DescriptionMassive U.S. Mint Medal of "Pure California Gold," Struck for Presentation to Henry Clay, Lincoln's own "ideal of a great man," in Recognition of His Half Century of Public Service. The medal, presented to Clay in 1852, is 3.5 inches in diameter and approximately a half inch thick, containing nearly 30 ounces of gold. The dies were engraved by Charles Cushing Wright, the premier engraver of his time, who also created the large silver case in the form of a hunter's case pocket watch, designed to protect the medal's delicate proof finish. The reverse of the medal itself features just a partial list of Clay's lifetime achievements, while the silver case depicts the U.S. Capitol building as it appeared before the now-familiar dome was added, as well as the Clay monument and his famous Kentucky mansion, Ashland. Also included are the original handwritten vellum document which accompanied the presentation of the medal to Clay and the original velvet-lined case.
The medal's stunning design, imposing size and mass, historic importance, and distinguished, thoroughly documented provenance establish it as one of the premier examples of American Medallic art.
Who Was Henry Clay?
Those who are not avid scholars of American history may be forgiven for asking. Clay may be the most under-appreciated American historical figure. He was a candidate or presidential hopeful in every election from 1824 through 1848, save for 1828 when he supported incumbent John Quincy Adams for re-election. While that ultimate prize eluded him, Henry Clay cast a bigger shadow over the politics of his era than many who have occupied the White House, leading Abraham Lincoln to characterize him as "my ideal of a great man."
Clay was born in Virginia in 1777, the son of a Baptist minister and owner of a prosperous plantation. He studied law in Virginia before relocating at age twenty to pursue opportunities in Lexington, Kentucky, where he would reside for the remainder of his life. He quickly developed a successful law practice, gaining a reputation as a sharp attorney with great oratorical skills. Perhaps his most famous client was former vice president Aaron Burr, whom Clay defended successfully in 1806 when Burr came up on serious charges stemming from his plot to invade and seize land west of the Mississippi River then governed by Spain.
In 1803 he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly, and by 1806 his influence was such that when U.S. Senator John Breckinridge resigned to accept a seat in President Jefferson's cabinet, Clay was appointed to serve the final two months of his term. Still under the age of 30, he was ineligible to run for a full Senate term and returned to the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he was promptly elected speaker. He would return to the Senate briefly in 1810 to serve the balance of another term, and in 1811 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. On his first day in Congress Clay was elected Speaker of the House, an event unparalleled in American history save for when the first Congress was convened in 1789.
In Congress he became known as one of the "War Hawks" who strongly supported the War of 1812 against England, and would serve as one of the Peace Commissioners who negotiated the Treaty of Ghent ending that war in 1814. Among his more interesting accomplishments was helping in 1816 to form the American Colonization Society, of which he served as president. The group sought to create a haven for freed slaves in Africa, establishing Monrovia as the capital of what would become the nation of Liberia. As a Congressional leader he became known as a champion of western interests, hence his political nickname "Harry of the West." After the War of 1812 he supported strong tariffs against the flood of imports from Britain and advocated that much of the revenue be employed to finance improvements in the country's infrastructure, notably roads and canals. Clay also advocated a strong central bank to bring stability to the currency and a strong national financial system - an advocacy which would later put him famously at odds with President Andrew Jackson's war on the Bank of the United States. In supporting an "American System" he was in many ways as the intellectual heir of Alexander Hamilton. In 1825 Clay took a brief sabbatical from electoral politics to serve as Secretary of State under his ally, John Quincy Adams. After Andrew Jackson assumed the Presidency in 1829 Clay resigned as Secretary of State, eventually returning to the Senate from Kentucky in 1831.
In 1820-21 Congressman Clay had begun to earn his title of "The Great Compromiser" when the issue of slavery first threatened to rip apart the Union. A great debate arose over whether Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state, and Clay helped to engineer the "Missouri Compromise", under which Missouri would come in as a slave state while Maine would be carved from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state, maintaining the balance in the Senate with 11 slave states and 11 free states. Although Clay himself owned slaves on his Ashland plantation in Kentucky, Clay was no friend of slave state interests, and the Compromise also importantly prohibited slavery north of Arkansas with the exception of Missouri. He had another opportunity to demonstrate his talent for negotiation in 1833, when he helped broker a compromise which defused the Nullification Crisis which had again put the Union at risk. The South rose against the 1828 "Tariff of Abominations," which sought to protect fledgling industry in the Northern states at the expense of the non-manufacturing South, which depended heavily on imports. South Carolina threatened to secede, and President Jackson, never one to shrink from a fight, was prepared to lead an army south to stamp out the rebellion. Henry Clay was instrumental in crafting the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which gradually lowered duties on imports and preserved the Union.
