Preserving the National Collection

Posted on 9/19/2005

A Guest Commentary to CoinWorld, September 19 , 2005

David J. Camire
President, Numismatic Conservation Services

The Smithsonian Institution’s rare coin holdings comprise the most valuable and most important collection of its kind. The National Numismatic Collection, as it is formally known, more than adequately fills it role as our nation’s coin collection. It includes rare specimens presented to foreign leaders in the hopes of developing trade relations, and medals presented to native chiefs as our country grew westward. It now houses the many ancient coins that inspired President Roosevelt to commission Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign our coins such that they would rival the treasured coinage of ancient empires. It includes the unique 1849 Double Eagle, far-and-away the most valuable US coin, which is a monument of the gold finds that heralded the prosperity that was to come to our still-young country.

Even with all its innumerable treasures and tremendous monetary value, the collection now demands our attention and efforts to preserve it for future generation. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS), with the assistance of Jeff Garrett and others, have offered services and financial support to assure that its coins are accessible through exhibit and to researchers, as well as properly stored and maintained. A necessary first step in this process is conservation.

Conservation of the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection to our minds represents a new evolution in our way of thinking about important coins and collections. More than ever, we recognize the role that conservation plays in our critical responsibility to see that numismatic properties are given the best opportunity to be appreciated and study for years beyond our own. Furthermore, the experience of working with the talented Smithsonian individuals has added new precision and sophistication to the general understanding of numismatic conservation.

The process of this conservation begins by removing contaminants from a coin or metal’s surface. Our goal is to perform this while preserving the original patina of the coins. The surface of any metal object will change over time, but most often it is the presence of a foreign substance that speeds and exacerbates its degradation. Once removed, the surface is then neutralized. This provides the ideal scenario for long-term stabilization and preservation.

The first conservation efforts with respect to the National Numismatic Collection are focused on wax removal. Wax was used to suspend coins in exhibit, and often its remnants lingered on coins long after being displayed. As the wax is not present on the entire coin, only certain areas are affected. Portions of the coin’s surface may have responded differently to their environment as a result. No previous conservation effort has focused on removing this material. Professional conservators rely on chemical means for its removal, but most numismatists and outside researchers are unaware of the proper procedures. NCS and the Smithsonian conservators’ methods guarantee the safe removal of wax.

A second part of the conservation process is to remove dirt and grime that happened upon the coin as a result of open storage, either while on exhibit or in the Smithsonian’s vaults. Much of the collection is housed in cabinets on open trays, which makes the coins vulnerable to dust and environmental threats. Again removal is best accomplished through a chemical aqueous procedure rather than mechanical means.

The final stage of our preliminary efforts is to develop a long-term storage solution. NGC has conducted considerable research on its own holders and after eighteen years of operation has determined the best plastics and seal types to achieve this goal. While research is still ongoing with the Smithsonian, a re-closeable holder will be adopted for their use. Such a holder will improve the ease of handling and adds an additional level of protection.

I look at the work that has begun at the Smithsonian as among the most important in my career. I believe that new exhibits and novel ways of sharing this unique resource will certainly broaden our hobby’s appeal. Moreover, the breadth of National Numismatic Collection enables a researcher to travel down every avenue in numismatics. With proper conservation and preservation this can continue into the future.


The reverse of a 1794 Large Cent showing a large area of wax throughout the reverse. All Photos by David J. Camire for the Smithsonian Institution.


The same coin as above, now with wax removed.


A 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar with a small wax remnant on the upper obverse.


The 1795 Dollar with wax removed.

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