John Reich (Johann Matthaüs Reich) was born in Fürth, Germany in 1768, where his father was a prolific medalist of indifferent talent, according to Witham. From 1789 onward he and his father worked on memorial and other medals, relatively little about which is known today.
After working in his father’s shop he emigrated from Hamburg to America aboard the Anna, arriving in Philadelphia in August 1800. After a year’s indenture to a Philadelphia coppersmith, Reich was “freed” by Henry Voigt, then chief coiner at the Mint. In 1801, utilizing a bust by Houdon, he engraved the Jefferson presidential (and Indian Peace) medal from which Charles E. Barber copied the portrait in 1903 for use on a variety of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollar. On a contract basis he also engraved dies for several other medals authorized by Congress, examples of which are highly prized today.
In March 1807 Mint Director Robert Patterson urged President Jefferson to hire Reich as assistant engraver at a salary of $600 per year. Reich worked at the Mint for the next 10 years, resigning on March 31, 1817, due to failing eyesight. He was one of the founders of the Society of Artists (1811) and one of the first group of Pennsylvania Academicians (1812). After leaving the Mint, Reich traveled to the West in search of a more favorable climate to restore his health settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The artist died in Albany, New York in 1833.
In the American Journal of Numismatics, Volume 18-19, July 1883, Patterson DuBois, the principal spokesperson for the Philadelphia Mint at the time, gave further information on John Reich, which we excerpt below:
John Reich came as an assistant in 1807. Reich emigrated from Germany, it is said, at the request of Henry Voigt, chief coiner. Voigt was a famous clock-maker and took Reich into his employ. Under date of March 25, 1807, Director Robert Patterson writes to President Jefferson:—
“Our present engraver, [Robert] Scot, though indeed a meritorious and faithful officer, is yet so far advanced in life, that he cannot very long be expected to continue his labors. In the event of his sickness or death, the business of the Institution would probably be stopped for some time, since few, if any one could be found qualified to supply his place except Mr. Reich, an artist with whose talents, I presume, you are not unacquainted; and this gentleman not finding business here sufficient for his support, is, I understand, about to remove to Europe. A small salary would, however, retain him in the country, and secure his services to the Mint. And, in truth, the beauty of our coins would be greatly improved by the assistance of his masterly hand.
“An assistant Engraver was formerly employed by Mr. Rittenhouse, and by Mr. DeSaussure—and with your approbation, Sir, I would immediately employ Mr. Reich in that capacity. He is willing for the present to accept of the moderate compensation of six hundred dollars per annum; and should this gentleman be employed, perhaps more than his salary would be saved to the public, in which is usually expended on the engraving of dies for medals, but which might then be executed by an artist in their own service, with little or no additional experience.”
Again under date April 2, 1807. Patterson writes:—
“With your approbation I have employed Mr. John Reich as an Assistant Engraver in the Mint at the annual salary of six hundred dollars. He has covenanted to execute any work in the line of his profession that may be required of him either by the director or chief engraver, whether for the immediate use of the Mint, or for that of the United States, when ordered by any special resolution or Act of Congress for that purpose, or by the President, provided that in the execution of any such work, no extraordinary hours of labor or attendance be required without an adequate compensation therefor, so that if any seals should be wanted for the public offices, or dies for the purpose of striking Indian or other medals, they can now be executed in the best style at the Mint, without any extra expense to the government. Mr. Reich is now preparing a set of new dies in which some improvements in the devices will be introduced, (adhering, however, strictly to the letter of the law) which it is hoped will meet with public approbation.”
As an early order of business Reich designed the Capped Bust portrait of Liberty, inaugurated on the half dollar and half eagle. He remained at the Mint until resigning in 1817, due to failing eyesight. Today the John Reich Collectors Society, a dynamic group of enthusiasts, honors his name.