Medals as a Narrative and Time Capsule on World War I

​Just as coins act as a way to illustrate and commemorate events, whether they be past, present, or what is hoped for in the future, so too do medals, a role they played as the medium continued its growth during the renaissance and into the modern period. One time in particular when medals were vital to documenting and messaging was during the time surrounding World War I—the world’s first global conflict. Our upcoming CCO (Collectors Choice Online) in February will feature a number of these moving pieces, all painting a rich tapestry of the landscape or, in some cases, the landscape as one would like it to appear.

Leading off, we have a brilliantly lustrous and toned silver medal (PCGS SPECIMEN-64) commemorating the marriage of Ernst August and Viktoria Luise, an event which took place on 24 May, 1913 and was a rather gallant affair with over 1,000 guests in attendance. Politically the union ended the long-standing rift between the Houses of Hannover and Hohenzollern in Germany. Also important were the familial connections. Ernst August was, on his paternal side, the great-grandson of another Ernst August, the fifth son of Great Britain’s King George III, and, on his maternal side, the grandson of King Christian IX of Denmark, the "father-in-law" of Europe. Viktoria Luise was, on her paternal side, the daughter of the German Emperor Wilhelm II and the great-granddaughter of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. The wedding served as an important and momentous European gathering. Noteworthy guests were Wilhelm’s cousins—Great Britain’s King George V and wife Mary, along with Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and wife Alexandra. It represented the largest gathering of reigning monarchs in Germany since her unification in 1871, and one of the final grand events before Europe, and much of the world, would be plunged into the chaos of World War I the following year. At the time of this ceremony, who could have imagined the tragedy that was about to ensue?

Once the war was underway, medallic art immediately began portraying the individuals and battles associated with the cause championed by the artist. This brings us to two other silver medals in our upcoming sale. The first, a highly mirrored specimen graded PCGS SPECIMEN-62, recounts the formation of the group that would come to be known as the central powers. The ‘Quadruple Alliance’ emanated from the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1879. The Ottoman Empire (in November 1914) and the Kingdom of Bulgaria (in October 1915) joined after the outbreak of the war, though the former had maintained a close relationship with both Germany and Austria-Hungary for a number of years. Economics were the main reason for an Ottoman entry, as Germany played an important role in the empire’s financial growth and success. Reclamation was the major goal of Bulgaria, as she wished to win back territory ceded to Serbia as a result of losses in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

The second medal, an incredibly toned and vibrant Gem graded PCGS SPECIMEN-65+, points to one of the commanders within this alliance along with some vital victories. Born in Timișoara in what is now Romania, Hermann Kövess von Kövessháza had a satisfactory career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and was close to retirement at the outset of the war. Tapped as a commander, he oversaw a successful Serbian campaign in which he captured Belgrade, followed by the Montenegrin campaign, subverting Montenegro. Toward the end of the war, Emperor Karl I, who had been serving as the Supreme Commander of the Austro-Hungarian forces, laid down his command in order not to surrender personally. In his stead, Hermann served as the final, ceremonial Oberbefehlshaber during the armistice and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The reverse of this medal presents the dual threat of Serbia and Montenegro as a two-headed fire breathing dragon—a ferocious monster being slain by a sword inscribed HABSBURG, an allusion to the famous central European ruling house.

The Stack’s Bowers Galleries February World CCO also features a delightful run of a special subset of silver medals known as the Siegespfennige ("Victory Pennies")—inspired by a similar series issued nearly 100 years prior and which commemorated the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon from 1813-1815. Each of these medals, like their predecessors, had a consistent obverse motif (an allegorical representation of Victory flying with a sword and wreath) and reverse composition (reference to a battle or event, along with its date and a serial number, adding to its collector angle). They were produced by Otto Oertel’s medal mint in Berlin, and subsequently promoted there by the coin dealer Rudolph Kube for the price of 0.75 Marks each. They were released in batches following significant and decisive victories in order to ensure public support and attention for the war effort. In total, 106 of these tiny medals, very similar in size and feel to a U.S. silver "trime" or three-cent piece, were released, covering the events from August 1914 through September 1915. The largest number of these pieces were produced for that very first month, while the output varied periodically, dipping during the spring of 1915 and picking up again in that fall, only to fade in popularity and be discontinued as fatigue for the war increased. Intended to be clasped for inclusion with traditional folk costumes, they allowed their purchaser the chance to "wear" their patriotism. In the end, however, propaganda can only paint a picture, and seeing death and destruction firsthand will eventually leave a more lasting, disillusioned impact—mirrored perfectly by dwindling sales toward the end of 1915. Our Collectors Choice Online sale will feature no fewer than eight of these attractive pieces, nearly all with grades ranging from SPECIMEN-65 to -67 and featuring colorful iridescence. Truly, they are a sight to behold and serve as great messengers of the advancing German war effort.

We note that many of these medals were included in a rather indispensible work by Georg Zetzmann in 2002. For the collector looking to gain more information regarding these types as well as a classification system, this reference, entitled Deutsche Silbermedaillen des I. Weltkriegs, is highly recommended. Though in German and with prices that are now somewhat out of date, the relative rarities and overall information contained will be very useful for anyone interested this highly interesting and very approachable series.

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 pieces of paper money for our future sales, and are currently accepting submissions (until May 4th) for our June 2020 CCO (Collectors Choice Online). Our next Public Auction Sale will be our Official Auction of the Hong Kong Show in March 2020—a monumental event that will mark our tenth anniversary of auctions in Asia! 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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