OBJECT Art Deco Souvenir Medallion

ARTIST Pierre Turin (1891–1968)

DATE Circa 1925

PRICE $400–$1,000

SOURCE Simmons Gallery, London, www.simmonsgallery.co.uk

It is a marvel of Art Deco that a movement so grand took off from a bronze miniature just three inches across.

To promote the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes–the landmark 1925 Paris fair that gave Art Deco its name–organizers commissioned a souvenir medallion. The artist, Pierre Turin, one of France's premiere coin engravers, sculpted a muted beauty on a cloud. From her perch, the damsel plucked flowers from a basket and dropped them to the world below. The motif of flowers continues on the reverse, along with the name of the exposition.

With its focus on luxury and ornament, the exposition captured the attention of a generation ready to cast off the swirls of Art Nouveau. Turin's octagonal miniature, which was repeated on promotional graphics, became a symbol of the modern age as well as an icon of the optimism that flourished between the two world wars. “It was part of the zeitgeist,” says Frances Simmons, a London dealer, who has sold editions of the medal in bronze and silver and keeps one in her personal collection.

Pierre Turin's Art Deco Souvenir Medallion
THE WOLFSONIAN Pierre Turin's Art Deco Souvenir Medallion

Art Deco translated equally well in New York, where the Chrysler Building remains the style's architectural pinnacle. Simmons points to the bronze bas-reliefs at Rockefeller Center as examples of how the medallists' art evolved into architectural ornament.

Medals date to antiquity, when Roman emperors rewarded generals with specially minted coins worth more in prestige than their weight in gold. Renaissance collectors devoted entire rooms to the display of such treasures.

By the 19th century, medals could be struck in the hundreds or thousands of copies, making them affordable to the bourgeoisie. Democratization of the art form did not affect the quality of the tiny sculptures, Simmons says. Artists evolved from portraiture to compositions enlivened by perspective and symbolism. Art Nouveau medals enjoyed great success until the 1925 Paris fair–and Turin's medal–swept a bolder aesthetic into the public consciousness.

Turin's Deco commemorative, which was struck in the thousands, has become one of the most collectible medals of the 20th century. Examples can be found in numismatic collections at Harvard University, the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Numismatic Society, among others.

“It's a beautiful object,” says Simmons, “an iconic medal.”

The price of Art Deco history: A 1925 exhibition medal in bronze is likely to cost $400 to $500. In its original box, Turin's masterpiece can command $1,000.