Archive for the ‘Terminology’ Category

This is the first 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.

EVERY coin and medal struck for the last 2,650 years – since the first coin was struck in 640 BC – exists because of one technique:  engraving. Creating the lines and cavities in a die to reproduce a design in objects struck from that die is the result of engraving.

The surface containing the relief design rises and falls from a background is a special form of three dimensions called bas-relief (the “s” is silent, its pronounced baa-relief). I prefer the term modulated relief for the images of devices and lettering of varying height shown on that surface.

Medallic Art Dies

Medallic Art Dies

Three stages.
Die engraving over time has evolved through three stages.  For the first 2500 years the only method to create those dies was for a skilled craftsman to hand engrave them — to carve away little portions of the surface of iron to form a completed die. By the use of hand tools he crafted a die with cavities the exact size of the object to be struck from that die.

Because this work was tedious, mechanically inclined craftsmen sought a method to mechanize the hand work. A progression of instruments were developed, the most successful were those that cut a die from an oversize pattern, in effect a die-engraving pantograph which cut the surface of the die from a much larger pattern.

The large pattern from which the die is engraved was created by a sculptor, who in effect, replaced the hand engraver. The pattern was mounted in a reducing pantograph by a craftsman who set the machine to operate. With an electric motor it operated unattended cutting a die any size desired. Also the pattern could be used again so several size dies could be made from a single pattern. Or it could cut a hub or master die from which many dies could be made.

At first it was the central design, the device alone, which was  modeled as the pattern to cut into a die. Lettering and stars or ornamentation was added later, by hand punches. It was not until 1899 that a French inventor, Victor Janvier, patented his die-engravng pantograph that could cut the die entire, lettering and all. His “Janvier” machine dominated die engraving for the entire 20th century.

With the 21st century we see the rise of computer engraving. The image is entered in a computer as X and Y coordinates for height by width. The depth of the image is the Z factor. Three factors at each point of the image, and as many points as the resolution of the image requires. This data is then fed into a controlled milling machine which cuts the entire surface image into the die in the size die required.

  1. Hand Engraving Only method of engraving for 2500 years, still used infrequently at present.
  2. Die-engraving Dominated all die making 1900-2000; cutting Pantograph devices alone at first, then entire sides, everything at once.
  3. Computer Engraving Increasingly used to cut dies to be major technique following year 2000.

Engraving Terms.
Cutting a die by hand is called hand engraving. Engraving dies to be used in striking is called diesinking. Engraving dies by use of master punches is called hubbing. Engraving by various mechanical implements is called machine engraving. And now we have COMPUTER ENGRAVING.

Engraving an existing item – a medal say – to personalize it after it is struck or cast (as name of a recipient) is called inscribing. One “engraves” a die, but “inscribes” a medal.

Die engraving is different from “engraving” found in most reference works, which refer to the preparation of printing plates for prints or paper money; we call this flat engraving (as for line or surface engraving). This engraving has no relief. It creates two levels of surface: one surface that prints and one that does not.

During the 19th century “engraving of dies” and “diesinking” were considered the same, synonymous (and listed as such in trade directories). Later in that century diesinking came to mean hubbing of dies. These terms now all have more explicit meanings, all within the required duties of the engraver and the overall concept of die-making.

Die Engraving Overview.
Engraving of dies was always done in iron before the development of steel (and always in steel afterwards). Iron and steel have the amazing property of being hardened and softened at will by heat treating. Thus the engraver can cut the design in soft iron, it can then be hardened and thousands of impressions can be made from that iron die.

Engraving of dies is considered a form of carving, cutting away small bits of metal to form the relief design. More often than not, this is negative carving to strike positive objects. But some hand engravers are so skilled they can carve positive – called CAMEO ENRAVING – or negative with incised cavities.

The engraver must know his tools (see list). These implements are also made of steel, but obviously are harder than the iron DIE BLANK the engraver is cutting. These tools create the lines and cavities that reproduce the relief design and lettering by creating modulated relief surface.

Burin.  An engraving tool with a diamond or lozenge shaped cutting edge, often used for engraving lines, lettering or fine detail in dies.


Burnisher.  The tool for polishing the surface of metal; made of metal or stone, a burnisher smooths a metallic surface to effect its polish.



Chisel.  A tool, flat and pointed at the end, used by engravers to handcut a die, or by chasers in their work.

Engravers’ Ball, Engravers’ Block.  A vise to hold a die or medallic item while some form of hand work is performed on it – engraving, chasing, inscribing, proof polishing or such.

Graver.  A cutting or shaving tool used by an engraver to handcut metal (as a die or flat engraving).

Milgrain Tool.  A beading tool with a wheel of hemispherical cavities that leaves a trail of precisely and uniformly formed beads.

Oil Stone.  An abrasive stone for sharpening engraving tools, a whetstone.

Punch, Puncheon.  A tool made of steel containing a letter, figure, dentile, ornament or a part of a coin or medal design used to press into softer steel to make a die, or to counterstamp a numismatic item.

Spitz, Spitzstick.  A pointed graver; an engraving tool with a long sharp pointed end.

Transfer Wax.  Wax in ball or sheet form used by engravers to transfer a drawing, design or lettering to the surface of a die to be hand or machine engraved, or to the surface of a medal to be inscribed.

Basic die engraving techniques.
The engraver is responsible for the steel he must use and the preparation of a blank die he must make into a suitable die. The choice of the steel is most critical. The best iron or steel available must be employed, otherwise in use the image will sink during prolonged striking, or worse of all break, starting at an edge.

Prior to 1756 all dies were made of iron; in that year an English manufacturer, Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776), invented a method of making crucible steel that proved most useful for dies. Matthew Boulton used Huntsman’s steel for the dies at his 1790 Soho Mint and the mints throughout the world used Huntsman steel for a century and a half – until 1950!

Steel for dies is ordered from steel manufacturers by type of steel, diameter, hardness, and whether oil or water hardened. It usually is supplied in long rods called bar stock, although other shaped stock has been used for dies, as square or hexagonal. (Round is ideal for many steps in making and using a die, turning on a lathe, locking in the press, and as a final point, orientation of the obverse and reverse properly.)

The bar stock is cut on a band saw to approximate height of the finished die. Next it is milled smoothed and both ends made exactly parallel. The working end where the design is to be cut is polished. If the engraver does not do this, then it is done by a tool and die worker, a separate person in a large mint or medal plant. At this point it is a die blank, ready to be engraved by any method, hand or machine engraved.

Laying out the design for hand engraving.
The surface of the polished die blank is next coated with Chinese white, a watercolor paint. An engraver will wet the tip of his finger and spread an even coat over the entire surface to be engraved. It dries quickly and the design can be drawn with a pencil right on this white surface. (Or the engraver may use dye blue if he wishes, but in this case he must inscribe the design with a sharp pointed spitzstick or scriber.)

What the engraver draws is an outline of the intended design. This is called a cartoon. (One might think this word was named after comic cartoons but it’s the other way round – die engraving cartoons came first.)

The engraver can actually draw an original design right on the die. He will include lettering in its proper place in addition to the main device and all subsidiary devices – stars, dentiles and whatever else. Including too much detail at this point is not necessary as this surface will be removed for the most part before he gets to these.

Or, if the engraver has an exact size cartoon on paper, he can transfer this pencil drawing to the white coated die surface, called design transfer. This is accomplished by coating the back of the paper with graphite, laying this on the coated die and tracing the design. (This technology was used before carbon paper was invented, which, of course, could be used.)

If the engraver wishes to transfer an incuse image, say from another die, to an uncoated fresh die he fills all cavities with precipitated chalk, wipes off the excess, lays on this a thin sheet of transfer wax, places this on the bare die, and burnishes the back of the wax sheet with a burnisher.

Removing metal.
At this stage occurs what everyone typically attributes to an engraver – removing tiny bits of metal to form the design in modulated relief. The cartoon indicates where most of the unwanted dead metal is to be removed, mostly background cutaway. Formerly this was done with hammer and chisel, modern engravers now have pneumatic gravers that remove gross metal from the die surface in quick time with less muscle power.

At this point the engraver does not worry about the ridges left from the chisel or graver, however it is quite critical how deep he carves. The depth of this cutting will ultimately be the background or field of the piece struck from this die. The tool marks are removed by later lapping or stoning.

