- Among the rare and historic U.S. pattern coins at the Smithsonian are:
- A 5 Dollars Pattern (1865)
- A 50 Dollars Pattern (1877) – The “Half Union”
- A 50 Cents Pattern (1891), and
- A 5 Cents Pattern (1913) – The “Buffalo Nickel”
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The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex on the planet, and the treasured National Numismatic Collection lives within this impressive center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Unrivaled in its extraordinary collections, the National Numismatic Collection includes roughly 1.6 million monetary objects and is believed to be the biggest money collection in the entire world. Because it is so big, many of the legendary coins in its possession cannot be displayed and are rarely seen.
Some of our nation’s most unique and celebrated pattern coins are protected at the Smithsonian for present and future generations. Pattern coins are those in which the design is struck for the purpose of evaluation only. If the design is approved, only then will the coin be produced for circulation.
All four of the historic rarities listed below are nestled among the greatest numismatic treasures in the Smithsonian collection in our nation’s capital.
$5 Gold Pattern Coin (1865)
Christian Gobrecht designed the stunning 1865 Half Eagle gold $5 pattern coin. The obverse features Lady Liberty facing left. She wears a coronet inscribed LIBERTY. Thirteen stars encircle the coin with the date: 1865 below the bust. The reverse showcases a dramatic eagle with its wings stretched wide with a protective shield covering its breast. The eagle carries three arrows and an olive branch with its talons. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST is on a scroll above the eagle’s head.
Only two examples of this pattern were struck and one of them is housed at the Smithsonian.
$50 Gold Dollar Pattern (1877) – The Half Union
The gold rush in California prompted San Francisco business leaders to lobby the United States Congress for gold pieces with high denominations so bankers could quickly count the coins. There were more U.S. pattern coins produced in 1877 than any other year in American history!
Chief Engraver William Barber designed the 1877 $50 gold pattern coin–also referred to as the Half Union–which is the largest U.S. pattern coin ever struck. This legendary coin was never struck for circulation and the pattern is safely ensconced at the Smithsonian museum for posterity.
50-Cent Pattern Coin (1891) at the Smithsonian
Charles E. Barber, the sixth Chief Engraver at the United States Mint and son of William above, designed some of America’s most famous and best-loved coins. Charles Barber worked at the U.S. Mint from 1879 to 1917, where he created numerous patterns – including two unique 50-Cent pattern coins in 1891, which are both housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
On the first 50-cent pattern, the obverse features a Capped Head of Liberty facing right encircled by stars with the date below. The reverse highlights an eagle, with stars (the glory) and clouds above, encircled by an elaborate wreath.
On the second 50-cent pattern, the obverse features a full-length Lady Liberty facing left, with an imposing eagle in the background. Rays are seen on the top half of the coin radiating from the center. Notably, some called Barber’s design “cluttered”.
5-Cent Pattern (1913) – The Buffalo Nickel
The 1913 Indian Head 5-cent pattern coin is a beloved rarity in the numismatic community, fondly known as the “Buffalo nickel”. Designed by James E. Fraser, the magnificent artwork on the obverse is an instantly recognizable right-facing profile of a Native American man, with a Buffalo on the reverse with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top and FIVE CENTS at bottom.
The memorable Buffalo nickel design was almost abandoned amid protests from the American vending machine industry, who thought the coin wouldn’t work within their machines properly. Fortunately, their concerns were unfounded. The Philadelphia Mint produced this arresting pattern coin in 1913 and while it is currently not on view, it is stored safely at the Smithsonian Museum.
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In the video below, CoinWeek took a tour behind the scenes of the National Numismatic Collection to see many of these patterns and other coins not currently on display
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