Patara. C. 400 BC.
AR Hemidrachm. the second known example.
Alexandria. Trajan, 98-117.
AE Drachm. Unicum.
Guglielmo Gonzaga, 1538-1587.
AR Grosso 1550.
Lars O. Lagerqvist (1929-2023)
By Marie-Astrid Voisin Pelsdonk
A good friend of the art of the medal, my mentor, the FIDEM Honorary President, Lars O. Lagerqvist passed away on 25th October 2023 at the age of 94.
Lars started at the Royal Coin Cabinet in 1951, became a curator between 1959–62. He worked as a librarian at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 1962–1963. He was a museum lecturer and head of the educational department at the National Antiquities Office and the National Historical Museum between 1963–1975, first curator and head of the study unit at the National Historical Museum between 1975–1977, first curator at the Royal Coin Cabinet in 1979, department director between 1981–1983 and finally museum director between 1983–1992. Since 1993, he was a consultant there. He was the keeper of medals of the Swedish King.
Lars had several more titles but they did not define him. He was the kind of person to share his knowledge, not judge, he was generous and humble, sometimes stubborn but always there to assist.
I have known Lars since 2000 when I started as a curator responsible for the medal collection at the Royal Coin Cabinet in Stockholm. This tall man with an imposing stature came into my office one morning, gave me a baisemain and said in French: “Madame, j’ai entendu que vous êtes française et que vous allez travailler avec les médailles. Ceci est absolument parfait. Aimez-vous la gastronomie française et les bons vins? Si oui, vous avez un ami pour la vie.” (“Madam, I hear you’re French and you’re going to work with medals. This is absolutely perfect. Do you love French cuisine and fine wines? If so, you’ve got a friend for life!”) I remember I was just nodding and hardly daring to breath. This was the man I had seen the name of on history book covers and just heard talked about in numismatic circles and at the Royal Palace. I used the “vous” in French when I spoke to him. He looked at me and said: “If you want to be my friend, use “tu”. I am not the king”.
That day, I gained an extraordinary mentor. He taught me so much about the art of the medal, being a curator, about Swedish history, about FIDEM. I could always go to him when I had questions or if I needed to confirm something I was not 100% sure of. He was always happy to help. He was always consulting me when he wrote something in French. Not that he needed it. I remember I helped him with a translation from Swedish to French and it was about the first Bernadotte, Charles XIV Johan and his son Oscar (later Oscar I). Something the king said to his son: “Oscar nous nous défendrons” (Oscar we will defend ourselves). That sentence has followed me since. Not to give up, to continue the fight. Something Lars told me once when things were difficult: “Never give up, just continue, you have the knowledge, use it and share it”.
In 2000, during the congress in Weimar he made sure I was able to come – I was new after all and had hardly worked 8 months at the museum – he pushed the buttons for me to attend. He introduced me to people. He got quickly drawn away by everyone present, everyone knew him. It was amazing to witness. I remember at the final dinner, that he came over to the table I was sitting at with a very concerned face. I was sitting at the singing table. “Are you alright over here? They are not bothering you too much are they.” I reassured him that I was sitting at a very good table. And I was.
Lars was always in the search of finding birth and death years of artists. I was always quite early at work and I can still recollect when he, in the morning, exited the elevator on my floor, checking everybody’s mail box, talking loud: “This one needs to learn how to write a postal code number…” He took the turn to my office and always said: “Redan vaken och inte gråter, vem kan vi döda idag?” – ‘Already awake and not crying, who can we kill today’ – meaning which artist can we find the death year for and add it to our database. We managed to get quite a number of them!
He was a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge. He could tell stories and had facts on his sleeve. I remember a day, when the numismatic librarian wanted to show the staff how to use the new search system for the library. She asked one of us to give a title. Someone did. She started to type and Lars, standing next to me said out loud: “it is standing in the fourth book case to the left, on the second shelf and I believe it is the 12th book there. Let me get it for you”. I remember we all stood with open mouths and the librarian had stopped typing and somewhat irritated said: “Well let the search engine do its work Lars”. By the time she had finished speaking and typing, Lars was standing there with the book in his hand and we all started to laugh. Lars had beaten the search engine!
Lars has been an important part of FIDEM for very long. I believe he was introduced to our organisation in 1954 when he was asked by his then employer to not expect to have any holidays until after the congress which took place in September 1955. Lars helped out to organise the congress and install the exhibition. He was also there in 1985 organising the congress in Stockholm. He was a member of FIDEM and became the president in 1975 until 1992 and in 1996 became the honorary president of FIDEM. A title he has held until yesterday. Lars knew all our statutes, rules and regulations by heart. No need for the papers… He was a walking encyclopaedia. The last congress he attended in person was in 2010, in Tampere. I remember he arrived late to the delegates meeting, but when people heard him enter, they stood up and applauded. He was touched. He told me afterwards: “No need for all that fuss”. He was proud and happy.
We often spoke about food and vines. He loved to speak of delicious dishes and excellent vines. Lars could recollect every single dinner and vine he had had during his time as a FIDEM member. Since 1954! This summer he mentioned the dinner from the congress in Rome in 1984. During the Colorado Springs congress he spoke of the dinner in Paris in 1957. He knew how to enjoy good food and appreciate medals.
Since moving to the Netherlands in 2009, I have kept in touch with him. A monthly phone call. He was still inquiring from time to time if I had managed to finish someone off… I kept him in the loop of what was happening in FIDEM. In 2021, when it came clear that one could start travelling again I made a pit stop before continuing to Stockholm. Lars was staying in an elderly people’s home in the south of Sweden. This trip was sudden so I had not inquired if it was possible to visit. The staff was helpful but reluctant. Once they told Lars who wanted to visit, he made sure I was allowed in. Facial masks and all precautions taken, I was able to see him. He just opened up his arm as to give a hug, a distant one, but he was happy to see me and me even more to see him. We talked about so many things. Lunch was served but he said: “Keep a plate warm for me, we have much to discuss”. His mind was wandering but he never had a single date, name, battle nor artist wrong. He could tell me about his first encounter with Léo Holmgren and he was so happy I was working on a PhD. He read a couple of my manuscripts and gave me advice and corrected things. “You will never have enough eyes to correct a text. No matter how many people look at it, there will still be errors. No matter what. But I like what you have written so far. Do you have a copy of your catalogue raisonné for me?”. I saw him this year again for an hour. He wanted to know how things were evolving with the congress in Florence and if I had a manuscript of my PhD for him. He recalled the congress in Rome in 1984. And asked me to forward his greetings to the friends of FIDEM which I did during the General Assembly two weeks ago.
Receiving the news of his passing was first of all a shock and it feels like I have been robbed. We have all be robbed of a man with so much knowledge and love for the art of the medal. The first day I met Lars, I gained a friend for life. Today, I feel like an orphan. I am going to miss him immensely. I am extremely grateful to have been able to know him and learn from him.
In his opening address in Colorado Springs in 2007 he said: “In my case, after 55 years with medals, the sun is setting, as the late king of Sweden said in 1972, and even if I hope to see you again, I will use this opportunity to express my gratitude to you all, old and new friends, artists, experts, collectors alike, and wish you a great success, not only here in Colorado Springs, but in the coming years.”
The author Marie-Astrid Voisin Pelsdonk is a Numismatic Researcher and the General Secretary at the International Art Medal Federation (FIDEM).