.

Good suggestions both. But not exactly want we needed. Remember this was before the widespread use of the computer. What we needed was a bit more manual, a lot more simple.

In the end we devised our own system. We photographed each side of the medal on 35mm film. From contact prints of these films we cut out uniform 33mm prints. We wrote up the data on a custom form, typed this on a 3 x 5 card and pasted the photo prints on the card.

We then photocopied the card for as many copies as needed to file.

This required a number of special purchases.

  • A wooden 3×5 library card file, with rods to hold cards in the drawer.
  • Special photocopy card stock, four up, with predrilled holes.
  • A photocopy machine.
  • A 35mm camera with a built-in circular mask mounted on a stand.
  • And a punch to cut out exact 33mm circles (noncircular prints were cut with scissors).

While highly labor intensive the process worked. An image of both sides of a medal appeared side-by-side on the card, plus all the data required the sales department needed.

To build the archives, after we took the picture of the medal, we punched a unique number on the edge and placed the medal in trays arranged chronologically.

That number became that medal’s catalog number. Previously the company had a different numbering system for each operation. Dieshells and galvanos had one numbering system. Dies had another. Medals in the storeroom had another. The paper files were unnumbered.

With one catalog number, all numbering systems were replaced by that number. The new number was painted in white paint on the side of all the dies. (I don’t remember how the dieshells were renumbered.) All files were rubber stamped and that catalog number written on the outside of each folder.

In the end every medal had a unique number and any related material to that medal had the same number. It led to greater efficiency. The process continued with only one change. Third owner had that entire card file entered in a database on the computer, still in use at present.

This was an example of inventory cataloging. For this project I utilized the best numismatic principles I could. I had to learn the difference between a medal and a medallion. (European numismatics place the dividing line at 80mm – 3 1/8-inch diameter.) I had to learn how to name a medal. (I will explain that in my next article.)

Most important, I had to learn topics – the headings or categories of medal images. This served a dual purpose: within the company for the sales department, outside the firm, this is how collectors collect medals.

Collectors catalog requires most data.  While an inventory catalog requires selective data for how it will be used, a collectors catalog is the opposite. It requires a maximum amount of data, history of the piece, full description, list of all varieties, citations to numismatic literature (and other catalogs), value in a number of conditions, any related data or scrap of information.

In effect a collectors catalog is a list of every possible medal within the scope of the work. It becomes a “shopping list” for the collector. He will attempt to obtain every one of the pieces listed to complete his collection. (Often he will find specimens unlisted in the catalog, part of the charm, the challenge of collecting!)

Most collectors catalogs are by topics – music medals, architecture medals, world’s fair medals, scouting medals, Masonic medals or such. Or by those medals all of one person, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Columbus. Or types of medals, political campaign medals, so-called dollars, Mardi Gras medals or such. Or geographical.

Also more catalogs are now being produced of all the work of one artist. My experience in this field is with Victor David Brenner, Abram Belskie, Joseph DiLorenzo, and for my Databank of American Artists, the medallic work of over 3,900 artists.

What is interesting to note of perhaps 350 possible topics in which catalogs could be compiled, less than five percent of these subjects have such a published catalog. Collectors catalogs offer an excellent opportunity for the dedicated collector! Best of all, your last name will be tied to the catalog numbers in all future references and listings to these medals. That’s a little bit of numismatic fame!

Appraisal cataloging.  Here we deal with the value of a single, individual specimen. The cataloging must recognize and detail the specific variety of the piece at hand and guarantee its genuineness. Further research must be conducted in auction sales, advertisements, and if it is a rare piece, an attempt to learn of the previous owners, its provenance.

Appraisals are required for insurance purpose, for donations, for division of family assets, or for an owner’s curiosity. Often these become an official document which must be filed with the IRS. Their greatest concern is a current valuation – a fixed dollar amount – at the time of the appraisal

Sales catalogs. Perhaps, the greatest amount of numismatic cataloging is done in the preparation of auction catalogs. True in my case. Here a catalog description must help sell the medal. Somewhat less detail can be given, but the variety and its condition must be identified.

