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Medal of Simon Bolivar, 1825.

Medal of Simon Bolivar, 1825.

Medal of Simon Bolivar, 1825. Gold, 1 5/8 in (diameter). Obverse: SIMON BOLIVAR LIB. D'COLOMB. Y DEL PERU. Reverse: EL CUZCO A SU LIBERTADOR: 1825. Gift of Mrs. William R. Cabot, 1948

This rare gold medal was commissioned by the city of Cuzco, Peru, in honor of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who led its liberation from Spanish rule. The city hired an unknown but competent local craftsman to engrave the dies for this medal.  The obverse depicts a profile of Bolivar, and the reverse shows the sun shining on the ruins of a temple and the figure of a native Indian in the foreground. Five hundred medals in silver and about eighty in gold were struck.[1]

A scion of a prominent family in Venezuela, Bolivar “the Liberator” was a dedicated leader of the countless wars in the 1810s and 1820s that won independence for Venezuela, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (named in Bolivar’s honor). Having been educated in both Venezuela and Europe, he was a superb military commander as well as an outstanding political thinker, and his contributions to the liberation of South America were so significant and diverse that his name has attained almost mythic stature.

The Boston Athenæum’s example of this medal once belonged to General John Devereux, one of the commanders of Bolivar’s Irish Legion. In 1819 and 1820 over two thousand Irish volunteers, many of them recent veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, sailed off to fight in distant South America, but they suffered dreadfully in the tropical climate and the majority perished within a year or two. Devereux is known to have been a self-serving rapscallion with hardly any military expertise; he amassed a handsome fortune during his South American adventures that secured him a fashionable living in London thereafter.[2]  In 1846 he presented the medal to Thomas Handasyd Perkins (see entry 70), one of the greatest benefactors of the Boston Athenæum, to “record that esteem which I should never cease to cherish for [you]: and that high respect for virtues, and merits, which I feel too strongly to express by words.”[3]  The medal descended in the family until 1948, when it was given to the Athenæum.

Although now largely forgotten, a large number of medals and coins occupied a position of considerable importance in the Athenæum’s collection in the nineteenth century. At its founding in 1807, the Library envisioned itself a repository not only of books, periodicals, and fine arts, but also of a variety of objects that were considered essential for the education of gentleman connoisseurs: “specimens from the three kingdoms of nature, natural and artificial curiosities, antiques, coins, medals, vases, gems, and intaglios.”[4] Coins and medals had been collected in Europe since the Renaissance, appearing first in aristocratic cabinets of curiosities but later in private collections and museums. The eighteenth-century penchant for systematic classification (as exercised by Carl von Linné on plants and Samuel Johnson on words) advanced numismatic literature, and in early nineteenth-century Boston the appreciation of coins and medals was a recognized sign of culture.[5] Numismatic specimens were refined souvenirs of European sojourns, and the new Athenæum was a perfect place to deposit them.

Indeed, the very first recorded gift to the Athenæum in 1807 was a “Mahogany Case, glazed, containing 24 Gilt Medallions” of heads of European royalties. Thereafter innumerable gifts of coins and medals—classical as well as “modern” European, and later, American—followed steadily, as did books on numismatics.[6] The Athenæum’s first Librarian, William Smith Shaw, was an avid collector of coins and medals and encouraged the growth of the Library’s numismatic collection.[7] By the time the Athenæum moved into the Perkins mansion on Pearl Street in 1822, it owned a large assortment. Room 12, where coins, medals, and engravings were on display, was apparently popular, as confirmed by an incident in 1825 when the door to the room was “forcibly opened by some person, unknown.”[8] Thereafter, particularly valuable coins and medals were kept in the Librarian’s office, and many were locked in the special cases and drawers in which they had been given to the Athenæum. A catalogue of the Library published in 1834 lists over 11,000 coins and four hundred medals in its collection. The numismatic collection, however, was never catalogued in its entirety, despite occasional efforts to catalogue portions of it.[9]

The Athenæum’s numismatic collection and books continued to grow after the Library moved to Beacon Street, but it gradually lost the importance it had once enjoyed. The competition for space inevitably led to the narrowing of the Athenæum’s collecting focus. At the same time, numismatics in general was becoming a more specialized field, increasingly detached from the comprehensive program for cultivated taste prescribed during the Enlightenment. In the late 1860s, Trustees pondered “the future disposal” of the Athenæum’s collections of ethnology, natural history, and coins, deciding in the end to retain the last “until there should be some suitable Society with which to deposit them, or some other means of disposing of them be adopted.”[10] At least a portion of the Athenæum’s numismatic collection was transferred to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the early twentieth century.[11]


Hina Hirayama from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 355-357. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]The city struck one hundred medals in gold, but about twenty of them were damaged in the striking. An Important Collection of Simon Bolivar Memorabilia (Christie’s New York, May 18, 1988), 26.
[2]On the Irish Legion and Devereux, see Brian McGinn, “Venezuela’s Irish Legacy,” Irish American Magazine (November 1991): 34-37.
[3]Devereux to Perkins, March 27, 1846. (A photocopy of the letter [unlocated] is in the Art Department files).  In the letter Perkins noted: “The gold medal…is one of twelve medals impressed from the die…One of the medals was presented to each of the Generals serving under [Bolivar], of whom General Devereux was one. The die was destroyed after twelve impressions were taken.” The information about the number of the dies is apparently incorrect.
[4]“Memoir of the Boston Athenæum, with the Act of Incorporation, and Organization of the Institution (1807),” in Quincy (1851), 28.
[5]For a concise overview of the history of coin and metal collecting in Europe, see Andrew Burnett, “’The King Loves Medals’: The Study of Coins in Europe and Britain,” in Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett, eds., Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London: The British Museum Press, 2003), 122-131.
[6]Interestingly, among the many gifts of this period were five Bolivar medals, either gold or silver, presented in 1829 by Colonel Belford Wilson, who also had been one of Bolivar’s commanders. Trustees Records, May 12, 1829.
[7]A considerable number of the coins and medals at the Athenæum belonged to Shaw. In 1822 the Trustees appointed a committee to “take the key or keys of the boxes or drawers in which the medals belonging to the Athenæum are kept into their possession; and to ascertain what proportion of the said medals belong to Mr. Shaw.” Trustees Records, February 1, 1822.
[8] Trustees Records, April 11, 1825.
[9]In 1831, for example, Charles Folsom, who would become the Librarian of the Athenæum in 1847, was cataloguing 120 ancient coins belonging to the Library. Proprietors Records, January 3, 1831. In 1838, Charles Francis Adams prepared “Catalogue of Brass Coins of the Roman Empire belonging to the Boston Athenæum,” now in the manuscript collection.
[10]Trustees Records, December 17, 1866; January 14, 1867. The Athenæum’s ethnological and natural history objects were given to the newly founded Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology in 1867; the Museum’s first annual report credits the Athenæum for the gift of 130 objects. First Annual Report of the Trustees of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology (Cambridge: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1868), 6, 9.
[11]In 1913, 156 classical coins and a “collection of miscellaneous coins” were deposited by the Athenæum in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Thirty-Eighth Annual Report for the Year 1913 (Boston: T. O. Metcalf Company, 1914), 132. The author thanks Patrick McMahon, Curatorial Planning and Project Manager, the Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for bringing this information to her attention.