Current Cabinet Activities (Summer 2002)

by Robert Wilson Hoge

Like a library, a great cabinet such as that of the American Numismatic Society becomes a clearing house of information, assisting researchers, collectors, dealers and anyone else who may have questions relating to materials included in the collection. I think many members of the public, and even specialists, may not be aware that providing service of this sort constitutes the primary part of the work done by most museum curators, particularly those in institutions with small staffs and important holdings. Maybe this point should be simply taken for granted, but I find that it looms large for the Society and for me.

To the extent that individual curators may work with certain items, or even pursue research questions of their own, their direction is frequently determined by “encounters” with portions of the collection brought about by outside events. Chief among these are new acquisitions for the cabinet. Reports on the ANS’ annual accessions are now published in the American Journal of Numismatics, the latest volume of which has just gone to press, and some of them are featured in this ANS Magazine. But the effort to fulfill requests from other people is what usually brings specific holdings to the curators’ attention.

At the ANS, requests about specimens in the collection are constant and varied. The cabinet is routinely called upon to provide display items for our own exhibits, loan items for other institutions’ exhibitions, illustrations for publications, images for research and reference, comparisons with new discoveries or for authentication, and general insights into numismatic subjects. Just to show something of this range of activity, and at the same time to reveal a glimpse of the scope and depth of the cabinet, I thought I would take this opportunity to present a selection of a few of the items I have recently had occasion to handle as the result of trying to assist people who have contacted me.

In the previous issue of this magazine, I mentioned some of the individual researchers who happened to have visited our coin rooms and the things they were investigating. Working with visitors is of course a major focus. This requires not only search and retrieval functions but supervision and discussion. A great deal of my work, however, also involves contacts via telephone, mail and, ever-increasingly, the internet. Let me share with you some items about which serendipitous inquiries have been made by those whom we serve, both near and far.

Medallic decorations researcher Alan Harrow requested me to investigate the rare New Zealand Cross, the highest order of recognition for bravery issued by that country, the equivalent to the famed British Victoria Cross. I found in the ANS collection an example donated in 1910, by the great numismatic philanthropist J. Sanford Saltus, who had acquired it at auction from Puttick & Simpson, of London, in 1910. This award, accompanied by a silver New Zealand Campaign medal, had been engraved to Constable Soloman Black for action at Natapa, January, 1869. Curiously, the Cross is noted to have been a “duplicate,” Somehow, a “replacement” was issued to Black, while the original had been sold at auction in 1907, from the collection of a Dr. Buick of Larne Harbour, Ireland.

New Zealand: New Zealand Cross of Solomon Black, ca. 1890 (ANS 1910.104.1)

Mr. Harrow informed me that 25 examples were originally authorized and struck for awards by the Phillips company, the first 20 being struck in 1871 and bearing the Phillips cartouche on the reverse of the suspension bar. The second order, of 5 crosses, was struck in 1886 by Phillips, but without the cartouche. At this time Phillips was authorized to strike a few specimens “for the Royal Mint and eminent collectors in England,” after which, Phillips somehow lost control of the dies. Unauthorized specimens, probably including the Saltus collection piece, were struck between 1886 and 1908, while the dies were in private hands. They were recovered by the agent general in 1908. The Royal Mint Museum Archives have documents showing that the dies were in the possession of one Mr. J. G. La Rouche in 1904.

The ANS example, with no hallmark on it, is arguably one of the later unauthorized specimens, spuriously named to Black. This seems especially likely since it was originally auctioned and subsequently donated to the ANS paired with a “re-engraved” New Zealand Victoria Campaign Medal. Harrow also stated that re-named medals are not uncommon, that this was done for both legitimate and illigitimate purposes. To date, no records are known to indicate that Black lost his medals and had them replaced. His original medals are reported to have turned up at auction while he was still alive, so the chances are that he sold or pawned them (not unusual in those days). The auction house probably represented the ANS pair as replacements to enhance their value and marketability. Harrow observed, further, that this was not an unusual ruse, even found occasionally today with spuriously named medals.

A couple of inquiries have come in regarding the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, the group comprised of General George Washington’s officers after the Revolutionary War and their proud descendents. In looking into the ANS cabinet for reference material, it was my pleasure to find several specimens of these attractive American versions of European orders. The group includes one that appears to be especially early. Unfortunately, it is lacking its documentation as to original ownership, which also seems to be the case with other examples in the collection.