Clay would continue to play a prominent role in national affairs for three decades. It was in the Senate that his "signature" accomplishment took place: the engineering of the Compromise of 1850, actually a series of resolutions which gave both North and South specific concessions and allowed the fracturing Union to survive for another decade. Originally presented as an omnibus bill, it was initially rejected by the Senate. By this point Clay was already suffering from the tuberculosis which would eventually take his life. Physically exhausted, he passed the baton to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who successfully shepherded the various elements of Clay's compromise through the Senate as a series of individual bills.
Clay would continue to serve in the Senate until his death on June 29th, 1852, but it was obvious that his days were numbered. A desire to celebrate his remarkable career inspired the creation of the magnificent and unprecedented gold medal offered here, which was presented to the dying statesman with great ceremony in February. Although he never attained the Presidency, Henry Clay's half century of public service was instrumental in the evolution of our nation, and if his name is no longer a household word, his contributions have been recognized by generations of American historians who followed.
Genesis and History of the Henry Clay Medal (Julian PE-7 AR)
No American public figure was better known or widely admired from the War of 1812 until the time of Abraham Lincoln than Henry Clay. Three times he brought the nation back from the brink of chaos with political compromises restraining the sectional strife that was evolving over the issue of slavery. His last effort, the compromise of 1850, drained the man. Already in poor health, he had retreated in the summer of 1850 to the Newport watering hole to recuperate from the strains of the political debate while Steven A. Douglas provided the final push to gain passage of the necessary legislation.
By 1851 everyone knew that Henry Clay's days were numbered. The idea of honoring Henry Clay with a gold medal commemorating his "exulted services to the Republic" came from a committee of prominent Whigs in New York City, led by attorney Daniel Ullmann. Charles Cushing Wright of that city would engrave the dies; he was the best that America had, an artist in steel. His fee for the gold medal would be $2000. Another $80 would go toward a case for the medal.[i] Ullmann broke the news to Clay on January 11, 1851 in a letter of introduction for Wright to meet the senator. They wanted the medal to be the most perfect specimen yet produced of American art. They asked Clay to give what aid Wright required to produce an immortal work. This medal would enable future generations to see the lineaments of the "Great Commoner" and "Pacificator" of his age.[ii]
Thomas Dow Jones was chosen to prepare the plaster relief of Clay for the medal.[iii] Having just relocated to New York, Jones had been the logical choice. One of his first pieces in the early 1840's was a marble bust of Clay. He knew the statesman's profile intimately.
The issue of the medal's reverse was not so easily solved. In April 1851 Wright provided the committee with specifications he required for the reverse engraving. The design had to be at least six inches in diameter and drawn within a circle of that size if modeled in wax or plaster. Wright wanted it in low bas-relief. No sketch would do, it had to be a finished drawing or well-modeled design. Wright needed it in three weeks. He had settled upon the medal's diameter; it would be three and one half inches.[iv] However time and distance now became Ullmann's enemy. With Congress out of session, Clay had returned to his Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky.
It was not until fall that the reverse resolved itself. A wreath of the six American staples - wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco, rice and hemp - designed by William Walcutt, a New York City transplant from Columbus, Ohio, would encircle a list of Clay's accomplishments with associated dates. Settling upon which of the great man's accomplishments should be enumerated was the hard part. Henry Clay kept adding more while telling the committee in the next breath that the list could be abridged or shortened.[v]
Clay returned to Washington in December 1851. However everyone understood this was the old man's last political appearance when he submitted his resignation on December 15, 1851 to take effect in September 1852. Ullmann knew he had to wrap it up.
Wright gained permission from George Eckert, Director of the Mint, on January 16, 1852 to have the gold medal struck at the mint.[vi] The medal would be about one-half inch thick of pure California gold. On January 22nd Wright wrote to Ullmann that the dies were ready. The case for the medal was complete except for the engraving and that would be finished before the medal. The case would have an image on one side of the capitol with both wings and dome in a completed state. On the other side would be two images; on top, the commemorative monument of Clay on the Cumberland road and below, a view of Ashland. The goal was to have the medal struck the last week of the month for presentation in early February.[vii]
Bringing Henry Clay to New York City for a proper celebration was out of the question. Wracked by a vicious cough, Clay was virtually confined to his bed at the National Hotel in Washington. Ullmann as chairman would lead a delegation to Washington to make the presentation.
