By Harvey Stack and Charles Morgan for CoinWeek….
AN EXHIBIT TO BE REMEMBERED
On July 15, 2015 the National Numismatic Collection was returned to the displays at the Smithsonian. For close to a decade, portions of the National Collection were not exhibited as the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian was reduced in size and the museum went through major renovation.
Today, the Collection is housed, in all its glory, in a special exhibit room on the first floor of the Museum. In this location it will be more accessible and seen by many more visitors.
I have been involved–emotionally involved–with the National Collection since the mid-1940s. Being from a numismatic family all such displays called to me. I remember my first visit after World War II when, with my parents and sister, we drove from New York to Washington D.C. and on to Baltimore. Our stop in Washington included a visit to the National Collection.
We found the exhibit in the lower level of the Castle, almost below the street, with large windows helping to illuminate the display. It was arranged in long flat showcases, the coins side-by-side, top and bottom; one had to look down to see them. The overhead electric lighting was so-so at best, and the tags weren’t always legible. We visited the curator, Stuart Mosher, whom my father had known for a number of years, and were escorted about the displays.
For someone who had already developed a major interest in Numismatics, it was exciting to see (as best we could) some of the great rarities in the Collection. But it was hard to learn from the way it was laid out.
The Smithsonian’s new display is sleek, modern, and interactive.
After our visit to the museum, we continued on to Baltimore to visit some of my father’s cousins, as well as Louis E. Eliasberg and his good friend Philip Strauss. When I saw the way Eliasberg stored his coins (in National Cardboard holders with the coins protected by acetate slides), I had the opportunity to get up-close and personal with many of the rarities in the Eliasberg Collection and really learned from what I saw. Louis was always grateful to the Stack’s Family, for we acquired for him and sold to him virtually every coin in his collection, which became one of the most renown collections of United States Gold, Silver and Copper coins.
In the mid-1950’s, Vladimir Stefanelli and his wife Elvira–who worked for Stack’s for close to a decade–were offered the job (which they took) of Curator of the National Numismatic Collection. Being the academics and students of Numismatics that they were, we could hardly expect them not to take this honor and privilege. Our friendship continued on through their retirements.
At the same time that the Stefanellis took their new job, the National Numismatic Collection moved from the Castle to the new building. The Collection was put on display in a large exhibition room. It was well-lit and attracted many.
As the Collection grew from donations, loans from the Mint Collection (which is now part of the National Collection), private donors and acquisitions by families like ours, we decided to continue to work to make our National Collection the best in the world.
A selection of gold coins from the Josiah K. Lilly Collection
In the early 1960s, the Collection was expanded by Willis du Pont’s donation of the Michailovich Collection of Russian Coins, (one of the most complete and outstanding known). By a 1968 Act of Congress, the Josiah K. Lilly Gold Coin Collection, consisting of 6,150 different World gold coins and one of the most complete collections of U.S. Gold ever assembled–and which Stack’s built for Lilly between 1951 and 1967–the National Collection became and remains one of the most outstanding collections of Numismatics ever assembled, public or private.
During the development of the National Collection into its present state, the Stack Family made numerous donations from their own collections and funded many acquisitions that were needed by the museum. Though we never counted the number of pieces we gave, we were told that the Stack family gave over 60,000 pieces to help flesh it out. From the mid-1950s to now, the collection has amassed over 2,000,000 numismatic items, including a vast collection of proofs and art from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and a major collection of Broken Bank and Confederate notes as well.
Among the strictly outstanding items that the Stack Family donated was the 1794 dollar STRUCK IN COPPER, believed struck before the first dollars struck in silver. There was also a pair of QUINTUPLE STELLAS (patterns for a “universal” trade $20.00 gold coin equal to the five-pound piece, the French 100-franc piece and the Italian 100 lire), as well as the Original Charles Barber papers, which included drawings, designs and notes. There were even 135 pairs of ancient coin dies, used to make counterfeits of Ancient Coins that eventually found their way into Royal Collections; many are still considered genuine as the dies were so exact.
This is but a brief survey of what the Stack Family donated.
Stack’s Bowers founder Q. David Bowers inspects a paper money exhibit.
As a thank-you for their support of the National Numismatic Collection, each member of the Stack Family became honorary members of the famed John Smithson Society, the most important and elite society at the Smithsonian.
It is with great pleasure that we invite you to visit the new exhibit. Come see what’s been done to enhance your visit to the Collection, and let that education help make you a more proficient collector. I am sure that you will feel closer to your hobby and appreciate what coins have done in the economic world past, present and future. – HS
A NIGHT TO BE REMEMBERED
On the evening of July 15, a veritable who’s-who of the national numismatic scene descended upon Washington D.C. to be present at the Grand Opening ceremony for the new National Numismatic Collection Permanent Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. In earlier reporting, CoinWeek noted that the new exhibit–which features just a fraction of the Smithsonian’s immense holdings of money, medals, and other related material–opened to the public on July 1. That launch, it seems, proved to be a practice run for the main event, as shortly after the opening the museum’s curators closed the exhibit space for additional tinkering and improvements.
When I arrived at the museum earlier in the day, the exhibit was closed to the public for last-minute preparations, and nothing but the impressive (and expensive) bank vault door was visible to passersby. As I waited for a private tour of the exhibit, I studied the reaction of folks walking by. More often than not, they would take note of the door, study its intricacies, and take photographs of themselves or their families standing in front of it. The door was a big hit!
