Important 1776 Libertas Americana Medal
Betts-615 in Silver
Among the Finest Known
Conceived by Benjamin Franklin
The Archetype American-Motif Medal


   2084 - "1776" Libertas Americana medal. Betts-615, Loubat-4. Silver. Plain edge. 783.4 grains; 47.5 mm. Proof-64. A deeply mirrored near-gem specimen with reflective fields and frosted design motifs. Pale rose, sky blue, gold, and violet iridescent toning graces both sides, adding immeasurably to the overall appeal. The medal is accompanied by a round green leatherette box, somewhat tattered on the outside, with faded red velvet on the inside. The cover closes with two hook and eye snaps. While perhaps not contemporary to the medal enclosed within, the box is almost certainly of 19th-century origin, and perhaps was custom made for an earlier owner of the medal.

   The dies were engraved in Paris in 1782 by Augustin Dupr at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. Selected correspondence on the matter, to and from Franklin, is quoted below.

   This die combination yields a highly prized rarity when struck in copper, as usually seen. Silver impressions are few and far between, and often a period of years will elapse between appearances on the open market. The Harry Bass Collection specimen is sharply struck with even the smallest detail boldly rendered. Usual small rim cud on obverse at 7:00 attests to the originality of this specimen. Here, indeed, is one of the nicest quality examples among the few pieces offered in our era. As such, this lovely and exceedingly important medal will be a focal point in this section of the sale.

   Benjamin Franklin conceived the idea of the Libertas Americana medal and suggested the motifs. Robert R. Livingston suggested the mottoes. A French artist, Esprit-Antoine Gibelin, sketched the design, and the work was executed in die form in 1882 by Augustin Dupr. It seems that at least two gold specimens were struck, these being presented to the king and queen of France, only a few silver coins (including to the French ministers), and a fairly large number of copper impressions, the latter including one for each member of the American Congress.

   Obverse: The inscription LIBERTAS AMERICANA is in an arc above, 4 JUIL. 1776 is in the exergue below. At the center is the head of Libertas Americana, a.k.a. Miss Liberty, facing left, with rich tresses of hair flowing behind, set against a liberty cap on pole. The top of the pole is seen below her neck, and the end of the pole with cap behind her hair to the upper right.

   Reverse: With inscription NON SINE DIIS ANIMOSUS INFANS (the infant is not bold without divine aid) above, 17 OCT. 1777 and 19 OCT. 1781. The allegorical motif on the reverse is a fine example of the engraver's art. Minerva, clad in breastplate and plumed helmet, holds a shield bearing the fleur de lys of France. The infant Hercules (representing the new American nation) kneels in the protective shadow of Minerva's shield, grasping a strangled serpent in each tiny fist. The reptiles represent the defeats of General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne (17 October, 1777) and General George Cornwallis (19 October, 1781). The British lion stands, forepaws upon Minerva's shield. Its tail is between its rear legs, a heraldic signal of cowardice or defeat, as, indeed, it may also be in nature. In some 19th-century accounts (citations on request to the successful bidder) this particular breed of cat has been called incorrectly a leopard or a panther.

   Franklin's involvement: The following letters to and from Benjamin Franklin are from Jared Sparks, Franklin's Works, as quoted by William Sumner Appleton, American Journal of Numismatics, November 1867, pp. 63-64:

   From Benjamin Franklin, who was in France at the time, to Robert R. Livingston, March 4, 1782:
   "This puts me in mind of a medal I have had a mind to strike, since the late great event you gave me an account of, representing the United States by the figure of an infant Hercules in his cradle, strangling the two serpents; and France by that of Minerva, sitting by as his nurse, with her spear and helmet, and her robe specked with a few fleurs de lis. The extinguishing of two entire armies in one war is what has rarely happened, and it gives a presage of the future force of our growing empire."

   Franklin to Sir William Jones, March 17, 1783:
   "The engraving of my medal, which you know was projected before the peace, is but just finished. None are yet struck in hard metal, but will be in a few days. In the meantime, having this good opportunity by Mr. Penn, I send you one of the 閜reuves. You will see that I have profited by some of your ideas, and adopted the mottoes you were so kind as to furnish."

