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!