Heads and Tales: A Conversation with Stephen K. Scher

This article is reprinted from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

photo of Stephen K. Scher, along with Aimee Ng, handling medals


Stephen K. Scher is a scholar, collector, and the co-curator (along with Frick Associate Curator Aimee Ng) of the special exhibition The Pursuit of Immortality. With Rebecca Brooke, Head of Publications, he discusses his decades-long fascination with the portrait medal and shares a few stories behind building a world-renowned collection of some of the finest examples of the art form.


Rebecca Brooke, Editor: How did you become interested in medals?

Stephen K. Scher: As an undergraduate at Yale, I read Jacob Burckhardt’s seminal Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and was intrigued by the culture and by the individuals he described. While still at Yale I traveled to Italy one summer, and in Florence I was wandering along the Arno and saw an antiquary shop. Out of curiosity, I entered and asked the proprietor what sorts of things he sold. He brought out several objects, one of which was a medal. The minute I held it in my hand I was transported back to the fifteenth century. It was a magical experience seeing the portrait of a Renaissance prince on one side and his castle on the other. From that moment on, I made it a point to visit the medals installations in every museum I visited.

RB: When did you become serious about collecting, and at what point did you realize you were building the finest private collection in the world?

SKS: I bought my first medal around 1957 while a student at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York and continued to find medals that either I or my parents purchased. I think I did not become aware of the importance of my collection until much later, but I never gave the subject a great deal of thought. It was not an objective and did not really change what I acquired.

RB: What is your goal as a collector?

SKS: The most important basis for my collecting is quality: of design, of condition, of the skill of the artist. I want to possess only the best in all of these categories, regardless of period, country of origin, date, etc.

RB: Do you collect objects other than medals?

SKS: I have always been drawn to Old Master prints. I have a small collection, including works by Rembrandt, Piranesi, Callot, and Dürer, but also a Whistler from his Venice series that is particularly precious to me.

RB: Do you have a favorite medal?

SKS: Whenever I am asked what my favorite is of anything—food, color, work of art, travel destination—I am at a loss to answer because I never have just one favorite. I suppose if I am obliged to answer, I would choose Pisanello’s portrait of Cecilia Gonzaga with the unicorn reverse. It epitomizes the extraordinary quality of his work and is a perfect Italian Renaissance image. The delicacy of the portrait and the richness of the reverse imagery testify to Pisanello’s genius.

RB: Is there a particular acquisition story that stands out?

SKS: In 1994 I curated The Currency of Fame, which was co-organized by the Frick and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. For the exhibition I borrowed from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna a medal by Jan de Vos that had a vanitas theme. This was an extraordinary piece and one that I wished to own. Eventually, one came up at auction, but it was purchased by a French dealer, who was also a close friend. I suppose he was aware that he had defeated me in the competition to own the medal. A short time after that, I was in Paris on my way to Maastricht and visited the dealer, who was very excited to tell me that, while vetting the art at Maastricht, he had found a rather interesting object: a silver wine goblet inset with coins and medals, what is called in German a münzbecher. Set into the cup was an example of the de Vos medal. Needless to say, I purchased the cup, which is included in the exhibition. It is a fascinating object, but an even more fascinating medal.

RB: What about it do you find fascinating?

SKS: In addition to the excellent workmanship by a significant artist, I am intrigued and amused by de Vos’ handling of the subject. On the obverse, he depicts a beautiful young woman in the fullness of life; on the reverse, playing on both the vanitas and memento mori themes, he represents the same woman after death—as a skeleton—with a toad replacing her diadem, a snake intertwined in her ribs as if it were a necklace, and a death’s head replacing her brooch. Set into the wine goblet, the medal has even more impact since it can be seen on both the outside and inside of the cup.

RB: Why do you think the Frick is the best home for your collection?

SKS: The Frick adheres to a concentrated level of quality that is matched by few other institutions. It is also of a scale that is perfectly suited to displaying smaller objects, such as a medal. The devotion of its staff was also a significant factor in my choice of the museum as the recipient of the collection.

RB: What do you see as the future of medal studies?

SKS: I think that after The Currency of Fame in 1994 and now with this exhibition, medals have become much more prominent in art historical studies and to the public. I have always tried to present medals as sculpture in order to balance the perception of them as numismatic objects. There is no doubt that ancient coins were the primary inspiration for the appearance of medals in the Renaissance, but it is important to study and appreciate them as works of art among sculpture, painting, works on paper, and the decorative arts. Nonetheless, it is difficult to change old perceptions and scholarly habits. I think that the inclusion of medals in exhibitions, in teaching art history, and in collecting has grown steadily. Exhibiting my collection at the Frick and establishing fellowships and internships to study the collection, which is our intention, will certainly help to promote the study of this richly endowed object.

Stephen K. Scher and Frick Associate Curator Aimee Ng. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

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