I recently found an official Warren Harding Presidential Memorial 3-inch-diameter medal from the US Mint laying in a token box in a coin shop. It was loose without any original packaging, and while in decent shape, not a pristine example. Still, ever since the price jump from $40 to $160 on the US Mint online store for current 3-inch Presidential medals, I've paid more attention to these, especially those no longer available from the Mint. This one was an official Mint product and appeared to be an older one. President Harding was one of eight Presidents from Ohio, my home state. I could start an all-Ohio Presidential medal collection... or maybe I could resell it later if I changed my mind... or I could donate it to our student club's auction. So I acquired it.
President Harding was apparently fairly popular while he was in office. After his untimely death while in office, however, scandals in his administration were uncovered and unraveled his good reputation due to how he handled, or didn't handle, the actions of those in his administration. Perhaps some readers remember hearing about the "Teapot Dome" scandal from history class. (For a long time I had no idea "Teapot Dome" was a place in Wyoming. Someone in Harding's administration took bribes from certain oil companies to ensure they got favorable contracts to drill for oil near there. The no-compete contracts weren't illegal, but the bribes were.)
When Harding was elected President, the Mint commissioned George T. Morgan (designer of the famous Morgan silver dollar) to create a medal commemorating his inauguration. This was something traditionally done for each new President. However, when Harding died in office in August 1923, the original medal was discontinued and replaced with a memorial medal. The difference is mainly a major redesign of the reverse which included his death date.
The Memorial medal became available around October 1923, much more quickly than the Inaugural medal because only the reverse required a redesign, and the personification of a nation mourning didn't have to closely represent a specific person. That meant the original Inaugural medal was only produced for at most 14 months, making it more rare and hence one of the more desirable pieces in the series to collect. I have the later version, which is much more common, as it was available for sale for many years.
In looking online for some kind of value, I discovered that (like so many numismatic items) there existed varieties of genuine US Mint issues of this medal. Of course, this news piqued my curiosity. Sometimes certain varieties are desired by collectors. Sometimes the variety can give you a clue as to when or where the example in your hand was minted. So now I had to try to find out.
But internet search engines weren't making the answers obvious. My only clue that these varieties existed and that it might be possible to link a variety to a date of manufacture was some third-hand information someone had posted that their Harding medal was made sometime in the 1950s, based on three "dots" placed on either side of the engraver's name in the exergue on the reverse. I flipped over my copy and lo and behold, way down at the bottom of the design, below some design detail, was the name "Morgan"-- but mine had only TWO "dots" (circles really) on either side of the name. Assuming the number of dots might be ordinal indicators (first die version no dots, second die version one dot, third version two dots, etc.), could this mean mine was struck prior to the 1950s? Without documentation, it would just be a guess.
I figured I was missing some resources. But I was not an expert on Presidential medals or even US Mint medals in general. How would I ever find out what I wanted to know?
Here's where membership in a coin club enters the scene and made a real difference.
I have attended the meetings of a regional coin club since around 2017, shortly after my son and I started the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society at his school. I have met wonderful people there who had been collecting for many years and had a great deal more knowledge and experience than I had in virtually every aspect of the hobby. Part of those meetings involves a "show and tell" where people bring in new acquisitions or items they found that they just think others might find interesting. One gentleman named Heath was a medal collector, and his "show and tell" presentations were usually full of details about his item that made it much more interesting than just looking about it without hearing the story. It became pretty obvious that he didn't just collect medals, he KNEW medals, and obviously had studied many resources of information in order to know what he knew. People are generally willing to help others find information if it's a subject they enjoy, especially when they don't feel like the person asking is just being lazy and using them instead of Google. I had Googled around and had found what I could with my limited understanding, so I contacted my medal expert friend, let him know what I'd discovered on my own, and asked if he had any more ideas how I could find out more. Heath emailed me back with an analysis of what we knew, and some ideas of what I might have.
