Historical and Commemorative Medals
Collection of Benjamin Weiss

 

definitions and NOTES

 

definitions

Medal: A medal, or more specifically a commemorative medal, is generally  a round metallic object which is manufactured to commemorate some person, thing, or event of historical interest and importance. Unlike coins, a medal has no intrinsic monetary value; its worth is dependent upon its artistic quality, historical importance, age, rarity, condition, size, and metallic composition.  The obverse of the medal generally depicts an image of a person or persons.  The reverse often contains one or more devices, which are use to explain or otherwise enlarge upon the characteristics of the person or subject of the medal.  These devices are generally allegorical images and/or inscriptions and require a degree of understanding of Greek and Roman history and myths, and Biblical stories in order to discern their allusions.

Obv: Obverse, the face or 'heads' side of the medal.
Rev: Reverse, the reverse or 'tails' side of the medal.

Exergue:  An area on the lower portion of many medals beneath a horizontal line that separates it from the principal design of the medal and which usually contains lettering or symbols related to the subject of the medal.

INSCRIPTIONS: Inscriptions are usually found around the portrait or devices of the medal or may also be in the exergue.  Most often the inscriptions are in Latin; otherwise they are generally written in the language of the country from which the medal originates. Inscriptions on the medals in this site are shown as BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS.

TRANSLATIONS: Translations into English of foreign inscriptions are show in parentheses following the foreign inscriptions on the medals.  These translations can be found along with the enlarged images of the medals and their historical descriptions.  A degree of liberty is sometimes taken in these translations in order to provide a sense of their meaning.

 

GRADING MEDALS
The condition of historical and commemorative medals, like that of other numismatic items such as coins, is extremely important to most collectors. Unfortunately, although the terms used to describe their condition, i.e. their grade, have been universally accepted, the meaning of these terms varies somewhat with the person doing the grading, and in some cases with the native country of the grader. For example, in my experience a medal graded as extremely fine by most American dealers, is similar to one graded as good very fine by someone using British criteria. The most common terms used are listed below in order of decreasing quality, with their German, French, Italian and Dutch equivalents, shown in parentheses.

As Struck , As Issued or Proof (Polierte Platte; Flan bruni; Fondo specchio; ?)
These terms are self explanatory and describe medals which have been scarcely handled at all.

Mint state or Uncirculated (Stempelglanz; Fleur de coin; Fior di conio; F.D.C.)
These medals would have evidence of just the slightest handling.

EF or Extremely Fine (Vorzuglich; Superbe; Splendido; Prachtig)
Medals in this grade have been handled but do not show any obvious signs of wear. Apart from a few minor scratches, their condition appears to be more or less as it was when they were made.

VF or Very Fine ( Sehr schon; Tres beau; Bellissimo; Zeer fraai)
Medals in this grade would still be acceptable to a collector. The wear on the medals would be limited to the high spots and the details of the rest of the medal would all be clear.

F or Fine (Schon; Beau; Molto bello; Fraai)
Noticeable signs of wear would be evident over the entire surface of these medals. On the high spots, fine details such as hair, lace etc. might be entirely worn away.

Sometimes the terms "about" or "nearly" (fast; presque; quasi; Bijna/vrijwel) are used to show that the condition of a medal is almost up to the next fixed grade but not quite. So, for example, a medal might be described as being "nearly extremely fine" (fast Vorzuglich).
 

Toning is generally believed to improve the quality of a medal and so a toned medal should be described as such. This is why medals should never be cleaned, only gently washed with a mild detergent if absolutely necessary.  Edge knocks, discoloration, corrosion, dents, scratches and any other disfigurements should all be mentioned. Also, it should be pointed out if a medal is pierced or if the piercing has been plugged.

 

METALLIC CONTENT OF MEDALS
Medals can be made of various metals, including copper, silver, gold and lead.  Many are made of copper alloys, the most common being:
Bronze
, an alloy of copper and tin, with very low levels of zinc;
Brass
, an alloy of copper and zinc, with very low levels of tin; and
Gunmetal, an alloy of copper with both tin and zinc. 

