September 9, 1999
One of the most popular U.S. medals with art medal collectors is the Hunter's Medal issued in 1930 by the Society of Medalists. That organization will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.
Formed in 1930 under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts "to increase American interest in the honored and exquisite art of medals," SOM has issued two medals annually for its membership. These medals are avidly collected today.
The Hunter's Medal is the work of sculptress Laura Gardin Fraser. It tells a complete story. She depicts a hunter holding a rifle at hip level facing to the right with his dog pointing and the legend "Steady" on its obverse. On the reverse she shows the quarry, a Ruffed Grouse standing on an oak log.
Because the designer has modeled relief into her backgrounds, light glimmers off its uneven surfaces creating a sparkling visual backdrop for the medals' figures.
This medal proved a marked departure from the norm. At the time of its issue, medals were largely confined to military decorations or commemorative issues. The idea of issuing a beautiful small sculpture as "art for art's sake" was exciting and innovative.
The committee to select designs for the first SOM medal were cultural bigwigs. They included industrialist George D. Pratt, Metropolitan Museum of Art President Robert W. deForest, Alexander B. Trowbridge, National Sculpture Society past president Herbert Adams and sculptor James Earle Fraser.
The group commissioned the finest living American medalist for its first venture. They selected sculptress Laura Gardin Fraser to design and execute the society's initial issue. A renowned medalist and coin designer, Mrs. Fraser was at her artistic best, having recently created the Congressional medal for pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh.
The medal reflects its creator. Animals were a popular subject for the sculptress, who owned several dogs herself. This excellent medal, however, was not the first choice for the Society of Medalist's inaugural venture. Initially, Fraser proposed a symbolic design for a world recently plunged into uncertainty by the Stock Market crash.
The New York Herald Tribune May 7, 1930, reported that Fraser's design would honor the Architectural League. The news account described her design as "a seated male figure contemplating the horizon of the great modern city." Although this theme doubtless would have made a fine medal in the talented artist's hands, it would not have had so universal appeal as the hunter and his dog that was selected.
It is not known if the Tribune account was erroneous, or if the committee put the kibosh on Fraser's architectural medal. What seems likely is that the Society was in a hurry to inaugurate its medal program, and didn't want to wait for her to develop a new medal from scratch.
Fortunately, Fraser was already at work on her "hunter's medal" before she received the SOM commission. This juxtaposition of opportunity and genius proved fortuitous for the fledgling society. A splendid inaugural medal was issued, which is still a favorite of collectors today.
Fraser delighted in her "hunter's medal," as she called it. "I felt," she wrote later in a brochure which accompanied the release of this medal, "that a sporting subject would be a departure from what one has been accustomed to seeing in medallic art.. Therefore, I chose the hunter with his dog because it presented the opportunity of telling a story embodying a human and animal element."
Fraser kept detailed records of her progress on the medal. Fraser's 1930 diary says that she had begun designing the Grouse medal in early January 1930. Later the diary records she received the $1,500 commission from the SOM near the end of January. Fraser completed this work with great rapidity. She copyrighted her design February 4, 1930.
Her finished models were put on display in June in the Society's headquarters at New York City's Art Center. This medal has fared extremely well with critics, who have appreciated its romantic naturalism. The animal renderings are both accurate and powerful, and the theme is universal, the critics wrote.
Over the years this 73-millimeter medal has proven extremely popular with collectors, too. Through the years, the society has issued 3,235 bronze specimens and 125 silver specimens. All have been struck by the Medallic Art Company.
Bronze medals that cost art connoisseurs a modest $4 in 1930 find willing buyers today in the $100-$150 range, while silver specimens which were re-struck in the 1970s fetch twice that amount.
Fred Reed is former News Editor of Coin World and Vice-President of Beckett Publications. A collector for over 40 years, Reed is a member of most national coin and stamp organizations. He is also Secretary of Society of Paper Money Collectors. SPMC awarded Reed its lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking Civil War Encased Stamps: The Issuers and Their Times, one of his five books. Reed has also written on coins and currency, tokens and medals, stamps, comic books, post cards, Beanie Babies, sports cards and collectibles, engravings and lithographs, movie memorabilia, autographs, antique photography, and Civil War artifacts, all of which he avidly collects. Reed is a long-time member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Dallas Press Club and the Society for American Baseball Research.