Antonio di Puccio Pisano (called Pisanello), John VIII Paleologus, Emperor of Byzantium (b. 1392; r. 1425–48), ca. 1438. Lead (cast), 104.1 mm. Photo: Michael Bodycomb, Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection

Medals of Honor

The Scher Collection of Commemorative Medals, edited by Stephen K. Scher with the assistance of Aimee Ng (New York: The Frick Collection, in association with D Giles Limited, $280.)

Sculpture portable enough to fit in the palm of your hand, inside a pocket, or tucked into a wallet can also be invested with enough narrative power to tell an epic story. The newly published catalogue, The Scher Collection of Commemorative Medals, proves that sculpture the size of a silver dollar can assume the presence of something monumental. The first example of such portable power was likely cast around 1438, in Italy. On a roughly four-inch-diameter lead disk, the artist known as Pisanello sculpted a two-sided portrait of a Holy Roman Emperor. Pisanello’s work, like all subsequent portrait medals, was both commemorative and sculptural.

Dr. Stephen Scher, the owner of the 884 objects illustrated in actual size in this epically weighted (and priced) volume, admits to being afflicted since childhood with “the collector’s disease.” During his 60 years amassing portrait medals, he has emerged as the world’s most prolific collector of the art form. As any museum director might remark upon receiving a bequest of this scale, Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection, happily writes in the foreword that of this “greatest medal collection in private hands…a significant portion of it has very generously come to the Frick as an initial and promised gift.”

In presenting the case for portrait medals as sculpture, Scher and the other scholars who have contributed to the book come across as slightly defensive but ultimately convincing. “Although I have always considered medals as works of sculpture,” Scher writes in his introduction, “it is important to remember that their roots are firmly established in the field of numismatics. A medal is not a coin.” He goes on to explain that coins, unlike the treasures he has collected from Italy, Germany, France, England, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Mexico, and the United States, are always “struck,” whereby an image is pressed onto and into a blank metal form. Money is issued by a governing agency. While coins “conform to specific weights and materials in their function as units of exchange and commerce,” Scher emphasizes, “medals are solely commemorative in nature, can be commissioned by anyone, may be struck or cast, and need not conform to any standards of size, weight, or material.”

And just in case the matter of sculpture versus currency is still in doubt, Wardropper adds that “Steve’s rigorous scholarship over the years has done much to establish medals—traditionally considered closer to numismatics than to fine art—as small-scale sculptures deserving of a prominent place in the history of art.” Once the Scher collection is housed at the Frick, the institution will likely become one of the world’s largest repositories of the art form.

While this catalogue raisoneé of a particular collection (as opposed to a particular artist) is decidedly scholarly in approach, with essays by noted art historians and curators, along with sober descriptions of the imagery depicted on the obverse and reverse of every medal, it is a surprisingly engaging publication. Scher casts (pun intended) a candid tale of how and when he began collecting, at once authoritative and self-deprecating. He describes how as an undergrad student traveler in Florence decades ago, he was entranced by a portrait medal he spotted in an antiquary shop near the Ponte Vecchio. Although unable to afford it then, he never forgot the experience of holding the medal and marveling at the skill of its sculptor. He wound up acquiring the work years later, a 1446 copper alloy medal showing an official of the Holy Roman Church; it is included in the book.

Although Scher embarked on a teaching career as a medievalist, he admits to the reader, “My collecting of medals could begin in earnest only after I left the academic world in 1974 and took over the family chemical manufacturing business.” Since then, he has never stopped buying. Unlike some collectors who have to possess as many of their objects of affection as they can find, Scher is discerning. His stated standards for what to add to the collection: “Excellence of design, the condition of a particular specimen, and whether cast or struck, the quality of its fabrication.” This sentiment is echoed by Ulrich Pfisterer, a professor of art history in Munich, who writes in the chapter about Italian medals that Scher “seems to have approached medal acquisition with an interest in the artistic quality and the particular execution of each individual work.”

In the pages of this book, which weighs as much as a Rodin and its plinth, we witness the commemorative emphasis that defines portrait medals. Kings and queens, duke and earls, noblemen and noblewomen, explorers, town officials, and artists are depicted in silver, lead, copper alloy, and tin. While most of the medals made during the Italian Renaissance show figures in profile, in later or era-contiguous German examples, we start to see full-frontal portraits or three-quarter views. The obverse sides often feature engaging townscapes or heraldic sentiments, battles or group scenes.

Scher breezily relates the history of the portrait medal, claiming that it harks back to the ancient Greek practice of acknowledging and honoring notable people and historical events, but in two-dimensional fashion. If the Italian Renaissance is defined by its embrace of the human form in art, so too does it make sense that the portrait medal would emerge in Italy, with many examples sculpted by notable artists. After seeing Alessandro Cesati’s medal of Paul III, completed in 1560, Michelangelo is said to have remarked that one “could not see anything better”—in terms of a medal being more expertly executed. Scher insists, “The medal has achieved its purpose in giving immortality to a large number of men and women who might otherwise have disappeared from the stage of history.”

Apart from the existential question of what, if anything, is immortal, the portrait medals that were collected, prized, and now documented in this book prove their staying power, both in material and affect. Scher’s citing of the Latin phrase multum in parvo, “much in little,” is apt, for while diminutive, these works of sculpture help redefine the medium.

A free online supplement to The Scher Collection of Commemorative Medals, on the heraldry found on the medals in the publication, is available to explore here.