A century ago the name of the medal and its composition was about all a auctioneer felt was necessary. Today, the-more-you-tell, the-more-you-sell principle is in force. So for rare or expensive medals a potential bidder today may find a lengthy description. In contrast, well documented series can be auctioned by their published catalog number and condition.

My estimate.  All told, cataloging 35 of my own auction sales, the medals in Medallic Art’s early archives, appraisals, and artists lists (not in the Databank). I estimated I have cataloged between forty to fifty thousand medals. It is useful information in a useful format. That’s why!

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This is the fourth of several reports on the basic information, the basic knowledge of minting coins and medals. These facts are so important they should be embedded in the repertoire of everyone associated with the medallic field and, certainly, everyone within the firms which make these. 

DESIGN is what humans see on coins and medals, the surface configuration, the modulated relief of the pictorial elements. The image we observe forms our opinion of what we like or dislike in the total appearance shown on the struck piece.

The design includes the DEVICE, the LETTERING, any SYMBOLS or any other elements. Preparing the design is highly creative; the artist-designer may imagine a great many ideas in his mind, then selecting those that he thinks may have merit, he transmits these into two-dimensional graphic art or three-dimensional glyptic art form.

One theme may emerge immediately, or the artist may repeat the creative process over and over again, preparing small thumbnail drawings, elaborate potential drawings, or even sketches in clay or plaster. Throughout this process of trial and selection the designer keeps developing and refining the images until a design concept emerges.

Designing from a concept.  With or without recognizing the steps, the coin or medal designer progresses through four levels of design creation: (1) philosophical, (2) symbolism, (3) form and arrangement, (4) detail. For the first level, the artist answers the question: “What concept am I trying to convey in this design?”  More often than not a concept is supplied to the artist as instructions with the commission or work order.

Thus a first level concept for a company centennial medal design might be a few sentences: the stated company philosophy, how it views its past, a theme if any for its centennial, and somewhat of its goals for the future. Thus, the philosophy is better expressed – actually written out – rather than someone’s vague mental notions.

The second level is to relate the stated philosophy into symbolism. The designer must be a master of symbols. Coins and medals are small objects – thus all but the most significant elements must be eliminated — the chosen ones expressed in vivid symbolic form. Here the designer can use attributes, objects near the device to help identify it, and even costume or clothing of a person to aid in expressing the symbolism.

The superfluous has no room in coin and medal symbolism or design. Space does not permit it. Thus the artist faces the chore to express the philosophy in the briefest design. Designing an Olympic medal, for example, the artist might choose a torchbearer for the symbolism; the design might include a closeup view of the torchbearer. (Note it is not the logo or trademark of the Olympics – the five rings – that is a subsidiary device, which must be incorporated into the design as well to make it an official item).

With the concept and the symbolism in mind, the designer then relates this to the form and arrangement that will appear on the coin or medal. This is what is sketched: the shape or form of the device, all other design elements including lettering and their interrelated spacing. Here the designer brings all his artistic experience to bear. The artist incorporates all the inherent principles of design: harmony, rhythm, symmetry, balance, proportion, dominance, subordination, variety and repetition. The artist chooses the perspective, what eye level of the design, and whether a closeup or distant view. Many factors go into a design.

At this point the design is fixed – in the mind of the artist or on paper; if on paper or in clay it is called a study. The final level is the addition of detail. This can be indicated in the drawing, but more often it is left to be implemented on the model.

The addition of detail is where the final design may differ from the drawing. Since the plan may be modified repeatedly as the artist completes the carving, modeling or engraving. As one writer put it, the drawing is a study, a work plan to help the artist execute the final model; it is not a blueprint or execution order demanding that he do it the way he first conceived the design.

Modifications, improvements, and additions of charm are expected as the artist thinks about the design while his fingers shapes the model’s relief.

