So many of Medallic Art Company’s early products have ended up in museums around the world. Why? They weren’t created purposefully for museums, rather the early medals and medallic items the company produced were by American artists who were, or who later became, famous. Their medals showcased their collectible bas-relief work.
Also, medals are as desired by museums as they are by individuals. They are miniature works of art. While an art institution’s walls may be covered with paintings, and the sculpture courts filled with statues, every institution always has room for another medal. The passion for acquisition remains strong and continuing.
Medallic Art Company’s founders, Henri and Felix Weil, were sculptor’s assistants. When they developed the business their only customers were sculptors, often the sculptors the Weils had worked for previously. Every medal made for the first two decades was the work of a fine artist.
In 1914 the American Museum of Public Safety Edward H. Harriman Medal was first struck by Tiffany – and later by Medallic Art. This medal is found in museums because of the fame of its creator, sculptor James Earle Fraser, and the artistic nature the designer-medallist treated his subject (MAco 1914-012).
In 1940 the firm made its first medal directly for an art museum, in this case the Webster S. Rhoades Medallion for the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The artist was Concetta Scaravaglione (1900-1970), a New York sculptor (MAco 1940-006).
Then after World War II the Art Institute of Chicago commissioned famed sculptor David Smith (1906-1965) to create for them a medallion in honor of benefactors Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan. Medallic Art struck this as well (MAco 1956-020).
After that, in the 1960s and later, art museums have called on Medallic Art Company to produce medals they can use to honor patrons, benefactors, prominent exhibits, new building dedications and opening celebrations of many kinds. Three medals have been made for the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. To a medal for the Springville Museum of Art for their American Bicenennial Medal ((MAco 1975-227).
Dozens and dozens have been made for art museums by Medallic Art ever since. The flood gates were open. Perhaps a lot of this medallic work came to the firm – not only for its reputation – but also because Art is our middle name.
This weekend I attended the opening of the new Art Museum at Yale University. After 14 years in rebuilding the new home occupies a full block on the campus at Yale. The University’s coin and medal collection was formerly in the university library. It was moved to the Art Museum, more for security purposes than anything else. Now it occupies a very modern office with an adjacent room named for a famed Yale alumnus and sculptor, Bela Lyon Pratt.
I met with the curator and a special tour prior to week-long Opening Celebrations. Here is my report:
Yale Numismatic Department Reopens in New Art Museum
Bela Lyon Pratt would be proud. The numismatic department in Yale University’s newly refurbished and expanded Art Museum is named in honor of the Boston sculptor who numismatists know as the designer-sculptor of the incuse Indian Head series of gold half and quarter eagle coins of 1908-1929.
Pratt, a Yale alumnus, was also the creator of sculpture on the Yale campus including a heroic statue of Nathan Hale. An exhibit of two dozen of Pratt’s coins and medals is in the featured showcase at the entrance to the coin and medal department. For years this group of Pratt’s coins and medals were exhibited just outside the university president’s office, so there is great pride in a favorite son’s numismatic accomplishments at the highest university level.
Above that showcase is a cast bronze plaque bearing Pratt’s portrait in a three-quarter standing view, the 1910 creation of his student, Richard Henry Recchia. That very plaque was familiar to me, as I had auctioned it May 14, 1989 (Collectors Auction Limited #31 lot 295) with a full page description and its illustration on the catalog’s cover.
The plaque was purchased by New York City numismatist Tony Terranova who hung it on his dining room wall. I mentioned this plaque in conversation with Yale curator William E. Metcalf as early as 2008. “I want that plaque for the museum.” said Bill. I gave him Tony’s contact information and Bill negotiated its purchase. Tony graciously gave up ownership and possession for such a permanent and important purpose to serve as the keystone exhibit at Pratt’s namesake numismatic department.
Actually two rooms, the coin and medal department is a combination office-vault, and a study room, which is officially the Bela Lyon Pratt Study Room. Here is where the library is located with book shelves 15 feet high attained by a moveable library ladder on three sides of the long room. Library table in the center with 16 chairs where university students — and visiting scholars — examine the department’s treasures, drawn from both coin cabinets and library shelves.
Outside these rooms is the exhibit area assigned to the coin and medal department. At present with six showcases now filled with some of Bill’s choice items from the collection’s ancient coins. This area is open to the public for viewing at all time the museum is open.
The collection contains nearly 100,000 items, nearly half of which are ancient coins, but with extensive holdings across the spectrum of numismatics. The collection is the accumulated accretion from over 200 years of alumni donations dating from the early formation of the university itself in 1802. But curator Metcalf points out it is not all alumni donations, as specific collections have come from California and elsewhere for a variety of reasons.
Acquiring the same items two or more times is difficult to avoid, explained Bill. For example they have four sets of The Society of Medalists, the leading art medal series in America, now ideally located in an Art Museum.
The collection was not always blessed with such a home. It had been housed in a special room in the Sterling Library at the center of the Yale campus. A similar configuration of vault-office room, its second home was the numismatic library, last administered by numismatist John Burnham, who left in 1995. For reasons of poor security — the collection’s Brasher Doubloon and others had disappeared over the years. Fortunately the Brasher Doubloon was later recovered (and sold at auction).
Transferring the coin collection to the Art Museum made sense. But the Sterling Library demanded to retain possession of the numismatic books. Bill had to start building a numismatic library all over again. While deep in ancient numismatics, the library has not grown to full capacity for modern numismatics. [Note to current authors: if your book covers important references to art and numismatics then a copy could be donated here particularly for university level study.]
Curator William E. Metcalf, is the former chief curator at the American Numismatic Society and long involved in academic numismatics. In fact, his curriculum vitae — academic record of educational positions, publications, speeches, professional services, honors and awards — is nine pages long, the longest I have observed in the numismatic field. Those are rare credentials!
In fact, he holds two positions at Yale — a rare situation at the university! He is Professor Adjunct of Classics and also Ben Lee Damsky Curator of Coins and Medals. He teaches classes obviously in classics for Yale students and also has the title and keys to the coin and medal department in the Art Museum.
Bill is affable and extremely knowledgeable, such a delightful conversationalist. Here is someone, I found, who could discourse on just about any level of numismatics. Ancient numismatics (outside my knowledge) to esoteric subjects as the use of the Janvier reducing machine in America (of which I am conversant), Bill is expert in all. Right man for the position as coin and medal curator at such a prestigious institution. (Can we now thank those thousands of donations by alumni over the years at this point?)
The new Art Museum is an amalgamation of three buildings. The old Yale Art Gallery is the centerpiece, it took over Street Hall to one side, and an entirely new building was constructed on the other side, the modern Kahn Building. To the credit of the architects they have merged all three into one large showplace. It occupies one entire block on Chapel Street in New Haven (despite its singular address 1111 Chapel) it actually has a street running through the middle of the New building!
The Pratt Coin and Medal Department with vaulted windows looks out on both Chapel Street and High street tunneling through the building at street level.
On my first visit to the New Art Museum yesterday I found it ample. Here is where expansion can occur for the next 200 years. Here is where scholars can be drawn for future studies. Here is where students with open minds can be filled with the knowledge of art — and for our interest — with numismatic knowledge. Here is where the public can come and see the treasures of the ages. We are now satisfied the numismatic department was moved from the library to an art museum for all the right reasons. Good move.
This week, in week-long celebration of the reopening of the museum, artists, academics and friends will gather to join with Yale in celebration of a vibrant new institution. The Art Museum has a new home.
I had a chance to chat with the institution’s director, Jock Reynolds, before I left. The Art Museum is in very competent hands at every level.