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Coin Tourism: Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection

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

By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……

I have been involved with the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection (NNC) 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.

Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection. Photo courtesy NGC

Photos courtesy Jeff Garrett and NGC

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 three- to five-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.

Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection. Photo courtesy NGC

Jeff Garrett at the podium

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.

The Discovery Cart outside of the new exhibit of the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection. Photo courtesy NGC

The Discovery Cart outside of the new National Numismatic Collection exhibit

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, a 1907 Ultra High Relief, a 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.

Jeff Garrett (left) with Charles Morgan (right)

Jeff Garrett (left) with CoinWeek’s Charles Morgan (right)

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. A 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.

* * *

Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garretthttps://rarecoingallery.com/
Jeff Garrett, founder of Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, is considered one of the nation’s top experts in U.S. coinage — and knowledge lies at the foundation of Jeff’s numismatic career. With more than 35 years of experience, he is one of the top experts in numismatics. The “experts’ expert,” Jeff has personally bought and sold nearly every U.S. coin ever issued. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call on Jeff Garrett for numismatic advice. This includes many of the nation’s largest coin dealers, publishers, museums, and institutions. In addition to owning and operating Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, Jeff Garrett is a major shareholder in Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries. His combined annual sales in rare coins and precious metals — between Mid-American in Kentucky and Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries in Florida — total more than $25 million. Jeff Garrett has authored many of today’s most popular numismatic books, including Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795–1933: Circulating, Proof, Commemorative, and Pattern Issues; 100 Greatest U.S. Coins; and United States Coinage: A Study By Type. He is also the price editor for The Official Redbook: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Jeff was also one of the original coin graders for the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). He is today considered one of the country’s best coin graders and was the winner of the 2005 PCGS World Series of Grading. Today, he serves as a consultant to Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the world’s largest coin grading company. Jeff plays an important role at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Department and serves as a consultant to the museum on funding, exhibits, conservation, and research. Thanks to the efforts of Jeff and many others, rare U.S. coins are once again on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. Jeff has been a member of the Professional Numismatic Guild (PNG) since 1982 and has recently served as president of the organization. He has also served as the ANA President and as a member of the ANA Board of Governors.

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