Then he turns his full attention to the main device. Here is where he cuts the modulated relief of the design with burin or graver. Each tiny bit of metal removed is called a bite. His skill and talent come into play in carving the portrait or feature of the design. The engraver must be an artist at this stage employing all his artistic ability. He is creating a miniature relief by sculptural carving, often in the negative.

He holds the burin or graver in the palm of his hand with his index finger lying along the shank of the tool. He points with this finger to where he wants to cut. He pushes with his hand down into the metal and scoops out a tiny bit of metal. This action is called palm push because the palm of the hand pushes on the handle forcing the point of the tool into and up out of the metal die surface.

We have assumed here the artist is cutting intaglio, carving the relief design in the negative for all the above. However, the artist can cut cameo, in the positive. Cutting a positive cameo die eliminates the need for frequent proving. The image is always in view. The cameo die has another advantage, it can serve as a device punch to hub into the working die.

Carving and using punches.
Before 1950 there were commercial punches of letters and figures engravers could obtain from typographic houses (which made type for letterpress printers – the rise of lithographic printing however made all letterpress obsolete and type houses went out of business). For most engravers the desired type, style and size, it seemed, was never available. Thus the engraver had to carve new punches for the correct lettering style and size he was seeking.

Imagine a letter on the end of a pencil point. In a sense, this is what the engraver must carve, exact size, and a different one for each different letter. (Thank goodness he can use the same “E” punch or any other repeated letter over and over – he only needs one for each letter.) It is “carve away” engraving to make a letter or figure punch and the final punch must have a sloping contour with a proper bevel, often turned on a lathe.

The layout for lettering will have a guide line or base line drawn or lightly inscribed on the face of the die where the bottom of each letter must appear. He may also inscribe a second guideline for the top of the letters. He does not punch the letters in order they appear on the die; instead the engraver most likely will choose a letter with a flat base, as an “E” to start (where top and bottom must line up with the two guide lines). Each letter is punched into the die individually.

When punching the lettering the engraver must be aware of four things at once: (1) the letter must rest on that base line, or fit precisely between the two if there are two  guide lines, (2) he must not tilt the letter, it must be upright, exactly perpendicular to the base line, (3) he must be aware of interletter spacing [“IE” should be further apart than say “OO”], (4) he must sink the punch to the same depth as all other letters. The last is most important because an “M” requires more pressure to sink than an “I” for example.

To insure correct positioning the engraver lightly taps the letter punch to get a faint image on the surface of the die. If it is correct in all respects, he replaces the punch – it must “seat” in that same impression – and taps the punch to the proper depth. If it doesn’t seat properly, or he moves the punch between blows, he will create a double image for that letter. Punching letters and figures requires experience; lettering by an amateur engraver, who perhaps cannot control all four requirements at once, is very obvious on the struck piece.

Diesinking and hubbing.
The engraver does not have to engrave every element on the face of that one die blank (although he can if he so desires). He can carve separate elements and bring them together by sinking them into that master die blank. He can engrave the device separately (even in cameo) making it a device punch. By diesinking he can get that image into that die; obviously it is too much to sink it by hammer blow, he must hub it by using a press, a screw press – or for even greater pressure a hydraulic powered hubbing press – to impress the device punch into the die.

The device punch must be hard and the die blank must be soft, thus heat treating is important at this stage. The two – punch and die – are positioned in the press and are squeezed to drive the punch into the die. Often a retaining ring is necessary to hold the punch in position during hubbing (creating this tube-like collar is the responsibility of the engraver or tool and diemaker). This is the hubbing function of diesinkning.

Hubbing always changes polarity. A positive punch creates a negative element in the die. The device punch carved cameo is ideal for pressing into the negative die. The negative die, then, can be used for striking. Or, instead it can become the master die and a hub can be sunk from it. Then working dies can be made from that hub. By the process of hubbing the engraver can go back and forth with a change of polarity each time. Multiple working dies are necessary for long production runs. A master die is “insurance” that another die can be easily sunk if the one in use breaks or deteriorates.

At any step along this process the engraver can examine the state of his work by proving. He can push soft material, clay or wax, into the die cavity or the surface of the die to give a quick look. For more detail, which is usually the case because the engraver is working on tiny areas of carving, he will want to make a metal proof. These can be a hot tin impression, called a splasher, which he can do right at his workbench; or a lead proof if he places the die in a press and softly impresses the lead.

The closer the engraver gets to the finished die, the more proofs he will make. He seldom makes any proof until well into the process. He usually does extensive carving in the die, then he makes a proof to check on his progress. This continues until he is completely satisfied with the total image. He will then harden the die and it will be ready to be placed into production.

Use of Sculptured Patterns in Engraving.
In an attempt to relieve the tedium of hand engraving, engravers and mint workers looked to the pantograph, the die-engraving pantograph, to aid in cutting dies. In constant development from its early crude form for nearly 150 years, these machines were in use at mints in Belgium, France and England. It required, however, a pattern in hard material to reduce the image while it cut the relief.

Engravers and mint officials turned to sculptors and wax modelers to create these patterns. It was not, as some believe, a model for the engraver to handcut the image in reduced size, but rather a three-dimensional surface that could be reduced by stylus tracing and mechanical pantographic reduction.

What the sculptor created was a bas-relief – a design of modulated relief attached to a solid background. Sculpture in wax was ideal, as well as those in clay and other media (the use of plaster of Paris came later). However, this had to be converted to a hard surface of the image for the stylus to trace over. These were cast in metal, iron was the first to be used, later copper was found to be more ideal for the stylus to ride over.

The first sculptor to prepare a bas-relief for medals in America was Ferdinand Pettrich (1798-1872). In 1841 he created a relief portrait of President John Tyler in wax for the Indian Peace Medal Series. At the U.S. Mint Franklin Peale (1795-1870) cast this in iron and used it to cut three size DEVICE PUNCHES of the 1842 Indian Peace Medal (on the Philadelphia Mint’s newly acquired Contamin pantograph, well suited for cutting multiple size hubs from the same pattern).  Each of these device punches was sunk into an appropriate size die blank and lettering added by punches.

Sculptor Pettrich’s presidential portrait was followed by John Gadsby Chapman (1808-1889) who furnished President James K. Polk’s portrait in 1846 for the same series. In 1849 Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) created Zachary Taylor’s portrait, but these portraits were surpassed by Millard Fillmore’s, Franklin Pierce’s and Abraham Lincoln’s portraits by Salathiel Ellis (1803-1879) both in quantity and quality. It is believed the Philadelphia Mint replaced iron cast patterns with copper ELECTROFORMED patterns (GALVANOS) from Ellis’ models.

Rise of electroformed patterns.
Using iron patterns proved unsatisfactory, not only for the stylus drag, but also for the lack of finite detail. Models cast in iron could not reproduce the fine detail in the sculptor’s models. Reason for this was the meniscus formed at the juncture of all angular corners and, on coin and medal models in particular, where relief meets the field (called corner radius). This rounding of angles and corners occurs in all metal casting. It cannot reproduce sharp detail, notably the pointed junctures at the edges of relief and corner radii.

Fortunately an event occurred in 1837 to affect this. A German physicist and engineer, Moritz Herman Jacobi (1801-1874), developed an electro chemicalprocess he called “galvanoplasty” which today is known as electrolysis. This is the process by which electroplating takes place. But it can also be employed for forming objects from a mantel, core or pattern.

The technology was rapidly employed in England, for the silverware industry, but in France it was employed in the art field. Before long it was in use at the Paris Mint for making patterns for use on the die-engraving pantograph from sculptors’ models. Here it was ideal because all the detail in the sculptors’ models were reproduced in a copper pattern in far greater fidelity (in micron width!).

The metal pattern was called a galvano (from Jacobi’s “electrogalvanic” process). If the newly created pattern was positive to cut a die, it was also called a dieshell, if it was negative to cut a hub, it was a hubshell. (Electroforming changes polarity.)

This technology was in use for cutting dies on the die-engraving panotograph for the remainder of the 19th century and all the 20th century. It was replaced, only partially at first, by the use of epoxy for creating coin and medal patterns following World War II when it was developed.

