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Vive La Revolution

Commissioned by the Continental Congress on March 25, 1776, the first Congressional Gold Medal, known as the Washington Before Boston medal,  was to be  presented to “ His Excellency General Washington, and the officers and soldiers under his command, for their wise and spirited conduct in the siege and acquisition of Boston; and that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of this great event.” The Washington medal is part of a series of medals called the Comitia Americana, Latin for the American Congress, that were commissioned to commemorate great battles and the leadership of generals during the Revolutionary War. Due to the war effort, it became clear that fabricating Congressional medals in the colonies would be impossible. The task was given to Benjamin Franklin who was serving as American Commissioner in Paris. Franklin was charged with expediting the project but his penchant for frugality would hinder the production of the medals and the project was eventually given over to a new Commissioner, David Humphreys, who arrived in Paris in 1784. Humphreys was able to produce two medals during his tenure, but the production of the Washington medal had still not been completed. The following year, in 1785, Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris to replace Humphreys and took over the Comitia Americana metal project, engaging French artists/engravers  Augustin Dupré, Nicolas-Marie Gatteaux, and Pierre Simon Benjamin Duvivier to complete nine of the eleven commissioned medals before he returned to America in 1789.

Though not the first to be produced, the Washington medal was considered the most important in the Comitia Americana series. Engraved by Pierre-Simon-Benjamin Duvivier (1730-1819), the composition is after the sculpture bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) that was made at Mount Vernon in 1785 and then transported to Paris in 1786. Known as the Washington Before Boston medal, it was presented to George Washington by Thomas Jefferson on March 21, 1790 and is now in the collection of the Boston Public Library. Following errors with the two initial obverse dies, two corrected dies were used for the production of the gold medal given to Washington and the silver and bronze issues of the medal that were produced between c. 1788 and c. 1792. It has been suggested that, due to the political instability in France that was developing, the production of Comitia Americana medals in Paris lasted only four years and most likely ended in 1792 with the overthrow of the French monarchy. Paris and American restrikes of the dies in different obverse/reverse combinations have been produced since 1830. In 1861, U.S. Mint Director James Pollock tried unsuccessfully to obtain the original dies of the medals from the Paris mint. Instead, Pollack was able to obtain twenty recently struck Paris medals that he had shipped to Philadelphia in 1862. From one of these medals the mint’s chief engraver, James B. Longacre, created dies so that additional examples of the medals could be produced beginning in 1883. These dies were used until 1885 when they became degraded and lost much of their detail. Another set was engraved by Charles E. Barber in 1885 and is considered the last of eight known sets of dies for the Washington Before Boston medal. In all of these restrikes, the central image of the obverse remains the same image of Washington but the letters and words vary and help to identify the date of production, especially on the reverse dies where the image of Washington on horseback has multiple variations.

The medal being offered in our October 28th sale does not have a reverse die image on the back and has been decoratively mounted in a Louis XVI style gilt-bronze roundel. This combination of American Revolutionary history and French 18th century design exemplifies the political and business cooperation between the two countries during a pivotal moment as they both sought their independence from monarchical rule.

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