On February 9, 1852, an unusually mild winter day,[viii] the committee gathered around Clay's bed at three that afternoon. It was quite an affair. In addition to the committee, President Fillmore and members of Congress and personal friends crowded into the room.[ix] Ullmann told Clay that the committee hoped that the medal would be valuable as a work of an art little practiced in the United States. No medal ever struck in the country surpassed its beauty. It was the best likeness of Clay's features ever yet attempted by any art. Ullmann believed that it was appropriate to thus commemorate the "first American victor in peace."
Clay formally accepted the gift. This day would be one of the most interesting and gratifying of his life. In public life, one never was sure of the motives of his supporters. Were they driven by patriotism or were they actuated by self-interest? In this case, there could be no doubt. In contemplating the medal, he stated that it was a remarkable and accurate likeness of him.[x]
Clay acknowledged that this medal was the spontaneous offering of private citizens, from their private purses, for public services. He intended to fondly and gratefully cherish and preserve it while his life endured. He would transmit it to his descendants with the hope that they would receive it and guard it carefully as the proudest and richest legacy that he could leave them. Then light-heartedly, Clay joked that some Goth after he was laid low in the grave might be tempted to break off his nose (on the medal) and use the valuable medal that it contained.[xi]
There was an immediate clamor by Washingtonians to see the medal. Clay graciously gave it to a goldsmith to exhibit in his shop. However Wright was not happy with the lettering. He wanted the medal back in New York. Clay confessed that he could not see the defect but he would return it nevertheless.[xii]
The senator was being too kind. The mistake was serious. Clay's accomplishments on the reverse were listed chronologically in descending order. The problem arose with the listing of his Missouri Compromise for 1824, the wrong date and resulting in an incorrect placement.[xiii] The fix was a finesse. Clay's Spanish American activity, dated 1822, would be adjusted to cover the period 1818 to 1822. The date for the Missouri Compromise would be corrected to 1821. Handled in this manner the placement of these two events would not have to be reordered on the medal, only the dates would be changed. How Wright intended to accomplish that, he did not reveal.
Clay had the medal back in his hands on March 11th, preparing to send it as Ullmann had instructed via Adams Express. However during that day Anna Charlotte Lynch visited him.[xiv] She was a noted New York City society hostess who maintained a very well attended salon. She had a flare for sculpture and, of course, wanted to see the medal. Since she was returning to New York City the following day, she offered to carry the medal personally, saving Clay the expense and trouble of shipping it. Clay, always susceptible to a lady's charm, did not refuse.
Miss Lynch caught the cars at 9 o'clock the next morning.[xv] Escorting her and her mother was Charles Butler. They decided to put the medal in his carpetbag for safekeeping. This bag also contained Butler's writing desk and other valuables. When they arrived in New York City at two the next afternoon, the carpetbag was placed on the hack that would take them to their residences. The baggage master set it on the seat next to the driver. When they arrived at Miss Lynch's residence on Ninth Street, the bag was gone. Everybody was mortified.[xvi]
There was never any question of Butler not standing good for the loss of the medal. But it was a difficult letter that Ullmann wrote to Clay telling him of the loss. Clay was understanding; he wanted not one word of reproach to Miss Lynch.[xvii] Everybody believed the medal would be returned; with its unique character, it had no street value. However that was not to be. The bag was found later but not the medal. The committee had a second medal struck.[xviii] There was one fleeting moment of hope in October after Henry Clay's death. A man named Frederick Nolecke, a convicted felon recently in the United States was arrested in Hannover, Germany. In his possession were $2,000 in American coins and a large gold medal.[xix] With that single tease, the original medal vanished into thin air. At least Ullmann had the pleasure of sending two copper-bronzed medals with the correct ordering of accomplishments on the reverse from a batch of 150 struck after the gold medal to Clay before the great statesman died on June 29, 1852.[xx]
Clay's Compromise of 1850 bought valuable time for the nation. The gold from California financed a railroad-building spree that knitted the agricultural economy of the Midwest to that of the eastern seaboard. In turn industrial expansion further strengthen the northern tier of states. Finally it gave time for the immigrants arriving through the ports of Boston and New York City from the failed European revolutions of 1848 time to assimilate into their new country. Clay's compromise stacked the deck as the Civil War approached in favor of the Union led by Abraham Lincoln.
On January 25, 1861 Daniel Ullmann took the time to convey a copper-bronzed Clay medal to President-elect Abraham Lincoln.
"Some years ago a number of citizens of New York caused dies to be sunk, in which to strike a medal commemorative of the life and public services of the great Clay; - in order that they might thereby transmit to remote posterity, in the most enduring and classic form, a correct resemblance of the lineaments.
A medal was accordingly struck in gold and presented to him. One hundred and fifty were also struck in bronze. After which the dies were broken.
Many of the medals were presented to various States of the Union and to leading public institutions, at home and abroad.