Engraver’s use of engraving machines.
Because sculptors were asked to furnish relief models of portraits, more than any other subject to be made into patterns for dies, the first die-engraving pantographs were called portrait lathes.The engraver would make a hard surface cast of the sculptor’s portrait model and place this on the reducing machine.

In all instances these early engravers would utilize the sculptor’s bas-relief pattern to cut a positive image in steel. This reduction punch would then be hubbed into the master die. Lettering, subsidiary devices and rim elements would be added afterwards by punches and hand engraving.

In America, use of the die-engraving pantograph continued for 80 years to make reduction punches. This technique continued through the 19th century. It wasn’t until the invention of the Janvier pantograph that the entire die could be reduced and cut from the sculptor’s model of the entire design, lettering and all.

Tracer controlled pantographs.
In the last decade of the 19th century engravers and machinists devised pantographs to aid diesinking. One type of these was a tracer controlled pantograph where an oversize template model and template letters controlled a router that removed all the dead metal. It could carve out letters and leave the design as a flat undisturbed surface that required further diecutting.

The pantograph operator would have to manually control the router to mill away not only the background cutaway but also the surface metal to create the design. In effect this made this craftsman controlling this machine by hand as the engraver of the die. While this was quite satisfactory for letters, logos, architectural and other flat designs, it was left to the skill of the operator to create portraits, scenes and designs of highly modulated relief. Gorton was the major manufacturer of this style of pantograph.

Modern improvements of this machine, even computer control, have made this a quick and low-cost method of die engraving. Ideal for most dies, medal manufacturers use this in contrast to sculptured models. However, it produces less artistic, somewhat flat, mechanical images, particularly of portraits.

Computer engraving.
The computer will not design a coin or medal, but, like a burin in the hand of the engraver, it will aid the engraver to enter the design and determine the amount of depth each point should cut into the die or matrix.

Mints and medalmakers around the world were eager to accept the new technology, the most recent step in replacing the tedious act of hand engraving dies. The success of computer engraving may yet be proved to be limited, much like the use of the tracer-controlled pantograph introduced a century earlier. Both technologies have their place and will continue to be employed by the minting industry. They will not, however, replace the artist who must create the design nor the sculptor-medallist who creates more advanced designs.

The advantages of computer engraving is not only “fast and cheap” but also its versatility to alter a design, to modify it, to test a new concept, to hone the relief to a satisfactory image. As such it is ideal for simple images, as graphic designs, most trademarks and buildings. Where it falls short are very complex or highly detailed designs, but most notably, portraits!

One word describes what a sculptor working in clay or wax can accomplish that a computer cannot: vivify. In art it means “give life to.”  A sculptor can give life to a portrait, make an image of a real person, so it seems the person is staring back at the viewer. He is alive in sight of the relief. In contrast, computer generated portraits are stiff, frozen and lifeless.

Computer Technique.
The computer engraver can start with a flat drawing, a cartoon, or create this on the screen. At each point on the design, called a pixol, X and Y coordinates are determined by the computer. The operator chooses the depth at this point, the Z coordinate, to fix the sculptural or dimensional effect, creating a bitmap. All these coordinates are stored in the software. A visual image is shown on the screen of the CPR. The operator moves through the design indicating the modulated relief.

When finished, the accepted digital design will then be transferred to a milling machine which does the cutting as controlled by the digital file. Afterwards, burrs and rough corners from the milling tool must be worked as with any other touchup of dies.

Is it possible to look at a coin or medal and tell how it was made, by hand engraving, die-engraved reduction, or by computer design?

Diagnostics: How A Coin or Medal Was Made

No hard and fast rules differentiate a hand engraved die from one made from sculptor’s models and dies cut on the die-engraving pantograph  or by computer design by looking at any coin or  medal. The difference, if any, is quite subtle and often difficult to detect.

Technically the only difference is where the rise of relief meets the background or field (called corner radius). and, perhaps, the crevices. Because of the rounded point of the stylus and cutting point on the pantograph and computer milling machine, which cannot enter these areas, these appear less distinct, less angular and more rounded. Also sculptors tend to fill up the model with detail more so than hand engravers, and occasionally vignette the surface (detail covers more of the model with less clean field) or with texture in the field.

  • Generally, a hand engraved die will appear with sharper detail, steeper rise of relief, deeper crevices and a greater background area (smooth field).
  • Generally, a die cut on a die-engraving reducing  pantograph will appear with smoother, softer detail, slightly more sloping sides of relief, and less field area.
  • Generally, a die cut on milling machine from a computer design will appear similar to that of a pantograph, depending upon the shape of the cutting tool.

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ONE hundred fifty years ago a catalog listing in an art auction might read “one medal.” Not today. Auction buyers want as much information about a medal up for sale as possible.

Buyers want to know size, composition, who made it, and much about its design and subject matter. Why was it issued? Has it been cataloged in numismatic literature and does it have a catalog number (for easy reference to even more information).

Also they want to know the condition of the piece at hand. While all the previous data applies to all specimens of this variety, condition  applies significantly to the one piece under consideration. If the medal is of precious metal – silver or gold – it is important to know the exact weight as well.

Finally, information about the artist who created the piece – the engraver, sculptor or medallist whose creativity became this work of art in metal. To make all this more meaningful, a photograph is of benefit, adding appeal to the prospective buyer.

This did not come about all at once. But we have one person to thank for the fuller descriptions of numismatic items up for auction. Following World War II a returning veteran who had served in military intelligence, sought a job with a coin firm in New York City. John Jay Ford Junior, worked first for Stacks, then switched to New Netherlands Coin Company joining in partnership with Charles Wormer.

John Ford began writing long descriptions of the coins the firm was offering at auction. His motto was “The more you tell, the more you sell.”

It proved correct. His auction catalogs became models for other numismatic auction firms to emulate. This certainly holds true for medals, even more so because medals are more pictorial and symbolic.

Name That Medal!  The first step to describe a medal is to name it. Medals are like people, they have names, but more importantly they all have a last name, named for the type of medallic item it is. The most common are: medal, medalet, medallion, plaque, plaquette.

Too often numismatists use a title for a medal – not its name. An example is the Julian catalog of U.S. Mint medals. They are all listed by their title, like all the generals who were awarded Congressional medals, are listed by the name of the general, not the name of the medal. [I lost that argument with author Robert Julian in 1976 prior to the publication of the book a year later.]

Next is to determine the date. If it is on the medal, fine. If not hit the literature to see if it has been cataloged and the date is given. If not, does the content of the medal give a clue? All exposition medals are the year the expo was held. You must be resourceful, but if all attempts to date the medal fail, it must be designated n.d. – no date.

Describe one element at a time.  Start in the center of the obverse. Describe the main device first. If several elements are present start at the top and work down. The chart following gives tips for any chore of describing medals.