The addition of  other metals to copper changes its properties, making the resulting alloys better or worse depending on whether the medals are to be cast or struck.  Hook (see below) points out that adding tin to copper results in an alloy that is harder than either copper or brass, although too much tin makes the medal more brittle.  Tin-copper alloys (bronze) and zinc-copper alloys (brass) have lower melting points than pure copper, making them easier to cast.  Cast medals also often contain a greater percentage of lead than do struck medals as lead improves their fluidity, thereby allowing them to be cast in greater detail.  However, the presence of lead is a disadvantage when the medal is struck.

A more detailed discussion of this issue, based on analyses of more than one hundred copper-based medals, using x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, can be found in an article by D. R. Hook, published in Jones Vol. 2,  p. 305 (see Jones, Vol. 2, in the BIBLIOGRAPHY).  In this study Hook found variable amounts of several other metals in these tin- and zinc-copper alloys, including antimony, arsenic, bismuth, iron, nickel, lead and silver.

Further descriptions of the wide variety of metals used to make medals can be found in the detailed article by Tony Clayton entitled  Metals Used in Coins and Medals.  The very interesting article by Ira Rezak adds other twists to this subject as he enumerates several materials, not metallic in origin, that have been used to make medals.

USE OF THE TERM BRONZE
The term Bronze, when used to describe the composition of the medals in this web site, is applied very loosely.  It should be considered to be synonymous with the numismatic description AE.  As such, it is meant to imply that the medal is either pure copper or, more commonly, is a copper alloy, composed primarily of copper with varying amount of tin and/or zinc and sometimes a small amount of arsenic or lead. 

USE OF THE TERM WHITE METAL
The term White Metal, according to Brown’s British Historical Medals, is: "a base alloy containing a high proportion of tin or pewter." Another definition states it is: "a name given to a range of alloys usually containing antimony alloyed with tin, copper or lead to produce a white silvery metal used in the manufacture of medallions."

 

CLICHES
Numismatic clichés are uniface impressions made from engraved dies. One sort is made by the engraver when he is carving a die. Since he is working on a negative image, he may want to see how the positive image will look. To do this he makes a puddle of molten tin or lead on his workbench and presses the unfinished die into it. In order to properly proportion human bodies, the die engravers customarily engraved nude figures into the die, then dug deeper to dress them.

The French kings did not allow the private striking of medals, so medal engravers who wanted to sell copies of their work began producing another sort of cliché. Using a machine called a clichoir they forced a soft medal (usually lead) into their completed dies, creating uniface medallions. These clichés were usually colored to imitate bronze.

The famous engraver Andrieu had a shop in Paris where clichés from his dies were sold. The individual impressions which were sold were mounted in more or less elaborate frames, but there were also sets made up of several clichés, mounted in cases, most of which have the outward appearance of being books. (Taken from: www.fortiter.napoleonicmedals.org).

Particularly interesting examples of clichés, some 140 mm in diameter, can be found under Napoleonic Medals on this web site.

Electrotypes: In general terms, electrotyping is an electrochemical multiplication process used to duplicate relief and intaglio engravings by depositing metallic salts onto the surface of a mold by means of electrolysis. To make medal electrotypes, which may be viewed as an electrical equivalent of metal casting (see below), a wax mold is prepared and treated with powdered graphite (the graphite serves as a lubricant and conductor of electricity). Copper conductor pegs are inserted into the back of the wax impression and the wax mold is immersed into an electrolytic acid solution (usually of copper sulfate and sulfuric acid), containing a sheet of copper. Using the opposite poles of a battery, an electric current is then passed between the wax mold and copper sheet, causing the copper to dissolve and be deposited onto the wax mold. After the resulting thin copper impression or shell is removed from the wax mold, it is often filled with a lead alloy to strengthen it. A reverse of the medal may be made in a similar fashion and the obverse and reverse joined. Such electrotyped medals can usually be discerned by their having a thin line around their edge where the two halves had been joined. (Taken, in part, from Burt, D.J. Electrotype Medallions, The Medal 5, 48-49, 1984; and from Eimer, C., British Commemorative Medals and their values.)
An example of an electrotype is the magnificent Battle of Waterloo by Benedetto Pistrucci.

