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Peace in the past

Started by Figleaf, April 05, 2009, 12:09:14 PM

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Rare 1780 Virginia Indian peace medal goes on view at Colonial Williamsburg museum
April 5, 2009, by Mark St. John Erickson | 247-4783

No one knows exactly how many years the few surviving Virginia Indian peace medals commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1780 languished in collectors' cabinets — their history unknown and their importance forgotten.

As early as 1868, numismatic experts began asking questions about the curious bronze objects, scratching their heads about their unknown origin and authenticity. And even as late as 1988 — after another 120 years had passed without a significant lead — two of the most respected scholars in the country concluded that the baffling disks were most likely fabrications minted in the 1800s.

Over time, one example in a prominent collection went missing. A second simply dropped out of sight after being sold. A third was destroyed by fire. That left only two known specimens remaining when a note found in a two-century-old journal — then an obscure government invoice discovered with notations in Jefferson's own hand — revealed that these mysterious question marks ranked among the rarest and most important of early American medals.

No wonder then that Colonial Williamsburg and its numismatics curator, Erik Goldstein, lept at the chance when one of the pair went up for sale at a New York auction this past winter.

Though the $92,000 price tag represented a significant investment in a time of recession, it gives the foundation an unmatched chance to display not only an extremely rare object from a pivotal time in Virginia history but also one that was created at the express instructions of then-Virginia governor Jefferson, Goldstein says.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that the medal went on to have its own compelling numismatic detective story.

"It was unparalleled — and if it had come up for sale a year or two ago, we wouldn't have been able to afford it," the curator says, examining the medal as it was being installed at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. "But it's likely to be the only example that will ever become accessible for public viewing and study — and it had to come to Williamsburg."

Owned by a prominent Boston collector, the 229-year-old medal was purchased with funds from a restricted acquisition account and a gift from the Lasser Family Fund.

Though not quite 3-inches across in size, it easily ranks as a treasure all by itself, Goldstein says. But taken together with two other rare historic objects from the foundation's collection, it now forms part of a "power trio" of early Virginia medals and coins unsurpassed by the holdings of any other institution.

Continuing a tradition that reached back through the French and Indian War to the first settlers at Jamestown, Jefferson commissioned the 1780 medal in the hopes of gaining the support of Virginia's Indian tribes during the pivotal year of the Revolutionary War leading to the American and French victory at Yorktown.

The original bronze mold was cut by Robert Scot, who later became the first chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, and used an early version of the official Virginia seal designed by noted Swiss-American patriot Pierre Eugene du Simitiere for the front of the medal. It shows the goddess Virtue standing triumphant over a fallen tyrant — his crown spilled to the ground — while the surrounding inscription repeats Benjamin Franklin's famous motto, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

Though dated 1780, the reverse side was taken from an earlier British peace medal issued in the mid-1760s. Originally designed by New York silversmith Daniel Christian Feuter, it depicts an Indian and a European seated together on a bench under a tree sharing a "peace pipe." Three ships under sail can be seen over their shoulders, while an over-arching inscription reads "Happy While United."

Based on the amount of silver listed on Scot's invoice, the engraver made at least 12 silver versions of the medal for distribution to the Indians, Goldstein says. None of those examples has ever cropped up, however, and they're believed to have been buried with their owners or swapped in later years for newer federal peace medals.

Scot also made a handful of bronzes that ended up in the hands of such prominent Virginia patriots as Isaac Zane — owner of a Frederick County munitions factory — and probably even the incurable collector Jefferson himself. Zane, in turn, gave his copy to Du Simitiere, whose meticulous description of the gift in a May 1781 notebook entry later provided researchers with the documentary clue that cracked the case of the medal's lost identity more than 200 years later. "Realistically, what we can say for certain is that our medal was once owned by somebody important. Not more than a handful of the bronzes were made," Goldstein says.

"And it's not impossible that we could have Jefferson's medal. He was a known medal and curiosity collector, and I'm sure he had one made for himself — even though I can't prove it."

Jefferson's personal interest was so strong, in fact, that he personally double-checked the figures Scot submitted with his invoice. As the nation's first Secretary of State, moreover, he praised the practice in 1793 as "an ancient custom from time immemorial." As president he sent explorers Lewis and Clark west in 1801 with a large supply of peace medals bearing his own portrait.

Such rich connections make the 1780 Virginia peace medal an unusually compelling document of the period, Goldstein says.

Together with the foundation's extremely rare 1774 Virginia shilling — of which only 4 others exist — as well as its 1770 College of William and Mary academic medal — of which only 2 others are known — it gives Colonial Williamsburg an unmatched trio of early Virginia coins and medals.

It also puts to the lie the common belief among many collectors and curators that all the best things were found so long ago that the world of antiques and museums has no more surprises. "It's not impossible that there are more of these medals sitting in the cabinets of some collection somewhere," he says. "They just don't know what they are."

News to Use
What: 1780 Virginia Indian Peace Medal
Where: In the introductory gallery of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, accessed through the Public Hospital of 1773, Francis and Henry streets, Williamsburg
When: On view indefinitely 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Cost: $9.95 adults, $4.95 children 6-17
Info: 229-1000 or

Source: Daily Press

A picture of the medal should eventually appear here.
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


If anyone is visiting the US, a trip to Williamsburg is really worth while. i lived near there for many years and visited it often, but it is a place that needs to be explored over several day.