Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Lid ornament for a hand-made copper humidor
Gustav Manz, circa 1910
Private collection

In July 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan law naming the American Bison the official National Mammal, giving our National Bird some company. Today a couple thousand bison run wild in Yellowstone National Park thanks to conservationist (and big-game hunter) Theodore Roosevelt's organized effort to stave off extinction. Sacred to the Plains tribes, buffaloes were appropriated by Gilded Age animalier sculptors including James Earle Fraser, creator of the 1913 Buffalo Nickel shown below. 

Obverse and reverse of James Earle Fraser's 1913 nickel design. Image: CoinHelp

Fraser, who taught sculpture at The Art Students League, found his model bison at the Central Park Zoo. Another artist inspired by iconic inhabitants of the American frontier was Canadian-born sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor, whose stone heads and friezes adorn entrances at the Bronx Zoo. Shaggy bovines and other large mammals also featured in the gentlemen's jewelry and metalwork created by Gustav Manz, who rented studio space at 13 E 30th, in the same Manhattan building as A. Proctor's atelier. 

Sterling and gilt plaque of a Native American chief
Gustav Manz, circa 1910-15
Private collection

As a member and occasional exhibitor at the National Arts Club, Gustav Manz was surely in the loop when the U.S. Treasury announced a competition to replace the liberty Head nickel. But Fraser, a former assistant to Augustus St. Gaudens, effectively beat all potential rivals to the punch by quickly submitting a preliminary concept and model coin that wowed officials. Fraser had early exposure to the American frontier—his father was a trainman sent to Little Big Horn to help retrieve remains of Custer's slain calvary—and had worked on a ranch in South Dakota before heading east. The Indian face on his 1913 coin was actually a composite of three chiefs, at least one of whom had met and parlayed with Theodore Roosevelt.

To announce the opening of his studio on East 28th Street, Manz produced a trade brochure advertising his product lines. Each spoke to wealthy Americans' taste for exoticism and icons of the past. A 4-color illustration plate showing designs for "The Animal" line is attached inside the folded stock 
Private collection

While there is no evidence Manz competed for the nickel, a silver Indian head he sculpted and later gave to his daughter clearly evokes the face on Fraser's coin. Like other industrial artists of his era, Manz was well compensated by Tiffany and other firms for his skills as a copycat of artifacts and emblems redolent of ancient and exotic cultures. His noble brave was likely part of his "Indian + Aztec" product line, one of a dozen he advertised in a circa 1912 brochure produced for the trade. Coincidentally in July 1912, a month after TR launched his Bull Moose party (ultimately losing a four-way race for the presidency to Woodrow Wilson), Manz registered copyright on a "sculptured group of buffaloes trying to gore a bear." And we think modern politics is a rough and tumble affair! 

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