Brief History of the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection

Posted on 5/23/2013

The origins of the Smithsonian itself began with a numismatic angle.

My first encounter with the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection occurred nearly three decades ago. While in the Washington D.C. area I planned a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of American History to see what coins they might have on exhibit. My interest in rare coins was still fresh and very impressionable. I can still remember the sense of awe when viewing the nearly 3,000 square feet of rare coins for the first time. There were cases explaining the history of coinage, early American numismatics, and other educational subjects relating to numismatics. The highlight, however, was the room full of gold coins! In 1968, the Smithsonian acquired the massive gold collection of Josiah Lilly. His nearly complete collection of United States gold coins and gold coins from around the world were on display, mounted in row after row on the wall. It was literally a golden room, filled with the rarest of the rare. I think my intense interest in United States gold coinage began that day. Little did I know that two decades later I would write the Encyclopedia of United States Gold Coins based on the Smithsonian Collection.

The origins of the Smithsonian itself began with a numismatic angle. The James Smithson donation to found the Smithsonian Institution was made with 104,960 Gold British Sovereigns. The coins were deposited at the Mint for re-coining into United States money ($508,318.46). Today the museum still has two of the original 1838 gold sovereigns in its collection. It also has a stunningly perfect example of an 1838 United States Half Eagle made from the gold turned in for melting.

1838 British Sovereign

Although the United States received the bequest from James Smithson in 1838, the Smithsonian Institution was not established until an Act of Congress was signed by President James Polk on August 10, 1846. On May 1, 1847, the cornerstone of its first building was laid on the Mall. You can visit the first buildings today with a short stroll across the Mall to the Smithsonian Castle. They are open to the public and feature a rotation of exhibits. It is like stepping back in time and visiting one of the oldest museums in the country as it looked in the 1840s. In those days most exhibits centered on what were called “Natural Curiosities.” This might include rare minerals, skeletons and mounted animal displays.

Early Numismatic Gallery, Washington, D.C.

It was not until the 1880s that much interest was given to the collecting of numismatic material at the Smithsonian. In those days collecting medals was of primary interest in the museum. The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia provided a tremendous amount of new material for the collection. In fact, the Smithsonian received so much material from the exposition, numismatic and non-numismatic, that a new structure was erected to house the collection. The Arts and Industries Building is now part of the Castle complex, and can be visited today as well. It is a beautiful example of state-of-the-art museum facilities from the 1880s.

The National Museums Report for 1886 lists a total of only 1,055 coins and medals in the collection. In 1893, the entire coin collection was taken off exhibit to make room for the Smithsonian’s expanding natural history collection. Although the collection was not on display, it continued to grow. One of the most interesting additions of this time period was the 1886 donation of the Ulysses S. Grant collection of relics. This donation included an outstanding collection of Japanese gold and silver coins given to him when Japan was opened to the west for the first time. The Japanese coins were given to President Grant in return for his gift of a “blooded stallion” to the Emperor. Grant’s donation also included an incredible gold medal given to him after the Civil War.

Grant Collection of Japanese Gold Coins

From 1886 to 1923, several collections were added to Smithsonian’s numismatic holdings. Most of the donations were of ancient and world coins. Efforts were also made to build a significant numismatic library. During World War I and the immediate years afterwards, there was a strong push to collect military medals and decorations. Around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909, there was tremendous interest in medalic art relating to Lincoln. In 1918, one collector, Robert Hewitt, donated 1,200 Lincoln items to the collection.

The most important event in the history of the National Numismatic Collection occurred in 1923. Around this time period, the US Mints were closed due to a robbery at the Denver Mint. Also, the curator of the Mint Collection, Dr. T. Louis Comparette died suddenly. Because of the robbery, the Secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, suggested that the United States Mint transfer its collection to the National Collection in Washington, D.C. Mellon did not like the idea of the collection being closed to visitors and unavailable for research. Although Mellon favored the idea, many in Philadelphia were opposed to having the collection moved to Washington. One letter I have seen in the Smithsonian collection from this period states, “the transfer of this collection to Washington will mean the shifting of the numismatic center of gravity, so to speak, in the United States from Philadelphia to Washington.” This was no understatement!

