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Rare Galvanos by Edward Warren Sawyer Sold at Auction

A collection of 18 Native American portrait galvanos sold for a total of $64,560 at Heritage Auction’s recent Long Beach Expo. The works are widely regarded as Edward Warren Sawyer’s most significant contributions to medallic art.

Sawyer trained with Hermon Atkins MacNeil, who designed the Standing Liberty quarter dollar, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1890s. He later traveled to France where he studied at the Académie des Beaux Arts. By the end of his career, he would win the J. Sanford Saltus Medal for Medallic Art, which was awarded by American Numismatic Society in 1931.

Sawyer’s portraits of Native Americans are among his most famous and long-lasting contributions to medallic art. While he featured prominent members of Native American tribes, such as the Apache and Navaho, he also featured children, squaws, and scouts.

Prior to designing the coins, Sawyer spent a significant amount of time in the American West. By living with the Native American tribes, his goal was not only to get to know his subjects, but also to gain their confidence. As Dick Johnson explained on his Medalblog, “This was not an easy task as the Indians believed such reproductions also captured their spirit. Thus they disliked, even prohibited, being photographed. Sawyer had to first gain their confidence — by living amongst them — then gently urging his chosen model to sit for him. Perhaps that action didn’t seem to extract the [spirit] from the body he was modeling with his clay. It was not like a photograph. His subject could see the slow progress in replicating his features and his adornment in the slowly mounting clay.”

Using Sawyer’s models, the Medallic Art Company created bronze galvanos of his portraits in two sizes, 2-3/4-inch diameter and 5-inch. For those who may be unfamiliar, a galvano is a uniface rendering with the back typically filled with lead or another material to provide support.

According to Heritage Auctions, 38 different subjects and 41 varieties known today, although it is unclear how many portraits Sawyer actually created. The galvanos can be found in museums around the world, including the American Numismatic Society, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Reno, and the Whitney Western Art Museum.

Privately-held galvanos are extremely rare, which is why the auction of 18 different medals caused such a buzz.

The most prominent galvanos sold at auction included a 1904 portrait of Est-Zan-Lopa, a young Navajo girl whom Sawyer described as “a little girl blanket weaver” and a 1912 depiction of Ech-Spa-Di-E-Ash, a medicine man of the Crow Tribe. Each bronze galvano sold for $7,800 each.

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