I reserved at the time, one of them with the intention, if ever such result should occur in my day, of presenting it to the citizen of the school of Henry Clay, who should first be elected to the Presidency of the United States.
I rejoice that that event has at last occurred, and, recognizing in you a true disciple of our illustrious friend, I take great pleasure in carrying out my purpose, by hereby transmitting the medal to you, and begging your kind acceptance of it." [xxi]
On February 1, 1861, a grateful Abraham Lincoln replied.
"Your kind letter of the 25th ult. and the express package containing the bronze medal of Mr. Clay both came to hand this morning.
Permit me, in the first place, to return you my heartfelt thanks for your goodness in sending me this valuable present; and secondly, to express the extreme gratification I feel in possessing so beautiful a memento of him whom, during my whole political life, I have loved and revered as a teacher and leader."[xxii]
Henry Clay's gold medal that he hoped would be the proudest and richest legacy that he could convey to his heirs has indeed remained with his descendants. His wife, Lucretia Clay set forth the terms of inheritance in her will. The gold medal was to pass to her sons and belong absolutely to the legal heirs of the longest surviving of these men.[xxiii] And thus it has passed through the Clay descendants until today.
[i] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, C. C. Wright to Daniel Ullmann, January 4, 1851.
[ii] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Daniel Ullmann to Henry Clay, January 11, 1851.
[iii] According to Georgia Chamberlain in her article in The Numismatist, January 1961, Jones used the marble bust done of Clay in 1847 when he was seventy-three by Mahlon Pruden, a Lexington stone cutter.
[iv] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, C. C. Wright to Daniel Ullmann, April 21, 1851. Ultimately the medal had a diameter of 90 millimeters.
[v] Calvin Colton, The Private Correspondence of Henry Clay, Henry Clay to Daniel Ullmann, September 26, 1851, Pages 620 - 622.
[vi] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, George Eckert to C. C. Wright, January 16, 1852.
[vii] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, C. C. Wright to Daniel Ullmann, January 22, 1852.
[viii] Editor's Correspondence, Daily National Intelligencer, February 10, 1852, Page 3.
[ix] Presentation of a medal to Mr. Clay, National Intelligencer, February 10, 1852.
[x] Transcript from the Daily National Intelligencer, February 10, 1852, engrossed on silk to accompany the copper-bronzed medals.
[xi] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Henry Clay to Daniel Ullmann, March 18, 1852.
[xii] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Henry Clay to Daniel Ullmann, March 6, 1852.
[xiii] Presentation of a medal to Mr. Clay, National Intelligencer, February 10, 1852.
[xiv] She would marry Vincenzo Botta in 1855.
[xv] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Henry Clay to Daniel Ullmann, March 12, 1852.
[xvi] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Charles Butler to Daniel Ullmann, March 15, 1852.
[xvii] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, Henry Clay to Daniel Ullmann, March 18, 1852.
[xviii] Daniel Ullmann Papers, New-York Historical Society, C. C. Wright to Daniel Ullmann, et al., July 31, 1852.
[xix] Arrest in Hanover for Robberies Committed in this Country, The New York Times, October 7, 1852.
[xx] Papers of Henry Clay, University of Kentucky, May 3, 1852.
[xxi] Library of Congress, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Daniel Ullmann to Abraham Lincoln, January 25, 1861.
[xxii] Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4, Page 184, Abraham Lincoln to Daniel Ullmann February 1, 1861.
[xxiii] Will of Lucretia Clay, J. D. Hunt to Josephine Erwin Clay, September 1, 1887.
(Heritage would like to thank Michael F. Moran for his exhaustively researched essay on the "Genesis and History of the Henry Clay Medal."
Mr. Moran, an accomplished numismatic writer, is from Lexington, Kentucky, Henry Clay's hometown. His most recent publication, 1849 The Philadelphia Mint Strikes Gold, co-authored with Jeff Garrett, includes the story of the Henry Clay medal. This book has been nominated for two national awards. He is also the author of Striking Change, The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, which received the Professional Numismatists Guild's Robert Friedberg Award in 2008. In addition Mr. Moran has contributed numerous articles for publication including Earthquake, which detailed the survival of the San Francisco Mint during the massive earthquake and devastating fires of 1906, that received the American Numismatic Association's Heath Literary Award in 2006.
Mr. Moran is active in other organizations, currently serving on the advisory board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and is the past chair of the advisory board of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. Most importantly, he is in his second four-year term on the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee at the United States Mint. Mr. Moran is the committee appointee of Senator Mitch McConnell, majority leader and senior senator from Kentucky and current heir to the legacy of Henry Clay in the United States Senate.)
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