A medal honoring a Revolutionary War hero thought to be lost forever sold at auction for a record $960,000 this week. It marked the culmination of 233 years of commemorative chaos, as Bob Montgomery reports for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1839, the medal honors General Daniel Morgan, who led Continental troops to victory at the 1781 Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. At the battle, Morgan and his troops decimated their British adversaries, and the victory was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. Morgan’s command is now considered a “tactical masterpiece” by military historians, according to the National Museum of American History, and today, the site of the confrontation is managed by the National Park Service as Cowpens National Battlefield.
Congress first honored Morgan’s valor with a medal designed by French artist Augustin Dupré and struck in Paris in 1789. It was one of 133 medals created as part of the Comitia Americana series, which recognized key moments of the Revolutionary War.
As Paul Gilkes writes for Coin World, the Cowpens medal’s design is considered to be “the most awe-inspiring” of the series. One side depicts Morgan charging into battle on horseback, while the other shows a Native American woman placing a crown of laurels on his head.
When Morgan died in 1802, his grandson inherited his medal. Secure in a Pittsburgh bank vault, it seemed safe. In 1818, though, thieves stole the medal and it was never found.
The saga, it turned out, had only just begun. Congress agreed to strike a replacement medal and presented it to Morgan’s great-grandson in 1841. Financier J.P. Morgan, who mistakenly believed he was related to General Morgan, acquired the medal around 1885. After that, experts believed the replacement medal was lost or melted down.
In recent months, though, after going missing for more than a century, the replacement medal mysteriously resurfaced when an anonymous individual consigned it to Stack’s Bowers, an auction house that specializes in coins, currency, tokens and medals. It arrived in its original red leather U.S. Mint case, nestled inside a purple crushed velvet interior.
“My reaction was somewhere along the lines of, holy (expletive),” John Kraljevich, an expert hired to evaluate the medal, told the Herald-Journal in March. “As soon as I laid my eyes on it, I knew what it was.”
In early April, the medal found its next owner at a Stack’s Bowers auction. Bidding started at $300,000 and escalated by $20,000, then $50,000, increments. After roughly six minutes of bidding, the medal—which was expected to garner between $200,000 and $500,000—sold for $800,000.The sale may have ended the medal’s mysterious journeys for good, but it became even more notorious with its sale. Its $960,000 price, which includes a 20 percent buyer’s fee, set a world record for an American historical medal.
The Cowpens medal’s buyer remains anonymous. As Stack’s Bowers executive vice president Chris Karstedt tells the Herald-Journal, though, the medal has “gone to a good home.”
According to Coin World, the last similar medal to be sold at auction was General Anthony Wayne’s medal for the Battle of Stony Point, which sold for a record $51,000 in 1978—the equivalent of about $225,000 in 2022 dollars.