See also LINK to Dick Johnson on Electrotypes (in E-Sylum)

 

Glossary of Sizes of "Medals"

What follows is a compilation of the opinions of various authorities in the field regarding the terminology and sizes of materials included under the general heading of ‘medals’. As there is no absolute agreement as to the specific measurements, I am sure there are those who would disagree as to the particular values listed. I provide these merely as a guide.

Medalet: a small, usually round medal, usually less than 25 mm in diameter.

Medallion: a large, usually round medal, over 80 mm in diameter, but not larger than 300 mm. It is usually two-sided. This term is often used in Europe.

Circular Relief: A round piece larger than 300 mm in diameter. It is usually one-sided.

Medal: Generally round between 26 and 80 mm in diameter.

Plaque: A square, rectangular or oblong piece, usually one-sided and more than 200 mm at its longer dimension.

Plaquette: A square, rectangular or oblong piece, less than 200 mm in its longer dimension. It is sometimes two-sided but is usually one-sided.

Modern usage for measuring the size of medals and plaques employs the metric system* (mm for medals or sometimes cm for plaques:10 mm equals 1 cm). In older literature the English system** (inches) was used. Sometimes, as in Betts, the units are given in 1/16 of an inch; thus a size 43 in Betts equals 2.69 inches or 68 mm.  The standard work of Hawkins, Frank and Grueber (Medallic Illustrations...), which covers English medals through George II, uses inches as their measurements.  However, a continuation of this history from George III to the present by Laurence Brown, published more recently, uses the metric system for medals exclusively, as does every other current writer and cataloger in every country that I am aware of (thankfully). As a matter of fact, Brown and others sometimes don’t even state the unit of measurement, as it is taken for granted they mean mm. Most of the books on medals printed in England up until the 20th century still used inches. Some books which show medal engravings of actual size do not mention the size at all.

Conversions: Collectors are encouraged to use the metric system exclusively. For those who insist on using the outdated and cumbersome English system: 1 inch = 25.4 mm.

*The metric system is an international decimalized system of measurement. France was first to adopt it in 1799 and it is now the basic system of measurement used in almost every country in the world; the United States being the only industrialized country yet to adopt the International System of Units as its predominant system of measurement. (From Wikipedia).

**English units are the historical units of measurement in medieval England which evolved as a combination of the Anglo-Saxon and Roman systems of units. They were redefined in England in 1824 by a Weights and Measures Act, which retained many but not all of the unit names with slightly different values, and again in the 1970s by the International System of Units as a subset of the metric system. In modern UK usage, the term is considered ambiguous, as it could refer either to the imperial system used in the UK, or to the US customary system of unit. The common term used in the UK for the non-metric system is imperial units or imperial measurements, since they were used as a standard throughout the British Empire and the Commonwealth. (From Wikipedia)

 

Distinction Between a Token and a Medal

The distinction between a medal and a token is also somewhat controversial, though it is generally agreed that, unlike medals, tokens are often, thought not exclusively, used as supplements to legal tender coinage. Types of tokens vary considerably and include, among many others, those used as fare for streetcars, buses, and turnstile admittance . They were issued from early times when coins supplies were in short supply. Popular collecting areas include those used during the Hard Times and Civil War eras. Tokens have also been widely employed as advertisements. As a general rule they are made of base metals and, in the opinion of the author, while tokens are sometimes of great historical interest, they do not match the artistic quality of most historical and commemorative medals.

 

TECHNIQUES FOR MAKING MEDALS

There are three general techniques used to make medals: REPOUSSÉ, STRIKING and CASTING.


REPOUSSÉ: This method is the one least frequently employed, although it was used quite widely in the Netherlands during the 17th century. Here the medal is made by hammering a thin shell of a metal blank into a hollow die on which the artist has made a design. The obverse and reverse of the medals, which are made separately, are then soldered together, the resulting medal being hollow.
Embossing produces much the same effect but the process is reversed. Here the design is formed by pressing down the background, leaving the design in relief.

An example of a medal made by this process is the medal of Oliver Cromwell and Masaniello by the Dutch medallist O. Müller.