Early design considerations.  The size – and other limitations (see chart below) – forces the artist-designer to be ruthless in eliminating nonessentials in coin and medal design. The small size is not a large size reduced, but every element is carefully chosen, then positioned for its spacial interrelationship.  Here are some important design considerations:

  • The artist must constantly keep in mind what the finished product, the coin or medal, will look like as he prepares his design and models.
  • The more experience, knowledge and artistic acumen the artist can bring to his task of coin and medal design, the more superior a design and model he will produce.
  • The ability to design distinguishes an artist from a craftsman.
  • The most creative designer is the one who pushes the frontier of coin and medal technology to the edge; he exploits the existing technical possibilities of the media and is the first to learn and use new technical improvements as they develop
  • An experienced designer knows what to bring of the past heritage of coin and medal design to be merged with current or modern trends or technical advances.
  • A simple design with elaborate detail appeals to more viewers of coins and medals than an elaborate design with simple detail.
  • Artistic beauty is timeless.

In symbolism the artist selects design metaphors and visual substitutes for his design concepts; it is the artist’s responsibility that his allegorical design be appropriate and understandable to an intelligent viewer. He must do this without using design clichés, those often-used design devices of the past that are trite and overly familiar. The artist must be creative by doing something new and innovative.

Add interest close up in a design. Because coins and medals are observed so close to the eyes, held close to the face, it is one of the few “intimate arts” (gems and cameos are among others). As such, the design is magnified, often physically with optical aids, or mentally as the item is viewed. Small, finely executed detail is magnified in the mind. One of the greatest charms of this glyptic art is the ability to reproduce great detail in such small space.

The opposite is also true. A large mass looms even larger on a coin or medal. A crude figure becomes even more crude. A poorly executed design registers distaste. Thus the artist must be aware of the nature of the media and the great importance of scale and detail.

The artist should also build “human interest” and perhaps “collectability” into each coin or medal design. The artist should learn what makes a design interesting to the general public and appealing to collectors. This does not mean to put an airplane into every design so they will all appeal to all aviation collectors, or some symbol of two hundred other highly collected topics, but to develop an insight, a knowledge of what is appropriate and appealing to both public and collector. The design the artist executes must be irresistible to both.

Malvina Hoffman’s design recommendations.  In her book Sculpture Inside and Out, America’s great lady sculptor, Malvina Hoffman devoted a chapter to medallic design. Here is a synopsis of her recommendations:

  1. Eliminate unnecessary elements.
  2. Employ appropriate symbolism.
  3. Accent the important elements with authority.
  4. Use care in spacing the design elements.
  5. Execute the design with style.

Execute the design.  By this point, the coin or medal designer should have fixed in his or her mind the concept, symbolism, form, arrangement and intended detail of the design at hand. It remains for the artist to execute it – to prepare a model in a form that is transferable to the technical requirements of the minting or medal making process.

The artist may work his original design in any media he or she is comfortable with – clay, plasteline, plaster, wax, wood or metal – carving away relief, or building up relief. But the coin or medal artist must master the process of plaster casting. By casting in plaster, the sculptor may progress back and forth from positive to negative, again carving or adding relief to either casting. This procedure is called modeling, where the artist actually creates the physical form, the modulated relief of the intended design.

The mint or medallic company would prefer to receive the final coin or medal design as a positive plaster casting. It could, in a rare instance, accommodate an artist, who for whatever reason, cannot provide a positive plaster. Their first step, then, would be to convert the artist’s original bas-relief into an acceptable positive plaster by their own casting.

For pantographic reduction the model should be oversize and have a crispness of detail. The fidelity of diemaking technology today is quite high – 99.99% of all the detail in the model can be reproduced in the die. But it cannot do this if the detail is not in the model. The playwright says “if its not on the page (the script) its not on the stage;” a medalist would say “if its not in the model its not in the medal.”

Or, the artist may engrave the dies directly – the time-honored way since coins were first struck. Dies are always cut exact size of the intended struck piece. Thus die engraving is more exacting than modeling. A modeled imperfection – should there be one – is reduced in proportion to the reduction from model to die. An imperfection in the die in exact size is far more noticeable. A slip of the burin while hand engraving a die is serious. A slip of the tool working in clay or plaster is not serious, such slip-ups can easily be repaired.