United States: Society of the Cincinnati. Decoration ca. 1790 (ANS 1921.87.1)

From William Day, who is assisting Philip Grierson at the FitzWilliam Museum, Cambridge, with the forthcoming Volume 12 (Northern Italy) of Medieval European Coinage, we received a request regarding the late Medieval minor billon coinage of Genoa. I found the ANS has an example of a denaro minuto that had been classified under Giano di Campofregoso, but which in reality seems to be an issue of his successor, Pietro (1450-1457), to whom I have now reassigned it. This coin is somewhat poorly struck and worn, and tends to be difficult to read. The obverse is well-centered, and is missing the tops of most of the letters (and stops); its legend reads P:C:DU X:IAN: The reverse has worse centering and strike; one can read [CO] NR A[D] D[*] on it, the last letter being a mintmaster’s mark. This specimen is one of the many to which the ANS has had to assign “dummy” accession numbers, since the item had been filed into the cabinet without notation as to its source. Entering documentation of this kind is a primary function of museum registrars and curators, so catching up with the records on a massive number of accessions is a constant effort.

Rick Smith made an appointment to study the famous Lusitania medal by the German satiric artist Karl Goetz. The cabinet contains an array of these pieces, including both early and late examples of the British and American forgeries of the piece, several with original boxes and documentation. Entering the annals of psychological warfare, the copies were distributed to evoke antipathy toward Germany as the heartless perpetrator of the vessel’s fatal sinking. Regrettably, some of the best examples of the Lusitania medal are also lacking accession documentation.

Germany: Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz, 1915 (ANS 0000.999.23711)

When in the course of working with the collections it becomes possible to complete and/or correct the cabinet’s accession documentation, and assign the actual proper registration numbers to items that had been somehow miscatalogued in the past, one always feels a certain sense of satisfaction. One such recent case was that involving the rare medal commemorating the 1817 seizure of Amelia Island, on the Northeast coast of Florida, by the Scottish philibusterer, “General” Gregor MacGregor, formerly a hero of the liberation of Venezuela under Simón de Bolívar. This item had previously been assigned the “dummy” accession number, and was listed in Carling Gresham’s 1992 study of these medals as having “no record.” I was able to find that it had been a gift, in 1893, from the great early ANS patron Daniel Parish, Jr., who had quite probably purchased it from the Chapman brothers Bushnell collection sale of 1882, wherein it was stated that only two or three were known; the same piece could very likely have come from the 1871 George A. Leavitt New York sale of the Dr. Charles Clay collection. Our example has the second oldest established pedigree (after one in the cabinet of the British Museum) of any of the dozen or so now believed to exist.

Florida, Amelia Island: Gregor MacGregor medal, 1817 (ANS 1893.19.1)

We were able to rectify the documentation of another issue thanks to an inquiry from Don Lewallen, who sought information on the “Old Sugar House” commemorative of 1892. Again, the three examples in the cabinet had been given “dummy numbers” for the purpose of entering them onto the ANS data base, but their original documentation was at hand, showing them to have been the gift, in 1892, of the maker, Edward Groh. Groh’s holographic manuscript provided all the details of their production. His original intent had been to have the Rose Street Sugar House, used as a prison by the British during the Revolution, included by early numismatic entrepreneur Augustus B. Sage in his series of historic building commemorative tokens minted in 1859.

The wealth of material in the ANS collection can answer many questions. Mark Kaleniecki, researching Polish gold coins and ordering photographs, called my attention to the 1599 3-ducat piece which had been donated by Mark and Lottie Salton in memory of Felix Schlessinger, noting that it is really a variant from the befuddled published descriptions of its type, which has been erroneously classified heretofore. Dr. Hugo Polak was studying the medals of the early German Renaissance medalist Hans Reinhart, which gave me the occasion to perceive the cabinet’s richness in this area. Our “Adoration of the Magi”/ “Moses and the Burning Bush” piece, issued under Johann Friedrich “The Magnanimous” of Saxony in 1538, is an attractive example. Although this master is recognized as one of the greatest of his time, his work is not widely known in this country at the present time. Someday, it is to be hoped that the great ANS cabinet of medals may be fully published, revealing this marvelous field in its rightful glory.

Poland: 3 ducats, 1599 (ANS 1992.1.23). Gift of Mark and Lottie Salton in Memory of Felix Schlessinger

German States, Saxony: Hans Reinhart Religious medal, 1538 (ANS 1942.92.5)

Some of the medallic items in the cabinet are considerably more mundane than others, and some are just more fun! One such is a memento of the great days of 20th century baseball in America—a medallic 1925 watch-fob season pass for the New York Giants. I ran across this thanks to an inquiry from researcher Jim Urbaniak. Of additional local interest, we had occasion to search out and photograph a New York Benevolent Association, Life Saving Medal, such as this interesting example from 1895, to fulfill a request from LCDR Randy Carol Balano, USNR, Command Historian, Office of Naval Intelligence, who was preparing an exhibition of the Command History.

