Since the mid-19th century, when numismatics became popular in America, a number of important coin collections have found their way into museums. Some are readily accessible to the general public, while others are archived away from everyday view. This article will describe some of the most important museum collections, including both visible and obscure holdings.
Without a doubt, the most extensive and valuable collection of United States coins belongs to the Smithsonian Institute. Their holdings consist of two categories: coins that have always been in government hands—and pieces that were bequeathed by private collectors. The combination of the two has formed the greatest collection of American coins ever assembled, including numerous unique pieces.
The good news is that the Smithsonian’s highlights are presented beautifully in the Museum of American History in Washington DC. In one room, visitors can view a staggering display of major rarities worth nine figures (if they were ever sold). While this display is highly attractive and accessible, unfortunately the majority of the collection can no longer be seen by the general public. Due to space limitations, many spectacular rarities sit dormant in the Smithsonian archives.
The American Numismatic Association maintains a smaller but more visible collection. Among the coins on display at their Colorado Springs museum is the Harry W. Bass collection of $3 gold pieces, the only complete set every assembled. The ANA also boasts an 1804 dollar and a 1913 Liberty nickel, both of which are considered among the ten most famous American rarities. In addition to their display in Colorado, the ANA will often bring some of its holdings to its conventions and events. These travelling exhibits give the collection superb added exposure.
New York’s American Numismatic Society boasts one of the most incredible yet obscure collections. Unlike the Smithsonian and ANA, the ANS makes very little of its material available for viewing to the general public. This is unfortunate, as their holdings include the incredible J.P. Morgan collection of US and ancient coins. J.P. Morgan is a well-known name in American business and finance, but few numismatists are aware of his superb collection. One of the highlights is a complete run of gold proof sets stretching from the 1850s through the 20th century. This portion of the collection, alone, would be worth in the tens of millions.
These three institutional collections range from highly visible to well-hidden, but all three contain wildly impressive numismatic rarities. Although seeing their holdings may require some diligence and effort, all three possess unique items that are never encountered in the private marketplace.