The ANS was formed by a group of collectors in New York City in 1858, at a time when many learned societies were created. Although the initial meeting of the collectors occurred in March of 1858, the Society looks back to April 6, 1858 as its date of creation; that was the day on which the fledgling Society's first constitution and bylaws were approved by the membership. That same month, the Society accessioned its first coin.
The collection and study of coins became widespread during the mid 19th century for several reasons, including the discovery and minting of gold in California and federal coinage reforms in the 1850s which produced coins of new size and design for the first time in half a century. Within a short time, substantial donations of coins, medals and books formed the nucleus of the present extensive cabinet and library. For many years, however, the Society had no adequate housing for these collections.
Under the leadership of several dynamic, resourceful and generous presidents, the ANS grew to become a major international center for numismatic research. One of these presidents, Archer M. Huntington, scion of the family who built the Southern Pacific Railroad and a serious collector, gave the Society land at 155th Street and Broadway and contributed toward construction of the neoclassical building, which opened in 1908. In 1929, Huntington underwrote the expansion of the building which doubled its size. As President of the ANS from 1916 to 1941, Edward T. Newell, a scholar of Greek coins, guided the Society toward making its mark worldwide. He also left his enormous personal coin collection to the Society.
It was in the latter half of the 20th century that the Society evolved into the foremost numismatic research institution in the United States. Its cabinet of nearly one million objects ranks with the largest in the world and is an extraordinary resource for students of the humanities. Its unique library of over 100,000 items is the most comprehensive collection of numismatic literature in existence.
The interpretation and exploitation of these vast holdings is the responsibility of a professional staff of international reputation. Through a wide variety of programs the Society promotes recognition of the value of numismatics in reconstructing man's past, an understanding of proper numismatic method, and appreciation and use of the Society's holdings. The ANS is committed to making its resources available to the widest possible audience.
The Society's Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, established in 1952, continues today as a highly respected training program in the discipline and numbers among its alumni many scholars now in academic positions including several of the Society's current curatorial staff. The Society administers a variety of fellowships and grants designed to promote research in numismatics and encourage use of the collections. The ANS is also an important disseminator of research, and enjoys a reputation as the largest non-profit numismatic publishing house in the world, issuing books, periodicals, catalogues, and audio/visual sets in a variety of series and special issues.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the ANS has greatly increased the public programs offered - conferences, lectures, exhibitions, and most recently, a Speakers Bureau, through which schools, libraries, coin clubs and other organizations may request presentations by ANS staff members from a catalogue of topics offered. The "Coinage of the Americas Conference," held annually since 1984, has proven a valuable contribution to the study of Western Hemisphere numismatics and the resultant Proceedings volumes rapidly take their place among the cited literature. Later, the society began a series of cosponsored conferences (the first a joint venture with the Smithsonian Institution in 1992), to be held at cities distant from the Society's headquarters and designed to engage a broad audience on the contributions of numismatics to the humanities. As the ANS moved toward the 21st century, its Long-Range Planning Committee recognized the need for complete computerization to maximize all institutional functions - administrative, curatorial, educational. An increased knowledge of and utilization of computer based tools was considered essential to the Society's ability to provide meaningful services to an enlarging audience within the constraints of existing resources and staff.
In 2003, the ANS Board of Trustees adopted the following mission statement:
The object and mission of the Society shall be the creation and maintenance of the preeminent national institution advancing the study and public appreciation of coins, currency, medals, orders and decorations, and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents and artifacts; by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection, museum, and library; by supporting scholarly research and publications; and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences.
In 2008 the Society moved into its new headquarters at Varick Street and Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.