The Smithsonian Institution was originally funded by a bequest from the estate of James Smithson of England. When Smithson died in 1829, at the age of 64, his entire estate was inherited
by his nephew - Henry James Hungerford. Smithson's will, however, included a provision that stipulated that if his nephew died childless, the estate would be used toward "an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" - in the United States. Hungerford died in 1835, childless, and the rest is history!
The estate's financial instruments (e.g., stocks, annuities), valued at approximately £87,620, were converted into gold sovereigns by an American delegation that had been sent to England to retrieve the bequest and were then bagged and crated up before being transported via ship to the US - 104,960 gold sovereigns made the journey. In the US, the gold sovereigns were melted down and, after a bit of copper was added to the mix to make the alloy the US standard of 0.900 fine vs. the British standard of 0.916, were mostly minted into US Gold Eagles ($10 coins).
After the conversion to US dollars, the bequest amounted to $508,318.46. Levi Woodbury. the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, recommended the funds be invested in short-term, high-yield bonds being issued by the relatively new States of Arkansas and Michigan while their ultimate use was debated/determined. Each of the States subsequently defaulted on their bonds and essentially the entire inheritance was lost.
Eventually, the US Congress voted to replace the lost funds and passed an Act in December 1845 "To Establish the 'Smithsonian Instituion' for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men." (Obviously, the phrasing was borrowed from Smithson's will.) The Act was signed into law on August 10, 1846. With the Act in place, the Smithsonian Institution began it journey to becoming a musuem of world renown. Today, the vast SI complex includes 19 museums and the National Zoological Park.
The bill authorizing the commemorative coin program was passed by Congress in December 1995 and signed into law by US President William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton in January 1996. The program included a silver dollar (up to 650,000 coins) and a gold Half Eagle (up to 100,000 coins). This post focuses on the Silver Dollar; I'll circle back with a gold coin discussion soon.
Funds generated from the surcharges collected on sales of the program's coins ($35 per Half Eagle, $10 per Silver Dollar) were divided between general uses determined by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents (85%) and supporting the National Numismatic Collection (NNC) (15%); nearly $2.7 million was raised by the overall program - approximately $400 thousand for the NNC.
The obverse of the coin features a well-executed depiction of the Smithsonian Castle, the first building of the Smithsonian Institution (SI). (It's hard to imagine that the SI's collection once fit in a single building!) The US Mint's Thomas D. Rogers
designed and modeled the attractive design. (Having an architectural beauty to start with always helps!)
The coin's reverse, by John Mercanti
, is an allegorical depiction of a classical female figure holding the Torch of Knowledge in her raised left hand and a scroll featuring "ART / HISTORY / SCIENCE" written on it in her right. The figure is depicted floating above the earth with the North Atlantic Ocean at the center and the North American, European and African continents visible. The figure is not identified as representing a specific ancient mythological goddess, though Athena
is a potential source reference; Athena
is the Greek goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. Minerva,
the Roman counterpart of Athena,
is also a possibility.
The regular issue price for the individual Silver Dollar was $37.00 in Proof, $42.00 in Uncirculated. A Young Collectors Set was also produced, it included a proof version of the Silver Dollar and had an issue price of $40.00.
In the end, the Silver Dollar sold a total of 160,382 units (129,152 Proof; 31,230 Uncirculated; included in the Proof figure is the YC Set which sold 14,976 units.)1996 Smithsonan Institution 150th Anniversary Silver Dollar
For other of my posts about commemorative coins and medals, including more Modern US commemorative coin stories, see: Commems Collection