Rules & Guidelines For Describing Medals

1 Medal Name
1.1 Last Word. All medallic items have a last name. It is the type of item it is. Obviously these include medal, medalet, medallion, plaque, plaquette, and the less common ones: galvano, relief, decoration, badge, emblem, ingot, medallic object, paperweight, plate, seal, token, key fob, watchfob. One of these is the last word in a medal name.
1.2 Put last name first of the name of a person that is also the name of the medal; all other elements of that personal name within parenthesis. A second person’s name in the name of the medal can be given in normal sequence. This rule grew out of a need to alphabetize thousands of names quickly and accurately.
1.3 Capitalize the first letter in each word in the medal name (articles are exceptions).
1.4 Put the name in bold face type in a listing (not necessary the second time it is used or in normal text).
1.5 No abbreviations in the name of medals. Spell out Saint, Street and all abbreviations. This eliminates confusion.
1.6 No personal titles in medal names (no admiral, no doctor, no mister, no reverend, no military rank – exception made for Cardinal, however, use full formal names). (Otherwise we have too many President X or King X medals in alphabetical lists).
1.7 No nicknames in personal names; use full formal names. (Exception: Jimmy Carter who insisted on the use of “Jimmy” on his Inaugural medal [like he wore brown shoes to a black tie function! Names and medal inscriptions are formal, all in capital letters].
1.8 Identify pseudonyms and stage names within parenthesis. If Mark Twain is the name of medal, put Samuel Clemens within parenthesis.
1.9 Use minimal punctuation in 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.)
1.10 City identifiers are used 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 the name of 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.
1.11 No comma between city and state in medal name (this is a name, not a mailing address).
1.12 Names of things — ships, plays, songs, airplanes, statues, works of art and such — which are italicized in normal text are not italicized in medal names. They can be italicized in the description.
1.13 Omit the word “Award” in a medal name. Such award medals are identified in descriptions by giving data within parenthesis. It is the Pulitzer Medal not the Pulitzer Award Medal.
1.14 Omit the word “Official” in a medal name. A description should be sufficient to identify the medal from any non-official medal.
1.15 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: issuing organization, named after person’s name, type of medal or award. (If there are four or more elements, pick the three most important.)
1.16 Proper sequence in naming a medal.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 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.
2 Date of Items
2.1 The date may appear before the name or after. Before is preferred in a chronological list; after is preferred in a topical or by other format.
2.2 If exact date is unknown 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.
2.3 But even if an estimate cannot be made, use “n.d.” (for no date).
2.4 For items bearing a date but struck later give date on item first then (struck xxxx) within parenthesis after the date and before the name.
3 Describe the Items
3.1 Describe obverse first, then the reverse, and finally the edge.
3.2 Start in the center, describe the main device, if there are several devices start at the top and work down.
3.3 Use accepted numismatic terms in all descriptions. Know the difference between legend and inscription. Legend is the lettering around the perimeter of the piece, inscription is all other lettering.
3.4 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 in superimposed on the saint’s chest.
3.5 Describe any subsidiary devices. Mention any logo or trademark or any other symbols or symbolism shown.
3.6 Identify all people shown; most important to recognize and give full name (and title if appropriate). Identify any attribute used by artists to aid quick identification of people as the trident of Neptune.
3.7 Identify everything shown on the medal if possible. For example, if an animal is shown identify generic, or what kind or breed. If any object has a name it should be given in the description.
3.8 Know the difference between panel and cartouche; A panel is any compartment or section of a medal design, usually separated by a frame; a cartouche is an open panel where lettering may be inserted before or after the medal is struck.
3.9 Do not confuse edge, border and rim. Edge is the thickness of the piece; border includes all the elements near the perimeter of the piece; rim is the outermost element of the border, usually flat.
3.10 For large medals identify elements of the border; these have special names and some reference to literature may be necessary
3.11 Do not overlook any tiny letters, as these may be mint marks, hallmarks, or makers’ marks — mandatory data for any full description.
3.12 Describe the reverse in a similar manner as the obverse, identifying as many elements of deign as possible.
3.13 Following the reverse, describe the edge; it is important to include all the lettering — figures, letters and symbols found on the edge. This is useful data for the savvy numismatist.
3.14 Note Orientation; this is the relationship of obverse to reverse, medals are customarily top-to-top, called medal turn, in contrast to coin turn of top-to-bottom for coins.
3.15 Search the literature; be sure to include any catalog number where this medal variety has been the subject of a previous description or history.
3.16 Be aware of the total medal; is it different from normal in some way? Is it 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? Be aware.
Good luck describing your medal!

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YOU will have to learn a few words that may be new to you to differentiate struck from cast medals. One of these words is meniscus.  If you look up this word in a dictionary you will probably find an illustration of two tubes, one filled with water, one filled with mercury. The surface of the water is concave. The surface of mercury is convex – that is, bowed down at the edges from a higher center.

Cast metal is like mercury. Metal has the same physical property as mercury that makes it bow at the edges in unrestricted form. Cast metal cannot fill tiny cavities in a medal die design because the meniscus prevents the liquefied cast metal from flowing into these small corners. Thus it cannot reproduce sharp, crisp edges at the juncture of two surfaces.

The most obvious evidence of this can be found where the top of lettering meets the sides, another location is where the rise of relief meets the background or field of a coin or medal. With typical casting, the human eye perceives these edges and corners as “soft.” Under magnification, relief, particularly lettering, appears with “rounded” junctures.

Some medalists were skilled at purposefully modeling soft texture and soft lettering. Louis Roty in France was one. Victor Brenner in America was another. Medallists not as skilled may produce edges of relief that will look indistinct and amateurish.

Collectors, it should be noted, seem to prefer sharp, crisp edges because this is closest to the uncirculated state of a coin. Once wear begins, the sharp edges, like highpoints, disappear.

For a coin or medal struck by a die, the metal fills these junctures and tiny cavities by the force of the die during striking. Struck pieces therefore can have sharp, crisp corners and edges where the junctures of two surfaces may come to a point.

Diestruck pieces will appear sharp and not rounded if that characteristic is in the die. (But here, again, the roundness may be modeled into the pattern and reproduced in the die, or, the piece may have circulated and become worn.)

[The sharpness of the rim / edge juncture, as on proof coins, is something else. This comes from the amount of metal mass in the planchet and the amount of pressure applied, not from any modeling or anything in the pattern.]

A second term to learn is porosity. The surface of a cast piece may appear to have tiny pores or pockholes. These vary in size and are caused by dust or dirt in the mold or from trapped air.

When casting, skillful molders will blast the mold with compressed air to remove all contaminants just before pouring the metal. (Prior to this the mold may even be chemically cleaned.)

Trapped air bubbles prevent metal from filling all the nooks and crannies in the mold. This trapped gas tends to congregate around the base of relief or letters on the field or background. Skillful molders like to mold in a vacuum, or tip the mold and lightly tap it to let the air escape, or make elaborate vents for the air to flow out as the metal flows in.

Humorously, these pores or holes are called “craters” like bomb craters. (I say in my best Yosemite Sam cartoon voice imitation “That’s a figure of speech, Son. I say, that’s a hyperbole. That’s an overstatement, I say, to make them tiny holes look extreme!”)

If porosity is present on the piece you are examining, there is a strong chance the piece was cast. (“I say it was cast, Son. Take my word for it!” Enough Sam.)

In contrast to craters are nodules. These are raised lumps, also called bosses. (I won’t even crack a joke on that – make up your own lumpy boss remark!)

Nodules also result from dirt or trapped air occurring in a previous generation in the casting process. They formed when the mold was made. Now use that pockmarked mold and you get raised nodules where tiny craters were located.

Pieces struck from rusted dies will also exhibit nodules. Here again, these will congregate around the base of relief or letters. This is where moisture settled and attacked the iron metal when the die was stored. Prolonged exposure to a moist atmosphere creates rusting of unprotected steel dies. (Even storing dies one on top of the other with a struck piece between prevents rust, as well as other methods.)

Only with experience comes the ability to identify nodules from poor casting techniques versus nodules from rusted dies on struck pieces. I didn’t say this was going to be easy. Casting nodules are usually smooth; rust nodules are usually jagged and uneven.

Next term to learn: chased. It is so common for cast items to have porosity and nodules formed that they are most often CHASED – hand tooled to remove these tiny imperfections. The term is almost one word: cast and chased. (Can you say “castandchased” as one word?) In some cases you can still see the tool marks, even though the CHASER has a toolbox full of tools (like burnishers) to smooth the metal surface after any gross amount of metal is removed or moved around during chasing.

The busiest worker in any foundry is the CHASER – cleaning up after the cast piece is broken out from the mold. All those casting flaws should be removed and all surfaces smoothed where they are supposed to be smooth. For cast medals the trick is not to remove any DETAIL, to retain all the MODULATED RELIEF, keeping it intact.

The next term may be familiar. It is resonance. That is the sound a coin or medal makes when lightly tapped on its edge. The tone or clarity is caused by the metal alloy, absence of trapped air internally and its thickness. A cast piece will tend to have a lower-pitched sound, a “dull thud,” in comparison to a similar struck piece which produces more of a “ring” of greater clarity and higher pitch.

A ring test, however, is not exclusive or foolproof. A suspect piece should be compared with known specimens if you are testing for genuineness. Both struck and cast pieces will ring – after all, bells are made by casting. The only difference is the resonance. Have you got a good ear for pitch and tone?

A last term to be familiar with is a form of casting, but its results are sharper than even a struck piece. That term is electroforming. This is how numismatic electrotypes are made. These are made in an electrolytic tank where the metal is deposited on a pattern, one ion of metal at a time.

