Behind the Scenes: The Harrison Medal

We are often asked about how we go about researching a piece, the steps that go into our studies and the behind-the-scenes work that occurs before the general public even knows the material exists and is in our hands.

Last month, a colleague and curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History led us down the maze of halls that run behind the exhibits at the Institution. We turned a corner into what at first appeared to be a small office but then opened into a massive storage vault containing thousands of metal artifacts dating back nearly a thousand years on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were knives, rifles, cannons, and a whole lot more.

We turned yet again into another corner of the office, meeting the conservator.  She had set up a staging area to examine our latest artifact.  The piece?  William Henry Harrison's Gold Medal, awarded to him by Congress for helping save the American Northwest in the War of 1812.  Only a handful of these early Congressional Gold Medals are not in institutions and no other early medal belonging to a US President is known to exist outside of one.  This we had determined by contacting scholars engaged in a country-wide survey of the locations of existing medals.

The Harrison Gold Medal, part of a collection we acquired directly from the Harrison descendants, was a special find.  Rarely does such an artifact remain with the family for so many generations.  Researchers and scholars were unaware of its location.  It did not appear on any list of medals whose location was known.  We were changing that.

The machine the Smithsonian conservator brought to the meeting is called an X-Ray Spectrometer, which helps determine the composition of an artifact.  This machine does this by measuring the movements of electrons that are specific to a chemical compound.  Each compound's electrons respond to stimulus by jumping orbits and then returning, and that movement allows such an analysis.  This is a safe and non-invasive method of analysis.  To compare our medal, they used a piece in the Smithsonian collection, the gold medal given to Commodore Truxtun in the early 1800s.  By simply laying the medal on the Spectrometer's platform (pictured), it produced a chemical analysis of the artifact that we could read on a computer screen.

We donned our latex exam gloves and set about the analysis.  First, the conservator examined the Truxtun medal.  She explained that selecting a flat part of the object for the sample will yield a more accurate analysis.  It took a few seconds but the results appeared on the computer: the medal was entirely gold, save some imperfections that were common in gold during that period before they had perfected the refinement process.  Then she placed the Harrison medal on the platform.  The composition was essentially identical with the composition graph of the Harrison medal mirroring the one of Truxtun's.

What began as an acquisition ended with a chemical compound analysis of 2 gold medals, the addition of the Harrison medal to the database of known Congressional Gold Medals, its feature on national television, and its sale to a private collector who is now its new steward.

Although not all our pieces require such extensive analysis – because our focus is on quality and not quantity – this type of due diligence goes into all the material we carry.

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