STRIKING: This is the technique that is most widely used to make medals and coins. In this case, the engraving is made in relief on untempered steel, resulting in what is called a puncheon. The engraver may make more than one puncheon for each medal: a principal puncheon of the main figure of the design and sometimes subsidiary puncheons, also in relief, for letters, beading around the edge, and other subsidiary features. After engraving, the puncheons would be tempered and then each in turn would be impressed upon the surface of a block of untempered steel which was to become the die or matrix. This would afterwards be tooled and touched-up by hand. Often a trial strike in a soft metal such a lead is used to examine the quality of the engraving. Once the artist is satisfied, the dies are hardened by tempering, and flans of less base metals, such as gold, silver or bronze, are used to make the finished medal.

To make the finished medal, metal blanks or flans are heated to soften them and are pressed into the dies. Originally this was done by striking the flan with a hammer. Later a screw press was employed, and still later modern presses were employed to press the softened flan onto the dies.
 

In the case of older medals, the dies were used directly to make the medals. If the die wore out, the puncheons would have to be assembled again to make a new one. If tooling was used, the resulting medal would be slightly different from the last. In the modern mint the matrix is used to make additional punches, which are, in turn, used to make the dies. Nowadays, therefore, the matrix is the die used for making dies. (From, Medals for a Monarch, by John Porteous)

As an alternative to first making a puncheon in relief and then making the die from the puncheon, the design is engraved or incised directly onto metallic dies; in this case, the engraving is termed incuse or intaglio. The die is then tempered and the medal struck as described above.

CASTING: Casting is generally considered to be the technique that has produced the finest in medallic art. Almost all of the great medals of the Renaissance period were made by casting.
In this case a model is engraved in relief, usually in wax on a slate disk. The wax model is then pressed into fine, moist sand. The wax model is them removed and molten metal is poured into the resulting matrix. A medallion with two sides would be made by the use of a casting jar, a two-part hollow frame. Moistened sand is placed on one side and sprinkled with powdered bone or some other parting powder. The other half of the jar is filled with sand, powdered, and then pressed against the half containing the model. When the two sides of the jar are parted and the model removed, an impression is left. After tracing a few gas escape channels in the sand, the two sides of the jar are placed together and molten metal is poured onto it. After cooling, the jar is opened and the medal is removed. At this point some finishing touches or details may be engraved directly onto the medal using a burin or another sharp tool, a process termed "chasing". Generally, chased medals are considered to be of lesser value as it is assumed that the artist wasn't satisfied with the product as originally made, although one may just as easily conclude that an artist's finishing touches on a work of art improves its quality. This final cast and chased medal may then be used as a model for further castings. However, whenever a medal is recast in this way the resulting product often has somewhat less definition than the first cast and is always smaller in diameter since metallic objects shrink when cooled. Each time a medal has been recast from medals which have themselves been recast the resulting product not only has still less definition but is also of still smaller diameter.

An fine example of a cast medal is that of Cardinal Mazarin.

 

THE RENAISSANCE OF THE CAST MEDAL IN NINETEENTH CENTURY FRANCE
by David and Constance Yates, New York, 1997 (reproduced with permission)

The medal as we know it today had its origins in the Italian Renaissance with the circular bronze commemorative portraits produced by Pisanello (c.1395-1455) during the mid-fifteenth century. Medals are often viewed in a numismatic context because they share certain obvious characteristics with coins. Both are round, made of metal, and exhibit a portrait on the front (obverse) and an allegorical or narrative scene relating to that portrait on the back (reverse). In general, coins are produced in great numbers by a central political authority and are meant to circulate socially as a medium of exchange. Medals, however, have no intrinsic value. They are produced for many purposes: to celebrate famous people, to mark important social or political events, or to memorialize personal milestones, such as births, marriages and deaths. Until the seventeenth century, medals were often used as articles of personal adornment, attached to clothing or worn around the neck. As intimate sculpture in a double-sided relief format, medals have always been something to hold and turn in the hand--personal objects for aesthetic and intellectual contemplation.