Thus electroforms are noted for their sharpness, plus their extreme fidelity to their pattern, far more so than diestruck pieces. This sharpness has to be in the model, obviously. Electroforming reproduces exactly the surface of the model. This is why electroforming – creating galvanos – were used for over a century for coin and medal patterns (and reduced on the die-engraving pantograph like the Janvier reducing machine).

Here are the three methods of producing a coin or medal and the sharpness of detailed relief each method can reproduce:


Detail reproducible down to a hundredth of an inch.


Detail reproducible down to a thousandth of an inch.


Detail reproducible down to the width of a molecule.

The following table summarizes criteria for visual inspection. If you have access to a lot of scientific equipment, you can examine the surface substructure of the metal or you can take microphoto- graphs. There you will see how different struck metal is from cast metal after it undergoes the stress of striking.

Struck vs. Cast Diagnostics by Inspection

Property Struck Cast
Relief edges and corner junctures Sharp, crisp, pointed Rounded.
Surface state Smooth, detail where intended, field generally smooth, all relief fully struck up. May have pores or background nodules present, may appear uneven;flat; detail looks “soft.”
Nodules present None; struck from rusted dies if at all. From the cast mold.
Multiple specimens Identical. Pores, nodules may vary in number, size, position on each cast.
Chasing tool marks None. May be present.
Ring test resonance High pitch. Duller tone.

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As we write this in the Spring of 2012 the Stolen Valor Law is being tested in state courts as it is headed for a final determination in the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. It’s a law that makes it illegal to state a person has received decorations of valor or other military medals — or to wear these – that they have not won, and to do this for some personal gain.

President George W. Bush signed this into law in 2005. It strengthened a previous regulation (U.S. Code 18, paragraph 704) prohibiting these medal activities by unauthorized people. For example, Wikipedia reports in June 2006 there were 120 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, but over a thousand people have made such fraudulent statements of its bestowal to them.

Veteran organizations strongly support the legislation – rightly so – to preserve the honor bestowed to deserving recipients. Any activity by civilians or even former military personnel that denigrate this honor is unwanted. Most often, it is such veterans organization who make the complaints of unauthorized use by undeserving people.

This gave rise to the term “stolen valor,” in the United States. In England, under similar situations, the term for such a miscreant was a “medal cheat!”

Collectors organizations, on the other hand, believe the law went too far. It limited the sale or trade of existing decorations. In the past military decoration collectors circumvented the restrictions by exchanging a minor medal when purchasing a more expensive one. This gradually diminished to a purchase for cash and, say, a postage stamp, for a desired decoration.

Purple Heart Medal

Purple Heart Medal

Purple Hearts, for example had a collector value of $45 and there has always been an active market for these and other U.S. and foreign decorations. The U.S. Code made no mention of what should be done with military decorations in a deceased veterans estate. These are legitimate artifacts documenting a person’s military achievements. They have value as museum pieces – or to private collectors – if not retained by the veterans family.

And what collector, or medal dealer – this writer included – once he had possession of a decorations on a chain, or a sash, has not placed this around his own neck. That act is wearing a decoration in unauthorized fashion. But most collectors who venerate such objects would never wear this outside his own office or home. He has great respect for the person who did, indeed, deserve receiving this award.

Examples of fraudulent use include the family who acquired military medals at flea markets and “awarded” these to their youngster for good behavior. While this may be a commendable act of parenting, it was certainly not the intended use of these medals. This occurred before 2005. Under previous restrictions they were fined and changed their way of child commendation.

Two more recent cases, one in California and one in Colorado, have considered this situation and both have been dismissed based on the first amendment. While these have been declared unconstitutional, Wikipedia states: “legal scholars are all not in agreement that lying should have constitutional protection.”

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court depends on their interpretation of the first amendment. Do citizens have the right to lie under the concept of Free Speech. If so, then can an exception be made for recipients of an honor so desired that others are willing to lie about it and bask in the honor reserved for those who legitimately won that honor?

This writer believes the law should be upheld, but the restrictions for buying and selling existing decorations should be permissible among collectors.

Case number two.  In 2009 the esteemed British Museum mounted an exhibit “Medals of Dishonor.” This took its name from a series of 15 medals, created prior to 1940 by American sculptor David Smith.

It was described in its exhibition statement: “Medals are best known for celebrating important figures or heroic deeds, but this unique exhibition features medals that condemn their subjects. The display exposes the long and rich tradition of this darker side of medals.”

The exhibit featured the David Smith medals which were inspired by the rise of fascism during the 1930s, and by the German war medals he saw at the British Museum. He modeled these in the shape of Sumerian seals he had studied in Greece and named the series of 15 oval medallions “Medals of Dishonor.”

In addition there was a companion piece by Marcel Duchamp I will speak of in a minute. To flesh out the exhibit, British medallic artists were invited to submit contemporary examples of their creation. Sixteen artists responded, most all members of the British Art Medal Trust. The artist’ medals were donated to the BM for their permanent collections.

Historical medals covering a 400-year period were also on display, satirical and political medals with themes ranging from bizarre to scatological. One medal from 1915 shows the figure of Death happily smoking while seated on a cannon, a city in flames in the background.

It typified many expressing the horror and brutality of war.

What brought this all to mind this week was an inquiry from a fellow collector in Boston. He had befriended a curator in France and the pair had an active correspondence. The curator had learned of that Marcel Duchamp “medal” and wanted to obtain a specimen for his institution.

Here is how Duchamp’s medal, called a bouche-evier, was described from a review of that show:

“Fittingly, Marcel Duchamp supplies the ultimate reduction of the medal’s function as an indicator of superior status with his piece Sink Stopper (1964-67).  Modelled in clay from the perforated drain of a porcelain shower tray and then cast by the artist in lead that he had melted in a saucepan, this “medal” was originally nothing more than an answer to a plumbing problem.

“Duchamp liked to soak his feet, but the shower tray leaked. A couple of years later he was invited by an American company to strike a medallion. Just as he had pissed on the inflated claims made for art with his 1917 urinal, he now couldn’t resist offering the stopper, which was subsequently cast in silver, bronze and stainless steel and circulated as an ‘original limited edition Medallic Sculpture.’

“As a comment on the aesthetic and political range of choices available in the medium, nothing in this exhibition can touch it.”

The American company mentioned in that description was International Numismatic Agency, a client of Medallic Art Company, and a major producer for the owner, Neil Cooper. Fortunately Medallic Art did not make those Sink Stoppers for Mr. Cooper.

The three pages from my files on this issue document the effort Cooper extended to market this “medal.” He advertised in Art in America, it also carried a half page article in their July-August 1969 issue.

He saw that the “medal” was in prominent museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution Numismatic Collection, Bowdoin College Art Museum were named in his literature.

A final statement: “Mr. Lawrence Alloway, former curator of the Guggenheim Museum acted as artistic consultant for this project.”

It is still a Sink Stopper.

This writer holds medals and medallic art to the highest standards. I relish satire and satirical medals. But there is a line below which I would not approve of the misuse of medallic art to advance some misguided individual’s sense of satire by calling it a medal.

You may form your own opinion.

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“Color sells!” was our credo when I was an advertising salesman at a newspaper many decades ago. Color, obviously, is more appealing than a monochrome world of black-and-white. But for centuries coins have been only the single color of their primary metal content – bronze, silver or gold.

Not any more. Mints – both national and private – are outdoing themselves in creating ways to make coins and medals more appealing by adding color, holograms, striking multi-ring blanks, lettering the edges, and even pasting stickers on fully struck coins.

Formerly, a new innovation in coining technology was first tried on medals. After all, it could be tested on a medal, before introducing it to the hazards of a circulating medium. If it passed the test on a few hundred medals it could be applied to multi-million coin production.

We have proof coins today because a proof surface was first applied to a medal, a tiny Pitt Club Medal in England, in 1762 (placed in a watch crystal to protect the delicate reflective surface). It worked and was then applied to coins. While a “proof” means a test or first made, today we have proof coins made by the millions.

However, nowadays, it seems, innovators at our national mints are going right for a new process applied directly on their country’s coins, omitting any testing on medals. This is particularly true for commemorative coins they can sell to the public and collectors. Canadian and Australian Mints are two of the leading innovators in this movement.

