World Art Medals from the Collection of Dr Stephen Martin
Collecting is for me the continuous experience of falling in love. Ageing confers no immunity. No matter how much I resist being waylaid by beautiful objects, I fall victim to their mystery time and again.
I have had three major love affairs in my collecting life. My first was with the art of the Swiss painter, Paul Klee (1879-1940). This love was expressed, as befitting a young art historian and Jungian psychologist who wrote his dissertation of Klee, in the creation of one of the most comprehensive libraries of primary and secondary literature pertaining to this major modern artist. That library now resides in a museum in Japan.
My second love affair was with the work of Archibald Knox (1864-1933), best known as the creative force behind the Celtic Revival in Britain in the early 20th century. Working for Liberty & Co, Knox produced objects of stunning beauty that combined the ancient language of the Celtic decorative style with the sensibility of a modernist. As a result, Knox's silverwork, jewellery, ceramics and pewter are among the most highly sought decorative arts of this period. From this affair I learned the rules of true collecting: pursue fearlessly what you love, and stretch financially as much as possible for the sake of the beautiful object, lest you lose it. Concretely, a museum quality collection of Knox's work and the publication of my definitive monograph on the artist were its fruits.
My third affair is the subject of this catalogue, art medals. Like the other two, its beginning was accidental. With Klee it was a casual purchase of a second-hand book about him while I was a university student. With Knox, it was a serendipitous encounter with one of his silver pieces while on a trip to London. With art medals it began at the home of a dealer friend of mine. There I saw, framed like a painting on his wall, the iconic American Art Deco medal by Norman Bel Geddes commemorating the 25th anniversary of General Motors. The powerful design and formal presentation of this small object moved me as profoundly as any piece of 'fine' art that I had ever seen. Before the end of our visit the medal was mine (ultimately I was to own three variations, one of which will be included in the second part of my collection, to be sold next year) and a love affair began, but one that seemed different from the specific focus of the other two. Collecting art medals is not about fidelity to a single artist, but about the eye's rampant delight as the collector discovers the extraordinary diversity of this art world in miniature. In the course of collecting over 320 medals, it is fascinating to observe what genres have elicited my love. Well-designed examples of the Art Deco and Modernist period never fail to stir desire. These medals, as well as superb examples of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau are, I believe, reflective of my great love for decorative arts of the 20th century. In them I see the quintessence of modern design as it evolved from the Symbolist imagery of the 1890s through to the stylized exultation of modern life found in medals from the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time as I sought great design, I became absolutely enthralled by a quite different genre: German satirical medals of the World War I period and their French equivalents (Gies and Roche are my favourites). As a student of the soul I was drawn to the uncompromising expressionistic power of these medals depicting death and the destructiveness of war, the suffering humanity caught in the conflict and the bravery that compensated the horror of the time. In this wonderful variety of medals is illustrated the history of modern times, modern design and the modern psyche.
One episode of falling in love is especially pertinent because it typifies the arc of desire, discovery and ultimate satisfaction that is every collector/lover's thrill. Some five years ago I chanced upon a remaindered biography of Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934), the great Victorian sculptor. The mannerist style of Gilbert's work had captivated me since the early 90s when I began my research on Knox and the precursors of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In addition Gilbert's idiosyncratic genius, his wild, larger-than-life 'artiste' persona (in comparison to Knox's quiet intensity) fascinated me. I dreamed of owing a maquette-sized example of Eros, or Icarus or Perseus Arming but their 'fine' art prices were truly out of reach. Imagine how I felt when I discovered that Sir Alfred had created one of the most beautiful art medals of all time, the Art Union Jubilee medal of 1887 and that, if I were lucky enough to locate one, I could afford for it to be mine? Happily, with the help of a well-connected dealer, not only was one found, but also it was the rarer silver variant. Without a moment's hesitation I said yes to this 'silver'd queen', Victoria, whose bust adorns its obverse. Of all the beauties in the medal cabinet of my heart, she will always be one of my favourites (see lot 1306 in this sale).
I have loved each and every one of these small treasures and hope that their fortunate future owners wiII have as much joy from these love affairs as have I.