   Franklin to the Grand Master of Malta, April 6, 1783 (which, among other things, indicates the prestige of a silver striking and the possibility, which never saw fruition, of adding COMITIA AMERICANA to the die for later strikings):
   "My Lord, I have the honor to address to your Eminent Highness the medal, which I have lately had struck. It is a homage of gratitude, my Lord, which is due to the interest you have taken in our cause; and we no less owe it to your virtues, and to your Eminent Highness's wise administration of government."

   Franklin to Livingston, April 15, 1783:
   "I have caused to be struck here the medal which I formerly mentioned to you, the design of which you seemed to approve. I enclose one of them in silver, for the President of Congress, and one in copper for yourself; the impression in copper is thought to appear best, and you will soon receive a number for the members. I have presented one to the King, and another to the Queen, both in gold, and one in silver to each of the ministers, as a monumental acknowledgment, which may go down to future ages, of the obligations we are under to this nation. It is mighty well received, and gives general pleasure. If the Congress approve it, as I hope they will, I may add something on the die (for those to be struck hereafter) to show that it was done by their order, which I could not venture to do until I had authority for it."

   Rohan, Grand Master of Malta, to Franklin, June 21, 1783; it is seen that Rohan, like many Frenchmen of the time, had his own cabinet of medals:
   "Sir, I received with the most lively sensibility the medal, which your Excellency sent me, and the value I set upon this acquisition leaves my gratitude unbounded. This monument of American liberty has a distinguished place in my cabinet."

   Letter from Franklin to the President of the United States Congress, September 13, 1783:
   "I am happy to hear that both the device and workmanship of the medal are approved with you, as they have the good fortune to be by the best judges on this side of the water. It has been esteemed a well-timed, as well as a well-merited, compliment here, and has its good effects. Since the two first which you mention as received, I have sent by different opportunities so many, as that every member of Congress might have one. I hope they are come safe to hand by this time."

   The Libertas Americana tradition: This beautiful obverse personification of Liberty was copied, to some extent, by Joseph Wright and other early United States Mint engravers for federal copper coinage of the 1793-1796 era. In later times the motif continued to be admired. Inspired by the design, the combination of the liberty cap and Miss Liberty appeared in other forms as well, including Christian Gobrecht's silver coinage of the 1830s, extending for some denominations to 1891, and on many patterns, medals, and other productions. In the 1870s, J.A. Bolen produced his own version which was employed on certain store cards and Centennial Exhibition related items. In the 1970s Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro produced a version of the Liberty Cap motif which at the time was considered for use on the metallic dollar and was enthusiastically endorsed by the numismatic community (however, the Susan Anthony motif was used); an earlier version of Gasparro's Liberty Cap design had appeared on an ANA medal, in which connection he worked with ANA executive director Ed Rochette.

   In numismatic circles, the desirability of the Libertas Americana medal-typically encountered in copper-was recognized at an early date, even before the hobby became organized (more or less) circa 1857-1860. Many examples could be given, but these two will suffice:

   In the catalogued sale conducted by Horatio Hill (169 Broadway, New York City), April 22-23, 1848, of books, maps, and medals of the late D.B. Worden, of Paris, which had become the property of the State of New York, numismatic items included an Libertas Americana medal.

   The Documentary History of the State of New York, by E.B. O'Callaghan, M.D., published in four volumes in 1850 by Weed, Parsons & Co., Albany, NY, included some information on numismatics. Chapter XXIII, "Medals and Coins," featured three plates of coins engraved and separately printed by J.E. Gavit. Among the items depicted was a Libertas Americana medal.

   Although detailed commentary is outside the scope of the present lot description, in passing we mentioned that during the early 19th century there was a great passion for medals among French citizens and numismatists, and the works of Du Vivier, Caqu, Gatteaux, Puymaurin, and others were widely collected. France was viewed as the world's premier source for art medals, and, as with the Comitia Americana medals, certain early United States historical medals were produced there, the most familiar being Dupr's Libertas Americana, which was appreciated by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. The French were quite interested in other American subjects as well, and we need but mention the Series Numismatica, which included medals of George Washington.

