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|Session 2, Lot 49|
Iconic Silver 1889 Washington Inauguration Centennial Medal by Saint-Gaudens
"The First Medal of Real Artistic Value in this Country"-Richard Watson Gilder
1) Richard Watson Gilder Specimen. The present example, given to Saint-Gaudens' friend and member of the Committee of Art for the Inauguration Centennial Celebration. 112.1mm, 345.9 grams. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO STERLING.
2) Stack's September 2011 Philadelphia Americana Sale, lot 249. 112.5 mm, 347.3 grams. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO STERLING.
3) Southern Private Collection. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO STERLING.
4) Fritz Rudolf Kunker Auction 247, lot 5631. 112.08mm. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO STERLING.
5) Stack's January 2007 Americana Sale, lot 6835; Stack's September 2009 Philadelphia Americana Sale, lot 6215; Stack's August 2012 ANA Sale, lot 11146. 111.1 mm, 354.1 grams. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO [symbols for lion passant, anchor, and gothic G] STERLING.
6) Western Ohio Private Collection. 348.9 grams. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO [symbols for lion passant, anchor, and gothic G] STERLING.
7) American Numismatic Society Collection. #0000.999.39468. 112mm, 345.5 grams. Edge marked GORHAM. MFG. CO [symbols for lion passant, anchor, and gothic G] STERLING.
A silver example was offered in Stack's January 2002 Americana Sale, lot 434, an example that is undoubtedly genuine but of anomalous size and construction that requires further study to find its place in the narrative of this medal's production. At 106.6mm it is smaller than other known examples in silver, and is constructed of a 7.5mm thick collar joining silver shells for a total weight of 392.54 grams. It went unsold and was returned to the consignor, who no longer has the medal. Though reported otherwise in the past, there is no specimen in silver in the New York Historical Society, a fact we have confirmed with their curator.
This medal was designed and conceived by Saint-Gaudens, the massive medallion reflecting his love for Renaissance-style cast medals as an artistic medium, and his former assistant Philip Martiny (later artistic director of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1892-93) created the models from which the medals were cast. The medals were cast in bronze for sale to the public, and many of those medals exist today. They are considerably thinner than the silver specimens and significantly lighter. The medals of this size were all cast by Gorham, the great Providence and New York jewelry and decorative arts firm also used by Saint-Gaudens to cast his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and other works. A smaller imitative medal, design to be worn by committee members at the inauguration celebrations, was produced by Tiffany.
Author and art critic Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909), the influential editor of Scribner's Monthly (1870-1881) and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1881-1909) was a leading light of the New York artistic and intellectual scene of the period. He played a leading role on the Committee on Art and Exhibition for the Celebration of the Centennial of the Inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States, April 1889. When the idea for a medal for this celebration was spawned, Gilder's participation in the subcommittee on the medal made it a foregone conclusion that Saint-Gaudens would be chosen to design the medal. A friend of Saint-Gaudens for a decade already, Gilder called the new Washington Inaugural medal "the first medal of real artistic value made in this country." He wrote at the time "I hope that in an indirect way it will have an ultimate effect upon our coinage," a prophetic look nearly two decades into the future. Gilder was not only mentor to Saint-Gaudens, but confidant to Theodore Roosevelt, who used the bully pulpit to force those changes in our coinage in 1907.
The present medal was given to Gilder himself and is accompanied by its fitted leather case, now somewhat tattered on the outside though with its original brass hinges and hasp and quite fresh on the inside. The outer lid is gold-stamped "BY AUTHORITY OF THE COMMITTEE. / WASHINGTON CENTENNIAL MEDAL. / 1789.-1889. / DESIGNED BY AUGUSTUS SAINT GAUDENS / MODELED BY PHILIP MARTINY." It passed to his daughter Mrs. Gilder Palmer at his death in 1909 and thence by descent to the present generation of the family, from whom our present consignor acquired this and two Washington Inauguration Centennial medals in bronze a little over a decade ago; the bronzes are also featured in this auction. The gold medal, once the property of J.P. Morgan, that we sold as part of the Norweb Collection in November 2006 was accompanied by an identical case, as is Hamilton Fish's example in the New-York Historical Society. To our knowledge, this is the only silver example that still retains its original leather case.
Saint-Gaudens' Washington medal was his first artistic effort included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also reinvigorated Saint-Gaudens' interest in medallic art, setting the stage for more famous work to come. In 1890, the U.S. Mint asked him to sit on a committee to help choose new artists for coinage, though the plan never came to fruition. In 1892, Saint-Gaudens' design for the official medal of the World's Columbian Exposition was famously overruled because of the presence of a nude figure on the reverse, though his evocative obverse was retained. His masterful work on the 1905 inaugural medal of Theodore Roosevelt, a longtime fan of his art, both inspired Roosevelt's dreams of a full realm of classically-inspired American coins created by Saint-Gaudens and created a highly desirable numismatic collectible. The two year saga that followed, resulting in the creation of Saint-Gaudens' $10 and $20 coins before his death in 1907, has been told so many times as to be common knowledge. What is less well known, however, is that that pinnacle of his career in many ways started with this medal. It was former Secretary of State Hamilton Fish who was most responsible for sealing Saint-Gaudens' role as medalist for this commemorative issue. Fish served as President of the committee for the centennial celebration at the same time that Saint-Gaudens was working on a pair of monuments to grace his family plot at a cemetery in Garrison, New York. Saint-Gaudens was commissioned on May 2, 1887 by Fish to complete two bronze figures that would be "in a general way representative" of Fish's wife and daughter. The original contract for this work survives, and it is interesting to note that Saint-Gaudens was finally paid the second of two payments for $4,000 on May 7, 1889 -- when both were in attendance at the final Inaugural Centennial event in New York City. Fish's gold specimen of this medal currently resides in the New York Historical Society; the only other gold specimen known was sold in our Norweb event for a record $391,000. With the gold specimen now ensconced in a long-term collection, this is now the most noble composition of this famous medal that can be acquired, and as such represents an historic opportunity for students of Augustus Saint-Gaudens or advanced collectors of Washingtoniana. It is arguably the most important silver example extant.