The Society of Medalists unquestionably represents the United States' longest running and most successful art medal society. Co-founded in 1929 by Clyde Curlee Trees, the new owner of Medallic Art Company, and medal enthusiast and philanthropist George Dupont Pratt, the Society saw itself as the successor to the Circle of Friends of the Medallion and modeled itself on recently established peer groups in France (Société des Amis de la Médaille Française) and in the Netherlands (Verenigung voor Penningkunst). Advances in minting technology had enabled the inexpensive production of high quality bronze medals. This allowed the newly founded Society to pursue its mission of promoting high quality yet affordable medallic art to a broad public.
Affordability and material quality were guaranteed by the Medallic Art Company's excellent production facilities in New York. Thus the founders had to focus on ensuring the medallions' artistic merit and broad appeal. They chose to recruit a committee of highly reputed sculptors who solicited medal designs from sculptors of the highest caliber. The competing artists were usually provided with a general topic deemed to be popular with the member community and invited to submit their proposals to the Society. The Society's artistic selection committee then voted on the proposals and the winning design was issued. Originally, only American sculptors were invited to submit proposals and prior winners were not eligible to submit future proposals. In later years, the committee changed its policies and allowed previous winners and well-known international sculptors to compete for new medal issues.
Starting in 1930, the Society (mostly) managed to maintain a schedule of two medal issues per year. During its 66 years of existence, it issued a total of 139 different medals. Of these, 134 were regular issues (one issue consisting of six separate medals) and 5 were special issues. With the exception of one year at the height of World War II, all original medals were issued in bronze. The general metal shortage during World War II required a departure from this practice, resulting in two smaller diameter silver medals. In the 1970s, the Medallic Art Company started issuing silver variants of the older bronze medals. With the exception of the war-time silvers, all silver variants of early issues represent restrikes from the 1970s and 1990s. The Society and Medalic Arts Company tried to popularize and revitalize their brands by issuing various items based on particularly popular earlier medals. These efforts yielded the commercially unsuccessful, and therefore of course collectible, paperweights.
While many medal series are defined by one over-arching topic and a designated sculptor, the Society of Medalists series represents a truly diverse body of work. Every medal had its own topic which gives us an idea about pressing issues or popular leitmotifs of the day. Also, with a few exceptions, every medal was designed and sculpted by a different artist, each bringing his own philosophy, style, and technique to the series. All styles of the 20th century, be they classic, abstract, or modern can be found in this series.
The end came in 1995 after the Medallic Art Company had been resold twice. The Society was already in trouble because the last issues had been expensive to produce and did not meet with the same widespread approval that the earlier issues had. While the medals were still of very high material and artistic quality, the decision makers had started neglecting two key points: affordability and broad appeal. The last medals of the series were simply too expensive and too large for the average collector. In the last ownership transition the already shrunken member list was apparently not included in the list of purchased assets and no further medals were commissioned. A sad end for an organization that brought so much beauty to so many people.
For the collector, the Society of Medalists series is very attractive for many reasons:
But most of all, the medals are really enjoyable and that's of course the only reason you should collect them. If you hold them for a long time, they probably won't be a bad investment either.
As a little teaser, I have included a mosaic of (most of) the Society of Medalists medals below. If you like what you see here you should definitely look at the other sections of this page.
The table below contains both the obverse and the reverse of all 139 Society of Medalists issues. Many of the issues exist in more than one variant. Click on the Variants tab for an obverse view of these variations.
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