The idea of committing the financial resources to install this non-functioning but very much real door seemed like a radical idea to those in attendance at the Smithsonian’s 2013 project preview at the Whitman Expo in Baltimore. Especially since the implementation of this plan depended on the coin industry and collector community’s ability to raise the funds necessary to pay for it. Incoming ANA President Jeff Garrett, who has worked with the Smithsonian for years, was instrumental in seeing the project through, lining up significant donations from many of the industry’s major figures.
A placard of major donors posted inside of the exhibit recognizes the following individuals and companies:
Bill Gale; Lilly Endowment Inc.; Lee and Saundra Minshull; Charles and Hilda Anderson; Joel and Carmen Anderson; Numismatic Guaranty Corporation; Dr. and Mrs. Andrew A. Shiva; Stack’s Bowers Galleries; Vault Structures, Inc.; Crane & Company; Jeff and Mary Lynn Garrett; Brian and Barbara Hendelson; the Noxon Family; PMX Industries; Bill and Diane Calderazzo; Karen and Mike Fuljenz; Mr and Mrs. Larry L. Lee; Dillon Gage Metals; Florida United Numismatists, Inc.; Robert L. Hazwell and Leslie M. Hazwell; Willis H. du Pont; Mary Ann and Anthony Terranova; and William Youngerman Inc.
My personal sense is that the donors’ trust in the project has been well-rewarded. The new exhibit will no doubt be very popular for casual visitors, but it will also effectively convey the story of money in ways that will indubitably bring new blood into the hobby. What struck me most was the way Collection Curator Ellen Feingold was able to tell that story through themes, capturing money’s significance as a social construct but also in its enduring ability to evolve and change. From seashells to bitcoin and everything in between, this horizon-expanding exhibit is immersive; it breaks through the concept of coins as small metal discs and plays with money’s forms and shapes–even its very definition.
The Old and the New: On the left, the Smithsonian’s cramped Stories on Money exhibit. On the right, a Yap Stone from the new Value of Money exhibit. Many of the collection’s major coins from Stories on Money have been removed to be included in the new exhibit. Despite this, the old exhibit still draws a crowd.
Simply put, this isn’t your grandfather’s National Numismatic Collection Exhibit. Or at least if it is, then it will make him feel like a kid again. I was struck by the joyous expression I captured when Q. David Bowers pulled open one of the many drawers available to visitors.
Inside of each are additional pieces that correspond with the main displays.
My favorite drawer pool featured a 17th-century Russian beard tax token. This remarkable curiosity, an artifact of Imperial social engineering, was issued to entice Russian men to shave so as to make Russian society follow the fashion aesthetics of Western Europe. Hipsters, I presume, will find the piece much to their liking as well.
As for the Grand Opening, Museum Director John Gray spoke of his gratitude for the numismatic community’s support in making the exhibit possible. Gray is overseeing a massive expansion of the museum that focuses on American innovation and chronicles 200+ years of American capitalism. Following Gray was United States Treasurer Rosie Rios. Rios talked of the importance of the collection and teased the upcoming design change of the $10 Federal Reserve Note, which will be issued in 2020 to commemorate the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Jeff Garrett wrapped up the pre-opening comments by thanking his friends and colleagues for stepping up to the plate and giving something meaningful back to the hobby.
Incoming ANA President Jeff Garrett: “A few years ago, [there was talk] of possibility for a new exhibition if the funds could become available. It was an ambitious amount of money to say the least. I promised former museum director Brent Glass that I could find the money by calling my passionate peers in the numismatic community. It was a promise I hoped I could keep.”
Following the remarks, the ribbon was cut and an excited group made their way inside the exhibit space. David McCarthy of Kagin’s examined the museum’s display of coins from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, while Mike Fulljenz wore his characteristic smile while taking in a selection of medallic art by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. John Dannreuther admired the Lilly collection of gold coins, while Whitman Publisher Dennis Tucker, Coin World’s Steve Roach and I admired a display dedicated to cryptocurrency and other secure methods of payment.
The opening of the National Numismatic Collection Permanent Exhibit at the Smithsonian was a cause for celebration and reflection for the numismatic community.
As the gathering drew to a close, the events’ 150+ guests began to trickle out of the event space. Each was treated to a gift bag. Inside of each gift bag was a poster, a silver medal honoring the Star Spangled Banner and a 2015 Bullion-strike American Silver Eagle encapsulated by NGC, with a special label that reads: National Museum of American History, National Numismatic Collection: The Value of Money Exhibition Opening, July 15, 2015.
Officials at the museum assured me in the afternoon that beginning July 16, the exhibit space would again be open to the public. That the wrinkles had been ironed out and that it was ready for prime time.
Much is written and said in this hobby about coins and museums. One often hears about how rare coins get “impounded” in them. All I want to say about that is that public collections belong to the public. You, to a certain extent, own not one but two 1933 double eagles, and if you make the trip to D.C. you can look at them in person any time the museum is open. In the same way, you own not one but three 1804 dollars. A $100,000 gold certificate is yours as well, as is the most amazing World gold coin collection ever assembled.
Now there’s an exhibit worthy of such a collection.