Frequently Asked Questions

By D. Wayne Johnson

Where do I find medals for sale?

THE number ONE source is specialist medal dealers. They advertise, they hold auctions, they attend numismatic shows. A few even have shops (but with the advent of eBay some such shops are closing in favor of offices either in less costly digs or the dealer operates out of his home with less overhead).

Get to know the medal dealers. Buy something from them. Get on their mailing list. Subscribe to their auction catalogs. Visit their booths at shows. Kiss-up to these dealers! They can be extremely beneficial to your medal collecting (by passing on information, and maybe finding an occasional gem or two for your collection!). Infrequently large coin firms have medals for sale (no kissing necessary! -- just bid or buy and don't ask too many questions). Generally, however, coin dealers tend to shy away from selling medals. (Dare I say they lack the specialized knowledge about medals?)

The other sources - antique dealers, flea markets, tag sales - are less productive. But infrequent buys can be found here. Lastly, there are other collectors (all too often, however, these have become friends and it is sometimes difficult to buy from or sell to a friend if you want to retain that friendship).

How about buying medals on the internet?

Do become familiar with internet auctions. Regularly check eBay (and others). You can search by keyword. If you chose "medal" alone you will find several thousand offered on eBay at any time (I once saw over 5,000 one day!). Qualify your search with another word or two. (In time you can become adapt at honing in on what you want.)

Here is where you must define your interest. I write about your collecting topic below, but pick keywords that identify your collecting interest. Be forewarned, however, these sellers may not be sophisticated and may not describe -- or grade -- accurately. Buyer beware.

Is there a Red Book of medals?

No such price guide book on medals exists. It can't be done. First there are so many medals in existence (more than coins, but less than paper money issues). And there can be so many variations, like an inscribed name if it is an award medal or if the medal is mounted in some way. Less so by condition, since medals do not circulate, but moreso. perhaps, by the finish or patina (but more on that below).

The fact there is no standard price book, however, can be to your advantage. If there was a published price guide you would have to pay "listed" prices for all the medals you buy. The seller would have access to their current published value and this is what he would charge. As it is today, sellers often don't know what a medal is worth to you, the collector. I have heard so many stories - and I could tell a few myself! - of buying medals and medallic art at a fraction of their true value. Because there is no medal Red Book.

How do I learn the value of medals then?

By jumping in the water and swimming. Start collecting, start buying at quoted prices. In time - and I am amazed at how quickly collectors acquire this value insight - of the medals in which they are interested. Should you overpay for an item or two, this is the cost of your education. In the event you learn later you could have acquired it for less, this fact will be embedded in your brain to remind yourself to acquire this value insight. Unless we are talking about several hundreds or thousands of dollars, this expense is not that disastrous.

Start buying medals which appeal to you, that you like, either for their design, or topic, or connection to something of interest to you, or the story the medal tells, or the artist -- or for whatever reason! Unless you are a sophisticated collector, buy the cheaper items first. If you're a seasoned collector and start a new topic collection, buy the rarities first; you know you can get the commoner items later.

How do I store my medals?

If they are in cases, leave them in the cases. If you got them from a dealer, chances are he has placed them in a "flip." This is a clear flexible vinyl-like plastic that has two pockets, one for the medal the other for a caption card. The dealer probably wrote or printed something on the card, most often the price and any reference numbers. You can keep the card in the flip, but later you will want to add more information (or make your own cards, to include whatever information you wish to associate with that medal). The flips come in sizes from less than an inch to over four inches. Dealers can supply you with new flips.

Once you have several hundred medals, the flips will not satisfy you. Then you will want trays in a cabinet. Old dental cabinets are ideal because the trays are narrow (what once held instruments can now hold medals). Or map cabinets. These have thicker trays which take up more space; but you can lay the medals in a little box and stack the boxes. The advantage of trays and cabinets is that you can place related medals together. Its pure numismatic pleasure to pull out a tray and see related medals and some means of description near them. An advanced medal collection is sometimes called a "cabinet." For good reason, it could mean the collection is in a real cabinet!

What else can I do with medals?

Display them! Pick a couple of favorites and place them on a shelf or mantle or on top of some piece of furniture. Mantles are good because they are eye level somewhat. Change them often with other favorites, or occasionally show the reverses. There are little stands that accommodate this display, in plastic, metal or wood.

If you have a curio cabinet, pick some of your largest medals, or most colorful, or most significant, or whatever turns you on. You don't have to bury your medal collection in a safe deposit box in a vault at some bank like coins. Put them out for friends, and family, and YOU can see and enjoy them!

Generally, how are medals collected?

The number of medals in existence seems to approach the number of stars in the universe. You must specialize. You can't collect everything. You must pick a topic. That is how medals are collected - by topic. Best of all, you pick your own topic and define its parameters. No one else dictates what you should collect!

There are enough medals to cover just about every subject, no matter how broad, or how narrow. Sure, there are some popular topics, Aviation, Music, Space, Olympics, perhaps two or three hundred different topics. The broadest topic is Americana (I have compiled a directory of medals by American artists that lists, perhaps, 20,000 different medals, all Americana). Pick Americana as your topic only if you are young and wealthy - it will take you a lifetime and a ton of money. But you can narrow this, by choosing, say, only your state, or city, for your topic.

I have suggested to new collectors to start with several topics at the beginning. One will become your undying passion. Perhaps you lose interest in one of the others. Sell off these items to recycle that money into your favorite topic as buying later rarities becomes more and more illusive (and expensive). Tip: buy it when it first comes on the market, it may be a dozen years or so when it is offered again.

I inherited some medals. Where can I find some information about them?

