By Mark Benvenuto

For many of us, numismatics is all about filling a specific hole in a series of U.S. coinage. The hunt for an elusive piece, possibly in an even more elusive grade, can be fun and all-consuming. It may come as a surprise then to find that there are some other rather amazing areas within our hobby that are worth some serious study, and that are worth exploring. Collecting art medals is one such field.

Last July, the American Medallic Sculpture Association and the National Sculpture Society co-sponsored a two-day long symposium on medals at the Brookgreen Sculpture Gardens, just south of Myrtle Beach, S.C. There they gathered a group of established artists, as well as authors and
the Brookgreen curators, to spread the word and the techniques of how art medals are produced.

For those collectors who have never taken a gander at art medals, a brief explanation might be worthwhile as to how and why these differ from other medals. Properly, what we refer to as medals when we think of military ability are often called orders, or even decorations. Whether it is the lowly Good Conduct Medal, or the revered Medal of Honor, these are orders given by the United States of America. The Victoria Cross, the Croix de Guerre, or the Iron Cross are all examples of orders from European countries. Even the Eagle Scout medal is properly an order, one that can be awarded only by the Boy Scouts of America.

Similarly, medals are often given to individuals or organizations for great deeds or accomplishments. Examples most of us are familiar with include: the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, or the Olympic gold medal. Not many of us ever expect to win one of these – and that is precisely why they are so highly valued. But there have been countless medals produced and either awarded or sold in the past. Even those of us who are steadfast adherents of one coin denomination or series cannot have been blind to dealer or show offerings of medals from, for instance, American Numismatic Association conventions. They are always there, and quite often very attractive.

But when it comes to art medals, well, here is where form and function meet. The art medal is created simply because it is a work of art and is beautiful. The theme or themes are as varied as the artist wishes them to be. Certainly, the artist can also be a person who is commissioned to create medals for organizations, even governments, to honor a specific individual or an achievement. But the same artist can create medals simply for their form and beauty.

In the case of the summer symposium, it was accomplished sculptor and medalist Eugene Daub who gave one of the opening welcomes at Brookgreen, thanking everyone for attending. As well, Brookgreen Sculpture Garden curator Robin Salmon welcomed participants to the event, and discussed the relationship between medallic art and sculpture as a broader art form. Her history of Brookgreen Gardens was fascinating.

One of the speakers at the symposium was accomplished author Don Scarinci, who was able to present and discuss the history of the art medal as an art form. Scarinci delved into the origins of the medal, several hundred years ago, and pointed out how they came from the older tradition of kings and noblemen giving medals for service, accomplishments, or as part of political allegiances.

But Scarinci also touched on one aspect of art medals that can at times confuse collectors today: How does a person start such a collection, how do they build one, and how much should such medals cost? After all, there are few monthly listings or price sheets for medals. There are seldom even catalogs explaining the value, rarity, and prices of any wide variety of medals. Thus, the answer to how to collect becomes: Collect whatever way you see fit. Collect by artist. Collect by theme. Find a collecting thread and follow it. As to the cost? Well, it’s always smart not to spend more than you can afford to tie up. Numerous medals are available for less than $200. And many of us would pay that for a single, attractive coin needed to fill out a series.

Noted sculptor Jim Licaretz fascinated those in attendance by demonstrating 3-D modeling for medals using a computer, showing how the computer can be used to create the full design. Licaretz noted that the U.S. Mint currently uses such software when the call comes from Congress for certain medal designs.

Equally as interesting, he noted that this particular software was used by surgeons, and gave an example of how a portion of a patient’s skull had been modeled, after an accidental head injury, to create a reproduction for replacement of the damaged portion. Many avid collectors have noted connections between coin collecting and a host of other arts and sciences, but reconstructive surgery? It’s amazing to see a link like this.

A real learning experience for those who attended the Brookgreen symposium was Daub sharing his knowledge of carving in plaster. To watch Daub work in the medium, to see the first step in getting to a finished medal, was truly amazing. In addition, Daub had brought several examples of plasters and other designs he had created, all of which had eventually been produced as medals for one client organization or another.

Now, the surface of a coin is tremendously important to most collectors and, indeed, such eye appeal oftentimes determines the value of the piece. But those of us who are strict coin collectors tend to want clean surfaces only, with the possible exception of those who look for toned coins with pleasing looks. At the Brookgreen symposium, accomplished artist Heidi Wastweet gave an eye-opening demonstration of how various patinas are applied to a surface, since not all art medals are designed to have to have a raw metal surface and look. It was very interesting to se what starts out as art turn into some serious science, as the various chemical processes that patinate a medal are applied to the surface.

The afternoon of the second day of the symposium was a mixture of Licaretz’s demonstration on how to created medals and plaques using a pressurized chamber, and a freewheeling discussion of how various resins can be used to create negatives of various sizes from a positive image that will ultimately become a medal. It is a rare and fun experience to be present when a number of people, all of whom have created medals for decades, and all of whom have honed their techniques over all that time, get together and swap ideas. The creative process that many of us see only as a finished coin or medal design is seen in such a situation in full swing. It’s really rather breathtaking.

The final presentation of the second day was Mashiko’s lecture how word has been spread concerning the medal as an art form, certainly over the last 10 years. Mashiko related how the fine arts community has grown to understand medallic art, and pointed out that wider exposure is the key to more people in the arts and numismatic communities enjoying these amazing small sculptures. She has been a tireless advocate for the art medal for decades and hoped that others of us who were present could help in spreading the word and the fun of medals.

There is nothing wrong, and plenty right, with patiently building a collection of one series or another of United States or foreign coins. But if you want to look at the hobby from another point of view, if you want to take a fresh approach to the artistry that goes into the production of our coinage, perhaps looking at art medals is a tack worth taking. These can be incredibly beautiful pieces, each of which has its own history, and all of which have been close to their creators’ hearts.

In addition, the fact that their prices haven’t gone rocketing up along with the price of silver and gold in the last few years makes collecting medals an inexpensive endeavor. Collecting by artist, by subject, or by any other means you wish also gives any new medal enthusiast plenty of freedom to enjoy this newfound aspect of our hobby.