Charles E. Barber – Originality Not Required

Collectors of U.S. coins are most likely to remember Charles E. Barber (1840-1917) for his designs for the dime, quarter and half dollar coinage of 1892-1916. However, this British-born coin designer created a vastly larger body of medal designs for the Philadelphia Mint and for private medallic firms during his long career. A dour, humorless man, Barber sometimes casually appropriated other engravers’ work to speed up projects of his own. One such adaptation was the 1881 Yorktown Surrender Centennial Medal whose obverse reappeared in 1900 on the Lafayette dollar, which hailed the erection in Paris of Paul Wayland Bartlett’s equestrian stature of Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette.

Both medal and dollar presented conjoined busts of George Washington and an aged Lafayette facing right. The Washington likeness was faithfully copied from a bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, done from life after the Revolution. The very mature Lafayette bust was created by engraver Francois Caunois in 1824 for the French hero’s triumphal visit to America. It was an odd choice, since the Lafayette who came to the U.S. to serve as Washington’s aide was little more than a teenager. With its scene of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, this medal was assigned number 452a in William S. Baker’s classic 1885 catalogue of Washington medals. A near-Gem example of this medal was Lot 239 of Stack’s Bowers’ September 2011 Philadelphia Americana Sale.

The medal combines Houdon’s work with that of Caunois, and the commemorative 1900 dollar’s reverse was merely a copy of Bartlett’s statue. That the obverse showed Lafayette as he looked 44 years after Yorktown bothered Barber not at all! The dollar was not a great success in 1900 and lagged in collector interest for decades after. The medal suffered from the general lapse of American collector interest until the 1980s, when such types as U.S. Mint, Washington, and Presidential Inaugural medals suddenly experienced a dramatic revival. In 2011, both items are sought by collectors, who may find both difficult to find in Gem condition.

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