The National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. is the home to the rarest of the rare coins in the world. The treasured collection houses more than 1.6 million monetary objects in total and is considered the largest collection of money in the world. The coins are sourced from every inhabited continent on the globe and span more than three millennia. Today we highlight five of the most interesting U.S. rare coins in the Smithsonian collection.
1. 1804 Silver Dollar
Although dated 1804, the silver dollars which bear this date were minted in 1834. President Andrew Jackson himself requested the U.S. Mint create these coins for diplomatic gifts to world leaders – gifts that would literally be fit for a king. Celebrating U.S. history, the front of the 1804 Silver Dollar features Liberty’s bust, the date “1804” and the word “liberty.” The back of the coin highlights an eagle and 13 stars that represent the original American colonies.
In November 1834, the Philadelphia Mint struck eight 1804-dated silver dollars for the gift sets. One was given to the Imam of Muscat and another to the King of Siam. The other six quickly landed in private collections and remain numismatic legends today. There are three ‘classes’ of these silver dollars and the Smithsonian owns all three varieties.
2. 1838-O Half Dollar Proof
In 1835, Congress made numismatic history with the establishment of three new U.S. mint branches. The first two facilities were at Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia, which were created to coin gold from nearby mining activity. The third branch at New Orleans was admittedly far from any mining activity, but as a major port of entry for gold and silver coin shipped in from Mexico and Latin America, it was well positioned to mint both gold and silver coins.
The 1838-O Half Dollar was the first coin struck at the New Orleans Mint – and only 20 coins were made as proofs. Yellow fever struck the New Orleans area and the rampant disease, combined with technical issues at the mint limited coin production that year. The result is a highly prized numismatic treasure in the 1838-O Half Dollar piece. The 1838-O Half Dollar from New Orleans is ultra-rare and historic. There are only eleven known survivors, one of them is housed at the Smithsonian and this coin is considered one of the most important American rarities in existence.
3. 1849 $20 Gold Coin
Before the California Gold Rush, the largest U.S. gold coin denomination was $10. Following the enormous amount of bullion that was coming out of California, a decision was made to authorize a new larger denomination coin: the Double Eagle. The artist, James B. Longacre, designed the new gold coin and, in late December, the first two pattern double eagles were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. There remain questions on whether the second 1849 $20 pattern coin was actually struck as there is no evidence in the numismatic community today about its whereabouts.
Widely considered to be the most valuable coin in the world, the 1849 $20 gold coin housed at the Smithsonian is the first Double Eagle and the only one with known whereabouts. As the story goes, in 1909, J.P. Morgan unsuccessfully offered to pay the then enormous sum of $35,000 for this gold coin in the Mint Collection. It has been estimated if this coin were up for auction today it would sell for a multi-million dollar amount.
4. 1907 Saint-Gaudens Ultra High Relief Double Eagle $20 Pattern
Quite simply, President Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t happy with the nation’s coinage. As the story goes, at a Washington dinner party one evening, Roosevelt tasked Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a brilliant sculptor of that time, to redesign America’s gold coins. Both men admired Greece’s ancient coins and agreed that U.S. gold coins developed in that fashion would be a monumental achievement. This coin was the result of those endeavors. Today, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is often considered the most beautiful American coin ever made.
Fewer than 24 of these pattern coins were struck with the ultra-high relief, which were never meant for circulation. The minting process was complicated due to the unusually high relief featured on the pattern coins. It took nearly a dozen tries through the hydraulic coining press to achieve the ultra-high results. In 1907, President Roosevelt surprised his daughter with this pattern coin as a Christmas gift. Later, in 1961, Roosevelt’s daughter donated this coin to the Smithsonian.
5. 1913 Liberty Head Nickel
Last, but not least, the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel is one of the most celebrated coins of the 20th century. Only five are known to be in existence today and one is at the Smithsonian.
These nickels come with a bit of intrigue and scandal. In 1912, the U.S. Mint retired the Liberty Head Nickel and replaced it with the Indian Head Nickel design. However, five Liberty Nickels were still secretly struck. The existence of the coins remained a secret until 1919 when the statute of limitations for prosecuting the mint official expired.
It became public that Samuel W. Brown, of North Tonawanda, New York, had possession of the five nickels. He had previously served as Storekeeper of the Mint. Despite already having them, Brown placed an advertisement in the periodical: The Numismatist, offering to pay $500 each for 1913 Liberty Head Nickels. Later he raised the offer to $600. Brown knowingly was creating hype around these coins, which he later displayed at the 1920 ANA convention before selling the pieces to a Philadelphia dealer.
All five of these legendary coins are among the greatest numismatic treasures in the Smithsonian collection, which continue to be studied and enjoyed by visitors from around the world.
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