   In the American Journal of Numismatics, October 188, p. 31, Hon. George M. Parsons commented concerning the medal:
   "The obverse shows a beautiful head of Liberty in bold relief. On the shoulder is a staff which bears at the end the Phrygian cap. During the French Revolution, which followed in 1789, this cap became the emblem of republicanism. The same device was afterwards adopted for some of the early American copper coins; it was never replaced by anything more beautiful."

   John W. Adams on the series, an appreciation: In 1991, John W. Adams, in "Back To Medal Collecting," a contribution to the American Numismatic Association Centennial Anthology, listed early medals authorized by the American Congress (in Latin, Comitia Americana), here synopsized and adapted:
   "The medals, 11 in all, were authorized by Congress to celebrate major victories in the Revolutionary War. Typically, a specimen in gold or silver was awarded to the hero who led the victory. Usually, additional pieces were struck from the same dies in copper and, though generally unknown by present day numismatists, are eminently collectable.

   "The series begins in 1776 with Washington's dramatic appearance before Boston (causing the British evacuation thereof), the Washington Before Boston medal. It continues as follows: 1777 Saratoga General Gates. 1779 Stony Point with three issues: General Wayne, Col. de Fleury, and Major Stewart. 1779 Paulus Hook, featuring Major Henry Lee. 1779 Capture of the Serapis by Capt. John Paul Jones. 1781 The Battle of Cowpens featuring General Morgan, and colonels Howard and William Washington. 1781 Eutaw Springs, General Greene. 1781 Yorktown, Libertas Americana. A careful counter will note that we have cited 12 medals, not 11. The last named, the famous Libertas Americana, was not authorized by Congress but was carried out by Benjamin Franklin, then our Minister to France, acting on his own. Although Congress had voted thanks to Count de Grasse and Count de Rochambeau for the French help at Yorktown, Franklin believed that a more tangible expression of gratitude was in order. Actually, the series shrinks back to 11, because none of the Lee medals has survived. Voting the medals was one thing, procuring them was another. Our infant nation had no facilities to make ordinary coinage, much less memorials worthy of the occasion. A committee of Congress was appointed and this body turned to France for artistic support. The French Academy provided the designs and inscriptions; the best artists in that land were retained to engrave the dies; and the Paris Mint, the best equipped facility in the world at that time, struck the medals. Aesthetically, the work of the committee was a complete success. Indeed, from that standpoint, it has no rival in all of American numismatics. Logistically, the effort was more labored. It took eight years, from 1781 through 1789, to complete the project despite the active participation of such patriots as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and David Humphrey. In 1789, Jefferson returned from France with two complete sets of medals: his own, in pewter, has since been lost; the set silver which he delivered personally to General Washington now resides in the Massachusetts Historical Society."

   About the engraver: Augustin Dupr was born in St. Etienne, province Loire, France, on October 6, 1748. As a young man he was an apprentice in the making of firearms, where, among other skills, he learned engraving. In 1768 he moved to Paris, where he worked under an engraver and die sinker, soon becoming recognized for his own expertise. In addition, he did chasing and engraving work on jewelry, objets d'art, and sculpture, some of this in the employ of Jacques Clamier. His artistry on an elegantly decorated and embellished writing desk for the Empress Maria Louisa attracted wide admiration.

   Soon, he focused upon medallic art, and in time he achieved great fame. His work included portraits of Louis XVI, Napoleon, and other famous French personages, as well as work on coinage dies. In 1791 he was named as the engraver general at the Paris Mint, which during that era was known worldwide for the artistry of its products. It was natural that during and after the American Revolution, the Paris Mint would be the source for medals of a high order of artistry, as there was little capability in the United States for engraving and, in particular, for striking large-format pieces.

   In 1889 sketches by him were donated by his family to the Boston Public Library and, per an item in the American Journal of Numismatics, included "some of his original drawings, models, dies, and essays, relating to work done on medals for the United States, and more especially in reference to the medals of Franklin."



   From New Netherlands Coin Company Inc.'s sale of April 1972, Lot 615.