A medal can either be struck or cast--techniques developed in the classical world and perfected during the Italian Renaissance. The process of striking consists first of the preparation of the desired images on two dies followed by the impression by force of these dies onto a prepared metal blank. In antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages this force was provided by the simple act of hammering. The invention of the screw press in early sixteenth century Italy enabled medals to be struck with greater speed and control. The result is an object sharply and precisely defined, but often rather dry and lacking in sculptural elegance. Not surprisingly, striking was, and is today, the method utilized for mass production of both coins and medals. Casting requires the preparation of two original uniface models--the obverse and reverse--in wax, plaster, or less commonly, wood or stone. These models are utilized to create negative molds in a soft material such as terracotta or gesso. Once the molds have dried, they are fitted together leaving channels into which the molten metal is poured. After cooling, the medal in its raw state is removed from the mold. At this stage a careful hand finishing is required which includes filing, chasing, and often the application of chemically based patinations and thin coats of lacquer. The final result is a unique work of art, with examples of the same medal exhibiting subtle variations in color and surface detail.

The earliest medals in sixteenth century France were produced by goldsmiths working in a style which combined the native Gothic heraldic tradition with an obvious awareness of Italian Renaissance portraiture. From the outset, the production of medals in France was highly dependent on the patronage of the crown. This may be viewed in comparison to the early history of the medal in Italy, where artists relied more on the commands of private patrons, resulting in the possibility of greater artistic freedom. The invitations extended by François I (1494-1547) to Italian artists and craftsmen, among them Benvenuto Cellini and the aged Leonardo, to help embellish his court at Fontainebleau demonstrate the lure that Italian aesthetic innovation had in France.

In 1572 during the reign of Charles IX, Germain Pilon (c. 1525-1590), the greatest sculptor of the French Renaissance was named to the newly created post of Controleur général des effigies. Pilon, who created some of the most beautiful cast medallic portraits of this period, was given the responsibility for producing the models from which coins and officially commissioned medals were struck. This beginning of centralized control over the striking of coins and medals was further reinforced when, during the reign of Henri IV, Guillaume Dupré (c. 1576-1643) was appointed Controleur des poinçons et effigies pour les monnaies and allowed to establish his foundry and presses under Royal protection in the Gallery of the Louvre. Dupré created some sixty cast medals during his career, aesthetically comparable to the finest works of the Italian Renaissance and technically unparalleled. It is significant to note that Dupré produced the last important corpus of cast medals in France until the nineteenth century. While Dupré elevated the status of the French medal, it was Jean Warin (1596-1672) who transformed this art form into one devoted almost entirely to the glory of the state. Warin, named controleur général in 1647, had accumulated by mid-century sufficient political authority to effectively monopolize the striking of coins and medals at the French mint. In 1663 Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the secretary of state for Louis XIV, formed the Académies des inscriptions et belles lettres to impose centralized control over the arts as a way of increasing the power of government. Under Warin's influence, the concerns of the Academy rapidly evolved into the supervision and production of the The Medallic Histories of Louis XIV; that is, to the creation of what was, in effect, medallic propaganda celebrating the glories of the reign of Louis XIV and the superiority of French culture and technology. This process was so strictly controlled that medallists lost the right to execute their own designs and instead, were reduced to copying Academy-approved drawings produced by artists, such as Antoine Coypel and Sebastian LeClerc. The Medallic Histories of Louis XIV was responsible for eighty-five separate obverse portraits of the Sun King and some three hundred allegorical reverses celebrating the achievements of his reign.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, French medals had been exported throughout Europe and were enormously influential. These precisely struck images were not only extremely effective in promoting the glories of the French state, but also provided artistic models which were appropriated and altered for local consumption from Portugal to Russia. As Mark Jones has pointed out, the great transformation which Warin set in motion at the end of the seventeenth century changed the very meaning of the medal "both to those who made them and those who received them." This evolution from artist cast and finished celebrations of the individual to mechanically struck objects of political and cultural propaganda remained the norm in France until the Revolution of 1789 brought an end to the ancien régime.
 