Heath found newspaper articles indicating that Harding's original inaugural medal was made available to the public around July 1922. We can assume that the Mint stopped producing this version sometime between the President's unexpected death in August 1923 and the release of the new Memorial version. More articles revealed that the new version became available in October of that year. Therefore, the original design was only produced for 13 to 15 months. This would explain its rarity, when you consider that Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and even George Washington medals are still being produced by the Mint. More newspaper articles stated that the new Memorial version saw brisk sales at $1 each until the details of his administration's scandals began to tarnish his image in the public mind. Initial Memorial issues came in a protective case and were unlacquered. These would typically develop a nice brown patina, same as the Inaugural version. Later the Mint would do away with the protective case, but sometime began applying lacquer instead. Mine seems to be lacquered, with maybe some deterioration of the lacquer at around the 10 o'clock position.
So when did they stop making the Harding memorial medal? and was there any info regarding the "dots"? Heath could only point to one book concerning these Presidential medals: "Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century 1792-1892" by Bob Julian. This misses the Harding series by about 29 years and doesn't talk about varieties anyway. Another reference Heath brought to my attention was the Treasury sales catalogs of 1969 and 1972, "Medals of the United States Mint Issued for Public Sale". However, these publications only referenced medals that were still available for sale at the time of their printing, and the Harding series were not listed. At least we know they quit selling them before 1969. They likely quit manufacturing them even earlier and sold them until they ran out. So we knew these were available from October 1923 until sometime before 1969. This one had lacquer on it so it was not one of the initial run in the early 1920s.
Heath then found some more information, that proved he was the right man to ask. Being an avid medal collector, Heath knew other top medal collectors, and was familiar with Joe Levine, one of the leading American dealers of medals for many years. Joe knew US Mint medals very well and published Presidential Coins auction catalogs. Heath had copies of most of Joe's catalogs. In the last Presidential Coins and Antiques Auction catalog Mr. Levine published (#86 of 29 August 2016), listing 1005 for a Harding Memorial Medal, FH-128, describes the design; and then goes on to discuss at least five known reverse die varieties! Variety #1 has a letter "B" or number "8" on either side of Morgan's name on the reverse. Variety #2 has a single "o" on either side. Variety #3 has two "o's" on either side; Variety #4 has three "o's", and Variety #5 has FIVE "o's". (Why did they skip to five? Maybe one with four "o's" has yet to be discovered? Check your Harding medals!) So my "Harding Memorial Medal, FH-128" is a Variety #3! Still no specific date range of its manufacture, but at least we now know it's one of at least five varieties. (The price just went up!) Heath pointed me in the direction of some online resources for numismatic literature. (I had not yet gotten around to checking for medal references in the ANA's lending library but that's another resource.)
Why do I think my friend Heath was willing to help me research my medal? For one, medals are a collecting passion for him. For another, I presented my medal with genuine interest in it, evidenced in that I had already sought information that led me to a deeper curiosity about possible varieties and its history. For another, I think Heath shares a value I have in that we all become better through sharing our knowledge rather than hoarding it. It simultaneously benefits those around us, our hobby in general, and ourselves. Now I get to share the experience with the readers of this blog article.
So what have I learned about the value of being part of a numismatic club? Presidential medals weren't really on my radar until I started attending a local coin club's meetings. I wouldn't have known who to ask for help in finding more info on my Harding medal if I hadn't gone and met Heath, where I heard him sharing his passion for medals and deep knowledge of them with others. Heath might have been wary of talking with me had he not gotten to know me first at the meetings, had some conversations with me, learned I run an after-school numismatic club for kids, and discovered my motivations in joining the hobby. Clubs are forums for getting to know people first over a common interest, then making friendships that are mutually beneficial, socially and intellectually.
If this article piques your interest in Presidential medals or history, great. But I also hope it gives you a taste of the benefits of joining (or starting) a numismatic club, where you can meet people who share your numismatic interests and learn from each other. Take an interest in someone else's collecting passion even if it's not currently the same as yours. You might find a new collecting interest, or you might recognize a good deal on something that you might not keep for your collection, but would be of interest to others. Me... I think I just might try for that all-Ohio Presidential medal set someday.
Many thanks go to my friend Heath, a medal collector and helpful co-member of our local coin club, without whose help I would have stumbled around in Presidential medal ignorance for a lot longer. :-)