National Numismatic Collection Visit by Charles Morgan for CoinWeek …..
On Wednesday, November 13, 2019, the curator of the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) Dr. Ellen Feingold, former ANA President Jeff Garrett, and the NNC staff welcomed more than two dozen Friends of the Smithsonian for a private viewing of more than 2,000 gold coins from the J.K. Lilly Collection. The Lilly Collection was assembled by pharmaceutical heir Josiah K. Lilly throughout the 1950s and ’60s in close consultation with the Stack family.
A Born Collector
Lilly was a born collector. Not only did he assemble a world-class collection of gold coins, but he also built important collections of rare books, stamps, antique weapons, and military miniatures that he painted to exacting detail.
After Lilly died in 1966 at the age of 72, his estate lobbied the Indiana delegation in the United States Congress to introduce a bill that would grant a multi-million dollar tax credit for the donation of his gold coin collection to the Smithsonian Institution. The effort bore fruit and upon its passage, the Lilly estate received a tax credit of $5,534,806 USD in exchange for the donation of 6,125 gold coins. After the acquisition, it was said that the NNC had only three coins left on its want list.
Given the current market value of rare coins and the historical import of no small number of Lilly’s holdings, the government got a lot of bang for the buck.
A Collection Reunited
The numismatists who assembled at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, many of whom made the short trip to Washington D.C. from the Whitman Expo in Baltimore, were delighted by the opportunity to see more than 2,000 of Lilly’s coins laid out on tables in the upstairs offices of the collection’s curatorial staff. Although the attendees were asked not to touch the coins, the staff did accommodate those curious in getting a closer look at Lilly’s Pioneer Gold section, which included a number of seldom-seen assay pieces, patterns, and other private-issue oddities.
Lilly’s federal gold issues included a number of nice pieces. A 1796 No Stars $2.50 and his choice-or-better 1850-D half eagle stood out to me. I also saw a few important gold coins that found their way into Whitman’s upcoming 100 Greatest Modern World Coins, which I wrote with Hubert Walker.
For many in attendance, this small gathering was the first time in many years that they had been back to D.C. to view the collection. After a short reception where Dr. Feingold spoke about the museum’s future plans to install a Big Money exhibit geared towards younger visitors, those in attendance made their way to the excellent Value of Money exhibit, which is open to the public. I was struck, viewing the gathering, at just how much numismatic knowledge was in the room and how each of the objects on display meant so much to those assembled.
Will I ever experience another event like this in my life?
It isn’t every day that you get to see two $50 half unions, Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Head prototype $20 double eagle, the only known 1849 double eagle, three 1804 dollars (one of each class, including the unique Class II), and the infamous 1933 double eagle (one of two in the Smithsonian’s possession) all together, prominently displayed within inches of one another.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, you will see on display an experimental 1974 aluminum cent, a 1913 nickel, a $100,000 gold certificate, a gold necklace made up of more than a dozen gold coins, a yap stone, an assemblage of credit cards belonging to the late former NNC curators the Steffanellis, and a geographic display of gold coins from around the world, made up of many important coins donated to the museum from the Lilly estate. I always smile when I see the ultra-rare Oaxaca 60 pesos. The next time you get a chance to see the exhibit, see if you can spot it in the display.
Unfortunately, photography was not permitted at the event, but I can share a behind-the-scenes video that CoinWeek made with Jeff Garrett that gives a nice overview of the Value of Money exhibit and takes you into the vault. Jeff also shares a number of important coins that he has developed a personal connection with over the years as he has carried out research for his books.
Watch: Numismatic Americana: Behind the Scenes at the National Numismatic Collection
On to the Expo
From here it’s off to Baltimore, where I am looking forward to taking in a spectacular auction of medals from the collection of John W. Adams and a deep catalog of Washingtoniana. Stack’s Bowers seems to have pulled out all of the stops with its selection of Americana this go-round. What a perfect way to wrap up the 2019 numismatic calendar.