US Coins

What numismatic items are in the Smithsonian's new exhibit?

The Smithsonian Institution's new "Value of Money" exhibit, which officially opened July 15, includes more than 400 objects (carefully selected from the more than 1.6 million objects in the museum’s collection), thematically grouped in five sections. 

Items familiar to U.S. coin collectors include numerous great rarities such as three 1804 Draped Bust silver dollars, a 1974 Lincoln aluminum cent, a 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent piece and the famed 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Other iconic items used as money are featured throughout, such as a 168.5-pound stone ring used to make significant payments on Yap Island in the western Pacific. 

The Josiah K. Lilly Collection of gold coins makes appearances throughout the display, as does a section on new acquisitions. The museum hopes to frequently change these objects to highlight the importance of continuing to build the National Numismatic Collection. 

As one of the panels reads: “Coin collecting is one of the oldest and most popular hobbies in the world. Collectors value coins, notes, and other objects for beauty, rarity, and connections to people and places. Building a collection is not only about accumulation; it is a means by which individuals learn about history and draw connections between the past and present.” 

Richness in drawers

The gallery’s wall cases were designed with discovery drawers that will change frequently, designed to illustrate the abundance and diversity of the collections. These mini-exhibits include a drawer with 19th century love tokens, which are engraved coins where official markings have been replaced with personal messages. Because they are engraved by hand, they are unique. 

One drawer celebrates coin collecting, displaying an early edition of the American Numismatic Association’s journal The Numismatist

Some drawers contain great rarities, such as the drawer displaying magnificent early 19th century Proof U.S. gold coins. 

Another drawer has three 1804 Draped Bust silver dollars representing all three classes and 20 percent of the surviving population of this classic U.S. rarity, as just 15 examples overall are known. 

Some drawers highlight specific items such as a beard token from Russia from 1705. The display text for that exhibit reads: “In the late 17th century, Russian Emperor Peter I instituted a tax on beards because he regarded them as in poor taste when compared with modern fashions in Europe. Any man who wanted to keep his beard was forced to pay a tax and carry a token.” 

The Russian token, which depicts a beard and mustache, was donated to the collection by collector Willis H. Du Pont. 

One drawer features a 1998 plaster donated by Glenna Goodacre of her design of Sacagawea for the Sacagawea dollar, which was first issued in 2000. 

To support the exhibit, Feingold’s new book, The Value of Money, which features more than 175 objects from the collection, is scheduled to be published by Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press on Sept. 29. The book “connects American history to global histories of exchange, cultural interaction and expression, political change, and innovation.” It will explain in more detail many of the themes that are explored in the new exhibit. 

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