Numismanic, Nomismatic, Numismatics?

By Hillery York, Emily Pearce Seigerman
One piece of paper money with a portrait of President Wilson and one coin with an image of an owl

Whenever we tell friends and family where we work, their first response is typically, "What is Numismatics?" Of course, they pronounce it anywhere from "numismatic" to "gnomimatic!" The National Numismatic Collection (NNC) is the Smithsonian's collection of monetary and transactional objects. It houses approximately 1.6 million objects spanning thousands of years and a great variety of materials. One of the best parts of our jobs is getting to share the collection with the world! Numismatics is a far-reaching field, and we've found connections to military historyfacial hairwoman suffrage, and even Game of Thrones! We often share things about our favorite objects, but here are a few large, notable collections that you may not know are housed within the NNC. We’re making these available online, and researchers are welcome to contact us regarding their research in these areas.

Greco-Roman Collection

Ancient coins have long been collected because of their beauty, age, history, and sometimes rarity. Even dating back to the Renaissance, aristocrats and royals sought to add ancient coins to their collections. It makes sense then that the NNC would also have an extensive collection of these fascinating coins donated by various collectors over the years. Scholars recently dove into the collection to assess its strengths as compared to other notable museum collections. In doing so, they created a detailed listingof the holdings and discovered the collection contains approximately 26,900 Greek and Roman coins! These coins offer a great opportunity to study economics, art history, ancient coin production, classics, and more.

Coin with owl on it

Greek and Roman coins reflect a wide range of iconography and diversity of design. Greek coins often feature gods or goddesses, animals, symbols, and heroes. The tetradrachm coin shown above is just one example depicting the beautiful artistry of these coins. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, is featured on the obverse, or front, of the coin, while the reverse (shown here) features the owl associated with her. Roman coins often feature portraits of real people, typically the ruling emperor of the time period on the obverse. Reverses often feature religious and political symbols.

East Asian Collection

The Asian coins of the NNC were accumulated almost entirely through private donations. Some of these donations include the George Bunker Glover bequest of more than 2,000 coins of China, Japan, Korea, Siam, and Annam; a collection of Japanese obans and other coins gifted to President Ulysses S. Grantfrom the Japanese Emperor Meiji; a set of Japanese gold and silver coins from Japan's Minster Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, the Honorable Arinori Mori; and, most recently, a portion of Howard F. Bowker's collections of East Asian coins. These unique and beautiful collections have grown the NNC's East Asian holdings into one of the best representations of the development of East Asian Numismatics.

Oval-shaped object with characters on it.

The NNC currently houses more than 5,100 Chinese, 1,300 Korean, and 1,300 Japanese coins and metal currencies, and we're putting them online for your browsing pleasure! Everything from the money of samurai and antique Chinese knife money to the coins of modern Korea is being made available thanks to a generous donation made in the memory of Howard F. Bowker.

Metal knife-shaped object with notch in blade and circular thing on handle.

Knife image

The United States Treasury Collection

The NNC is the collection of record for the United States Treasury. As a part of this, the collection holds over 270,000 proof sheets from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that reflect the monetary history of the United States from 1863 to the early 20th century. These proof sheets were recently digitized as part of a collaborative effort to make our collections more digitally accessible. These proof sheets are valuable resources to researchers examining the changing iconography of United States currency, and they offer a glimpse into the process of supplying currency for an entire nation.

Bill with portrait of President Woodrow Wilson

The NNC also holds many specimen notes and representative samples of almost every type of currency produced by the Treasury. Some of the highlights from this collection include the 100,000 dollar bill and the Grand Watermelon Note. The 100,000 dollar note pictured above is one of four specimens in the NNC's collection that were transferred from the Treasury in 1978. It features the portrait of the 28th U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, as well as a geometric design in orange ink on the reverse. The orange ink on this note signals that its purpose was to facilitate the transfer of large amounts of gold between Federal Reserve Banks rather than for use as legal tender, the currency used by the general public.

So however you end up pronouncing it (it's nü-məz-ˈma-tiks, by the way), we hope you have fun exploring our National Numismatic Collection.

Hillery York, Jennifer Gloede, and Emily Pearce Seigerman are collections staff in the National Numismatic Collection.