Welcome to the latest installment in my series on the subject. I highlight some of those featured in the best-selling Whitman book, 100 Greatest American Medals and Tokens. This week I feature the prize medal issued to exhibitors at the World’s Columbian Exposition. I have a personal connection to this event. The first “rare coin” I ever owned was a worn 1893 Columbian commemorative half dollar. My paternal great-grandmother, Frances Mumaugh, a highly accomplished professional artist, exhibited five paintings there.
1893 Columbian Exposition Award Medal
In the chronicle of world’s fairs, America has many notable entries, including the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, the 1933 Century of Progress, and those of later years. None ranks with the 1893 Columbian in terms of importance. Set in the dawn of the age of electricity, the ornately decorated white building was a heavenly sight at night.
Planned to open in 1892 to observe the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America (never mind the Norsemen who arrived centuries earlier), the event was to showcase the ultimate in American technology, art, and science, in good company with exhibits from around the world. Construction took longer than expected, and it was not until 1893 that the fairgrounds were ready to receive the public. President Grover Cleveland was on hand to signal the opening.
It was envisioned that Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s most accomplished and laureated sculptors, would create the official award medal. Offered a fee of $5,000, a remarkable sum for the era, the artist demurred at first, as he was busy with another commission, the Shaw Memorial (today an attraction in Boston Common near the Massachusetts State House). He suggested that the work be placed with an artist in France, where medallic engraving was a high form of art.
Finally, he consented to do the work, if only to keep it out of the hands of Charles E. Barber, the chief engraver at the Mint. By Saint-Gaudens and other sculptors of the time, Barber’s work was viewed as mediocre at best. Finally consenting, the artist prepared suggestions for the design, the obverse featuring Columbus reaching shore in the New World, a triumphant pose with his cape flared and hand outstretched. The reverse depicted a nude boy holding a torch and several small wreaths against a background of lettered inscriptions.
In a complicated scenario. The depiction of a nude male was considered erotic or obscene by some observers, while in the same era nude females in paintings and statues were perfectly acceptable. After much wrangling, an insipid reverse design by Chief Engraver Barber was mated with Saint-Gaudens’ obverse. The process took a long time, and the medals and accompanying certificates were not awarded to recipients until 1896. It was planned at first that 20,000 medals would be struck, but final production fell far short of that figure.
Estimated Market Values — Copper Strikings
Mint State-63 to 65 (Choice to Gem): $150 to $200
Mint State-60 to 62: $100 to $150
Commentary: The surface is often brass in appearance as made. These typically come with the name of the awardee on the back, by use of an insert into the die. The prices are for medals without original aluminum boxes, which could add $50 to the estimate.