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Smithsonian opens rarity display

NGC1227b.jpgAn important exhibit of 56 major rarities entitled ?Legendary Coins & Currency? opened Dec. 8 on the National Mall in the Smithsonian Castle. It?s the first time since the National Numismatic Collection was shuttered in mid-2004 that coins have had a major role in an exhibit in America?s attic, which is available to visit free of charge until Sept. 10, 2006, just after Labor Day.

Hosting the event was Brent Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. He made opening remarks. He was joined by Mark Salzberg, chairman of Numismatic Guaranty Corp. and Numismatic Conservation Services, who urged collectors to reach outside numismatics to spread the message of coins as tools to understanding history.

The last time that such a hoopla opening took place was in 1978 when important rarities from the Chase Manhattan Bank Money Museum collection were added to the National Coin Collection at impressive ceremonies held in what is now called the American History Museum on Constitution Avenue just down the block from the Washington Monument.

According to the Smithsonian, the style of the exhibition and the accompanying Web site ?was produced by the National Museum of American History, Behring Center.? The Smithsonian acknowledges the generous financial assistance of others, noting that ?It is sponsored by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America, the New York Mint and Numismatic Conservation Services, LLC.?

Numismatic Guaranty Corp., better known as NGC, is a grading and authentication  service now located in Sarasota, Fla., formerly in Parsippany, N.J. Together with the Professional Coin Grading Service, they have a dominant share of the business of ?slabbing? coins.

Its sister firm, the Numismatic Conservation Services has done restoration work on treasure trove and coinage salvaged beneath the ocean. While technically cleaning, the proficient and skilled way is more likened to the way museum curators restore antique paintings that have been mildly damaged through the years.

New York Mint is a PCGS and NGC certified dealer. Located in Edina, Minn., the company has several divisions besides the main coin division including coin jewelry, major wholesaler to the industry and personal agent.
Its Web site says that they ?are one of the first companies to introduce certified proof sets to collectors? and ?are also the original creator of the state quarter map that is so popular. New York Mint maintains the most diverse and extensive inventories of proof and mint sets in the industry.?

Coins  and currency included in the exhibition include a gold sovereign dated 1838 willed to the American people by James Smithson, for whom the entire Institution is named, and an 1838 $5 half eagle gold coin and an 1838 eagle $10 coin made from some of the 105,000 gold sovereigns melted to convert the Smithson legacy into an American treasure.

From a 4,000-square-foot numismatic exhibit that was closed in 2004, the exhibit drew on over 1,500,000 items of the national numismatic collection to mount a 56-coin display. It uses key rarities in the collection.

Designed to appeal to the general public, the exhibition can?t help but also to appeal to hobbyists because it includes a 1794 silver dollar, 1854-S $20 and a 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 gold piece. There are also three 1804 silver dollars (Types 1, 2 and 3), a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, a 1974 aluminum cent, two 1877 half union $50 gold piece patterns, and other items, two-thirds of which have never been publicly exhibited, and each of which has a fascinating story associated with it.

For example, the 1974 aluminum cent shows a pedigree from Charles B. Holstein. Mint records show that  samples of the aluminum cent then being considered had been passed among the House Banking committee members and staff. Mint records show that at least seven examples went to Rep. Wright Patman, D-Texas, chair of the committee, and evidently it was distributed at least to Charles B. (?Chuck?) Holstein, the staff director of the Consumer Affairs subcommittee, and Orman Fink, the minority staff director of the parent House Banking Committee.

When the FBI tried to retrieve the coins, and the Mint melt them, Holstein, who had carried the coin as a a sort of good luck charm in his wallet for more than six months, took the piece and brought it to the Smithsonian, where it resides today.

The coin was viewed by me again in 1994 when, as a a member of the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee, we took a field trip to the Smithsonian to look at rarities. The aluminum cent, and the blank that I donated, were side by side in a box in the vault, and until now, never exhibited.

A special three-coin guest exhibit featured an 1884 Trade dollar, 1885 Trade dollar and an 1804 $10 gold piece.

Visitors to Legendary Coins and Currency exhibit, or its Web site that is part of the Smithsonian?s own Web site, can examine some of the National Numismatic Collection?s rarest and most prized pieces to learn why history has elevated these artifacts to legendary status.