Canada, just last year, issued a coin with a crystal chip embedded on its surface!

Innovation to add color has been a lengthy development. Here’s a sampling of methods for getting added color on a coin or medal:

Contrasting metal in the blank. This can be done by a plug or an outer ring of the blank.  In 1792 Philadelphia Mint employees added a silver plug to a proposed cent coin. Granted this was to raise the value of the blank rather than any color ascetic.

In 1982 Italy was the first to strike a coin with a bimetal blank, its 500-lira coin had an outer ring of stainless steel with a bronze center. The Paris Mint carried this technology one step further in 1992 with a 20-franc coin for circulation with a center core and two rings of contrasting color! The U.S. Mint has struck only one ring-blank coin – the Library of Congress $10 coin struck in 2000 with a gold ring and a platinum core — certainly not intended for circulation!

Plating.  While not practical for mass million coins, partial plating has been applied to medals for a duo color of contrasting metals. The area not to be plated can be masked off, the entire piece is immersed for plating, then the masked material is removed. This is labor intensive but can be utilized for short-run medal jobs.

Organic coating – paint.  Any paint applied to a metal surface is not satisfactory because of the ease in which the paint chips off. This becomes unsightly and is not satisfactory for the long life of a medal. However, Medallic Art Company did make such a medal – apparently that is what the customer wanted. In 1937 Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Association Medal was painted with a black paint. True to form, in time these medals have been observed with the coating in uneven covering. High points were vulnerable to the paint chipping off.

In 1966 for an issue of silver plates, the design bore a panda. An artist was hired to work in Medallic Art’s Danbury to paint by hand a black-and-white panda on each plate.

American Public University System Medal

American Public University System Medal illustrating the use of enamel.

Enamel.  Enamel is the most common method for applying color to medals – not so for coins. All the highest forms of medallic art – including orders, decorations, heroic medals, fine art medals – have been colored with enamel. The process of enameling is an ancient art of firing a vitreous material, colored glass, so it melts and flows into a cavity of the metal item where intended.

There are several kinds of enamel, hard and soft, both with and without fences to corral the enamel. The fences can be built into the design of the metal base or added with wires. These are called cloisons, and the technology called cloisonné (the fences form each cell of color). Other forms of enameling likewise have French names: champlevé (like Limoges enamel) grisaille (a type of pained on enamel), plique-a-jour (a transparent of translucent enamel), and others.

In modern production the colored glass is supplied in any of several hundred colors in almost powder form and is dispensed from a hypodermic needle-like device, filling a cell with only one color. When all cells are filled with appropriate color glass, the medal is placed in an oven and heated. Glass melts at 750 to 850 degrees Centigrade. While the glass melts, the metal base does not (copper, for example, melts at 1085 degrees C). The glass hardens on cooling and is locked in that cell.

Medallic Art Company has produced hundreds of enameled medals. In the past at its plants in New York City and Danbury Connecticut it did not perform this process in house. It subcontracted this all this work to seven specialists, nearly all of which were in the jewelry centers of Attleboro, Massachusetts, with a few on hand in New York City.

After the enamel is added to the medal it can then be plated – plating does not adhere to the enamel – so medals were returned to MACO’s plant usually to be gold plated, finished, often mounted with a ribbon, and packaged.

Embedments.  Relic items have been embedded on medals. While this added another color, the intent was to honor an event with a preserved piece, an artifact or memento of that event. In 1937 the C.D. Peacock Jewelry firm issued a centennial medal with an embedded piece of steel from their safe that survived the Great Chicago Fire intact.

[Tiny hard metal shards are easy to embed by placing the item on the medal’s surface before the final blow of the press on a multiple-struck medal. Otherwise such items must be affixed by epoxy. It is preferable to have a depressed cavity on the medal surface where the embedment is located.]

Holograms were first applied to medals in 1967. This occurred in Israel on Yaacov Agam’s And There Was Light Medal. The technology for applying holograms is so easy they are now widely applied to coins.

Handy & Harman Medal

Obverse, reverse and edge of
the Handy & Harman Medal.

In one of the most innovative medals issued by Medallic Art Company, half of the entire obverse was embedded with a silver insert over a bronze base. It was created for the metal firm of Handy & Harman for their centennial medal. Artist John Amore created an obverse motif that was divided in half. The concept was brilliant since Handy & Harman was a supplier of both metals.

Prior to delivery of the metal strip Handy & Harman layered a thin narrow strip of silver on a wider strip of bronze the intended gauge for the medal. MACO production officials solved the intricate production problems of keeping the medal in register between multiple strikings by an added projection in the blanking die at both the top and bottom of the blank. A corresponding notch was placed in the open face die. The blank – or partially struck medal – was reseated in exact register for each blow of the press. The obverse was half silver and half bronze.

Pad printing.  This is a new technology of “printing” one or more colors on the modulated surface of a coin or medal. The ink is applied to a pad which imparts that permanent ink to the metal surface. It has been utilized for applying color to both coins and medals.

Stickers.  Paper stickers printed in color are pasted onto a coin or medal. While not as permanent, nor as “medallic” as other processes, this has been used for cheaply made items. “Elvis Presley coins” were made this way.

What does color hold for the future of coins and medals?  Certainly more will made in color, and perhaps the technology can be extended to include the coins we use in everyday commerce.

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The human form – face or figure – is the most used device on coins and medals. These images were the photographs of human beings long before photography was born. The portraits found on some early coins and medals are often the only known contemporary images of some important people of history – the kings and queens, the movers and shakers of the most important events of humankind prior to the mid-eighteenth century.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt, part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans Series

Portraiture appeared on coins with the human form of Athena in 510 BC. But the first living person to have his portrait on a coin was Tissaphernes (a Persian governor, on a tetradrachm coin minted in 411 BC on the occasion of his payment to the Spartan fleet at Miletus).

Ever since these early portraits appeared artists have attempted to reveal the features of people of history, some obscure, some most prominent. Statues and paintings were created as image-recorders of the past, but not one Greek portrait painting has survived and most early statues are disfigured or have crumbled in time. Coins and medals, because of their greater capacity for survival over longer time, record the personal image more than any other surviving art medium! That’s importance!

Thus the creating of these small bas-relief portraits by engraving – or later by modeling oversize and pantographic reduction – have occupied artists activities for centuries. Realism – realistic portraiture – it is obvious, has been bas-relief artists’ dominant desire throughout history.

Portraits are the most difficult of any bas-relief form to create; in addition to a realistic image the artist must capture the “essence” or personality of the person. An engraver must create this lifelike representation by carving in steel (or the modeler in clay or plaster).

He must decide the position of the head or the bust with all the facial features and how best to present it; then he must prepare the image that reflects that person in a most reliable way.

Side-view profiles are far more popular in coin and medal portraiture because of the beneficial manner in which a profile fits the contours of a circle. Perhaps as few as fifteen percent of all portraits use a full face or a head turned slightly, so popular is the other 85 percent of all coins and medals with portrait in profile. Right facing profiles are about thirty percent more popular than left facing (the symbolism of facing right is looking ahead, progressing forward in western culture, facing left is looking backwards, ideal, say, for a historian).

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster, part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans series.

Artists have attempted to employ artificial aids, any method possible to achieve more realistic portraits. Portrait technicians have tried life masks, death masks, drawing frames and the cameograph of the 20th century. All these, however, have proved futile for preparing a more acceptable portrait.

What is far more important for a coin or medal portrait is to filter the features of the person’s image through the mind and creative expression of a talented artist. Not only must the artist make his portrait a close physical resemblance of the person, but he must also give it life. He must vivify his portrait even if his subject is no longer alive!

In contrast to the above mentioned discarded technologies, two innovations did dramatically influenced coin and medal portraiture: First was the development of the die-engraving pantograph (following its invention in 1766 and continued development right up to the 20th century). The second was the development of photography (in the early 1800s) with the first portrait made in 1839.

The die-engraving pantograph allowed medallists to create a bas-relief model – often a portrait – (in soft clay or easy-to-model plaster) in a size larger than what was needed in a die.

