The 1778 Washington “Voltaire” Medal

The 1778 Washington “Voltaire” Medal (Baker 78B) is one of the classics among medals honoring the “Father of his Country.” This 41 millimeter medal is rare in silver and scarce in bronze and takes its name from the French philosophe and revolutionary thinker Voltaire (born Francois Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), who strove to honor Washington as a great fighter for human liberty. Medals were then a primary “advertising medium” and were widely distributed among the intelligentsia and middle classes of Europe.
There was only one problem: no authentic likeness of Washington was available in Europe. Creativity took over and an imaginary head was placed on the obverse. For long years the head was thought by numismatists to be an actual likeness of British humanitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). This could have been visually checked against Bentham’s mounted body that has been sitting in a glass case in a London medical institution, but no one made that effort. Recent research by medal historian Chris Neuzil has proven that the head is actually that of Scottish historian David Hume (1711-1776), adapted from a contemporary medal. Nobody was supposed to notice!
The Voltaire medal hails Washington as Commander of the Continental Army in America, its reverse presenting a radiant trophy of weapons with French tribute, “Washington Unites in a rare Combination the Talents of a Warrior and the Virtues of a Sage.” An Uncirculated Bronze was lot 215 in the Stack’s Bowers September 2011 Philadelphia Americana Sale where it realized $1,380.

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