United States Mint Medals: Originals, Restrikes and Alterations

Posted on 6/11/2019

Explore the complex area of identifying compositions, restrikes, alterations and counterfeits, and how they factor into grading and valuing US Mint medals.

The large three-inch and four-inch medals produced by the United States Mint throughout the 19th century was a feat of manufacturing for the Mint. It was in the fall of 1796 that the Mint started to take steps toward issuing struck medals, but these had to be ordered from private manufacturers overseas, usually in England or France.

The initial purpose of Mint medals was to provide presidential medals as gifts to important chiefs in the various Indian tribes. After 1800, nearly all of these “peace medals” were being struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The original peace medals were issued in small quantities — in silver — and were intended to be worn, and thus are almost always holed (or pierced) at the top for suspension.

J-IP-5: A genuine Indian peace medal featuring James Madison and struck circa 1814.
It is graded NGC XF Details, Cleaned.
Because these often come damaged, this condition is very acceptable.
Click images to enlarge.

Bronze copies of these from the same dies were produced as early as 1825 at the order of then Chief Coiner, Adam Eckfeldt. These were produced for sale to collectors and museums. Thus, there are technically no “original” peace medals in bronze. The originals were made in silver, and strikes in bronze were made for collectors, but at later dates throughout the 19th century. However, collectors consider these to be originals, because they were produced from the same dies, and produced in the same manner as the ones in silver.

J-IP-19: A small size (51mm) copper-bronzed peace medal for Martin Van Buren.
Click images to enlarge.

Beginning in 1861, the Mint began recycling the peace medal and other dies to make bronze specimens to sell to collectors on a major scale. This was set in motion by Director James Ross Snowden, who was an avid proponent for commemorative medals, and was responsible for creating the legendary Washington Cabinet collection.

On January 17, a letter was received from 16 prominent numismatists, requesting that the Mint strike bronze medals for public sale. Armed with this letter, Snowden appealed for permission from Treasury Secretary John A. Dix on February 7, and a dedicated medals division was effectively created that day. With the Mint busy striking large amounts of coinage in the wake of the outbreak of the Civil War, it wasn’t until October that the Mint had struck enough medals to place them for sale.

These medals became an overnight success, and as collectors raved about them, orders poured in from across the Northern states under Union control. This is impressive, considering that each medal cost at least $1.50, which was close to the average daily wage that was under $2 in 1861.

A photo inside the Mint Cabinet in Philadelphia from the early 1900s.
Click images to enlarge.

R.W. Julian’s Medals of the United States Mint, the First Century 1792-1892 designates these medals were struck in bronze (AE), but notes that the term is actually a misnomer for medals issued before 1901. These medals are actually struck in pure copper, and subsequently chemically treated in a process called “bronzing.” These medals come with “proof” surfaces, and shades of brown from a lighter reddish finish, to a dark, chocolatey brown.

While the exact process of bronzing is somewhat a mystery from the early days, Julian notes that at least from 1855-1891, the bronzing technique involved treating the surfaces chemically, with the ingredients being “puli sol ammonia, pulverized distilled verdigris, and powdered red chalk.” The quality and color of the resulting finish depended on the skill of the workman involved.

J-MI-29: An example of the magnificent four-inch Grant medal. These larger medals were resized to three-inch
(76mm) when the mint began making restrikes in the 20th century.
Click images to enlarge.

In the early 1890s, the Mint’s process for striking medals started to change, exchanging the desirable “proof” finish, for a dull/matte one. By 1894, the Mint had acquired a new hydraulic press to replace the old-style screw presses. This greatly reduced the amount of labor required for each medal, such as the four-inch Grant medal, which took 60-80 blows on a screw press to fully flesh out the design. This process also called for annealing the medal between each strike. The new presses needed just three blows.

Starting in 1901, the process and composition of producing medals changed again — dramatically. The Mint switched to using an actual bronze composition of about 90% copper and 10% zinc, just like the Paris Mint. The Mint also adopted a sandblasted finish, which has been the standard ever since.

It wasn’t until 1910 that the striking of copper-bronzed medals was fully phased out from medals for public sale. These changes have been to the lament of many collectors who had grown to love the older pre-1892 style with a bronzed, “proof” finish. It is no wonder collecting interest has waned because of these new inferior “yellow-bronze” medals.

This Presidential medal demonstrates the matte finish the Mint adopted in the late 1890s,
though medals at that time were still pure copper. It is not listed in Julian
because the reference only covers up to 1892.
The medal is graded NGC MS 66.
Click images to enlarge.

The three Mint Cabinet Medals, below, illustrate the evolution of the Mint’s restrikes in different finishes. The first medal is an original copper one, struck in the 1860s, and exhibits a bronzed surface. The second medal is a restrike from the early 1900s, and the third is a more modern restrike — both in yellow bronze.

The second medal likely employed the original dies, the two periods from the engraver’s name still visible beneath the bust. The latter medal was likely struck from copy dies, and demonstrates a noticeable loss of sharpness and detail due to excessive sandblasting. Upon closer examination, the surfaces of these and most other restrikes are grainy. These are attributed by some as circa 1950s-1970s.

J-MT-23: An original copper-bronzed medal (top), compared with two different 20th century restrikes.
The originals say “PAQUET. F.” beneath the truncation, while the first restrike has
remnants of the name remaining.
Click images to enlarge.

