The Making of Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars

by Oliver D. Hoover

As most readers will know, the American Numismatic Society maintains the largest collection of coins, currency, and medals (about 750,000 pieces) in North America. Because of the abundance of material in our cabinets it was at first a daunting task to reduce the list of items down to the 728 pieces now on display in Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. To decide on which pieces were to be displayed, we asked ourselves two key questions while looking through the trays: “Is the proposed item a truly beautiful specimen of its type?” and “Does it have an interesting story to tell?” The ANS is very fortunate in that it has a wealth of material that answers both of these questions with a resounding, “Yes!” However, while many attractive and rare items can be found in the trays, the true crème de la crème of the collection is kept in several bank vaults for security reasons. Therefore, early on in the development process we took several banking field trips to get a first hand look at the prizes of the ANS (e.g. both Athenian dekadrachms, the “standing caliph” dinar, the 1804 U.S. dollar, etc.) and to decide which of them deserved a place in the exhibit.

Needless to say it was quite exciting to see these items, some of which had been in the bank for a while. The perfectly preserved Greek and Roman gold coins and the wonderful medallion depicting Diocletian and his associated Tetrarchs, as well as the large collection of Italian Renaissance portrait gold issues would have impressed even the most callous observer. For a lover of coins and their history it was paradise. The collection of American rarities, including both the colonial and federal periods, was also amazing to see all together in the bank vault. There is definitely something to be said for the feeling that one has while holding the ANS specimen of the 1804 U.S. dollar in one hand and the Brasher doubloon in the other. We were very pleased to find at least one special bank item for almost every case, thereby providing a star around which the other coins might attractively orbit. It was with great pleasure that we were able to take these extremely beautiful and rarely seen coins out of the banks and put them on public display for all to enjoy.

As for any good museum show it was necessary to decide upon the best manner for organizing and displaying the objects, once they were chosen. A chronological approach seemed the most reasonable, in order to give the visitor a step-by-step introduction to the development of monetary use, production and art. Each display case was intended to reflect a particular epoch in the history of money, from the first Lydian electrum coins produced in the 7th century B.C. down to the credit and debit cards of the 21st century A.D. Because the use of coinage and other forms of money developed differently in various parts of the world we decided that it was important to include additional cases to focus on changes in the money of East and South Asia (Cases 5 and 11) and Africa (Case 10). We are particularly proud of the African case, which includes a number of large and well-preserved items used for exchange and displays of wealth. It was also decided that separate cases should be made for America (Cases 9, 13 and 15) and Europe (Cases 8,12 and 14) in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It only seemed fitting since the ANS and the FRB are both American institutions and coin collecting is a pastime enjoyed by many Americans.

In addition to the historical cases, it also seemed wise to include four additional special cases, devoted to other items from the ANS collection might be better appreciated outside of the chronological arrangement used for the rest of the exhibit. For example, a separate case (Case 20) has been provided to display a colorful range of paper money, including a number of rarities. Similarly, Case 16 has been set aside to showcase highlights in the development of the art medal, an art form closely related to coins. After all, support for the medallic arts has been an important feature of the American Numismatic Society since the 1890s. A third special case (Case 19) was required to give the visitor a brief tour of New York in the mid-19th century through the use of an antique map and a selection of tokens and paper notes produced by local businesses, some of which still exist today. The fourth unique case (Case 18) was reserved for the display of several rare and incredibly valuable “U.S. Treasures of the American Numismatic Society”, including a Brasher doubloon, a 1804 U.S. dollar, the Confederate half-dollar and an ultra-high relief St. Gaudens double eagle.

Once the basic organization of the cases was decided upon it was time to call in the professional designers. Their aesthetic skills allowed us to display the coins and medals at their very best, and to present the descriptive text in a manner that would most easily guide the visitor through the history of monetary development. We were very fortunate to work with some of the best designers in the museum business, and the fruits of their labors as well as ours can be seen throughout the exhibition.

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars was a learning experience for all staff members involved in its development. Although each of us has our own special area of expertise and knowledge, this project required us to stretch and expand our horizons. Those of us who normally work on ancient coins learned to appreciate and enjoy the modern, while those of us who deal with more recent material, whether of the Islamic dynasties, the American colonies, or modern medallists, also gained new insight by looking at what had come before. It is our hope that, along with the thrill of having seen some of the most beautiful and valuable coins on public display in North America, visitors to the exhibit will come away with some new understanding of money, the powerful, yet mysterious, force that affects our lives on a daily basis.