"When I first looked at the picture of the 1977 Presidential inauguration medal, I said 'Jimmy WHO?'" said Marvin Sadik, director of the National Portrait Gallery. "But now I'm beginning to like it. Stylistically, at least, it holds together. It really isn't so bad. Though I still think we could have had a better likeness of the President-elect."

Sadik admits he's prejudiced. Like Ralph Nader, Sadik thinks he should have been consulted, especially since with Nell MacNeil he has just put together the definitive show on presidential medals.

"I think planning for the inauguration medal start before the election, just as soon as the major candidates are selected. That way, even the losers would have medals to give their supporters. Think what collector's items those who would be. Anyway, there should be a duly appointed committee on the medal, including, I would hope, at least two museum directors. An inaugural medal is an important, historic memento. It needs to be taken seriously."

Sadik isn't that easy to please. He doesn't think there's been a really good inaugural medal since the one Jo Davidson did for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fourth inauguration.

Anyway, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying the presidential medals in an inaugural exhibit opened to the public yesterday and continuing through Sept. 5. Joan Mondale, wife of the Vice President-elect, is expected to attend a private viewing of the show Tuesday.

Sadik thinks the best medal in the show is the one by Darrell Crain in 1921 of Warren G. Harding, "the finest likeness ever done in any medium of Harding." The show also includes the metal buttons George Washington wore on his coat for his inauguration and a letter from Washington ordering six more. Thomas Jefferson's medal by John Reich is considered by MacNeil to be of "striking distinction" and apparently Jefferson agreed, to judge by a letter of his hanging nearby. A letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Angustus Saint-Gaudens, who did a medal for the 100th anniversary of Washington's Inaugural as well as Roosevelt's Inaugural, is shown adjacent to these medals. Of interest to the new wave of Art Moderne collectors are the sketches and a plaque designed for Harry Trucman.

The exhibit was organized by MacNeil, Time magazine's chief congressional correspondent. He also wrote the catalog, the first complete study on the subject and the only major museum publication of this inaugural (Clarkson N. Potter, $8.95 softcover, $12.95 hardcover).The idea for the show came some time back because Sadik and MacNeil kept bumping into each other at sales of medals. MacNeil concentrates on inaugural medals. Sadik goes back further to Renaissance and baroque medals.

Sadik and MacNeil both say they plan to buy the 1977 inaugural medal. Actually, MacNeil intends to buy several for his children.

But Sadik believes people should be very cautious about buying anything except the Official Inaugural Medal, authorized by the Inaugural Committee. "The official medal does have the potential of becoming a collector's item. But you should remember that it will be manufactured and sold in such great numbers that I doubt it will ever be rare. It's more likely that a coin, which is used up and lost, will be a rarer item than inaugural medals, which people keep more carefully." The Franklin Mint is issuing the 1977 Carter Medal.

Sadik says there are, of course, presidential medal which have been bought and sold for a great deal of money.

In the catalog, MacNeil turns his journalistic talents to telling good stories about how the mints were selected for various medals. He comes down hard on Bardyl R. Tirana, the Washington lawyer who with Vickie Rogers of South Carolina is Inaugural Committee co-chairman.

"Design did not concern Tirana. He counted on the mint to produce a worthy medal. (Tirana said) 'I did not want to subject my taste, my artistic preferences, on the public.' He saw no reason to name a medals committee. 'Why have one?' he asked. He did want the mint chosen to handle all phases of the medals program, from design and production to promotion and distribution, to relieve his committee of those chores. 'I was not worried about artistic merit,' he said. The president-elect and his advisors would approve the model."

MacNeil says that in hopes of getting the contract, in September the Medallic Art Co. commissioned six sculptors to prepare model portraits of the candidates, but the Franklin Mint asked Julian Hoke Harris, a 70-year-old Georgia sculptor, to do a relief of Carter.

Franklin, according to MacNeil, made $3,227,587 from the 1973 contract for the Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew medals and associated items. The mint didn't make as much money as it had expected to on that inaugural because it gave the committee so many free items.

MacNeil has other good stories. He writes of the days just before Nixon's resignation:

"In the midst of these events, this writer visited Ford at his Capitol office. I told him that, in my judgement the events underway would eventually force the resignation or removal of Nixon, and that Ford should begin preparing himself to succeed to that office. In the course of our conversation, we speculated about Ford's course in these unique circumstances. If he became President, that oath-taking would be classified as an official inauguration and I suggested it might be an appropriate time to strike an inaugural medal to mark the occasion. Ford had not before heard of inaugural medals, and he was curious about their tradition."

MacNeil then went to Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), another medal enthusiast. Hatfield had the idea of strking a vice-presidential medal for Ford, the first under the 25th Amendment. First Ford turned down the idea. But eventually, Hatfield went ahead with the medal designed by MicO Kaufman for Medallic Art Company. When Ford became President, Medallic Art also issued a medal, but it sold in far smaller numbers than is usual - only 13,664 in bronze, and much less in silver. The royalties went to cancer research.

Sadik has a great deal more advice for the person interested in collecting medals. He doesn't spare the U.S. Mint itself in his scorn for contemporary medals. "The restrikes of earlier medals now put out by the U.S. Mint are pretty dreadful."

Instead, Sadik thinks the collector should concentrate on original medals of the 19th century. "There are some grand ones honoring naval heroes issued from 1817 to 1870 by the U.S. Mint. You can still find some of those for $50. And there are others struck by Tiffany and Co. for Boston and Philadelphia heroes that are just gorgeous."

Sadik says the primary points in judging a medal are: The image should look like the subject in profile, the portrait should be related to the roundness of the medal, and the placement and style of the letters should be in keeping.

The official inaugural medals vary in price from $12 for an antique-finish solid-bronze medal to $200 for a 24 karat-gold proof medal. In between is the .999 fine-silver proof medal at $85. All are available from the Inaugural Committee at P.O. Box 2908, Washington, D.C. 20599. Rival, and unofficial, medals include Danbury Mint's $20 medal in 10-karat gold and Medallic Arts' series ranging from a $10 bronze medal of either Carter or Mondale to an 18-karat gold set of both medals at $850.

The Portrait Gallery show has been handsomely mounted by Michael Carrigan, who has since deserted the gallery to become the Library of Congress' chief exhibits officer. The Portrait Gallery's collection of presidential portraits and memorabilia, including nine likenesses of President Washington, has been reinstalled in a handsome 1840s' stage set in the second floor west gallery.

The Museum of History and Technology has also mounted a somewhat smaller collection of presidential medals for the inaugural period.