Guest Commentary by Dr. Ellen R. Feingold, Curator of the National Numismatic Collection ……
Tomorrow, November 8, is the first day that selections from the Smithsonian’s East Asian coin collection–featuring the recently-acquired Howard F. Bowker Collection–will be exhibited as part of the National Numismatic Collection’s ongoing “Value of Money” exhibit. The Collection’s curator, Dr. Ellen Feingold, was kind enough to write a commentary exclusively for CoinWeek to commemorate this auspicious occasion. A press release from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History follows. —CoinWeek
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Few names are most associated with East Asian numismatics in the United States than Howard F. Bowker. A passionate and fervent collector of East Asian coins and banknotes (as well as stamps and books), Bowker amassed one of the most extensive collections of East Asian money in U.S. history. As the curator of the National Numismatic Collection, I am pleased to announce that we recently acquired more than 380 objects from the Bowker Collection, thereby enhancing our East Asian holdings and fulfilling Bowker’s wish that his collection become part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Born in Winona, Minnesota, Bowker served in the U.S. Navy during both World Wars and became interested in collecting East Asian money while stationed in Hànkǒu, Hubei Province, China, during 1923-1924. A lifelong collector of American coins, Bowker’s time in China sparked in him a passion for East Asia’s history, culture, and art. He developed a sustained commitment not only to collecting, but also to conducting pioneering research on the economic and social history of the region and sharing it with an international network of scholars and collectors.
Bowker’s numismatic holdings – thousands of coins, banknotes, coin molds, dies, and related objects – ranged from some of the earliest Chinese media of exchange–including spades, bridge money, and knife money–to medieval, early modern, and modern Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino currencies.
Widely known for his expertise in East Asian history and numismatics, Bowker served as a consultant in Numismatics to the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) beginning in 1958. He worked closely with the National Numismatic Collection’s curator Dr. Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli to catalog East Asian coins. Through this experience, Bowker developed “a great affection” for the Smithsonian and wanted his collection to be available to the public for research and educational purposes. Thus he left his numismatic collection to the Smithsonian in his will in 1970.
For many years, the Bowker family sought to honor his wishes and after multiple attempts to complete the donation, it looked as though the Smithsonian would not proceed with acquiring Bowker’s collection. Yet the Bowker Collection was not forgotten amongst American and East Asian numismatists and after many years of relatively little activity with the collection, Michael Chou of Champion Auctions approached the Bowker Family and asked after the whereabouts of Bowker’s holdings. Upon seeing the collection, Chou offered to act as the family’s agent and work with museums in China to acquire objects from his collection. Since 2010, the Bowker Family has generously donated portions of the Bowker Collection to museums and mints in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang. These donations have returned rare pieces of cultural heritage to China, such as a fifth-century BCE pair of clay molds for casting knife money and a West Han Dynasty Wu Shu coin copper mold.
In November 2016, the Bowker family gave me the opportunity to examine the remaining objects in the collection and select objects to become part of the National Numismatic Collection. The more than 380 objects I selected in consultation with the Bowker family, Michael Chou, and my colleagues compliment the National Numismatic Collection’s existing East Asian holdings, the cornerstones of which are the famous George B. Glover and Ulysses S. Grant Collections. Together, these collections present great research potential to both ancient and modern historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who examine modes and patterns of exchange, circulation, cultural interaction and representation, coin production methods, and metallurgy.
Among the many treasures that are part of the Bowker donation are a set of gilt brass proof pattern coins designed by U.S. Mint Engraver Charles Barber on contract with the Ferracute Machine Company for the Sìchuān province around 1902, a silver “Old Man” dollar from 1837, and a 500 cash coin made from copper and tin – the largest coin denomination ever minted in China. The donation also includes 20 varied pieces of bridge money and 12 pieces of knife money, including Ming knives that were once part of the famous Fang Ming Collection.
These new acquisitions and all the National Numismatic Collection’s East Asian coins (more than 10,000 in total) are currently being digitized and will be available for online and for consultation in the National Numismatic Collection’s new Howard F. Bowker Research Room. A selection of these objects is also now on display for the public in the New Acquisitions case of The Value of Money. We hope that by making these objects available to researchers and museum visitors, they will serve as an international educational resource and help inspire a new generation of numismatists with a passion for history and culture like Howard Bowker’s.
Below is the Smithsonian Institution’s press release concerning the exhibit. —CW
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East Asian Coins on Display at National Museum of American History
New Donation From the Family of Private Collector Howard F. Bowker
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will display selected numismatic objects recently acquired from the collection of Howard F. Bowker beginning Wednesday, November 8. The New Acquisitions case within the “Value of Money” exhibition will show 19 items ranging from fifth-century BCE. Chinese bridge and knife money to 20th-century Chinese money minted in the U.S.
The selection is part of a recent donation of more than 380 objects from the Bowker collection of East Asian coins, banknotes and stamps. The collection includes rare modern Chinese coinage such as a 500 cash coin made from copper and tin in 1927 and a silver “Old Man” dollar from 1837, as well as a wide variety of 19th- and 20th-century Japanese and Korean coinage.
“The Bowker collection presents an ideal opportunity to explore what numismatic objects can reveal about the historic trade and technological connections between the United States and East Asia,” said Ellen Feingold, curator of the National Numismatic Collection.
A set of 1902 gilt brass-proof pattern coins also are included in this acquisition. These coins were struck in the U.S. by the Ferracute Machine Co. of Bridgeton, New Jersey. The coins contribute to the understanding of that connection and further illustrate the ties between North American and Chinese numismatics, economics and trade.
The donation also includes 12 ancient Chinese knives and 20 pieces of ancient Chinese bridge money. Of the knives, seven are known as “Qi knives” and five are known as “Ming knives”. The newly acquired knives and bridge money will help the museum to tell the full narrative of Chinese numismatics through material culture.
The museum recognizes the generosity of the Howard F. Bowker Family and Michael Chou for their support to promote research and enhanced public access of the National Numismatic Collection through exhibition and digitization efforts. Bowker’s passion for collecting began when he was stationed as a U.S. naval officer in Hànkǒu, Hubei Province, China, following the end of World War I, and he collected more than 10,000 historic East Asian artifacts.
East Asian monetary objects have been a part of the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection since the 19th century. Today, the National Numismatic Collection has strong East Asian representation and is a national resource for the study of East Asian money. The National Numismatic Collection opened the “The Value of Money” exhibition in July 2015, and it links American history to global histories of exchange, cultural interaction, political change and innovation. “The Value of Money” allows visitors to explore the origins of money, new monetary technologies, the political and cultural messages money conveys, numismatic art and design and the practice of collecting money.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed December 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.