Medals & Collecting

The medal was first introduced in the fifteenth century by Antonio Pisanello, an Italian sculptor and engraver. His medals depicted busts of famous men and on the reverse designs which portrayed their characters or achievements. The art of making medals quickly spread to Germany and the Low Countries. Early medals were cast.

Monarchs and heads of European states quickly saw the potential of the medal as a means to make known their achievements – military successes, marriages, birth of children, social acts etc. Medals were often given by monarchs as gifts to important visitors and other heads of state. They were sometimes given to courtiers and military men to thank them for their services. From the end of the sixteenth century medals began to be produced by striking using dies and presses.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the making of medals was seen as an important state activity and many medals from this period were engraved by chief engravers and made in national mints. At the beginning of the nineteenth century medals were given to soldiers and naval men to thank them for their services in particular military campaigns – thus the military or campaign medal was born.

In the nineteenth century dies were made using reducing machines and medals struck using steam driven presses. All too often this meant that medal making became a branch of manufacture and designs became formalised. There was a reaction against this towards the end of the century and some leading engravers adopted a new approach based on the "New Sculpture". Portraits became more realistic and medals less regular in form and shape. This movement and the introduction of art nouveau and art deco have transformed medallic art. Many fine art medals continue to be made today.

Collecting historical and commemorative medals is a fascinating and increasingly popular hobby. It offers something for all collectors. Over the past five hundred years medals on many different themes have been made – military, royal, civic, exhibition, awards, art etc. Most collectors concentrate on one or two themes. Medals have been made in gold, silver and bronze and vary greatly in the condition in which they have survived. Some see medal collecting as an investment: prices have risen sharply since the Second World War. A medal will rise in value when it is rare, in good condition and from a popular collecting theme.

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