Rare Exposition Medal–Not From the World’s Columbian Expo

While this journal is dedicated to the World’s Columbian Exposition, and there certainly are thousands of posts we could offer from it, we felt that sharing this information on a medal we recently discovered would be of interest to those collecting Columbiana. The following is from the text of the description of this unique Exhibitor’s Medal from the world’s first world’s fair in London in 1851.

Where to begin…..

This is an exhibitor’s medal from the first-ever exposition called a world’s fair in London, 1851, which took place at the Crystal Palace. The obverse of the medal features Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who nearly single-handedly planned, oversaw and made an incredible success out of the 1851 world’s fair.Crystal Palace Named2.JPG

Exhibitors were presented with this medal, a very handsome high relief bronze, and the edge was engraved with the exhibitor’s name and the number assigned to them as an exhibitor. (Please note that the specks of dust below the bust of Prince Albert are just that, not any problem with the medal.)

We have in our forty years of handling world’s fair memorabilia owned two of these spectacular medals, neither of which was engraved to an exhibitor. Virtually all of the tiny handful of medals in the marketplae are extras from the minting. They were saved uncirculated and unengraved and it is those that normally show up every few years. Finding a presentation copy is so very difficult because they were presented to individuals, government agencies, private companies that were exhibitors. How many of the companies survived to even the 20th century?

That the world’s fair was held 167 years ago means most of the medals were passed on to an executive or family member, rolled from one desk to another attic and so on, such that over the 167 years most were simply lost to collectors. A very few may be found in museums. That this is the first engraved exhibitor medal we’ve been able to offer attests to the rarity. We have handled award medals for dozens of world’s fairs and our specialty, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, produced many times more medals than any other fair (as awards) and few fairs offered such high-quality medallic art to those participating. Everything under the direction of Prince Albert was top-drawer, not just for the period. The venue of glass was a unique showhplace for the time and would be considered an architectural triumph even today.

This medal is engraved to the joint exhibition of the countries of Sweden and Norway. We found it in Europe, which is no surprise. How it found its way to the commercial collector market was no doubt an interesting trail, but we’re not aware of how it began as a presentation piece in London and came up for auction inn 2017.

Crystal Palace Named3.jpg As a historian (having written two books on the Columbian Exposition) and consultant to many museums over the years I remain somewhat mystified that more named/engraved medals over the last 167 years aren’t stillknown outside of museums. That this was so long ago and at what has always been recognized as the world’s first world’s fair, makes this piece incredibly desirable and rare. On top of this, it is in immaculate condition, an amazing plus.

Finally, one thing I have learned over this many years of handling museum and exposition medals, for which there is no price guide per se, just knowledge of the marketplace, often means that the medals can be purchased for what sseems like a much lower cost that rarity should indicate.

An interesting comparison was a medal from the other fair which I have been invovled in all my life–the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. There were not exhibitor or actual award medals for that exposition, but the U.S. Mint made a limited number of 5-ounce .999 silver versions of the official so-called dollar size bronze and silver medals sold to the general public. We had not seen one of these rare pieces in perhaps 15 or more years until one was on ebay and sold the first week of 2018 for $230. With an intrinsic value of five ounces of silver and marketplace that had seen a half-dozen sold in 25 years and just this one in the last decade and a half, should it not be substantially more expensive?

Crystal Palace Named4.JPGConsider the World’s Columbian award medals which generally are on ebay at least once or twice a month and perhaps 500 named recipient medals are known: A decent specimen will bring $200-$300 and many ask $500 or more (which doesn’t mean they will find a buyer), although we saw one nice but typical medal sell for $800.

The point is a simple one: Demand of collectors overrides rarity and condition.

This unique medal from the Crystal Palace and “The Exhibition of the Workds of Industry of all Nations” based on its condition and rarity and the importance of the event would suggest to me that it should be appraised at $1,000+/-. It also is obvious that there might be but one or two collectors in the world interested enough in this fair and medal to pay what condition and rarity would deem logical. I actually feel that pricing it as I have ($450, which seems both greatly underpriced and what should appeal to collectors) is almost sacrilege. It is certainly undervaluing a work of numismatic, historicaland medallic art.

This entire conundrum regarding value and worth is why when we have been asked to appraise individual and museum collections we provide a report and essay on all pertinent factors including demand as well as condition, rarity and historical significance….but also for insurance purposes, an amount that would be necessary to replace it–if items can be replaced. If this medal were say a U.S. or British coin, these problems would disappear. We have relatively sound knowledge of mintage, a matrix of known market value by condition and both buyers and sellers can immediately narrow the price range.

This issue of valuing collectibles and medals, and specifically those from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, can be researched and pertinent facts documented. But the obvious issue of demand is even more difficult to identify that it seems. The 1851 Crystal Palace medal illustrates this rather painfully. We often see items from the 1893 fair alongside very similar items from the next great fair, in St. Louis in 1904. Almost any time on ebay one can see parallels between the fairs. We just saw (January 2018) worker and concession passes from both fairs. If you could obtain one from Chicago for less than $100 it would be considered a bargain in the marketplace; a similar item from St. Louis (very clearly more scarce than one from Chicago) just sold for $20. The only answer is demand for Columbian items is much greater, so rarity becomes a minor factor.

We will report later on the sale of the Crystal Palace medal: Rarity and condition are known, and we also know that far fewer U.S. collectors are interested in European world’s fairs. As the seller, of course I would like to see the medal bring a reasonable price. But I’m well aware that rarity and condition, and historical significance, will take a back seat to a comparatively small group of potential buyers.

This entire subject should be of strong interest to anyone collecting Columbiana, even curators at the many museums that have such collections. Because for everyone involved we can do a comprehensive job of detailing rarity, evaluation condition and discussing relative historical value. But putting a dollar or replacement value focuses dramatically on the size of the pool of potential buyers.

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