Bits & Pieces... by David Sundman

The Many Faces of Benjamin Franklin

[photo: 1861 Confederate Cent, Haseltine Restrike, Proof-65, photo courtesy of Stack’s Auction]

1777 Terra Cotta Benjamin Franklin Medallion by Jean-Baptiste Nini (4½″ diameter) – photo by David Sundman with permission of Stack’s Rare Coins

Today it is hard for us to imagine the popularity that Ben Franklin enjoyed 233 years ago. Franklin’s regard in those earlier times, is compared by some to the adulation poured out on the best of today’s rock stars and movie idols. The large 4½″ diameter terra cotta medallion of Franklin shown here is just one of many lifetime images of Benjamin Franklin issued in France, Britain, and the American Colonies. Of the many clay medallions, pictures, busts, and prints, Franklin wrote to his daughter Sally: “Copies upon copies are spread everywhere, and have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.”

The image of Ben Franklin with the beaver cap is not as familiar to us today, and symbolizes North American origins of the wearer. This particular ceramic clay medallion in high relief, was created in France at the Chateau Chaumont in the Loire Valley, by Italian artist Jean-Baptiste Nini who spent his career working in France. It became the most popular French image of Benjamin Franklin. This Nini design is a favorite among advanced collectors of American medals – a field that is growing in popularity in the United States. Other ceramic portraits were produced in England by Franklin’s friend, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). Nine different varieties were produced, one with Franklin wearing glasses, symbolizing his invention of the first bi-focals.

Franklin often sent prints and medallions to his many friends. I think he would have been pleased with the rather short-lived 90% silver Franklin half dollars of 1948-1963, modeled by U.S. Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, and based on a 1779 bust by the 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.