In May 1923, the US Mint transferred 18,324 of the greatest coins in the world to the Smithsonian Institution. Although the Mint Collection was officially started in 1838, the collection's roots can be traced to the beginning of Mint operations in 1792. The Chief Coiner, Adam Eckfeldt, carefully saved what at the time were called “master coins” of each year. These are today more commonly referred to as Proof or Specimens. Eckfeldt also saved coins that had been redeposited at the Mint for re-coinage. An example of the famous Brasher Doubloon was obtained in this manner. Making a list of all of the important coins given to the Smithsonian in 1923 would take pages and pages. Just a few of the more famous coins include the 1849 Double Eagle, an 1804 Silver Dollar, an 1822 Half Eagle, both 1877 Gold Unions, multiple 1907 Ultra High Reliefs, and an incredible run of early Proof coinage that began in 1817. The transferred collection also included over 100 Patterns coins, many of which are unique. Pioneer gold coins are also heavily represented, with many examples being the finest of their kind in the world.

The transfer of the Mint Collection in 1923 did not end the relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. For many years the US Mint sent examples of new coinage to be added to the Smithsonian Collection. Many of the finest US gold coins from the 1920s and 1930s can be found in the Smithsonian collection as a result of this continued relationship. In fact, the gold coin donations ended with the transfer of two 1933 Double Eagles for the collection. Another example of the 1933 Double Eagle set an auction record for a coin when it was sold for over $7,000,000 more than ten years ago.

The collection in the Smithsonian grew by leaps and bounds after 1933 when the collection numbered just 45,802 objects. Many fabulous additions were subsequently added to the National Numismatic Collection. The Paul A. Straub Collection of world coins was considered one of the most important in the world when it was acquired in 1956. For several years afterwards, Mr. Straub would purchase coins and send them to the Smithsonian to augment the collection. This gives some idea of the passion displayed by supporters of the museum during this era.

1968 Smithsonian Exhibit

One of the most important donations of world material ever acquired by the Smithsonian was donated by Willis Du Pont. He had purchased the Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich Collection of 12,000 Russian coins and medals. It is considered the finest outside of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dupont purchased this collection intact to save them from being lost in the Revolution of 1917.

The paper money collection was greatly expanded by donations and transfer from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. This includes the famous $100,000 bill that is among the collection's most admired objects. Also, the Smithsonian collection received proof sheets of every National Bank note printed by the United States. This collection alone nearly fills a room in the vaults of the NNC.

Another phenomenal addition to the Smithsonian Collection was the “Richmond Hoard” of confederate paper money that was captured by the Federal Government at the end of the civil war. The hoard contains over 500,000 pieces of Confederate Paper Money! Researchers have spent years carefully studying this fascinating collection. This group also nearly fills a room in the vaults of the museum.

Abe Kosoff (center) delivering the Lilly Collection of gold coins in 1968.

The size and importance of the Smithsonian numismatic collection took another giant leap in 1968 with the acquisition of the Josiah Lilly (of Eli Lilly and Company) Collection of 6,150 gold coins from the United States and around the world. The Lilly Collection of United States gold coins was one of the finest and most complete ever assembled. The collection took an Act of Congress to acquire, as it was traded from the Lilly family for a tax credit that exceeded $5,000,000. The legendary dealer Abe Kosoff provided the appraisal. In 1972 the collection was put on semi-permanent display in a new gallery devoted to gold coins. This is the same gallery that had awed me when I viewed it over thirty years ago.

This new gallery remained in place for nearly forty years. It had become somewhat stagnant and outdated. In 2002 a decision was made to remodel a major portion of the museum to make way for a new exhibit featuring the Star Spangled Banner. Unfortunately, the numismatic exhibit was in the way, and the decision was made to take down the rare coins that had been on display for four decades. I personally helped disassemble the exhibit. It was a sad time for the numismatic community. Luckily, with some persuasion, the Smithsonian agreed to put the coins back on exhibit if private funds could be raised. The new exhibit would be in the Smithsonian Castle, the location of the first coin exhibits over a century ago. The problem was that the private donors would need to contribute over $500,000 to fund the exhibit. Happily, this was accomplished, thanks in a great part to the generosity of private and corporate donors including Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). The exhibit was a smashing success, and was viewed by hundreds of thousands of visitors.

A few years later a new space was found for the coin exhibit in the National Museum of American History. Again, donors came forward with funding and this is the exhibit we see today. In 2015, a much larger exhibit devoted to numismatics is scheduled to open in the west wing renovation of the museum. Again, through the generosity of the numismatic community, over $1,500,000 has been pledged to complete the funding for this project. NGC is one of the lead donors for this project as well.

Today the National Numismatic Collection that is housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History contains over 1.6 million objects. The collection ranges from the earliest coinage produced by mankind to very recent issues. It is a storehouse of knowledge that will provide researchers with opportunity for study indefinitely. With private funding, exhibits will be mounted to satisfy everyone from beginners to the most expert collector. Millions will have the chance to discover coin collecting and, hopefully, some will be inspired as I was over thirty years ago to make numismatics their life endeavor.

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