United States: New York Giants watch-fob: season pass, 1925 (ANS 1926.95.1)

New York: New York Benevolent Association, Life Saving Medal of Frans Jhon Stromberg, 1895 (ANS 1950.136.20)

Allen Menke contacted us in connection with his research on medals of the Philippines, of which the ANS holds a splendid run thanks for the donation of the magnificent series collected by Dr. Gilbert S. Perez. Priscilla P. Soucek, researching coinage of the Qajar dynasty of Iran (the last house of rulers before the advent of the family of the late Shah, the Pahlavis), called attention to the fine multiple toman of Fath ‘Ali Shah from the Teheran mint, dating from 1806/7 C.E. This rarity was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Persian Art held in London in 1931.

Persia (Iran): Fath ‘Ali Shah, multiple toman (ANS 1922.211.883)

ANS Council member John Adams, studying the fascinating series of medals issued in Europe in connection with the financial misadventures of John Law, drew my attention to the cabinet’s superb run of these pieces. Probably best known from the work of C. Wyllys Betts, American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals, these entertaining pieces satirize the notorious Scots arbiter of the French economy upon the bursting of the “Mississippi Bubble” in 1720.

France: John Law Satirical medal, 1720, Betts 126 (ANS 1966.65.1)

Among other pieces of Early American context and interest, I had occasion to research the “Elephant tokens” in the cabinet due to the research of R. Neil Fulghum, Keeper of the North Carolina Collection Gallery, Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. I think our best example is an attractive off-center strike donated by the eminent collector Emery May Norweb. I also had a chance to examine the collection of 1773 Virginia half pennies through the instigation of Alan Anthony, finding an incomplete run of choice pieces.. And in the process of preparing a talk for the New York Numismatic Club, in which I wanted to cover some of the lacunae in the ANS’ wonderful cabinet along with mentioning some of its famous strengths, I gave myself the opportunity to take at least a quick look at some of the other American series.

Our receipt of various object loan requests has led me to study some other portions of the cabinet. Understandably, Thomas Jefferson’s medals by John Reich—the Indian Peace medals which he had commissioned for use by Lewis and Clark, for instance, and the Declaration of Independence/Inauguration commemorative medal-draw significant attention from other museums during our bicentennial of the great president’s administration. The masterful works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, arguably the foremost American Medallic sculptor, have also been much sought-after. We note multiple requests for the $10 and $20 gold pieces as well as other pieces, such as the nostalgic plaquette of 1905 commemorating the charming interlude of a masque for a few friends and family members. The ANS specimen of the latter, as well as of several other important items, came from the estate of the artist’s brother, Louis.

United States: Augustus Saint-Gaudens plaquette, 1905 (ANS 1961.137.3)

United States: $10 gold, 1907 (ANS 0000.999.4575)

Medals researcher D. Wayne Johnson, working on completing his work on American medallic artists and manufacturers, visited with us in connection with his project and was able to add data on some of the specimens in the cabinet. The U.S. Assay Commission medal of 1880 was one of the pieces which he selected for his photographic requirements. This handsome example is from the outstanding former J. Coolidge Hills collection, which was donated to the ANS cabinet by the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 1967. Through a photo request for an article for Antiques Magazine, I handled the medals honoring Revolutionary naval Captain John Paul Jones, including specimens from the personal collection of the great American Medallic sculptor Victor David Brenner.

U.S. Assay Commission medal, 1880 (ANS 1967.225.132) J. Coolidge Hills, Former Wadsworth Athenaeum Coll.

Well, I could go on and on delineating my introduction to different items in the cabinet and the people whose own quests led me to them, but I hope I have presented at least a part of the picture of curatorial activity forming the daily work load at the Society. Many of our inquiries are merely of the “I have this coin…what is it worth?” or “I have the rare 1943 penny, how can I sell it?” or “I have the Bank of the United States $1000 note of 1840, serial number 8894, are you interested?” ilk, sadly demanding that we disabuse and disappoint the owners. But a few of the inquiries constitute the beginning of little numismatic adventures, and some even lead to new discoveries. In future issues, we will explore some of these investigations more fully. Meanwhile, we encourage and invite everyone to contact us, to make full use of this vast cultural resource by the Hudson.