Cast this design into hard metal, then reduce it on a pantograph which cuts a die (or a reduction punch) to the size required. What took days of tedious labor engraving in tiny bites, smoothing the surface, and taking constant proof impressions of this hand engraved die to check the state of that die, was replaced by the artist making an easy model, then rendering this in one or more correct size dies, each in a matter of hours.

Coin and medal engraving, once the exclusive work of diesinking hand engravers, passed to sculptors, who could model designs and portraits with far greater ease in an oversized and more realistic nature. Often mints would commission sculptors just to produce more lifelike portraits that mint engravers could employ, in turn, to make dies of an attractive design.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein Commemorative Award.

Photography, that second beneficial technology, allowed artists to model from photographic prints rather than require the person to sit for a portrait where the artist sketches the sitter’s features. Ideally an artist would prefer a profile photograph with one or two prints of the head and face from several angles. Sculptor-medallist Jo Davidson preferred motion picture film to learn the likeness of the face and the traits of the person in action. He often commissioned film to be made especially for him to study when he worked on a portrait.

So important were the early photographs that in 1850 the U.S. Mint gave credit to the photographers! The Meade Brothers produced a Daguerreotype which engraver Charles Cushing Wright used to model the portrait on the Daniel Webster Medal (PE-37). Wright signed the medal on the obverse and named the MEADE BROS. DAG on the reverse.

Portraits painted in miniature – and engraved prints – rapidly became superseded by photography. But thus this new visual technique rapidly enhanced coin and medal portraiture.

Medallic Art Company’s contribution to medallic portraiture. It is not a coincidence that the first medals made by Medallic Art’s founder Henri Weil were portrait medals of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, James McNeill Whistler and Hendrik Hudson – all made 1906-08.

Medals in Medallic Art’s archives are dominated by portraits, U.S. presidents, founders and leaders of every kind of organization, famous people of past and present. These are the people their sponsors wanted to honor by the highest form of recognition. Perhaps half of all the medals made by the firm bear portraits.

It is the series of medals struck by Medallic Art, however, where medallic portraiture importance is even more evident. Here are the most notable:

  • Hall of Fame of Great Americans – 56 medals in two sizes, all bearing portraits of famous Americans by famous American artists.
  • Presidential Art’s President Series – 42 medals of now 44 presidents.
  • Presidential Art’s Statehood Series – 50 medals each bearing portrait of famous son of that state.
  • Presidential Art’s Signers Series – 56 signers of Declaration of Independence.
  • Great Men of Medicine – 50 medals each of historical portrait.
  • Apollo Space Series – 8 medals each with portraits of three astronauts.
  • New York Numismatic Club Presidents Series – 25 medals in an ongoing series.

We learn from a coin struck during the time of Cleopatra that she was not the raving beauty of an Elizabeth Taylor, or from a contemporary medal we observe the rugged sea-hardened features, the elations and disappointments in the face of Columbus. Portraiture adds personality to a name in a history book. This does, however, place a tremendous burden on the artist to document that personality, to preserve the nature – to record the lifelike characteristics – of that person. A portrait on a coin or medal preserves a permanent image frozen for centuries.

Some Portrait Terms To Know

Here are some terms used to described portraits, followed by a brief definition of some of those terms:

  • TERMS:  head, bust, bearded, full face, profile, full length, three quarter, unknown portrait.
  • POSITION: facing, turned (degree as 1/3, half or 2/3), gardant, regardant.
  • ADORNMENTS (on head): diadem (crown), laureate (wreath), headgear (identify type of hat).
  • HAIR STYLE: coiffure perfect, windblown or unkempt.
  • CLOTHING: clothed, nude, folds, flowing, uniform.
  • ART STYLE:  realistic, formal, representational, classic, action pose, character, cartoon, silhouette.
  • DUAL PORTRAITS: conjoined, accolated, jugate, bijugate,  tete-a-tete, vis-a-vis.
  • HOW BODY ENDS:  truncated, erased, couped.
  • TEXTURE: (usually smooth), textured, style rude (rough style).

Accolated.  Two or more portraits facing the same direction and joined at the neck.

Adorned.  To embellish with detail; to add ornamentation to a design, usually of a costume.

Bearded.  Facial hair on male portraits, it is as important to identify the individual as any other facial characteristic.

Bijugate.  Two overlapping portraits facing the same direction; jugate; a British term the equivalent of accolated or conjoined; if the heads face each other, vis-à-vis.

Bust.  That portrait of a person including the neck and some part of the shoulder or chest; the head down to the shoulder bone.

Clothed.  A human figure appearing on a numismatic or medallic item draped or dressed with any form of covering or clothing.

Conjoined.  Two or more figures or portraits joined together, usually overlapping, to form a single device.

Costume and Clothing.  The human figure is the most pictured object on coins and medals, hence the cloth covering the human form is of importance to the designer, the viewer, the cataloger – everyone who encounters the numismatic piece portraying a person or people.

Couped.  Cut off smoothly; said of a bust or the neck of a portrait at the place of truncation.

Diadem.  Ornamental headband or fillet originally worn by royalty but occasionally found in numismatic designs, sometimes lettered.

Draped, Drapery.  A clothed figure or bust appearing on a numismatic or medallic item; the loose hanging of cloth in folds.

Erased.  Cut off uneven or jagged, as if torn off; said of a portrait or bust at the truncation.

Full Face.  A portrait head in front view, with all or part of both ears showing in contrast to a head in profile, or turned to the right or left.

Full Figure.  A standing portrait; a person shown on a numismatic or medallic item in their entire length.

Gardant.  A side view portrait of a subject looking back over a shoulder to show face to the viewer.

Head.  The portrait of a person, featuring the face with a portion of the neck. If any part of the shoulder is present it is not a head, but a bust

Jugate.  Two or more portraits joined side-by-side and overlapping to form the device appearing on one side of a numismatic item.

Laureate.  A crowned head, or one with a wreath of laurel – laurel being symbolic of victory or award of honor.

Profile.  (1) The side view of a portrait; a face or bust facing 90° from the viewer.

Regardant.  A portrait looking back over the subject’s shoulder.

Self-Portrait.  The artist creates his own image for a medallic item, or, in rare instances, includes his image among human figures depicted on a medallic item.

Tête-à-tête.  Two portraits facing each other as if engaged in conversation. Early numismatists, particular English, called these two portraits confronted, a heraldic term.

Truncation.  The edge of relief where the design is literally cut off; said of a portrait or bust where the body design ends. The truncation is often the location of a signature or monogram.

Undraped.  Without clothing, nude, said of a human figure or bust appearing on a numismatic or medallic item.

Vis-a-vis.  Two portraits facing each other; tete-a-tete. Opposite of accolated or conjoined.

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A collector asks me how his 1935 medal was made at Medallic Art Company that year. The answer rests in the technology of the time, which was similar for the period post World War I until post World War II, from about 1920 to 1946.

Note: the vintage video “The Medalmaker” illustrates many of the steps outlined below.

How a medal starts and lead times needed.

Anyone can have the idea for a new medal. If it is an anniversary medal, the design depends upon the type of organization and who is in charge. If the new medal is a municipality, educational institution, or an organization with a lot of committees, ideally the medal idea is known at least two years in advance of the anniversary year. For a private organization run by management who can make decisions quickly, a year in advance is adequate lead time.

For an award medal, lead time can be somewhat less, in the range of six months. For all others it is about four months to obtain a fine art medal. This allows for time to select an artist whose style is acceptable to the client and for the artist to have sufficient time to create an acceptable design.

For all other medals – or for medals to be designed by an artist the medal firm selects – this advance time can be as short as six to eight weeks. I know some competitors can create a medal in less time, where they use their own factory artists but the resulting product shows it, a quickly-made mediocre design.

(I know of one instance where Medallic Art Company produced a medal in less than a week’s time, an extreme case, certainly not the rule. It was the week of the Moon Landing. An entrepreneur in Cleveland sold K-Mart on marketing a medal in all their stores. He contacted us on a Friday. Could we ship medals in less than a week?

We had open time on two die cutting machines. Press time was not a problem. If we could find a sculptor who could do a pair of models over the weekend, it could happen. We commissioned Joseph DiLorenzo, who stopped all other modeling; he worked around the clock and brought two models in Monday morning. The plasters were still wet and had to be baked in an oven to dry. But we cut dies Monday and Tuesday and had it on the press by Wednesday. We started shipping medals on Friday!)

