Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection

Posted on 6/1/2017

The Value of Money exhibit at the Smithsonian is a must see for anyone visiting Washington, D.C.

I have been involved with the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection for many years. My relationship began with the NNC about 15 years ago when I was doing research for my book 100 Greatest U.S.Coins, many of which can only be found in the Smithsonian collection. The curators at the time, Dick Doty and Karen Lee, were kind and generous with their time and provided ready access to the greatest coin collection in the world. My relationship deepened with the NNC during the several years that it took to complete my book Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933, which is based on the collection. During that time, the museum's leadership decided to take down the giant coin exhibit that had been on display for almost 40 years. The space was needed for a remodel of the museum to accommodate the Star-Spangled Banner. There were no plans to replace the exhibit that had wowed visitors for decades with the spectacular collection of gold coins formed by Josiah Lilly. The numismatic community was in universal shock.

I was part of the team of volunteers that helped remove the collection from the exhibit cases for relocation to the rows of steel cabinets to the NNC's numismatic vaults. This was a solemn task, but obviously an exciting one for true coin nerds such as myself. After the coins had been secured in the vaults for a few months, I was told that if the numismatic community could raise about $250,000 a small part of the collection could be part of a 3-5 year exhibit in the Smithsonian Castle. Working with the NNC staff and their amazing development office I took on the task of securing donations for the project. NGC was one of the first places I called and they immediately agreed to help out. It took some time, but we were successful in getting coins back on display in a Smithsonian venue. The grand opening of the event was a sigh of relief for the numismatic community.

A few years later a small but somewhat larger space became available in a prime spot at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Again, the condition was that we would need to raise significant funds to mount the exhibit. NGC and several others stepped up to the plate to fund the Stories on Money exhibit. Most in the numismatic community were thrilled to have rare coins once again on display in our national museum. The exhibit was successful and millions visited over the next several years.

In recent years the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has been renovating its west wing. A few years ago a much larger space (over 1,000 square feet) became available for a numismatic exhibit if the funds could be raised. This time the price tag was about $2 million, but the exhibit would guarantee a permanent place for numismatics in the museum (at least in my lifetime). The task was daunting, but in the end the funds were secured thanks to several “key” donations by NGC, Lee Minshull, Bill Gale, Charles and Joel Anderson and many others. I will always be thankful for those who made The Value of Money exhibit possible.

The point of this article is to encourage you to visit this new exhibit if you are in Washington, D.C. It is quite simply spectacular!! The new exhibit entrance features an actual bank vault door enticing visitors to see what lies within. The exhibit is set up like individual jewel boxes with focused and state of the art lighting. Visitors are first greeted with a case featuring the famous 1913 Liberty Nickel, 1907 Ultra High Relief, 1974 Aluminum Cent and the $100,000 bill.

The exhibit is staged by theme and most visitors tour the gallery by going around counterclockwise. The first cases are about The Origins of Money and discuss the various forms of money used around the world over the centuries. Featured are examples of seashell money, stone yap money, gold and silver ingots, iron money and much more.

Next the exhibit explores The Innovations of Money. Objects in this exhibit include the first credit cards, square readers and bank notes from around the world.

Later in the exhibit are cases exploring The Messages of Money. The coins and currency in these cases show how governments have used currency for political messages of the centuries.

The Artistry of Money cases show examples of ancient Greek and its influence on modern coinage. There are several interesting objects like paper money origami displayed as well. There are also many beautiful examples of paper money on exhibit.

My personal favorites are the cases about The Allure of Money. The exhibit explores the hobby of numismatics including many great collectors of the past. In these cases are the many legendary rarities that are housed in the national collection. The partial list includes the following coins:

1849 Double Eagle
1822 Half Eagle
1787 Brasher Doubloon
(3) 1804 Silver Dollar
(2) 1877 Gold Half Union
1933 Double Eagle
1906 Barber Double Eagle
1907 Ultra High Relief (diameter of a $10)
1907 Ultra High Relief
The finest collection of Russian coins outside of The Hermitage

It is worth a trip to Washington, D.C. just to see the Allure of Money showcases!

I am very proud of The Value of Money exhibit and it is a great tool for recruiting collectors. Over four million people visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History each year, a majority of those being young people. More about the exhibit can be found on the Smithsonian website and in a great book by the Smithsonian Curator, Dr. Ellen R. Feingold. Plan a trip to the museum soon and spread the word about this amazing ambassador for the hobby.

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Jeff Garrett bio

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