Of course, collectors desire the earlier medals, not only for their antiquity, but for their superior strike and finish. However, there is often a drastic price difference between the original copper-bronzed medals, and the yellow bronze restrikes. For instance, an original Mint Cabinet medal sold for nearly $650 in a 2017 Heritage Auction, graded NGC MS 64. The “mid restrikes” are far less common than the modern ones, and still might sell for up to $50-$80, depending on the medal. The modern restrikes have seen almost total disregard by collectors, and can be found in abundance for as low as $20 for a good design, and even $5 for a mediocre one. They often grade quite high (around MS 67), but this doesn’t raise their value much.

J-MI-15: a 19th century and 20th century restrike of an Andrew Jackson Military medal compared.
The original dies were first cut around 1822, and were still in use by 1885!
Click images to enlarge.

The early restrikes are far less common than the modern restrikes. There has also been confusion among inexperienced collectors as to why two medals that appear the same, bring radically different prices. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to distinguish the first and second types, or the second and third types from a photo because of various lighting conditions or incorrect white-balance settings. This can make online purchases difficult.

Unscrupulous individuals have even taken measures to artificially antique or “bronze” these restrikes to make a quick profit from unsuspecting collectors. The trained eye will easily detect that something is off, noting the loss of sharpness and detail (especially in the hair) and point to the grainy surfaces rather than a smooth “proof” finish. When placed side-by-side with an original, the differences are obvious. The rims and edge usually give away the fact that the medal is yellow-bronze underneath.

J-IP-40: An altered restrike of the Andrew Johnson Indian peace medal (left) is
compared to a 19th century “original” (right).
Click images to enlarge.

Another, even more common practice for the unethical is to take these worthless modern restrikes of Indian peace medal designs and plate them with silver. They are also holed at the top to resemble the originals, which can easily bring over $10,000 for even a damaged one.

If they’re really trying to sell it, they’ll attach an old Indian ribbon necklace with vintage teeth, bone fragments or beads, and frame it in a nice display case. The medals are often artificially worn down and sometimes beat up, like many of the originals as well, so it may be hard to distinguish them at first glance. These are occasionally offered at shady auction houses, antique shows or flea markets, where they are purchased by collectors who hope they just got a massive bargain.

J-IP-46: A silver plated restrike (top) compared to bronze original (bottom). The oval peace medals
were some of the last designs issued before the mint terminated the peace medal program.
Click images to enlarge.

So is there a definitive, “scientific” way to distinguish the restrikes from the originals, and the plated medals from the originals? Yes. A silver peace medal should have a specific gravity (SG) of around 10.5, which is pure silver (the occasional 90% silver medal will come out to around 10.3). Copper has a specific gravity of 8.9, and zinc only 7, which means the yellow bronze restrikes usually come out to a mere 8.5 or so. The original copper medals SG at 8.9. Thus, performing a specific gravity alone will tell you if a medal is silver, copper, or bronze.

J-IP-38: Reverses for the Abraham Lincoln peace medal in silver, copper and bronze.
Click images to enlarge.

That said, a good SG is no guarantee of authenticity, as fake Indian Peace Medals cast in solid silver do exist. Also, a small number of modern restrikes exist in silver, which were later holed and abused to make them look old. There is some difficulty for the average collector in having access to an SG setup that is able to accommodate the larger three inch-medals. Fortunately, NGC possesses XRF metallurgic analysis technology that gives its graders an instant reading that also reveals most plating. The graders will still perform a specific gravity test as a safety precaution for silver peace medals.

It is for all of these points that certification by NGC can be very helpful for these medals — especially when the difference between a copper original and a bronze restrike is usually several hundred dollars. The difference between a genuine silver peace medal and a plated restrike is literally $10,000 to $1. Some counterfeits are poorly made – cast in lead with lumpy, pitted surfaces. It should be noted that NGC does not encapsulate plated medals or medals with artificially bronzed surfaces, and has declined to certify many such medals. Technically, the medal just a restrike, so it will be called as such, flagged as “plated” and sent back unencapsulated.

J-IP-38: A counterfeit copy of the Abraham Lincoln Peace Medal, cast in lead.
Click images to enlarge.

How does NGC differentiate between the originals, the mid restrikes, and the late restrikes on the certification label? For original copper-bronzed medals, the top line will contain the Julian attribution, along with the designation “AE”. For “mid” restrikes, done in the early 1900s, the top line will simply say “bronze” and give the diameter in millimeters. The Julian number will appear on the last line, followed by the word “restrike”. For the late restrikes done around the 1950s to the 1970s, the words “modern restrike” will follow the Julian attribution.

J-IP-11: An “original” copper-bronzed issue of the John Quincy Adams medal, likely issued
post-1861 when strikes for collectors commenced en masse.
Click images to enlarge.

The safety alone that encapsulation provides for these medals is well worth the price of admission. Dropping a 3-inch medal even from a low height can cause significant damage to the rims, due to their sheer weight. Great care should be taken when handling these medals raw – if the medal is in a soft flip, it may not be enough to shield it from an impact. On the other hand, if the medal is stored in a hard plastic case, any gaps or play in-between can cause adverse friction on the bust, which is often in high relief.

Because of the bronzed surfaces, attempts to clean a medal will be readily apparent, and will certainly devalue the medal. If the medal has encountered spots of environmental damage or residue from PVC, the author has seen excellent results from Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS), which can neutralize the area, or remove the spotting entirely, without introducing hairlines.

The experience, precision, and attention to detail that NGC provides has added significant value to the exonumia market. And that is why NGC has long been established as the leader for the certification of tokens and medals.

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