Numismatic exhibitions in museums enrich everyone

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Published : 09/13/13
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Having visited over 60 museums that have numismatic exhibitions, I read with great interest Steve Roach’s Editorial, “Locked up or free to roam: considering coins in museums” (Aug. 12), and I strongly disagree with his questioning of the value of coins in museums.

I previously wrote the “World Destinations” in Coin World’s former sister publication, WorldWide Coins, and have recently published a book, The Numismatourist, a travel guide documenting over 175 numismatic exhibitions in 75 countries.

Mr. Roach’s op-ed raises the numismatic question: Which is more important: (1) public education by having rarities on display, or (2) the people who buy and sell for very little reason other than to make profit? Mind you, I’m not against making money, but as a writer I am also strongly pro-education.

Numismatic exhibitions in museums, whether permanent or rotating, serve several purposes for the public’s benefit. A country’s history is perhaps best exhibited by the evolution of its money, which is both an intrinsic component of the nation’s heritage and a mirror of its socioeconomic history. Also, the national legal tender is considered one of the leading symbols of a country’s identity and autonomy.

What better way to educate the public about its monetary heritage than that of showcasing its numismatic treasures in an exhibition in a museum, the nation’s central bank or a mint?

If Mr. Roach’s proposal to reconsider the value of rare coins in museums is a valid one, to be fair there should also be no rare paintings, sculptures and other valuable artwork on display for the world to see. We could simply look at catalog pictures of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the Elgin Marbles instead of seeing the actual painting or sculptures in the Louvre in Paris and in London’s British Museum. Books and catalogs do have a purpose, but they can never replace seeing the real thing.

Yes, security is a problem, and we frequently learn of dealers and collectors being robbed after leaving a show, or having their place of business broken into. We are also well-aware of the thefts from the American Numismatic Association museum, due to sloppy procedures or none at all, rather than a thief breaking into the building. But all museums — art, history and archeological — face potential thefts, not just numismatic ones. The former institutions have dealt with the situation and I see no reason for numismatic venues not to do the same.

Happily, some institutions and individuals are enlightened enough to display some of their rarities at public shows, like ANA World’s Fair of Money. On display at the 2012 show was a 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin (the Walton specimen), and visitors saw both the first coin minted by the United States, a 1792 half disme, and the Class III, Idler/Bebee specimen of 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar.

The famed 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle, the subject of the 2010 federal trial over ownership of 10 such coins, is another example of heightened public interest. Although all but one coin is illegal for private ownership, the Smithsonian has two examples (I held both in my hand), given by the U.S. Mint. Fortunately, one example of the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection in 2012 completed an unprecedented grand seven-city tour of Europe accompanied by Smithsonian curator Karen Lee. At each city long lines of people were waiting to get a brief glimpse of the world’s most expensive coin. In the local regions it visited, the coin was the subject of television and newspaper articles, with Ms. Lee appearing on TV shows. Prior to this tour, most Europeans had not even heard of this coin.

However, some collections, such as most university library collections, are not on display. Items are often bequeathed by alumni and are secluded from the public, only for the eyes of accredited researchers.

Because many museums today are under great financial pressures, several, regrettably, have had to sell some of their treasures to survive. But this should be a measure of last resort.

The public at large benefits greatly from seeing numismatic rarities on display. Rarities bought by individuals and dealers, sold either by private sale or at auctions, are then usually selfishly squirreled away in some vault or safe-deposit box, hardly seeing the light of day until when they are again put up for sale. The public reaps no cultural benefit whatsoever.

Howard M. Berlin of Wilmington, Delaware is the author of The Numismatourist: The Only World-Wide Travel Guide to Museums, Mints, and Other Places of Interest for the Numismatist, to be released this fall by Zyrus Press.

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