Art Market: Cast in their own image: Renaissance rulers had themselves and their court immortalised on medals. Modest collectors can buy them, says Geraldine Norman

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The Independent Culture
OVERLOOKED by fashion, some collecting fields remain ludicrously cheap when compared with the rest of the art market. Renaissance medals are a case in point - though the catching-up process has already begun. On 26 January the first big exhibition in the field, entitled 'Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance', opened at the National Gallery in Washington. It will move to New York in the summer and arrive at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in the autumn.

According to Richard Falkiner, an experienced London dealer, prices have been rising gradually for the past 10 years but it is only in the last two or three that there has been a sharp upward push. Nevertheless, as he puts it, you can still get 'all sorts of nice things' for less than pounds 500. Beginners can easily acquire their first medals for pounds 100 to pounds 150. Even for the best, a price above pounds 50,000 has not been recorded; the top auction price stands at pounds 23,100.

In the past, collectors have been mainly art historians, the kind of people who used to buy Old Master drawings before they became too expensive about five years ago. Tim Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, is a good example; he recently sold his private collection of Old Master drawings but is still buying medals. He has also bought Renaissance medals for the Edinburgh National Gallery.

In fact, two institutional buyers have been largely responsible for the recent price rise, the National Galleries of Scotland and Washington. Two private dealers in London have been their main suppliers: Richard Falkiner and Cyril Humphris. Falkiner works from home and takes his clients to the bank to view his medals. Humphris is rather grander; he has a high security showroom attached to his house in Kensington. At the beginning of the year he put out an illustrated catalogue of 130 medals, dating between 1446 and 1710, in the hope of attracting buyers enthused by the Washington exhibition. Prices range from pounds 800 to pounds 35,000; so far only 20 have sold.

Portrait medals were a Renaissance invention, inspired both by Roman coins, which were keenly collected at the time, and by the new cult of individual fame promulgated by the poet Petrarch and other humanists. 'Fama', or glory, was, they believed, the inevitable result of 'virtus', or excellence, which was a function of a man's unique personality.

The medal, usually cast in bronze but occasionally in gold or silver, was a way of celebrating fama. It would have a head and shoulders portrait in high relief on one side, accompanied by identifying inscriptions; the reverse would be decorated with a little scene or allegory spelling out the subject's virtues in the form of a visual riddle. Sizes ranged from about 25mm to 105mm in diameter.

The inventor and populariser of the medal was Antonio di Puccio, called Pisanello (1395-1455), an artist who had already achieved a high reputation as a painter by the 1420s. He painted frescoes in Venice and in Rome but worked mainly for the ruling families of Mantua and Ferrara, the Gonzagas and the d'Estes. In 1438 the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaeologus, visited Ferrara. Pisanello's first medal has the emperor's head and shoulders on one side and a hunting scene in a rocky landscape with the emperor pausing to pray at a wayside cross on the reverse - thus representing his passion for riding and hunting as well as the purpose of his visit: an attempt to reconcile the Western and Eastern churches. It has a diameter of 104mm (about four inches) and was cast by pouring liquid metal into a mould. The technique of casting gave way to striking - hammering a flange of metal with a die carved with a reverse image of the subject - in the 16th century.

Medals quickly became popular among the rulers of Italy's city states, their wives, mistresses and even their poets and philosophers. Pisanello himself made 26, still considered the greatest in the field. Cyril Humphris has a rather rubbed example on offer at pounds 12,000, bearing a portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini and Fano, made around 1445.

He also has a much more attractive medal of Sigismondo made in 1446 by Matteo de' Pasti, ( pounds 25,000). More appealing is one of Sigismondo's mistress, Isotta degli Atti da Rimini, made in the same year ( pounds 35,000). She is shown with her abundant hair bound in a high ponytail; on the reverse an elephant is walking in a flowery meadow. It is the armorial elephant of the Malatestas, which appears on monuments in Rimini alongside the motto: Elephantus Indus culices non timet ('the Indian elephant fears no mosquitoes'). Here, the elephant implies that Isotta is untouchable by gossip. Sigismondo fell in love with her at the age of 13, remained faithful to her through two politically motivated marriages and finally married her in 1456.

Humphris also has an example of the only medal known to have been designed by Albrecht Durer. It was made to commemorate the Imperial Diet, or parliament of German princes, which was to be held in Nuremberg in 1521 but was cancelled because of an outbreak of plague. It has the crowned head of the Emperor Charles V on one side and the imperial eagle on the other, and was made by a combination of modelling, to achieve the high relief, and striking, to achieve the crisp detail.

Humphris' example is made of lead and priced at pounds 25,000. Sotheby's has a more desirable silver example for sale in July, estimated at the same price. It can be taken as a rule of thumb that auction prices are lower than dealers'.

Renaissance medals are not regularly available; you have to be alert to opportunities to purchase. The next sale will be at Bonham's on 17 May and contains 40 or so medals; there should be about 10 in the 1 June sale mounted by the new auctioneers Buckland, Dix and Wood; Sotheby's has more than 100, mainly German, medals from an old European collection on 5 July.

Renaissance medals have been copied from the start in the 15th century. Large quantities were made in the 19th century when the Renaissance was very fashionable. In principle, an 'aftercast', or copy, is much cheaper than a genuine old medal but they can be difficult to tell apart.

Nineteenth-century copies are usually quite easy to detect since different metals and techniques were used. For earlier aftercasts, aficionados don't worry too much about date; they look for crisp detail (an indication that the medal is close to the original), the right size (recasting inevitably involves some shrinkage), the right metal and a fine patina.

If in doubt about the quality of a medal, it is wise to go and look at a good example. The British Museum has nearly all the Italian series and many French, German and British medals as well; there are also collections in Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh - both at the National Museum and the National Gallery.

Unfortunately, the basic reference books are out of print and very expensive. For Italian medals you need G F Hill's two-volume Corpus of Italian Medals of the Renaissance before Cellini, published in 1930, a copy of which fetched pounds 792 at a Sotheby's auction last July. For German medals you need G Habich's Die deutschen Schaumunzen des XVI Jahrhunderts, published in five volumes, 1929-35; if you can find a set it is likely to cost more than pounds 5,000. But do not despair: Buckland, Dix and Wood are publishing a reprint in May, in collaboration with Richard Falkiner, priced at pounds 850.

Dealers: Richard Falkiner, 15 Yarrel Mansions, Queen's Club Gardens, London W14 (tel: 071-385 7820); Cyril Humphris, 8 Pembroke Walk, London W8 (tel: 071-629 6240); Sotheby's, 34- 35 New Bond St, London W1 (tel: 071- 493 8080); Bonham's, Montpelier St, London SW7 (tel: 071 584 9161); Buckland, Dix and Wood, 1 Old Bond St, London W1 (tel: 071-499 5022).

(Photograph omitted)

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