Introduction by Edward Rochett
Coins and medals provide a tangible link to civilization's past. They enable us, so to speak, to hold history in our hands. Although coins and medals are similar in appearance and method of manufacture, they are worlds apart in the eyes of a collector. Both may be created for the purpose of commemorating historical events, but medals are not intended to circulate as money. Coins and medals both trace their origins to the sixth century B.C.E. Medals, which give artists freedom from the constraints posed by circulating coins, are often sculptures-in-miniature. However, collectors of historical medals will seek with equal enthusiasm specimens that are prized more for their record of historical events than for their artistic merit, as evidenced in the Gimbel collection.
The items selected to best represent the numismatic section of the Gimbel collection are, for the purpose of this program, listed by subject rather than by date of issue. Thus, we first examine items from antiquity—those that relate to the dream of flight; second, we look at post-Renaissance items that commemorate lighter-than-air devices; and third, we regard specimens that honor the modern era and power-assisted mechanized flight. The vast majority of numismatic issues are commemorative and as such they mark anniversaries rather than being contemporary to the events portrayed. There are exceptions and these are the pieces that help make the Gimbel collection unique.
Man's dream of flight is best retold through modern issues; the twentieth-century art-medals of French Mint manufacture and the commissioned works of the Society of Medalists serve this purpose satisfactorily. Because the catalogue depicts but a small percentage of the numismatic issues in the Gimbel collection, the issues illustrated were selected to represent (1) the dream—the mythological legend of Daedalus and Icarus; (2) the concept—the genius of Leonardo da Vinci; and (3) the imagination—the scholarship of Jules Verne.
On June 15, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne, gave their first public demonstration of an ascension by hot-air balloon at Annonay, France. The 10-minute flight was the first real step in man's daring attempt to be free of the power of the earth's gravity. Other pioneers soon followed. The Gimbel collection is rich in the numismatic issues commissioned by or issued on behalf of these early aeronauts. Some pieces were issued as commemorative medals; others were token souvenirs of early events. The French Mint's issues created to commemorate the achievements of the Montgolfier brothers, the memorial pieces to honor early fatalities, and the medals ordered by the early balloonists to satisfy the desires of those wanting tangible mementos of the events witnessed are only some of the contemporary examples of medallic art to be found in the Gimbel collection.
Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained and controlled takeoff in a gasoline-powered aircraft. Their historic achievement at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, marked the true beginning of the realization of the age-old dream of flight. There are items in the Gimbel collection that depict the hectic and daring pioneering days through and including the journey into outer space, fulfilling the prophecy made and noted in another medallic issue—that of Jules Verne.
The numismatic items comprising the Gimbel collection continue to grow in number and in scope, matching man's record of aeronautical accomplishment and man's dream of finding ever newer horizons to discover.