They say that, ?Of particular interest is the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the most celebrated 20th-century coin; the 1877 U.S. $50 (?half union?) patterns, the largest coins ever struck; and the 1849 double eagle ($20), a significant reminder of the American Gold Rush. Other objects include a 1652 Massachusetts Pine Tree Shilling; the 1906 Barber pattern double eagle; and the 1907 Saint-Gaudens Ultra High Relief double eagle, often considered America?s most beautiful coin.?

Included is the fabled Brasher doubloon, a gold coin minted in New York in 1787 and the subject of intrigue that ultimately made it a movie title. The hand-struck coin by Ephraim Brasher, a next door neighbor of President George Washington, comes from the U.S. Mint collection, which is the Smithsonian?s core.

An uncirculated 1794 dollar, a gift of the Chase Manhattan Bank, is on display as a a the nation?s first silver dollar.  It is complemented by a copper pattern 1794 dollar, unique, a gift from Norman Stack and his cousin, Harvey Stack.
An 1838 $5 and $10 gold piece, which the exhibit speculates comes from the Smithson legacy, and is from the U.S. Mint cabinet, is also included.  So are Territorial gold or Pioneer gold coinage.  Templeton Reid $2.50, $5 and $10 coinage leads the way, all dated 1830. A Bechtler 1834 Carolina gold comes next.

Oregon Exchange Company (beaver coins of 1849) in $5 and $10 denominations are also present, with a U.S. Mint cabinet provenance. A $50 octagonal slug from the U.S. Assay Office (1851) is also included from the Josiah K. Lilly collection acquired by Act of Congress for the Smithsonian in the 1960s.

The Lilly collection of more than 6,000 gold coins, was then valued at more than $5 million, but through the efforts of Abe Kosoff, Sol Kaplan and others, this distinctive holding is now part of the Smithsonian?s permanent collection.
Sometimes referred to as America?s national attic, the Smithsonian Institution was founded more than 150 years ago based on a bequest of James Smithson, a British scientist who had never visited the United States.   Ironically, the very founding has a numismatic twist.

When he was 61 years of age, Smithson drew a will leaving his entire estate to a nephew, Henry James Hungerford. The will further stipulated that if the nephew died without heirs, the estate would be bequeathed to the United States of America to create and found, at Washington, D.C., an establishment ?for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.?

Smithson died shortly thereafter in 1829 at age 64. By 1834, Hungerford died without issue. On July 1, 1836, Congress formally accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation by James Smithson and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust.

Two years of litigation followed, led by Richard Rush, a diplomat, recent  vice presidential candidate and son of Dr. Benjamin Rush ? the signer  of the Declaration of Independence.  

 Having received the court?s judgment in London, Richard Rush was now faced with the practical difficulty of transferring funds across the ocean to the United States. Today, the judgment would have been reduced to a bank deposit, and the funds wired through international banking channels. In 1838, however, it was mostly a cash economy ? bills of exchange and paper money simply weren?t favored.

Rush?s solution was to convert the funds into gold that was a legal tender. He purchased English sovereigns ? new, according to Dr. Richard Doty a curator of today?s Smithsonian coin collection, ?so there would be no loss of gold through wear.? 

As the events would show, if worn coins had been utilized, and each was diminished only a fraction of a gram, the loss to the United States could have been significant. A total of 104,960 sovereigns (then worth approximately $510,000) were involved.

This hoard of sovereigns, probably bearing the young portrait of Queen Victoria (Krause-Mishler number 736.1 variety) were placed in 105 bags (which cost sixpence apiece) ? packed 1,000 coins per bag. Records show that all were shipped, insured, across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the ship, Mediator, packed into 11 different boxes, each one weighing 187 pounds.

Back in 1837, each of the sovereigns had a weight of .2354 troy ounces of gold, and were worth $4.86 apiece. (The coins today in uncirculated condition would have an individual value of more than $700. The Smithsonian has examples of the coin used for its creation in its permanent collection and one is on exhibit in the new 2005-2006 program.

On their arrival in the United States, the sovereigns were melted and transformed into existing American coinage, probably 1838 $10 and $5 gold pieces of which some 7,200 are listed as a being produced according to the Mint Report for that year. Both are also included in the historic 56-coin display. An article in the May 1996 issue of Smithsonian Magazine asserts that ?any 1838 $10 U.S. gold piece is almost certainly Smithsonian gold.?

Most objects in the Smithsonian are acquired by donation. The National Numismatic Collection?s entire budget, beyond staff salaries, has been about $20,000 a year ? to cover all books, new issues and gap-fillers for the remainder of the collection. Hence the importance for this exhibit to have found sponsorship from NGC, NCS and New York Mint.

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