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1892 Columbian Exposition Award Medal Presented to the Earl of Aberdeen, Canada's 7th Governor General

1892 Columbian Exposition Award Medal Presented to the Earl of Aberdeen, Canada's 7th Governor General


Eglit-90. Bronze. 76mm. This spectacularly important medal has it all: a great story, a fantastic provenance, and unsurpassed technical preservation. It is an example of the 1892-dated World’s Columbian Exposition Award medal presented to the Earl of Aberdeen, Canada’s 7th Governor General.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago’s White City was the grandest world’s fair in the United States to that point, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World in 1892. These medals were presented to prize-winning exhibitors and distinguished fairgoers. While collectible, they remain among the most sought-after souvenirs from that historic event.

The story of the medal’s design and production is well-known to many collectors. Master sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was asked to produce a sculpture of the event’s namesake, but overwhelmed with commissions, agreed instead to design a medal. The obverse featured Columbus taking his first steps on the American continent, while the reverse showed a tasteful depiction of a young boy in the nude with a torch held high and a place for the recipient’s name below. Controversy ensued after sketches of the reverse were leaked to the public – the American citizenry being far too prudish to look at a nude boy. Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Charles Barber, was asked to design a new reverse, which was accepted and is seen here. Saint-Gaudens was appalled by the mating of the two designs and never forgave Barber. This animosity would weigh heavily on Saint-Gaudens and Barber’s relationship years later during their work on a new double eagle at President Roosevelt’s behest.

What makes this piece so exceptional is its provenance. It was awarded to John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen, who was appointed Canada’s 7thGovernor General on September 18, 1893, while the Columbian Exposition was still open. His wife, Lady Aberdeen, served as president of the Irish Industries Association and oversaw the enormously popular Irish Industrial Village exhibit at the fair. For more information, please see the snapshot from Rand McNally’s Handbook of the World’s Columbian Exposition, including in the images above.

The Earl of Aberdeen is regarded as having transformed the role of Canada’s Governor General from an aristocratic representative of the Queen to someone who promoted Canada’s ideals and people at home and abroad. His contribution cannot be overstated.

We are unsure about the circumstances under which this medal was actually presented. It was only in 1896 that these awards were given out, as the Scoville Manufacturing Company required time to fulfil the massive order, which demanded that each medal have a different name on the reverse cartouche. 

This is, without question, the finest 1892 Columbian Exposition Award medal we have ever seen. It is likely among the finest survivors extant. The medal appears never to have been removed from its original aluminium case with plush, blue velvet interior, which is included alongside the original promotional cardboard insert. Each side features glossy and smooth chocolate-brown surfaces void of even the slightest imperfection. There are just a couple of tiny specks of aqua residue on the obverse. Saint-Gaudens’ gorgeous design is fully raised, as is Barber’s less remarkable but still-appealing reverse. We hesitate to ever describe something as “unique,” but this museum-quality offering certainly fits the bill.

The only example we can locate that compares to the significance of this piece in terms of its Canadian connection, prominence of the recipient, and condition is the one awarded to George Sleeman, grandson of the prominent Canadian brewer John Sleeman, which realized $5,605 in June 2014.

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