The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 18, Number 13, March 29, 2015, Article 18


On Friday, March 27, 2015 Jeff Garrett published a nice article on the history of the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection on Coin Update. Here's an excerpt. -Editor

Smithson gold sovereign My first encounter with the Smithsonian collection of numismatics 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 English 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.

Although the United States received the bequest from James Smithson in 1838, it was not until an Act of Congress on August 10, 1846 establishing the Smithsonian Institution which was signed by James Polk. 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 1840’s. In those days most exhibits centered on what were called “Natural Curiosities’. This might include rare minerals, skeletons and mounted animal displays.

It was not until the 1880’s that much interest was given to the collecting of numismatic material at the Smithsonian. In those days the collecting of 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 faculties from the 1880’s.

The most important event in the history of the National Numismatic Collection occurred in 1923. Around this time period, the United States 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.

In May 1923, the United States 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 collections 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 re-deposited 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.

Smithsonian History of Money exhibit

The article brings the history up to the present day. I'm looking forward to the opening of their new exhibit gallery this summer. -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
Brief History of the National Numismatic Collection (


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Wayne Homren, Editor

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