Alan V. Weinberg writes:
The E-Sylum's coverage of the British Museum's numismatic collection took me back to my five day visit in the summer of 1966. I spent the summer in Europe visiting various numismatic collections in museums, among other distractions such as an American nurse touring Europe...but that's another story.
I asked to see the American coins in the museum's vault and without much ado I was permitted to enter their locked vault room. They didn't know me from Joe Smith and I submitted no references. For five days I handled tray after tray of fabulous American coins, all raw, unprotected in tiny little wood insets in shallow wood cabinet trays brought out to me, several at a time. There was no supervision whatsoever. No one checking on you or looking over your shoulder and seeing that you handled specimens correctly. Reminds me of my visit to Evergreen House at JHU in 1967 where curator Sarah Freeman brought me out tray after tray of the Garrett coins and medals...but that too is another story. Anyway, back to the 1966 British Museum.
A partially mint red 1794 half cent. An Uncirculated 1794 dollar. Uncirculated 1787 George Clinton NY colonial coppers, two of them resting on top of each other. Two Very Fine different Higley 3d's. Superb Massachusetts colonial silver coinage including an NE shilling. A superb Unc 1792 half disme - missing - and replaced with a polished EF 1829 half dime.
I brought this last item and a few other notably missing or switched coins to the curator's attention and, I'm told, security tightened up a short period later. The vast majority of superb American early coins, and there were many hundreds of them, had small round tickets with them indicating that prominent world explorer Sir Joseph Banks or his wife Sophie Banks had donated the coins in 1800 to the BM.
Sir Joseph Banks, played by distinguished actor Henry Stephenson, was a prominent figure in the 1935 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" and was the Franchot Tone character's benefactor in that classic Clark Gable / Chas. Laughton movie.
From the variety of and top quality of coins the Banks donated in 1800, including great rarities that didn't just widely circulate in the US in the 1780's-1790's (like Higleys and Clinton cents) , it was clear to me that Sir Joseph Banks was a serious coin collector in that period and not just a man like the Lord St. Oswald Sir Roland Winn who grabbed up some coins in U.S. circulation and brought them back to England in the 1790's. Indeed, Sir Joseph Banks might be regarded as one of the most prominent numismatists of the world in the past few centuries.
Around 2000 I re-visited the British Museum and was again allowed into the vault rooms without any prior appointment or references, and led into a viewing room where I sat with another collector. And we both were allowed to view rare items, but this time not on a tray level, or handle things raw in hand without someone standing over us.
This time in my case a unique silver hand-engraved George Washington Indian Peace Medal, literally a pristine gem "Proof", given personally to King George III whose estate, I was informed, gave it to the BM in exchange for estate tax relief. I questioned whether Royal estates were taxed, but I was assured that was the case.
There was the old round ticket with the medal ascribing it to George III in, as I recall, 1800 (apparently a very good year for the BM!) , the King who lost the colonies to the Americans. I'm told John Kraljevich had a similar pleasure handling the same medal. Absolutely one of the most extraordinary numismatic items I have ever seen.
Thanks to Bruce and Alan for their thoughts. The British Museum is a wonderful place, and I'm still astounded at the level of public access to their collections. When I was there in 2007 I was able to examine a tray at a time in a supervised room with surveillance cameras.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: