The Garrett Collection

by Max B. Spiegel

To many people, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) invokes images of famous doctors and important medical discoveries. Although the university is now trying to distance itself from being known solely as a medical school, there is something else that JHU should be known for—at least in numismatic circles. On June 26, 1942, John W. Garrett (Fig. 1), grandson of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad president, John Work Garrett (Fig. 6), who had been a close friend of Johns Hopkins (Fig. 5), died and left the university his thirty-six-acre estate Evergreen (Figs. 2, 3), a library (Fig. 4) of forty thousand volumes (including 7,800 rare books) assembled over four generations of Garretts, and important collections of maps, Oriental ceramics, and, finally, coins.

Fig. 1. John W. Garrett. (Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, Special Collections, The Johns Hopkins University)

Fig. 2. The front of Evergreen House, c. 1930. (David and Susan Tripp)

Fig. 3. The front hall of Evergreen House as it looked during T. Harrison Garrett’s lifetime (before 1888). It was T. Harrison Garrett who started the family’s collection(s). (David and Susan Tripp)

Fig. 4. John Work Garrett’s library at Evergreen, c. 1930. Built after designs by Laurence Hall Fowler for Garrett in 1928. Prior to its construction, a special vault for Garrett’s coins was sunk into the ground, and the library built on top. A special dumbwaiter to bring the coin cabinets up to the library was part of the design. (David and Susan Tripp)

Fig. 5. Johns Hopkins.

Born on May 19, 1795, the son of Quakers, Johns Hopkins (Fig. 5)—his unusual first name came from his great-grandmother’s maiden name—was forced to study at night and work on the family farm during the day, after his family had freed their slaves because they felt that human slavery was inconsistent with their faith. When Hopkins was nineteen, he moved to Baltimore to work for his uncle’s wholesale grocery business, where he was determined to become wealthy. In the end, he did amass a large fortune, mainly through two ventures. The first was by buying old properties in the upper harbor of Baltimore and replacing them with modern buildings. The second, and perhaps more important, was his large investments in the B&O Railroad at a time when most other investors thought the railroad was too dangerous to be feasible.

Hopkins became involved in the management of the B&O Railroad and in 1847 was made a director. In 1857, a neighbor of Hopkins, John Work Garrett (Fig. 6), was also made a director. At a dinner held a year later at Hopkins’ estate, Garrett was chosen to be president of the company. The two quickly became good friends, and when in 1867 Hopkins created two boards of trustees—one to administer the establishment of a university, the other to oversee the creation of a hospital—Garrett was chosen to be on both. A great philanthropist, Hopkins donated much of his enormous wealth to build improvements around Baltimore, including the university and hospital, which were later combined and today still bear his name. When he died in December 1873, the directors of the First National Bank of Baltimore wrote that they “deplore the loss of a man who has contributed more largely than any one other individual to the welfare and prosperity of our City.”

Fig. 6. John W. Garrett, John Work Garrett’s grandfather.

Hopkins’ friend John Garrett was a natural choice to serve as a trustee of the university and hospital. His interest and management in the B&O Railroad aside, he had early in life worked with his father, Robert, a merchant who had a business that competed with Hopkins’ uncle’s business. After JHU opened in 1876, with its first president being inaugurated in February of that year, Garrett remained on the board of trustees—despite strongly disagreeing with some of the other members about policy—until his death on September 26, 1884. In that same year, the university opened an archaeological museum with the purchase of a collection of Egyptian antiquities. This museum was enhanced in 1888 by a gift from thirteen friends of the university—including Garrett’s son, T. Harrison—of the German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig’s collection of Greek and Roman coins. The nascent JHU numismatic collection was further augmented in 1908 and 1909, with the gift of three thousand Roman coins from William H. Buckler. Two years later, Edgar G. Miller bequeathed his collection of coins to the museum. There was very little space set aside for the archaeological museum, and other than a room in Gilman Hall devoted to it, the majority of the collection was stored in the library and in display cases in the reading rooms.