Your first question is probably what are they worth. Did Grandpa leave you a secret fortune? You need an appraisal. So few people can adequately appraise medals. This is evident on "Antiques Roadshow." When their "experts" appraise medals or medallic art, it is never accurate, we are constantly amazed at their misinformation on this show.

Best advice for medal appraisals? The same dealers mentioned above who sell, or auction, medals full time and the best for knowing current valuations.

For background information on medals and their subjects: I hate to pile more work on the busy librarians at two of America's national numismatic organizations (American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society) but these hard working librarians can direct you to the literature which can answer some of your questions. (Sorry Nancy! Sorry Frank!). Some questions require a ton of digging. And you may not find every answer to every one of your questions. Medal literature is that sparse. But it's a start. You will have to dig on your own. Good luck!

How are medals different from coins? From tokens?

Coins are money. They have a denomination and circulate. Medals, which can be similar to coins, do not have a denomination and do not circulate (which is great! - they do not wear as coins do). Tokens, also similar, have an implied value (a denomination, or some statement "good for" something). Tokens generally are limited in where they circulate, or for how long, or who will redeem them.

All three are similar in that they are small metal objects with lettering and devices, usually round and struck from dies. They are created by the same people -- engravers or sculptors -- and made on the same equipment. All three can be struck by national mints, or private companies. Their intended purpose is what makes them different.

Medals, most notably, are made to be beautiful, or to commemorate or memorialize or for one of several of their other characteristics (see next item).

Okay, then, what are the characteristics of medals?

Mostly the fact they last forever! But here is my list of top ten medal characteristics (in Dave Letterman style):

10.  Accuracy - documentation.
  9.  Bilateral - two-sidedness.
  8.  Permanence - hard form.
  7.  Intimacy - personal size.
  6.  Narration - picture and legend.
  5.  Perspective charm - miniature art.
  4.  Commemoration - celebration.
  3.  Image - portrait, award, honor.
  2.  Beauty - artisticness.

And drum roll please, maestro.

  1.  Longevity - longlasting.

And I could write a book (well, maybe, an article) about every one of those medal traits. Medals are different and important for a lot of reasons. They are called miniature works of art that can be held in the hand. But they are more than that. But you get the point!

What is the difference between medal and medallion?

It is a matter of size, medallions are large medals. Numismatists in Europe say medallions have a diameter of 80 millimeters or larger; this equivalent in inches (3 - 3/16-inch) is the dividing line between medals and medallions in America. But "medal" and "medallion" are used so indiscriminately by the public that these definitions are blurred in most people's minds (who may not even be aware that the concept of size is the distinction).

Another term for medals, "medalet" is a small medal, under one inch (25.4mm). Two other terms you should know: "Plaque" and "plaquette." Generally square or rectangular medals. The dividing line between the two - eight inches (20.3 cm). If a plaque gets too big its called a tablet (these are measured in feet and are rarely collected). I cut off medallic items at 18 inches or less as collectable (at least in my directory of American Artists).

How do you find who made a medal?

Look at the edge. Better medals are signed by the maker on the edge. You may find other information here as well. Like the composition, hallmark date, other data. The makers either spell out their name or use a mintmark. You will have to learn these.

Unfortunately, some makers do not sign their medallic products. Like the U.S. Mint. No edgemarks. They should! Artists sometimes sign their models, these will be on one of the faces; more often than not it will be a monogram. Learning these monograms is part of the lore of medal collecting. So it comes with experience!

How are medals made?

There are half a dozen methods of making medals. (The six methods: struck, cast, engraved surface, niello, etched, and forged - but only the first two are of any great concern.) Most medals are struck from dies. More than a hundred years ago dies were all engraved by hand (even though some are still created this way today). These dies had to be made the exact size of the struck medal.

The French created the method of making oversize patterns in sculptural bas-relief and reducing this three-dimensional design by pantographs. The artist could create the original design in soft material - wax or clay - and change the shapes repeatedly until he got exactly the relief he wanted. This was in contrast to the hand engraver, once it was cut in the die, that was it!, any change was difficult to make, and heaven forbid if the burin slipped!

The die-engraving pantograph was a godsend for medal makers. It could reproduce the greatest amount of detail in that steel die, even microscopic detail, that hand engraving could never accomplish. Further, different size dies could be made from the same pattern. All with the same minute detail!

Today however, we have private mints that churn out "medals" which are little more than a trademark. They are quickly designed, the die is quickly produced, some are even designed on a (would you believe it?) computer! Without that loving care of the artist doting over every little detail. Unfortunately, these quickly-made medals have little lasting value (or collector value) and unless that trademark falls within your collecting topic they can quickly cast aside in our throw-away world.

Should I clean medals?

Don't clean wood or other nonmetal medals. Not everyone has an air compressor handy, but blowing air across the surface dislodges most dirt particles and is most non intrusive (or use "Canned Air Duster" available at office supply stores). However, you can use soap and water to clean medals. Rinse in running water and pat dry. Anything more than that requires chemicals, and even professional attention. Better leave that to the pros. Never use scratchy cleansers, and never any chemical dips. Better medals are coated with lacquer and you don't want to disturb the lacquer.

Now, tell me about patina, what's that?

Again, French medallists created two techniques to finish small relief surfaces. In fact, one method is even called "French Finish." A French finish is a method of highlighting the relief by chemically altering the entire surface a dark color, then removing this dark coloration on the higher relief. The dark remains in the crevices, and emphasizes, or contrasts, the relief. This works well on either bronze or silver, the two most common medallic compositions.

Patina colors can also be applied to a relief medal with chemicals and often with heat and other techniques. This is similar to the patinas applied to statues. Bronze is most suitable for patinas and browns and greens are the most common colors. Two medals series are noted for their differing patinas, The Society of Medalists (1930-1995), and the Great Religious of the World (1971-1975), both made by Medallic Art Company.