No stock dies.

Medallic Art Company stated in all its advertising that they had no stock dies, all medals were made from custom models. An artist had to create the models from which to strike all medals. Any medal working firm could bang out stock medals. Medallic Art’s niche was the rule that all medals were created by artists. Medallic Art had a following of fine artists who could create those models. Over the years that group of medallic artists rose to over 250 at any one time.

The medal the collector is inquiring about was one that the sculptor brought to Medallic Art. This was reflective of conditions when the firm was established thirty years before. The founders, Henri and Felix Weil were sculptors’ assistants. They became a “service industry” to sculptors by providing those chores that required special equipment or special talents. The Weils had both. They could take a sculptor’s original model and make copies, enlarge or reduce, or make metal patterns for some further process, or even make molds or dies for a production of many sculptural items. Making medals was just one of those chores.

What a sculptor does.

Normally, a sculptor would be selected from his previous work. The client liked his style. A commission would be issued by Medallic Art to that sculptor for designing and modeling a pair of models. It would spell out the size model required and any special instructions. Frequently it would mention the final product, as “for a struck medal,” and the fee for the work. Design suggestions could be made to the sculptor, what the client wanted in his medal. The sculptor would sign and return a copy of the commission indicating his acceptance of the work and terms.

It was the sculptors responsibility to prepare a design in the form of sketches. He could make several sets of sketches to show the client. Once one set is approved he would proceed with the modeling.

Here is where the medal comes to life. The sketch is only the “blueprint.” The sculptor works in wax or clay. The form of modeling clay usually favored by most medallic sculptors is plastecine. It comes in several grades, for medallic models, the firmest or hardest clay is desired. Finer detail can be modeled in such a clay. (Softer clay is used for larger sculpture work.)

The artist prepares a background plate. This could be wood, plastic or plaster. It should be four or five inches larger than the size of the intended model.  It has to be firm not to distort during casting. If his design has a border he creates the border first by the use of a template or a device for modeling multiple images of a repeated element. Often this is done on both obverse and reverse background plates.

The modeler shapes the form of device and symbols by placing pellets of clay on the background plate, building up the design a little at a time, then with sculptors tools shaping the clay to the form he wants.

He adds the lettering by molding each letter. Some artists carve the letters reverse in plaster and press clay into these letter cavities. Then place the formed letter into position on the background plate. Or the artist makes tiny “ropes” of clay to place in position, then shaping these into the letter forms.

The modeler continues by adding detail to his base forms. Detail adds charm and realism to the design. He shapes these with wire tools and boasters, modeling tools. He sharpens up the clay to make crisp, sharp edges, and deepens relief where necessary (as to make finer strands of hair in a portrait).

In modeling it is important to recognize no undercuts are allowed in the model (these cannot be reproduced). Interspatial relationship of all elements is important as well a height of relief (coin models cannot have a relief higher than the border).

The modeler will then make a plaster cast of his clay or wax model. He prepares the model by coating it with a release agent, building a fence around the model (with thin medal strips higher than the model). He mixes his plaster with water until it has a soupy consistency. He places a little of this on the prepared clay surface and spreads it around, making certain it gets in every nook and cranny.

He tips the background plate and taps it to work out any air bubbles captured in the plaster. Once he is certain no bubbles exist he continues pouring in plaster to a height of about one inch above the highest relief. He has to work quickly as the plaster of Paris begins hardening immediately. It gives off heat as it hardens. Once it is cool to the touch the fence is removed, and it can be separated from the clay mold.

Working in clay and plaster gives the modeler great flexibility. It changes polarity with each casting. But the artist can carve in each or add clay relief to each.

The plaster is always subject to additional touchup. Again sharpening detail and deepening relief. Polish design and detail. And polish some more.

A positive clay model will make a negative plaster cast. Once this is touched up a positive plaster cast can be made from this negative. Same method. Coat with release agent, build a fence, pour in a little freshly mixed plaster, tip and tap to remove bubbles, pour in rest of the plaster.

How medallic patterns are made.

A positive plaster cast is usually what is brought to Medallic Art. If approved it can be made into a hub if that is required, or a negative plaster is made (to be made into a die).

The negative plaster cast is coated with bronze powder. Two wires are attached to the cast making sure they come in contact with the surface with the bronze powder. A stop off is coated on the back and edges of the plaster – all areas where no plating must take place.

The prepared ensemble of coated plaster model is immersed tank containing a prepared electrolyte solution containing ions of copper. In the tank are copper anodes which supplies the copper to be deposited on the surface of the pattern. The anodes are sacrificial, they wear away like a bar of soap, as the ions of copper leach off the anode, enter the solution, and when the current is tuned on deposit on the pattern, the cathode.

The wires hang on a bus bar above the tank. The bus bar is connected to a rectifier. When the current is turned on, alternating current is converted to direct current at the rectifier, directed to the bars on which the anodes are hung. Thus the current enters the electrolyte solution, deposits on the cathode, up the wires to the bus bar and back to the rectifier.  Circuit completed.

The process is allowed to continue for hours until a sufficient amount of metal is deposited. A 1/16-inch thickness occurs in two to three day’s time, around the clock.

The ensemble is removed. The electrolytic cast – now called a galvano is separated from the pattern, by a screwdriver inserted between the two or compressed air blow in at some point of separation.

The galvano has reproduced the plaster model down to the width of a micron. Medal makers say, “if it is in the model, it is in the medal.” The fidelity of this electrogalvanic process is one reason for that statement.

[This is the technique that was in use in 1935. It was not replaced until the 1960s when an epoxy – developed during World War II – became widely available and was used to replace the galvano. An epoxy cast was made from the sculptor’s model in hours instead of days.]

How dies are made.

From that galvano a die can be made. The galvano is mounted in a die-cutting pantograph. A stylus is placed to trace over its surface as the galvano is rotated. That movement is carried by a bar to a second axis where a blank steel die is housed. A cutting point, guided by the movement of the bar mills out tiny bits of surface metal.

The die rotates at the same speed as the galvano pattern in synchronous motion. The distance between the two chariots determines the ratio of reduction. As the stylus travels inward at the pattern, the cutting point travels inward cutting into the die a proportional depth.

Ideally two or three passes are require to capture all the detail from the galvano into the die. A finer tracing point and a finer cutting point is used for successive passes.

Separate dies are made from separate galvanos. At this stage the dies are proved. The die is pressed into soft metal, lead or tin. Or the dies can be mounted in a press and a two-sided medal can be struck in lead.

How medals are struck.

Two dies are setup in a press. The diameter and thickness determine the type of press. Medals of say 3½-inch or more require 1,000-ton press capacity or more (measured in tons per square inch).

Blanks are cut out separately on separate presses much like a cookie cutter. The blanks are fed by hand in the setup press one at a time. The press is actuated and delivers its blow. Only a portion of the design emerges in that first blow.

The metal has become work hardened. It must be relieved by heat treating. Then the partially struck metal goes back on the press for another blow. This continues, alternating between striking and heat treating, until the full relief is fully struck up.

The pressman looks at the high points of the design and the design near the edges. Infrequently the metal flows into a die cavity, then back out again. The pressman must know the remedy to alleviate this condition.

Most art medals are struck in open face dies – without collars. This causes flash, an excess amount of metal to flow out between the dies from the edge. It’s the only place for it to go. The flash is removed by turning the medals on lathes.  This leaves the minute parallel ridges on the edge.

How a medal is finished.

The raw medal as it comes from the pressroom is a bright hue. A first step in the finishing department is a sandblasting to break up that smooth surface. Originally fine grains of sand were use, replaced ultimately by even finer grains of glass beads.

The medal is doused for seconds in a chemical to darken its entire surface. Then it is relieved with a slury mixture of pumice and water and buffed under a wet wheel. This gives it a two-toned, highlighted, oxidized and relieved finish, also called French finish since the French invented it.

After drying the medal is coated with a light clear lacquer on both sides for protection.

What starts with an artists’ model ends up with a metal work of art. What’s in the model is in the medal. It will last forever!

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