Nickolas Muray

Photographer, Fencer, Medal Designer

One of the first external jobs undertaken by the WCFA was documenting the collection of Halberstadt Fencers Club in San Francisco.  Halberstadt is one of, if not the oldest fencing clubs on the West Coast.  The history of Hans and the club are another story.  One of the amazing bits of fencing history at Halberstadt are a collection of four scrapbooks which include items dating back before 1900.

In the scrapbook with the oldest material, there were two programs that caught my attention:

Muray medal.1949

The inside of 1949:

1949 Nick Muray.expl

1951 outside:

1951 Nick Muray prog

1951 inside:

1951 Nick Muray prog.inside

In the crease it reads, “Solid Gold, Sterling and Bronze medals designed and donated by Mr. Muray.”

Nickolas Muray was a Hungarian-born photographer and fencer.  Here are links to his Wikipedia entry and his photography website:

The mystery for me was the description in the program from 1951 that Muray had designed a medal for presentation at the Nickolas Muray Sabre finals, fenced in a fancy pants Los Angeles hotel.

The cover of both programs have a black and white representation of the Muray-designed medal and it looks cool, but it’s tough to tell the scale because, well, black and white and printed.  Looking at the program, you can’t tell if the medal is an Olympic sized medallion, a platter the size of your head or something no bigger than a dime.  Just a few days after puzzling on this, (I had been scanning the first of the four Halberstadt scrapbooks when I came across the programs) I was delivering back to Halberstadt some of the wall photos I had removed for scanning.  One of the coaches, Marty Young, knowing I was collecting history, had a suggestion for me.

“Have you seen the cookie tin full of medals?”

“No,” I answered.  “What cookie tin full of medals?”

“It’s in the armory.  You’ll find it.”

Well, it’s not too many armories that feature a cookie tin so it wasn’t terribly hard to find.  And it was big.  And heavy.

Cookie Tin

I opened it up to find it a jumble of gold, silver and bronze medals with chest-pin ribbons.  Not new.  I knew what the Nor-Cal, Central Cal and So-Cal medals looked like going back to the 70’s, and these were all prior to that vintage.  Marty being on the board at Halberstadt, I let her know I was taking the cookie tin home to sort it out.

The following day, I started pulling them out, one by one, and matching up like designs.  There were 154 medals in all and I pinned the ones I could pin to a cork board to get a good look at them all.

The Board:

Medal full board

There were about 36 or so different designs and most had an imprint on the back of the date and event.  Sadly, no names, so I don’t know if it is the collection of one person or multiple medal winners.  Possibly it was a former wall plaque that fell apart and the medals all got cookie-tinned.  They date from the early 1940s to the early 1960s and are a nice selection of medals, mostly from So Cal and the Pacific Coast Championships, for that 20 year period.  Who knew there were so many cool medal designs?  Some are quite intricate and most have held their color pretty well; the gold medals mostly still look like a gold medal.  For some reason, no doubt due to the metals used, they’ve held their color without a great deal of tarnishing even though they’ve hardly been treated to optimum conditions for storage.

Here are a couple of the more interesting ones:

Medals 2    Medals 3  Medals 1

However, the highlight for me was this one:

Muray medal               Muray medal.1949

Here it was!  Not two days after I wondered what size and color it might be, I’m holding an original in my hand.  How cool is that?  It’s an inch and a half across, with a mark on the back: 1/20 10KG.F.   That translates to 10 karat gold on the outside, filled with another metal on the inside, and 1/20 of the total weight is 10 karat gold.  It weighs in at a solid 1 ounce, which, compared to most fencing medals, is pretty hefty.  An actual gold medal – not solid, not pure gold and definitely not the size of a platter, but still – sitting in a cookie tin inside the armory at Halberstadt… for how long?  And, with the history attached to the medal’s designer and tournament namesake, a particularly cool item.


Now why Nickolas Muray, who represented the New York Athletic Club for his entire US fencing career and who’s photography studio was in Greenwich Village, was sponsoring a sabre tournament on the west coast is another question.  He did live in San Francisco for a time.  He carried on a ten year affair with Frida Kalho, the Mexican painter, and Muray apparently lived in SF to be closer to her.   I can’t help but wonder how much time Muray spent fencing on the West Coast.

Another story for another time, I guess.

Doug Nichols

West Coast Fencing Archivist

(Footnote: Nickolas Muray represented the United States in two Olympic Games, 1928 and 1932.  The West Coast Fencing Archive has in the collection a copy of the Complete Record of the 1932 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles.  I looked up Muray’s results, as the book has every pool sheet for every fencing event.  Muray did not compete in the individual event in ‘32, but did compete in the Team Sabre.  He won 2 of 4 bouts against the Polish team, and 1 of 4 bouts against a very strong Italian team.   The US team ended in fourth place, getting edged out on touches scored against by the Polish team, whom they tied 8 bouts to 8 in the head-to-head match.  The US lost by a single touch, 59 touches against the Poles to 60 scored against the Americans.  Muray died in 1965 of a heart attack at the age of 73 while fencing at the NYAC.)

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