With the Revolution came new artistic possibilities. Napoleon viewed the continuation of the state controlled medal as important, even to the extent of having designs sent from Paris for his approval during foreign campaigns. Vivant Dominique, Baron Denon, called Vivant Denon (1747-1825) was named Directeur général des musées français in 1804, and, as Bonaparte's advisor on all artistic affairs, was responsible for including medallists in the Prix de Rome competition. The medal thus officially took its place alongside painting, sculpture and architecture, occupying two seats at the French Academy in Rome. Denon, undoubtedly influenced by the earlier example of Colbert, supervised a comprehensive medallic production of Napoleon and the Empire period which was rigidly neoclassical in style. Although artistic freedom became a possibility as a result of the Revolution, not all artists chose to break with the style of the ancien régime. Indeed, the artistic vocabulary of most official medallic commissions remained neoclassical until just after the reign of Napoleon III. Artists inspired by the creative explosion of the Romantic movement during the 1820's and 30's, however, began searching for new modes of expression. This search led to the Art Nouveau style of medallic art and the great French artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably, Pierre-Jean David d'Angers (1788-1856), Hubert Ponscarme (1827-1903), Louis-Oscar Roty (1846-1911), Jules Clement Chaplain (1839-1909), and Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909), sculptors and medallists who further exemplified the artistic achievements of the French medallic renaissance. (taken from www.dcyates.com/medals.asp).

 

LINK to The Renaissance of the Cast Medal in 19th Century France by David and Constance Yates (from ANSmagazine.com)

 

COMMENTARY ON CAST MEDALS
Eric S. McCready, who catalogued the Vernon Hall collection of European cast medals for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comments on the terminology used in discussing cast medals as follows: "Since there is, as yet, no such thing as dating a medal by scientific means as there is for certain other old objects, the connoisseur must rely on other factors. First, he must face up to the fact that there is no such thing as an original cast medal. The original is the wax model which has, with very few exceptions, long since perished. When a museum or a dealer calls a medal an 'original,' it simply means that someone thinks that it is directly from the impression made by the wax model in the sand. 'Original' has been and will continue to be used in this sense and there is no reason to object to it if one mentally translates it into 'of the first casting.' In this sense 'original' is a useful term since it tells us that the medal was made at a certain point in the artist's life. The terms 'old cast,' 'very old cast,' and 'contemporary cast' are used more or less interchangeably to mean a cast made close to the time when the medal first appeared."

 

DATING FRENCH MEDALS BY EDGE-MARKINGS
When the Paris Mint was restructured in 1832, a new policy was instituted which involved the application of edge-marks on medals.  At that time the edge of the metal was imprinted with the image of an ancient lamp. This poinçon was used until 1841, at which time it was decided that the punch would be changed to the personal emblem of the mint director.  The name of the metal was now added. At various times thereafter the edge markings were changed as follows: 

Summary of French Mint Marks
Antique lamp
- Used on gold and silver medals from March 30, 1832 to October 21, 1841.
Anchor and the letter C interlaced- Used on all medals in all metals from October 22, 1841 to September 25, 1842.
Prow of a galley- Used from September 26, 1842 to June 12, 1845.
Pointing hand- Used from June 23, 1845 to October 31, 1860.
Bee- Used from November 1, 1860 to December 31, 1879.
Cornucopia- Used from January 1, 1880.
Beginning in the early 1840's  the name of the metal was also stamped on the edge;  in1840, gold and silver medals were stamped ARGENT on the edge, and in 1843, bronze medals were stamped CUIVRE on the edge.  In 1880, BRONZE  was substituted for CUIVRE.
At some time after 1950 it was decided to add the year in which the medal was struck. These medals were punched along the edge with a cornucopia, the name of the particular metal used, and the year in Arabic numerals.

The symbols used are shown below.

 

      Lamp

   Anchor

  Ship Prow

     Hand

         Bee

Cornucopia

 


The punches were made in several sizes, some smaller ones having letters 0.75 millimeters high. In many cases the marks were poorly struck, but usually the outlines are sufficiently distinct that the time of striking can be determined. These edge marks do not indicate that a given medal was struck from copied dies rather than original ones; all they tell is the approximate date of the striking and that the mint owned the dies.
Determining the date of medals struck before 1832 is more difficult.  One must carefully observe the color of the metal, its patina,  and the quality of the strike.  (Taken, in part, from: fortiter.napoleonicmedals.org).
Jean Belaubre wrote an extensive article which contains much information about the post-Napoleon production of Napoleonic medals at the Paris mint. (Belaubre)

 

DENSITIES OF METALS
Copper- 8.95
Silver- 10.5
Gold- 19.3


For more general information on Medal Collecting see article by D. Wayne Johnson.

BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME PAGE

Copyright © 2003-2014 Benjamin Weiss
All Rights Reserved