An exhibition of coins, medals, bank notes, and related books,
manuscripts and graphic arts from the Princeton University collections
will be presented in a display titled “Capping Liberty.”
The exhibition will be housed at the Milberg Gallery, Firestone
Library, March 3 to July 8.
Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday
and Sunday, noon to 5:00 p.m. The gallery is closed holidays.
Items from Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books
and Special Collections serve as the basis of the exhibition,
illustrating the search for imagery and the selection and adoption of
symbols for a national coinage.
“The star of the show will undoubtedly be the Princeton specimen
of the 1792 half disme,” predicts Alan M. Stahl, the exhibition’s
curator. The 1792 half disme pattern is a “superb example” of the
first coin minted by the United States government under the
Constitution. Delays in passing the Mint Act of 1792 left little time
to strike coins that year, so a very small issue of half dismes (the
old French spelling was used on the piece) was minted in a temporary
facility, reputedly from silver supplied by George Washington for the
purpose. Fewer than 2,000 examples are believed to have been struck.
The 1792 half disme in Princeton’s collection was purchased by
Charles A. Cass, Princeton class of 1904, from an auction in 1917 by
Thomas Elder where it was described as “the finest known specimen of
this exceedingly rare coin.” It came to Princeton with the Cass
numismatic collection by bequest in 1958. The half disme was
characterized by Roger Siboni, president of the American Numismatic
Society, as “perhaps the finest, or one of the finest 1792 half dismes
in existence” in a Sept. 1, 2008, Coin World article.
Other important coins from the Princeton University Numismatic
Collection in the exhibition are four issues of the 17th century
Massachusetts silver shilling coinage, two examples of the tin
Continental dollar patterns of 1776, and a 1794 Flowing Hair, 14 Star
The “poster piece” of the exhibition, according to Stahl, is the
gilt bronze striking of Augustin Dupré’s 1783 Libertas Americana
medal, a gift of Rodman Wanamaker, Princeton class of 1886, which is
believed it have been the basis for the depiction of Liberty on early
United States coinage. It is accompanied by a selection of ancient
coins that inspired it, including a Sicilian dekadrachm and a series
of denarii of the Roman Republic and sestertii of the Roman Empire
that show the goddess Libertas and her distinctive cap.
Other important medals in the exhibition are an original bronze
striking of Dupré’s Diplomatic medal of 1791 (one of only three
known), a gift of Cornelius Vermeule III, noted scholar of ancient and
American coinage, and a hand-engraved medal believed to have been
given to Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (Princeton class of 1773). Also
on display are three unique plaster molds made by Jean-Baptiste Nini
as preparatory models for his famous terra-cotta medallions of
Complementing the coins and medals from the Princeton University
Numismatic Collection are many items from other divisions of
Princeton’s Special Collection, including books formerly in the
libraries of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Among the depictions of Liberty from Colonial publications is the
portrait of John Hancock engraved in 1774 by silversmith Paul Revere,
where the patriot is flanked by a knight with a copy of the Magna
Carta and Liberty with her cap.
In manuscript letters, George Washington voices support for
Jefferson’s “Propositions Respecting the Coinage of Gold, Silver and
Copper,” and John Adams asks Mint Director Benjamin Rush (Princeton
class of 1760) for examples of United States coinage for his son John
Quincy Adams to send to Russia.
A 1778 print attributed to the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard
depicts Benjamin Franklin crowned by the goddess Liberty, and a large
piece of Toile de Jouy fabric printed around 1785 has the image of
George Washington in a gold chariot drawn by cheetahs.
On Sunday, May 6, the noted scholar of American Colonial coinage,
Louis Jordan, of the University of Notre Dame, will give a public
lecture titled “Transformations in Numismatic Iconography during the
American Revolution” at 4:00 p.m. in 101 McCormick Hall on the
The lecture will be preceded at 2:30 p.m. by a curatorial tour of
the exhibition in Firestone Library by Stahl, Princeton’s curator of
numismatics. A reception in Firestone Library will follow the lecture.
Additional curatorial tours will be held on Sunday, March 25, and
Thursday, May 31, both at 2:30 p.m. The exhibition and its associated
events are free and open to the public.
A website devoted to the exhibition, including high-resolution
images of obverses and reverses of all coins on display and images
from the other materials, can be found at http://rbsc.princeton.edu/capping-liberty
and will remain on the website after the close of the exhibition.
Further information on this exhibit can be obtained from Alan
Stahl, curator of numismatics, by email at email@example.com or by
telephone at 609-258-9127. ■