Completing the model.  While working on this final stage of his or her coin or medal design, the artist adds the final detail – embellishing the model with ornamentation and minute detail to each form. It is here where the experienced artist adds the texture to the surface, fine lines of hair in the portrait, fine detail in clothing, buildings, coat of arms, the final shape of the lettering and overall sharpens up the detail and gives the model its crispness. It is at this point that the relief springs to life and the artist has executed the design with style, verve and authority.

Public design.  Often nonprofessional artists are asked to design a coin or medal. Contests are sometimes held. School children are solicited to enter designs. Results and bound to be a disaster. Artists in the general public are not trained, nor have the experience in this field, yet it seems the public believes anyone can design a coin.

Recently in the 1990s at the U.S. Mint, particularly for the reverse design for each of the 50 State Quarters Program, each state was asked to furnish design suggestions. What the Mint engravers really wanted was not drawings or even designs, but what they called “narrations.” This was, in effect, concepts. Identify an event or persons involved, put this words, and led professional coin and medal artists develop the creative design – suitable for the miniature glyptic art for coin relief – from this concept.

Computer design. Designing coins and medals by computer lies somewhere between hand engraving – with stark, lifeless, fixed devices – and manual sculptural sketching and modelling with far more realistic, lifelike, creative designs, particularly of portraits. Computer design provides more mechanical control of relief execution. This in contrast to being done previously by tracer controlled techniques where this was a hand operation after the design was outlined by pantographic reduction on the face of the die.

Computer design reduces the time required to produce a three-dimensional design. It gives the computer operator many options and by selecting one of these renders the finished design. It is a shortcut by its timesaving. It is ideal for lettering and designs with buildings and logos but falls flat for portraits and scenes. Like hand engraving and tracer controlled techniques it greatly lacks vivification – making portraits look lifelike and other design elements more realistic. It too becomes, stilted, stark, frozen, lifeless.

At present however, and in the foreseeable future, it looks like computers will gradually replace design of coins and medals by human mind and human hands. Human computer designers will have to learn how to factor in far more options – what to insert and what to leave out and how best to present this in three dimension relief – in the new computer engraving technology.

Limitations of Coin and Medal Design

  1. Small size.  Most coins and medals – 98% – are under two inches, all but a tiniest number are under six inches – so physical size is extremely limited.
  2. Intimacy.  Because they are so small, coins and medals are viewed usually by one person close up – very intimate a few inches from the viewer (not like a painting or monument viewed from a distance, often by more that one person at a time).
  3. Circular form.  Most coins and medals are round (perhaps 98+%); such roundness may restrict their design.
  4. Perspective.  With some notable exceptions (as Jacques Wiener interior Cathedral perspective designs, or aerial views) most designs are linear perspective with a very narrow depth of perspective.
  5. Relief.  On struck pieces the height of relief must be less than a few hundredths of an inch; medals may enjoy a greater relief but all very low relief with no undercutting permitted on any diestruck item.
  6. Tradition.  Coins have a 2600-year tradition, medals over 550 years; thus tradition inevitably influences what can and cannot be done in numismatic and medallic design.
  7. Technical limitations.  High speed coining presses require preformed (upset) blanks, designs without congruent mass (no massive portions back-to-back), ultra low relief, a protective rim, and other technical restrictions.
  8. User limitations.  The rise of the vending industry requires coins of restricted designs and compositions to fit millions of machines in existence.
  9. Political limitations.  Certain pictorial designs cannot be used for political reasons – embarrassment, ill-mannered, illegal or such.
  10. Wording restrictions.  Obviously libelous statements cannot be put on coins and medals; certain other wording.
  11. Privacy limitations.  The portrait of a living individual cannot be used on a coin or medal without their permission (politicians may be portrayed without permission, but not sports stars, entertainers, private individuals – not during their lifetime).

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