By Harvey Stack – Founder, Stack’s Bowers ……
CoinWeek continues to post Harvey Stack’s wonderful series of blogs on not only the building of one of the all-time greatest coin collections but also how the relationship between Josiah K. Lilly and the Stack family grew over time. This week’s entry compiles parts 33 and 34, available on the Stacksbowers.com blog. If you’re new to the series, you can start here, at Part 1. Or if you just need to catch up, here’s a link to the most recent issue, Part 16
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Why was it so important that the Josiah K. Lilly Collection become part of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian? What made this collection so important and what made the building of the Lilly Collection possible? The quality and quantity of the coins were so exceptional because Mr. Lilly could acquire full or nearly-full sets formed by collectors before him. These included $1 to $4 gold from the Anderson Dupont Collection; $5 and $10 gold from the Clifford Weihman Collection; $20 double eagles from the Robert Schermerhorn Collection; Pioneer and Territorial gold coins from the F.C.C. Boyd and the Brand collections. All these became available during the 1950s and early ’60s. This was a somewhat unique period when there was a great change of ownership from some old time collections to a new group of buyers.
In addition, World gold coins and Ancient gold coins also became available during this period partly as a result of World War II. Additionally, an advance in prices on the market caused many collectors at this time to choose to sell by private sale or at public auction. Stack’s had a number of sales during the period, and many coins that had been difficult to find earlier became available. We were fortunate to be able to acquire many items during this time as we took advantage of the situation.
Josiah K. Lilly was collecting at the right time and place!
Once Congress approved the bill to acquire the Lilly Collection coins for the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the collection was carefully packed, under the personal supervision of Dr. and Mrs. Clain-Stefanelli, and shipped by armored truck to Washington. I was honored to be invited to the Smithsonian for the arrival of this great collection, one that I had been involved with for some 16 years. I opened many cases, helped place the coins in special drawers within the vaults of the National Numismatic Collection, and worked with the Clain-Stefanellis and other staff to store the coins until they were ready for display.
Work began on creating an appropriate space to exhibit this massive collection of gold coins to the public. The Smithsonian provided an enlarged gallery for the display of many of its numismatic treasures. It measured more than 3,000 square feet and would have wall cases, and flat display cases. For the wall cases there would be a mounting device for each coin with the description below. The areas for each series were carefully calculated.
Lighting had to be installed to illuminate the collections. I was there many days helping the staff arrange the display, and prepare literature to be distributed to those who came to view this rare collection of gold coins. I was present during the grand opening, and it received rave notices from visitors and great publicity from the world press. It was an historic event!
About the National Numismatic Collection
The addition of the J.K. Lilly Collection raised the status of the National Numismatic Collection among collections in museums worldwide.
It got its start in 1838 when James Smithson, an Englishman who had never set foot on American soil, bequeathed some 105,000 gold sovereigns (about equivalent to $500,000) to the United States government. This bequest was designated for the establishment of housing for artifacts relating to the United States, and resulted in the Smithsonian Institution. The first building of the Smithsonian was a red brick building called the “Castle”. Among the items initially housed and displayed there was a copy of our Constitution, as well as other financial and historic documents and artifacts of our still young nation.
As the U.S. Mint and Treasury Department already had examples of the early coinage of our country (including dies, and patterns), their collections were sent to the Castle for display. For the next 100 years the collection was a featured display of interest; according the their visitor references, it attracted large numbers of visitors. It was a popular exhibit as many visitors from here and abroad who collected coins as a hobby or just as keepsakes, enjoyed seeing the items that were on display. These exhibits of coins and currency gave insight into the nation’s financial growth over its history. Treasury officials and the Mint added to the collection over time, to continue this record of commercial growth.
By 1914 the display had grown significantly and a Coin Hall was established featuring about 6,000 coins of the United States and other parts of the world. The coins were housed in long, flat display trays on one of the lower levels of the Castle. Over time the collection grew and it was appreciated by many.
In 1955 two great curators Dr. and Mrs. Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli joined the Smithsonian numismatic staff. Their knowledge and dedication brought with it a drive to make the collection more extensive and get a larger display area in the new building that was being built, near the old Castle on Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. In 1964 the National Numismatic Collection was moved to the new building, and was set up in a display room of its own, measuring close to 3,000 square feet. When the Clain-Stefanellis took over the collection it numbered 64,000 items. Under their dedicated leadership, by the turn of the 21st century the collection had grown to more than one million-and-a-half items from all over the world. This growth was unimaginable when they took over. Many collectors and some institutions sent coins to enhance the National Numismatic Collection and make it an even better reflection of financial history.
Among the donors were Catherine Bullowa, Mrs. Wayte Raymond, Mrs. F.C.C. Boyd, Andrew C. Zabriskie, Fred Hauck, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Packard, Fredrick MacKay, Honorable R. Henry Norweb and his wife Emery May Norweb, Mortimer Neinken, Henry Crowfoot, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Chase Bank Money Exhibit, Alfred Bloomingdale, and the Stack family (consisting of Morton, Joseph B., Harvey G., Norman C., Benjamin, and Lawrence R. — some 62,000 items, covered by 750 gift receipts), Harry Warshaw, Willis Dupont, Edward Gans, Charles Cormich, Mr. and Mrs. James Leigh, Leonard Finn, Philip Chase, David Rockefeller, the United States Mint (additions to its initial contributions) and many other well known collectors.