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.
- Working Name (subject to change with additions; name in boldface)
- Date Issued (in boldface)
- Size (and shape if not round)
- Composition (and weight if precious metal)
- Artists (Identify: Designer, Engraver. Sculptor, or Modeller)
- Obverse description
- Reverse description
- Signed (how, where)
- Edge plain or any reeding, lettering)
- Maker and/or Issuer
- Comments (history, events)
- Years issued (if award medal)
- Biography (of any person shown)
- Patina (finish)
- Mounting (if present)
- Collection (e.g. public collection)
- Exhibited (where, when)
- References (in books, articles)
- Auction records (list auction house, auction number, lot number, date)
- 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.