Although it was John W. Garrett who obtained the riches that were used to pay for the family’s various collections, it was his son, T. Harrison Garrett, who started the family’s numismatics collection. While a student at Princeton in the mid-1860s, T. Harrison began collecting coins after seeing a New Jersey copper cent from the 1780s. His sons, John Work (not to be confused with his grandfather) and Robert, helped him expand the collection. T. Harrison had other collections as well, including manuscripts and autographs (his goal was to assemble a set of autographs of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence), prints, and Chinese and Japanese art, but the numismatic collection remains one of the most spectacular ever assembled. An idea of the extent of the collection can be found in the many volumes of the sales catalogues produced by Stack’s, Bowers and Ruddy, and Numismatic Fine Arts, as well as Q. David Bowers’ A History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection, which were all produced when parts of the collection were sold (Fig. 7) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fig. 7. Catalogues from the Garrett sale and Q. David Bowers’ The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection.

John was born in 1872, and Robert, three years later. While still in their teens, their father died in 1888 at the age of thirty-eight. Continuing the family tradition, they both enrolled in Princeton University. After graduating, John spent four years traveling around the United States, finally “settling down” in 1901 as secretary to the American Legation at the Hague. He spent the next twenty years as a diplomat, but following an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1922, he retired to Evergreen, which he had inherited from his mother in 1920. Although he was called upon by President Herbert Hoover to be ambassador to Italy from 1929 to 1934 (Fig. 8), John was able to concentrate on making his home a place for musical and intellectual gatherings.

Fig. 8. John Work Garrett, c. 1930 (when he was Amercian Ambassador to Italy), outside the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto. (David and Susan Tripp)

Meanwhile, Robert became a successful track-and-field athlete. Captain of the Princeton team in both his junior and senior years, Robert threw shot and jumped. In 1896, when a U.S. delegation was hastily put together to compete in the first modern Olympic Games, Robert and three of his classmates (whose travel had been paid for by Garrett) traveled to Athens and won multiple medals (Figs. 9, 10). Robert decided that he would throw the discus in addition to his usual events, despite not having seen one before. Although the first two attempts were clumsy, his final throw sailed 29.15 meters, good enough for a first-place (later the “gold”) medal (Fig. 11). In addition to this medal, Robert received first place in the shot put and second place in both the high jump and long jump. At the 1900 Olympics, he won third place in the shot put and triple jump, but did not throw discus because the event was scheduled on a Sunday, which would have interfered with his religious observations. After his athletic career ended, Robert became a banker and supporter of science, history, archaeology, and physical education. He continued to collect, his main interest being medieval and Renaissance Arabic manuscripts. In 1904, as his athletic career was winding down, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed the Robert Garrett & Sons building, in whose vault the family coin collection was normally kept. Luckily, Robert Garrett had lent the vast majority of the collection to Princeton University just a few weeks earlier. Left behind were many of the archives and the collection of British medals and seventeenth-century tokens. The melted medals were saved, however, and sold to his brother, John, along with the rest of the coin collection, in 1919, following the death of their mother.

Fig. 9. The Princeton squad at the 1896 Olympics. Robert Garrett is third from left, holding the shot put.

Fig. 10. Robert Garrett with discus at the 1896 Olympics.

Fig. 11. First-place winner’s medal from the 1896 Olympics by Jules-Clément Chaplain; struck silver. (Harmer Johnson collection)

Shortly after receiving the collection from his brother, John applied for membership to the American Numismatic Society and was unanimously elected on January 5, 1920. During the next decade, he purchased many rarities (the U.S. coins are treated in depth by Bowers in A History of American Coinage). In time, Garrett became quite close with many of the Society’s officers and curators, particularly Sydney P. Noe, Howland Wood, and Edward T. Newell. These men helped him build his library (including selling him books) and lent him coins from the Society’s collection to help him catalog his own. They also advised him on purchases, served as intermediaries, and helped him identify coins. When Garrett could not complete his colonial coin collection, his friends at the ANS provided him with casts of coins from the collection. In 1921, Garrett was elected a Fellow of the society, and became a member of the Council (now the Board of Trustees), on which he served until 1929.

Besides providing volunteer services to the ANS, Garrett also made many donations, including various sets of medals (Fig. 12). In addition to making cash donations for specific purchases, mainly for the acquisition of Indian Peace Medals, he also contributed to the general fund, particularly during the 1920s, when the Society was having financial troubles. As a Christmas present to the ANS in 1925, Garrett let Howland Wood pick whatever he wanted for the Society’s collection from the stock of dealer Wayte Raymond; in 1928, he allowed the ANS to pick some of his duplicates. The next year, he donated the British tokens and medals that had melted in the fire at the family business, in the hopes that the ANS would be able to conserve them (Figs. 13, 14). Edward T. Newell of the ANS wrote back on April 6 of that year: “You will doubtless be pleased to learn that some of the medals from the Baltimore fire, which you so generously gave us, have been turned over to Prof. Campbell for cleaning by the electrotype process and, so far, the results have been excellent.” He later donated many plaster casts of coins in his collection to the ANS.

