Rear Admiral William Sims & the 1900 Paris Expo

Award medals often combine the elegant and artistic elements of numismatics with interesting aspects of material culture, often relating the individual to whom they were awarded to a particular event in time. A prime example of this phenomenon is a silver medal featured in our January 2021 sale—an officially sanctioned auction of the 2021 NYINC. It was issued for the 1900 International Exposition held in Paris, France, a beautifully rendered medal by the hand Jules-Clément Chaplain, a key figure in the founding of the Art Nouveau movement. His obverse design is the head of Marianne (an allegory for France herself) facing right, wearing a Phrygian cap (emblematic of liberty) and an oak wreath, while an oak tree is in the background to the right, and a partial veduta of Paris is at a distance to the right. On the reverse, Victory flies to the left with her head upturned, holding a wreath and bearing on her back the seated figure of Progress, who guides with a lighted torch; in the background are the exposition buildings and grounds to the lower left, while a decorative plaque is placed below, embossed rather plainly with the text "W. SIMS." It is here that the material culture aspect comes in.

It is uncertain what caused "W. Sims" to receive an award, but the recipient was undoubtedly Lt. (later Rear Adm.) William Sims, who was pivotal in the American naval intelligence operation against Spain during the Spanish-American War. Leading these efforts from Paris at the time, he then remained in the French capital "to supervise the installation of American art at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair (Collin, 2000, p. 131)." His role likely garnered him this award in appreciation of his efforts. He would play a much larger role not long after, however, as it was Sims who successfully (eventually) fought for modernization in the U.S. Navy. After an encounter with a British Admiral whereupon he viewed their use of "continuous aim" gunfire while at sea, Sims inquired about such technology from the allies. Seeing first-hand the increased effectiveness, he then approached the U.S. Navy, hoping to bring about these much needed changes. He was quickly and repeatedly dismissed and ridiculed. It was only after he approached President Theodore Roosevelt himself that the Navy was compelled to take up his suggestions, which were then rather swiftly enacted. After the U.S. entered World War I, Sims was sent to London to act as the senior naval representative. By war’s end, he was commanding all U.S. naval forces operating in Europe. His book published shortly thereafter, chronicling his experiences during WWI and entitled The Victory at Sea, won the Pulitzer Prize in History for 1921.

While being a highly artistic and attractive Art Nouveau medal in its own right, in this case, it is the recipient that enhances the appeal, especially for the role that he played in the U.S. Navy. Look for this fascinating medal in the online portion of our January auction, coming to our website soon!

Reference: Collin, Richard H. "Symbiosis versus Hegemony: New Directions in the Foreign Relations Historiography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft." Paths to Power: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations to 1941, edited by Michael J. Hogan, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 117-147.

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 future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions for our 2021 showcase auctions as well as our CCO (Collectors Choice Online) auctions. 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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