US Coins

Smithsonian digitizing Lilly gold collection

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the congressionally approved donation of the Josiah K. Lilly Jr. Collection to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, the 6,125 numismatic items that comprise the collection are being digitally imaged for online access.

The collection represents American and world gold coins and bars, including an almost complete collection of U.S. gold coins. The digitization goal is to effectively create an online museum for the collection, with the goal to increase accessibility for general audiences as well as numismatic collectors and enthusiasts.

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The NNC staff made the announcement Aug. 16 during a special reception in Philadelphia for the Friends of the National Numismatic Collection.

The announcement was made in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money.

Josiah K. Lilly Jr. was an Indiana businessman and industrialist who served stints as president and chairman of the board of the Eli Lilly Company, a pharmaceutical firm founded by his grandfather.

Josiah K. Lilly’s estate secured congressional legislation in 1968 for a $5.5 million tax deduction as one condition for donation of the extensive numismatic holdings to the NNC.

The Lilly Collection arrived at the Smithsonian on June 13, 1968.

The U.S. gold coins were on display for decades in a dedicated area in the National Museum of American History, until their storage during renovations over the past decade. Since then, the bulk of the collection has not been on public view.

The extensive exhibit area for the thousands of coins in the Lilly Collection previously covered some 3,000 square feet.

In 2004, the exhibit was dismantled and stored during substantial renovations to the National Museum of American History to accommodate display of the original Star Spangled Banner flag.

The Star-Spangled Banner, or the Great Garrison Flag, was the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the naval portion of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became our national anthem.

Since the bulk of the collection has been in storage, select coins have been used to provide historical context for various exhibits in significantly scaled down spaces, including the red stone structure known as The Castle.

On June 12, 2009, a new numismatic gallery, measuring just 500 square feet, was opened in the National Museum of American History’s first floor East Wing. Eventual construction in the then closed West Wing allowed for a nearly 1,500 square-foot numismatic gallery titled “The Value of Money” that opened in the spring of 2015 to replace the smaller venue.

NNC Curator Ellen Feingold said the overall goal is to bring more of the Lilly Collection out of storage for eventual public display.

Functioning in tandem is a wax removal project announced in the fall of 2017 that eventually will benefit 4,000 coins. The work is being carried out under a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Grant.

“Previously, curators believed it was safe to use museum wax to mount coins in exhibitions for extended periods,” according to the Summer 2018 issue of the Friends of the National Numismatic Collection Newsletter.

“Today, we know that leaving foreign deposits of materials, such as wax, on coins can harm their structure and surface. When the NNC’s long-standing permanent exhibition was taken down in 2004, the wax remained on the coins. In some cases, this caused uneven toning and obscured surface detail.”

Over the next few months, wax is being removed from 510 of the 4,195 coins identified in the collection for wax removal. 

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