Archivist’s News (Summer 2007)

by Joseph Ciccone

The ANS and the Paris Exposition of 1900

In 1900, Paris hosted one of the most successful world expositions ever (Fig. 1). More than fifty million people attended the Exposition universelle et internationale de Paris, 1900, as it was officially known, which ran from April 14 through November 12. At a cost of almost 120 million francs, the exposition was also one of the most expensive.

Fig. 1. Forrestry [sic] Building and the globe from Point Passay, Paris Exposition, 1900. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-123456)

The scope of the Paris Exposition of 1900 (as the event is more commonly known) was immense: forty-three countries participated, mounting more than 83,000 exhibits. In addition to the exhibitions, the Exposition hosted meetings by numerous groups with common international interests. These congresses discussed and debated such diverse topics as publishing, copyrights, photography, public health, and international postal regulations. One congress also dealt with numismatic issues, making it the second international numismatic congress ever, the first being one held in Brussels in 1891. The Exposition also hosted a “motley competition in sports” now commonly considered the second modern Olympiad.

Planning for the Paris Exposition of 1900 had begun almost seven years earlier in 1893, in part due to a rumor that the German government was planning to host a similar event in 1900. Discussions regarding the participation of the ANS began only in February 1899, when George Kunz (Fig. 2) suggested that the ANS provide an exhibit. Kunz, of course, was the wunderkind of Tiffany & Co., having served as that jeweler’s gem expert since he was twenty-three years old, and he had been designated an honorary special agent to the U.S. Commissioner General for the Exposition. Kunz had also been a member of the ANS since 1893 and had held the post of corresponding secretary in 1899.

Fig. 2. George F. Kunz, undated. (Copyright Tiffany & Co. Archives 2007)

The Society’s Executive Committee agreed with Kunz’s proposal and appointed ANS First Vice President Henry Russell Drowne (Fig. 3) to lead an organizing committee. Also on the committee were Edward Groh, the Society’s curator, and Bauman Belden, its recording secretary. Eventually, Andrew Zabriskie, the Society’s president, and Herbert Valentine, its librarian, also participated.

Fig. 3. Henry Russell Drowne, undated. (ANS Archives)

Despite their initial decision, the Executive Committee took no further action until November 1899, partially because of concerns over whether the ANS could afford to finance such a display. However, in November the Executive Committee reemphasized the Society’s commitment to producing a display for the exposition. In December, they decided that the display should consist of American colonial coins, medals relating to U.S. history, medals issued by the ANS, decorations and insignia of “American Military and Patriotic Societies,” copies of the Society’s proceedings, and plates of the Society’s medals. Also at the meeting, the Executive Committee appointed Kunz as the ANS’s official representative to the Exposition, along with J. Sanford Saltus and Augustus St. Gaudens. Eventually, another renowned ANS member, Victor D. Brenner, would also serve as an official representative. Kunz was also appointed the Society’s official delegate to the International Numismatic Congress, which was scheduled to be held that summer in Paris.

Preparations for the Society’s exhibit began in earnest in January 1900. At that time, the planning committee decided to purchase an exhibition case in the United States and ship it to France in time for the Exposition’s April opening. By the end of the month, President Zabriskie obtained from a New York City merchant a “beautiful glass case” measuring six feet high by five feet long, in which the Society could house its display. The case cost $160—about $4,000 in today’s dollars. After purchasing the case, Zabriskie advised Drowne of his desire that the ANS “have our exhibition [in New York City] about March 1st, and ship soon after to Paris.”

While Zabriskie was acquiring the case, Groh and Drowne were compiling specimens for inclusion in the display. Groh focused on gathering the coins and medals from the Society’s cabinet; Drowne began soliciting orders and decorations from outside the ANS, as the ANS had not yet begun its own collection of orders and decorations.

There was some initial concern about whether the Society had the materials to mount an adequate display, with Drowne opining to Belden, “We shall make a very poor exhibit of American Coins unless we can get some one who has a good collection to help us out with some decent specimens of the earlier dates. We do not need many pieces but we should have good ones. Who can help us?” In the end, “nearly all the coins and medals” were from the Society’s own cabinet, according to the planning committee’s final report. Coins from the Society’s collection included American colonial coins, American cents from 1783 through 1795, U.S. Civil War tokens, Confederate coins, Mormon coins, and gold coins of California, Oregon, and North Carolina. Medals included ANS subscription medals, American colonial medals, and medals of American wars, including the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War. Orders and insignia came from more than thirty organizations, including the Society of the Cincinnati, the Aztec Club of 1847, the Huguenot Society, and the Sons of the American Revolution.

By the end of February 1900, the ANS had assembled sufficient materials to mount its display, and on March 1, the ANS exhibited its display to members in a one-evening-only showing in New York City (Fig. 4). According to contemporaneous records, a photograph of the display was taken to commemorate the event; unfortunately, its current whereabouts are unknown.

Fig. 4. Invitation to the March 1, 1900, viewing of the Society’s display for the Paris Exposition of 1900. (ANS Archives)

After its New York debut, the display was disassembled, packed, and shipped to Paris, where it arrived in time for the Exposition’s April 14 opening. It remained on view to the public throughout the summer months. Expectations at the ANS were high: would the Society receive an award for its display?

On October 1, 1900, Brenner cabled Zabriskie with the news: “Collection received silver medal” (Fig. 5). The reaction was mixed. Zabriskie would later write to Belden, “I am distinctly disappointed but ‘half a loaf is better than none’ I suppose.” In contrast, Drowne wrote to Belden later that same month: “I feel that the Society was remarkably fortunate in receiving the recognition of a silver medal, for I certainly thought we were not apt to get more than a diploma of honorable mention, for of course it was hardly a collection that would represent individual work of the designer or manufacturer.”

Fig. 5. Award medal received by the ANS for its exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900. (ANS 1996.999.213)

The Exposition officially closed on November 10, 1900. By the end of 1900, all of the Society’s coins and medals had been returned to the Society’s cabinet and the borrowed orders and decorations returned to their owners. The display case itself was sold by Brenner in Paris on instructions from the ANS so that the Society could recoup some of its losses.

The Paris Exposition of 1900 marked a major success for the ANS. As it had not participated in either the previous Paris Exposition of 1889 or the 1891 numismatic congress in Brussels, this was the Society’s first major international exposition. It also provided the impetus for Belden and Saltus’s efforts over the first two decades of the twentieth century to develop the Society’s collection of orders and decorations.