Wiener Letters

Gerta Ries Wiener Letters (1970-96),

Regarding the Design of Jewish-American Hall of Fame Medals, Contributed to the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art

All Rights Reserved By Mel Wacks,
Founding Director of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame


The hand-written letters sent by Gerta Ries Wiener to the Director of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, Mel Wacks – from the development of her first medal honoring Louis Brandeis (12/9/70) to her 11th medal commemorating Ernestine Rose (1/3/94) – give a remarkable glimpse into the creative process. This free-exchange of ideas resulted in exceptional works of art and a lifelong friendship.


In addition, there is a letter describing an aborted medal for Jascha Heifetz (4/13/80), and a series of letters (3/23/94 – 4/4/95) about Wiener’s unfinished 12th medal – for Gertrude Stein.



Gerta Ries Wiener and Mel Wacks at the Magnes Museum’s Jewish-American Hall of Fame exhibit, November, 1981, photo by Andrew Partos


Mel Wacks saved all of the letters he received from Ms. Wiener, and has donated them to the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution, 750 9th St. NW, Victor Building, Suite 2200, Washington, DC 20001, where they are available by appointment to researchers. Since 1954, the Archives has collected roughly 16 million letters, photographs, diaries, sketches, scrapbooks, business records, and other documentation that supports the study of the history of the visual arts in America.


This material is described on the Archives’ web site as:

“Letters; sketches, mostly photocopies, of medals; photographs; a DVD and medals concerning Wacks' involvement in the work of medalist Gerta Ries Wiener for the Jewish American Hall of Fame, a project and institution created by the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif. Circa 100 letters from Wiener to Wacks concerning commemorative medals created by Wiener and commissioned by Wacks for the Judah L. Magnes Museum, from Emma Lazarus, Adolph Ochs, Benjamin N. Cardozo, Béla Schick, Ernestine L. Rose, Gertrude Stein, Louis D. Brandeis, Gershom Mendes Seixas, Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir, and Jascha Heifetz (medal not made). Photographs are of medals and subjects used for medals. Also included is a DVD interview of Wiener conducted by Wacks, December 30, 1994, and five commemorative medals by Wiener of Schick, Ochs, Brandeis, Rose, and Rebecca Gratz.”

All the more remarkable, aside from Gerta Ries Wiener’s substantial talent (in 1998 she won the American Numismatic Association’s Numismatic Art Award for Excellence in Medallic Sculpture) is the fact that she sculpted her first medal at the age of 72 and her last when she was in her 90’s. She lived through two century changes, and was the recipient of the Numismatic Art Award when she was 100! (But on several occasions in her letters she scolded Wacks for his mentioning her age in press releases.)





NAAEMS certificate, NAAEMS Medal obverse and reverse


Gerta Ries was born in Hull, England on December 9, 1898. Seven years later, her family moved to Berlin, where Gerta attended elementary and high school. In 1917, she was refused admittance to the Academy of Fine Art because she was considered an “alien enemy.” Ms. Wiener studied art privately in Germany and then in New York, after she came to America in 1921. Her career ranged from commercial art to a cartoon series in The New York World … portrait busts to dolls and statuettes … illustrating children’s books, creating marionettes, and giving puppet shows. Gerta Ries was married to Arthur Wiener from 1932 until his death in 1961; they lived in Forest Hills, New York. In 1976, Gerta Ries Wiener moved to Northern California, to be near her son Edward and his wife Rose Marie.

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