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Smithsonian Perspectives

Coins from James Smithson's bequest created the Institution; on our anniversary, commemorative coins from the U.S. Mint will help it to continue

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The Smithsonian has benefited enormously from its association with the federal government. The Congressional initiative in 1836 to send an agent to London to lay claim to the bequest of James Smithson was only the first instance of federal support for a little understood institution that was to bear his name. Since then, the federal government has extended to the Smithsonian appropriations, collections, grants and contracts, cooperative enterprises and a lot of guidance.

On February 7, we had the good fortune to unveil with the U.S. Postal Service our 150th-anniversary commemorative stamp. This is actually the third Smithsonian stamp, so it carries forth a tradition of cooperation with the Postal Service--a relationship now enhanced by the opening of our National Postal Museum here in Washington.

In a similar vein, we have been working with the U.S. Mint, Congress, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Citizens Advisory Committee on Commemorative Coins and the Commission of Fine Arts-to name just a few of the participants-to mint some truly spectacular coins commemorating our 150th anniversary. The long process of authorization, design and approval having finally been completed, we were proud to present the finished products at our celebration on August 10.

As it turns out, gold coins were an integral part of the Smithsonian's origins. With authorization from Congress, President Andrew Jackson appointed the distinguished Pennsylvania lawyer, financier and former Secretary of State, Richard Rush, to prosecute the United States' claim to Smithson's bequest. In May 1838, the British Chancery Court awarded Smithson's estate to the United States. Rush promptly converted the proceeds of the estate into 104,960 new British gold sovereigns on behalf of the U.S. Government. That July, Rush set out for New York City with 11 boxes of gold sovereigns aboard the USS Mediator. Because British currency was not legal tender in the United States, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia was ordered to melt down the sovereigns and remint them as Goddess of Liberty ten-dollar gold coins. The recoined bequest was worth precisely $508,318.46 at that time. Less than ten years later, the interest on the bequest, compounded at 6 percent, was sufficient to pay for the construction of the Smithsonian's first building, our beloved Castle.

So we see a special meaning in the minting of commemorative coins in this 150th-anniversary year. We were fortunate to engage some of the U.S. Mint's finest designer-engravers of coinage for this project. The obverse of the gold five-dollar coin, designed by Alfred F. Maletsky, features a classical bust of James Smithson. On the reverse, designed by T. James Ferrell, is a superbly executed Smithsonian sunburst, polished to a mirror finish on the proof coin. The obverse of the silver dollar, designed by Thomas D. Rogers, features an image of the Smithsonian Castle adapted from a fanciful lithograph published by Edward Sachse & Co., c. 1855-60. On the reverse of the silver coin is a design by John Mercanti, an allegorical figure carrying the torch of knowledge. This is an adaptation of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens design on the Smithsonian's Langley Medal. Working with the Mint has been a special pleasure and an outstanding example of the benefits we enjoy as a partner with the federal government.

These unique coins are bound to appeal to a wide audience beyond the typically enthusiastic numismatic community. They are being offered for sale by the U.S. Mint (call 1-800-USA-MINT), and through our own mail-order catalog and in our museum shops. The number of coins is finite and they may well sell out before the holiday season. The Smithsonian is happily a beneficiary of the sales, earning $10 and $35 on the silver and gold coins, respectively. Fifteen percent of the revenues will be credited to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian, and the rest will support the Institution's educational outreach in this anniversary year.

I am certain that many members of the Smithsonian and readers of this magazine will want to participate in this unique offer and bring home a real symbol of the Smithsonian's history.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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