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 circle around to feature an artist and polymath who hardly anyone in numismatics had heard of until a study. The Eagle That Is Forgotten: Pierre Eugène du Simitière, Founding Father of American Numismatics, by Joel J. Orosz, was published in 1988. That was 30 years ago. Today he is a familiar figure to historians. As to his medal being highlighted someday, read on. . .
Here is what was said in the 100 Greatest book, where he was featured in the introductory pages:
Pierre Eugène du Simitière
The earliest numismatically inclined person in America for whom we have a fairly detailed biographical record was Swiss-born Pierre Eugène du Simitière (1737-1784), who settled in Philadelphia by 1774. Although he has no entry in the 100 Greatest sweepstakes, a mention of him here is essential to American medallic history.
Not only did Du Simitière collect medals, but he was also involved in their production. On March 25, 1776, the Continental Congress passed this resolution:
That the thanks of this Congress in their own name and in the name of the thirteen united colonies whom they represent, be presented to his Excellency Gen. Washington and the officers and soldiers under his command for their wise and spirited conduct in the siege and acquisition of Boston; that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of this great event and presented to his Excellency; and that a committee of three be appointed to prepare a letter of thanks and a proper device for the medal.
Accordingly, du Simitière prepared a sketch depicting Washington standing with a figure of the goddess Liberty or Columbia, overlooking Boston Harbor. On November 29, 1776, Congress “Paid P.E. DuSimitiere for designing, making and drawing a medal for General Washington, $32.” It was never used. Congress finally implemented the resolution in 1786, by placing an order for medals with the Paris Mint. Ignoring the work that du Simitière had done, French engraver Pierre Simon Duvivier cut dies from designs provided by the Royal Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres. He adapted his portrait of Washington from the well-known bust from life by Jean Antoine Houdon, made at Mount Vernon in October 1785. This is the famous Washington Before Boston medal.
Although his Washington-Boston medal was not to be, Du Simitière seems to have designed and made a medal that was actually used in the Revolutionary War. A newspaper account related on August 12, 1776:
The Congress has struck a number of silver and copper medals, which are distributed among the officers of the army, who wear them constantly. On one side are two vases swimming on the water, with the motto ‘Frangimur si collidimur’; on the other is an emblematical device; four hands clinched together and a dove over them, beneath them is a serpent cut in pieces. These medals were designed or executed by P.E. DuSimitiere.
Perhaps with the hope that an example would come to light someday, C. Wyllys Betts in his 1894 posthumous book assigned 550 as the number for this medal. Should one ever be found, it would create a numismatic sensation. Surely, if it existed now, it would be honored among the 100 Greatest.
From this beginning arose many illustrious medals. To honor and commemorate the heroes and triumphs of the Revolutionary War, Congress authorized a dozen medals to be struck, the Comitia Americana (“American Congress”) series that is a focal point of numismatic interest today (numbers 2, 35, and 56 in the 100 Greatest Medals and Tokens book). Commissions for most of these were placed with and executed at the Paris Mint. In 1800, U.S.S. Constellation captain Thomas Truxton’s victory highlighted the undeclared war with France, and resulted in a fine medal (No. 91). The War of 1812 medals, struck at the Philadelphia Mint from dies by John Reich and Moritz Fürst, are another impressive series (No. 43).