The ANS Collection of Dies

by Frederic Withington

From time to time, the ANS has received donations of dies and hubs (the tools used in the striking of coins and medals), and of the collars and punches used with them. Few of the donations have come from collectors; most have come from the artists who made them or from dealers who have used the dies in the course of their business. The donations have been sporadic, with only a few in any given year, but some of the donations have been extensive, from dealers who produced entire series of medals (historical, political, or satirical). The largest single donation of dies was a recent one: in 2000, Wayne Sayles donated 324 dies made by Peter Rosa, for striking copies of ancient Greek coins. Over a century and a half of donations, the numbers have added up: there are more than 900 dies in the ANS collection, plus about fifty hubs and fifty collars (some of the dies are still attached to the collars into which they were forced).

Few of the dies are for coins intended to circulate, since these mostly remain the property of the countries issuing the coins. An important exception is a set of dies for the famous Kellogg & Company 1855 California $20 gold coin (Fig. 1), obtained in 1921 from one of his descendants. A set of Kellogg dies for a Mexican eight-escudos coin was also obtained.

Fig 1: Obverse die for Kellog & Company 1855 California $20.

Almost all the dies in the collection are for medals made in the United States, since many American artists and dealers have been among the loyal supporters of the ANS.

A dramatic exception is a set of nine dies made by Andrieu for Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. All nine are for large commemorative medals ranging from 80 to 140 millimeters in diameter. Fig. 2 is a typical specimen, showing the profiles of Napoleon and his Empress Marie of Austria. They were bought and donated to the ANS by the dealer Wayte Raymond, who bought them at auction in London in 1924. They had been in the W. F. Taylor collection, and somewhere along the line each had been provided with its own wooden box. When presented to the ANS, the medals had been packed in London newspapers dated 1924; apparently, newsprint is a healthy preservative, since after eighty years all of the dies remain rust-free.

Fig 2: Obverse die for medal of Napoleon and Empress Marie by Andrieu.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all the dies. They are made of steel, for durability (though two of the Andrieu dies are bronze), and steel is subject to rust. Most of the dies have been coated with light grease, but the grease has hardened and become dirty over the decades (a person handling them needs frequent hand-washes.) As a result, 20 percent or so of the dies have become rusty, and a few are illegible. Hopefully, they will do well in the controlled environment of the new ANS vault.

The sizes of the dies vary widely. The smallest are little disks 20 millimeters in diameter and about 5 millimeters thick, used for making small political tokens. These would have been attached to collars to secure and position them in the striking press. The largest were used for striking medals 100 millimeters or more in diameter, and have the collars still attached. Fig. 3 shows one of the largest dies, used for striking the obverse of the 1909 New Theatre medal issued by the ANS, designed by Bela Lyon Pratt. The die is 100 millimeters in diameter, and the collar in which it is embedded measures 210 millimeters in diameter and 70 millimeters deep—basically a lump of solid steel. It weighs approximately twenty kilograms. The weight of these large dies poses a problem, because most of the storage space in the ANS vaults is devoted to trays designed to hold coins and medals of typical size. If one or more of these massive dies is put in an ordinary coin tray, the tray simply buckles in the middle! (This writer has found this out the hard way.) Fortunately, the designers of the new ANS vaults provided some strong steel shelves along one wall, which seem strong enough to hold the largest dies.

Fig 3: The author holding the large die in collar for 1909 New Theater medal by Pratt.

Among the large dies are some for the medals issued by the ANS during the early years of the twentieth century. A particularly interesting group are dies for the medal designed by Emil Fuchs, commemorating the Hudson-Fulton celebration of 1907. There are six different sizes, ranging from 33 millimeters to 100 millimeters. Fig. 4 shows the obverse die for the 100-millimeter version.

Fig 4: Obverse die for 100 mm. version of 1907 Hudson-Fulton medal by Fuchs.

Victor D. Brenner (of Lincoln cent fame) was another distinguished medalist who produced medals for the ANS. A generous friend, he contributed at least twenty of his dies to the ANS collection (not all were signed). They include dies for some of the ANS medals as well as dies for some of his private commissions, including anniversaries, portraits, etc.

Many of the dies received in recent years (such as the Peter Rosa dies) were stored with the related coins or medals and cataloged in the computer. However, until recently, the dies received in earlier years—most of the ANS collection—were stored in boxes and not individually catalogued or displayed for study. Now for the first time, the new ANS vault offers enough space to display the dies (and shelves strong enough to support the weight of the heavy ones). Also, the computer system has the capacity and versatility to accommodate records of the dies. As a result, the entire ANS collection of dies is now available for study for the first time. And studies have already started. In the summer 2005 issue of this magazine, Curator Robert Hoge spoke of two: a study initiated by ANS Fellow Robert J. Leonard, of the Lesher dies donated by Farran Zerbe; and a study by Donald Kasprzak, of the dies cut by Emil Fuchs for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration medals (mentioned above). Hopefully, many more scholars will use this resource in the future.