Did You Know The First U.S. Assay Commission Medals Were Issued in 1860?

In 1860, members of the U.S. Assay Commission were presented with medals for the first time. Bearing designs by James Longacre, one of which appears on an 1859 pattern half dollar, the 1860 Assay Commission medal inaugurated a century-long series sought after by U.S. exonumia specialists and others interested in medals produced by the U.S. Mint. Stack’s Bowers Galleries is offering many Assay Commission Medals in our Spring 2023 Auction, including an example of the first issue.

Established by the Mint Act of 1792, the United States Assay Commission tested coins from the U.S. Mint for weight and fineness, a practice reminiscent of the British “Trial of the Pyx.” The commission met every year with the exception of 1815. Medals for commissioners were introduced in 1860, during what many experts agree was the first major wave of coin collecting activity in the United States, motivated in part by the switch from large- to small-size cents in 1857. The Assay medals’ origin remains somewhat murky, though experts think that they were issued to advertise the Mint’s medals department, along with expressing appreciation for the commissioners’ service. In the 1989 reference Medals of the United States Assay Commission 1860-1977, Robert Julian and Ernest Keusch write of “[then-Mint Director James Ross] Snowden’s attempt, in the latter part of the 1850s, to enlarge the medal department of the Mint. One of his favorite vehicles for the suggestion of change in the mint system was to have the Assay Commission formally adopt resolutions to be sent to higher powers in the Treasury Department. Presenting medals to Assay Commission members was an effective way of bringing a medal department to their attention.”

The medals bear designs from prominent U.S. Mint artists, including Longacre, William and Charles Barber, George T. Morgan, Frank Gasparro, and many others responsible for circulating U.S. coinage.

Serving on the Assay Commission became a badge of distinction for American numismatists and such famous names as Eric P. Newman and Harvey Stack served on the Commission. Well-known non-numismatic members of Assay Commisions include Supreme Court Chief Justices John Marshall and Oliver Ellsworth, Congressman William Ashbrook (who was also a numismatist), and future Vice President Charles Dawes. In 1964 at the American Numismatic Convention, the Old Timer Assay Commission Society was established as a social club for former members. Public members stopped being included on the Assay Commission in 1977 and the Commission was disbanded entirely in 1980.

The 1860 Assay Commission medal itself is fairly simple. Its obverse displays a bust of Liberty based, according to Cornelius Vermuele’s Numismatic Art in America, on the Apollo Belvedere statue in the Vatican surrounded by text reading “MINT OF THE UNITED STATES” and “PHILADELPHIA”; “LIBERTY” appears on a ribbon at the bust’s truncation. The reverse features a laurel wreath surround text “ANNUAL ASSAY 1860.” Longacre’s bust of Liberty appears on a number of pattern coins of the late 1850s, specifically Judd-237 to 246 and Judd-253

Stack’s Bowers Galleries will offer a large number of Assay Commission medals in our Spring 2023 Auction. One especially intriguing example on offer is the previously mentioned 1860 Assay Commission Medal, which features a doubled struck reverse. It spent time in the collection of Ernest Keusch, coauthor of the standard reference on the Assay Commission medals and is certified MS-65 BN by NGC. Also included in our spring 2023 auction is an example of the 1861 Assay Commission medal, whose design is identical to the 1860 medal in all respects but the date. Assay Commission medals bearing that design were struck in 1862 as well, before a five-year hiatus.

Interestingly, we’re also offering two of the patterns on which Longacre’s Apollo-inspired Liberty appears, the Judd-237 (lot 7271) and Judd-239 patterns (lot 7272).

To view lots and bid in our Spring 2023 Official Auction of the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo, please visit

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