The Macabre “Totentanz” Series of Walther Eberbach

​As the first great conflict to serve as a focal point for much of the world, it is not surprising that World War I is commemorated by means of medallic art. The countries on each side, whether the allies or the central powers, issued medals ranging from poignant to propagandistic. Solemn reflections upon lives lost and towns ravaged were commonplace, as were images of force and strength—even if not entirely accurate; the narrative, after all, was that which was most vital. Medals of a satirical nature also found their way into this unfolding storyline of the Great War, with designs by the famed Karl Goetz leading the way. Being German, Goetz’s medals often portrayed the enemies of his fatherland in a less-than-flattering light, often comically so. One of this most famous (or infamous) pieces—one which shockingly poked fun at the sinking of the Lusitania and her many lives lost—garnered so much attention that the British even copied it, utilizing the proceeds garnered from sales to assist the families of the tragedy. While Goetz’s design featured a skeleton at a ticket booth, gleefully (and morbidly) selling passes to the doomed travelers, it was another series entirely that fully embraced the macabre, painting a grim, satirical portrait.

The Totentanz or “dance of death” is an allegorical take on the universality of death that originated in the middle ages. Though compositions such as vanitas or memento mori were meant to reflect upon the dual nature of life and death (pairing aspects of living with a skull, for example) the Totentanz instead plays a different note. In this vein, German medalist Walther Eberbach produced a series of large, cast iron medals evoking this very sentiment—seemingly lighthearted yet also incredibly heavy and powerful at the same time. Dealing mostly with naval engagements and tragedies at sea, this series presents a skeleton (representing death) in various poses, usually sadistically taking pleasure in the mishaps encountered by the enemy allied forces. This frank morbidity was expressed by Eberbach himself in a letter to Julius Menadier, in which he wrote “…I want whoever holds the pieces in their hands years later to be overcome by shudder grimness.” When viewing these medals, it’s safe to say that, in this desire, Eberbach was astoundingly successful. 

In our upcoming January World and Ancient auction—an officially sanctioned auction of the 2021 NYINC—two medals from this series will be offered. One pertains to the torpedoing of the SS Tubantia, a neutral Royal Holland Liner, and features a skeleton seated, with back to the viewer, launching a bomb toward the ship at a distance. On the other, an aviation aspect also plays a role, with Germany’s strategic bombing (through the use of zeppelins) being touted, and with a skeleton crouching over British factories, commanding the airships as though it were a puppeteer.
To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit​ where you may register and participate in this and other forthcoming sales.
We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for our future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions through January 15, 2021 for our April 2021 Hong Kong auction. Our next CCO (Collectors Choice Online) auction will be crossing the block in February 2021, and has a submission deadline of January 12, 2021. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material. 

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