The recent items on American coins and medals at the British Museum prompted these notes on the donor of the pieces.
Joel Orosz writes:
Great issue of the big E. I had no idea that Sir Joseph Banks was such a significant collector of 18th century American coins. To the best of my knowledge, Sir Joseph never visited the U.S., so he must have had an American source who shipped them to him. I wonder who?
John Dannreuther writes:
The British Museum donation was actually by Dr. Banks' sister, Sarah Sophia Banks and was later than 1800, but don't remember the exact date...believe it was around 1830 to 1840. There are some great items, including a gem 1795 eagle, a choice 1796 Stars quarter eagle, 1836 Proof quarter eagle, etc., besides the Colonials Alan mentioned. The little tags have SSB on them and some of the coins that Alan mentioned were not there on the two occasions that I visited (both within the last 5 years).
Saul Teichman writes:
With regard to the British Museum, they sent me an inventory many years ago of their early American holdings. This might be of interest to the E-Sylumites.
Indeed it might, but it's too lengthy to include here. Below is a sample entry for a 1795 dollar. Thanks.
Collection name: S. S. Banks Collection
Donated by: Lady Dorothea Banks
Previous owner/ex-collection: Sarah Sophia Banks
Description: Silver coin.
Minted in: North America, USA
This would confirm that the collection was formed by Sarah Sophia Banks, then donated by Joseph's wife, Lady Dorothea Banks. This still leaves Joel's question - who in America, if anyone, helped Sarah Sophia Banks build the collection? Did she travel to the U.S.? Below is some information I found on Sarah. Above is an image of a portrait of her sold by Sotheby's in 2006, found on the ArtValue.com web site.
Women are relatively rare among the ranks of the major collectors. Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818) was the only sister of Sir Joseph Banks, the noted collector and patron of the circumnavigator Captain James Cook.
She is portrayed in an unflattering cartoon by Gillray and is described as a dominant personality:
She had a loud, even strident voice, was tall and imposing, and cut an unmistakable figure striding along the streets or through the parks, always accompanied by a servant carrying a long cane... [she] drove a four-in-hand with the skill and confidence of a man, and was skilled in archery and fishing.
She was devoted to her brother and for many years lived with him and his wife, assisting in his work. A forceful and intelligent woman, lacking other outlets she assembled, in addition to coins, medals and books, a remarkable and pioneering collection of printed and engraved ephemera--now an immensely valuable reference collection for eighteenth century life.
This she bequeathed to her sister-in-law who presented it to the British Museum. The Department of Prints and Drawings now has about 19,000 items from Sarah Sophia's collection. In addition there are nine volumes of broadsides, newspaper cuttings and other prints in the British Library.
For more information on building the British Museum's collections, see:
Rare Birds: Female Collectors and The British Museum
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
THOUGHTS ON THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Wayne Homren, Editor
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