Splashers are the most personal of medallic relics, the numismatic equivalent of a Polaroid, impressed in an ephemeral material to give a viewer an easy, instant way to see how a die would look as struck item. Because of their casual manufacture and their momentary intent, most have no particular backstory, dateable on a continuum based on their die state or the state of progress of an unfinished die. This piece is different, in that we cannot only pinpoint when it was produced, we can even trace precisely to whom it was sent in January 1783. Its story follows.
"Paris, Jan 23, 1783
I have the honor of sending to Mr Franklin two new proofs of the medal, noting that the head is not quite as perfect as it should be, that the serpents held by the child will be larger and better drawn; moreover the engraver put 'intans' instead of 'infans' and this spelling mistake shall be corrected.
I have the honor of reminding Mr Franklin that he had promised what he shall have inscribed on both sides at the bottom of the medal, and this matter alone prevents its completion.
Assurances of respect, etc. Your devoted servant, Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart"
Brogniart, an architect, was well plugged into French artistic society of the day, and he was the man who identified E.A. Gibelin and Augustin Dupre as the best choices to design and engrave Franklin's beloved Libertas Americana medal. Proof of Brogniart's role in hiring Gibelin to design the medal exists in a 1785 letter from Gibelin to Benjamin Franklin in the collection of the American Philosophical Society, translated and published by Leonard Augsburger in the MCA Advisory.
Brongniart wrote to Franklin again just over a week later, on January 31:
"M. Brongniart has the honor of sending his respects to Mr. Franklin and begs him to let him know if he was given Friday of last week [i.e. the day after his previous letter was sent, January 24] two new proofs of the medal, and among others that of the head of Liberty.
Mr Franklin has seemingly forgotten to send to Mr Brongniart what he wishes to have put at the bottom of the medal on each side, and this holds back the engraver who wishes to complete this work."
That engraver, of course, was Dupre, who produced the cliche (or, in Brogniart's word, epreuve) that we presently offer. As described by Brogniart, this piece shows INTANS standing in for the misspelled INFANS. It also lacks the exergual legend referencing the victories at Saratoga and Yorktown. Further, as mentioned in the January 23 letter, the snakes are undersized; on the final version, the lower of the two snakes has an additional coil at the end of its tail and the upper snake shows a forked tongue. Other minor differences are noted, particularly that this splasher lacks DUPRE F near the exergue and that the gorgon's head on Minerva’s cuirass is not yet finished.
The physical preservation of this soft metal impression is excellent, with only minor surface wear and most of the original paper still present on the blank back. Bright lustrous evidence of the tin beneath is visible at the reverse peripheries. The obverse is a dark gray, even and appealing, with no major defects.
This piece was offered in the Ford sale with no mention of the INTANS error or its breathtaking provenance that leads directly back to Brongniart and Franklin. In a sale with few cataloging errors, this was one. It appears Ford himself also missed its significance. Today, with the benefit of having Frankin's papers for 1782 and 1783 now in print, it can be properly cataloged and connected to its unique place in history.
From the Dorchester Heights Collection. Earlier from Augustin Dupre to Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart to Benjamin Franklin on January 23, 1783; Wayte Raymond; and our (Stack's) sale of the John J. Ford, Jr. Collection, Part XIV, May 2006, lot 286. Ford Collection sale lot tag included.