National Numismatic Collection improves with family donations

National Numismatic Collection has grown from Smithson's first 10,000 gold sovereigns, assisted by many donors including Stack family
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Published : 07/25/15
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My first visit to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was in the late 1940s when my father took me to see it. The curator at the time was Stuart Mosher, a dedicated and knowledgeable numismatist.

Though the coin collection was on public display, it was found in one of the lower floors then, somewhat below ground level, with windows on the upper parts of the walls. The coins were laid out in long black cases that were flat, poorly lit and hard to see, and some of the cases even needed dusting. It was housed in the “Castle,” the original national museum. 

The National Numismatic Collection was started with a donation of 10,000 gold sovereigns by James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, in the 1830s. He felt that our young nation should preserve its heritage for the future. 

In 1950, Stack’s engaged two fabulous numismatists to be part of its staff, Dr. Vladimir and Mrs. Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, who stayed with us till 1955, when their skills were recognized and they were offered the job as curators for the National Numismatic Collection. 

The National Numismatic Collection was shortly thereafter moved to a new building near the Castle that was dedicated to American History. From virtually the first day the collection was in the new building, the Clain-Stefanellis worked day and night to prepare new attractive displays that were well lit in a wonderful large gallery in the building. Whenever they were short a particular coin, they would call us, and if we had it in stock, we donated it. We wanted to be part of the new exhibit and collection. 

Whenever the museum was offered some coins for acquisition, and because the museum had limited funds available for new purchases, we bought the coins and gave them to the collection. 

During the following decades after moving into the new location, noteworthy special exhibits were created from the collection to attract more visitors. 

Our donations continued. Sometimes Stack family members gave donations from their own collections, which we each had in storage at the company, or we helped the Clain-Stefanellis “borrow on loan” from collectors who had examples that were needed, so a particular exhibit would be as complete as it could get. 

For the family’s dedication to the national collection, we were honored to be part of the John Smithson Society, the highest and most prestigious society connected with the museum. Shortly after this honor was bestowed on each of us, the names of Morton (my father), Joseph (my uncle), my two cousins Benjamin and Norman, and myself, Harvey, were placed on a large plaque at the entrance to the numismatic gallery. Other names like Lamont Dupont and well-known donors also appeared on the plaque. 

The Stack family worked with the Smithsonian to get the acquisition of the famous Gold Coin Collection of United States, as well as ancient and foreign coins, which the Stack Family was the only firm to build for Josiah K. Lilly of the famous Eli Lilly family. That collection alone added some 6,150 coins to the museum’s holdings, and it quickly became one of the most important coin collections in the world. 

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