Fig. 12. Wooden cabinet containing fifty-six medals by Dassier illustrating Roman history (ANS 1925.164.1, gift of John W. Garrett).

Fig. 13. France. 1774 Peace Medal by J. du Vivier and F. Marteau; struck silver (ANS 1925.109.1, gift of John W. Garrett), 55 mm.

Fig. 14. Peace medals fused and partially destroyed in the Baltimore Fire (ANS 1923.154.1, gift of John W. Garrett).

Garrett also provided the ANS with research assistance. The ANS often put numismatic authors in contact with Garrett so that he could offer photographs of pieces from his collection (mainly ancient Greek and Roman coins) to be published. He also helped fund the excavations of David Moore Robinson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who helped authenticate and appraise Garrett’s ancient coin collection. Garrett sometimes sent the ANS coins from his collection for study, and he told curators when he came across something of interest, including a rumor that the Hermitage was quietly liquidating its collection. Edward T. Newell’s response on June 20, 1931, gives insight into the universal troubles caused by the Great Depression. He wrote: “The only trouble is that the present financial conditions have somewhat affected my own numismatic purchase fund and I notice that the members of our Society also do not rush in these days to subscribe to our purchase funds. If as many of their investments have defaulted as in my own case I certainly do not blame them!” The Great Depression affected Garrett as well: his donations—and acquisitions for his own collection—slowed dramatically.

On June 26, 1942, John Work Garrett died and left Evergreen and all of his collections to Johns Hopkins University, which had played an important role in his family’s cultural and social life for two generations. That same year, Robert Garrett gave his manuscript collection to Princeton University. Shortly after John died, the family’s coin collection was delivered to the university’s library. In 1944, Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Freeman was hired as Curator of the Fine Arts and Numismatic Collections by University President Isaiah Bowman. Using Garrett’s notes, Freeman was able to catalog the medals and the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Barbarian coins. She was also able to catalog the ancient and foreign coins that the university had acquired prior to the Garrett collection. When Garrett’s wife died, Evergreen was opened as a museum and rare-book library, and Freeman continued to work from her new office inside the museum/house. While assisting numismatic researchers with questions relating to the collection, Freeman was able to finish several articles and a book, Medals Relating to Medicine and Allied Sciences in the Numismatic Collection of the Johns Hopkins University (1964). In 1972, Freeman retired and was succeeded by Susan Grewe Tripp, who remained Keeper of Coins and Director of Johns Hopkins University Collections until 1991 and who now serves as an ANS Trustee.

For security reasons, the university chose to keep the collection in a bank rather than on campus. In the 1970s, the trustees of the university decided that keeping them there was not aiding research. They also felt that the assets locked up in the coins could be better used elsewhere. Thus in 1976 they commissioned Stack’s of New York City to auction many of the duplicates in the holdings. After the success of this auction, the university decided to liquidate all of the coins. Bowers and Ruddy of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, was chosen to sell the U.S. portion in a four-part series of auctions from 1979 to 1981. The U.S. auctions ended up grossing $25 million for Johns Hopkins University; in 1984, Numismatic Fine Arts of Beverly Hills, California, sold the ancient part of the collection, leaving the university with only the archives and the medical medals.

In early 2000, thanks to the efforts of David and Susan Tripp, the Garrett Numismatic Archives were donated to the ANS by Johns Hopkins University. The archives contain approximately one thousand letters between the Garretts and iconic numismatists and dealers of the day, including Henry and Samuel H. Chapman, Edward Marris, Lyman H. Low, Edouard Frossard, B. Max Mehl, Leonard Forrer, Wayte Raymond, Edward and George Cogan, George Massamore, and Jacques and Hans Schulman (Figs. 15, 17). These include a letter from Marris to T. Harrison Garrett, offering his entire collection of New Jersey coppers. Another interesting letter is from Low, offering his collection of Hard Times tokens to Garrett. There are also papers pertaining to Garrett’s relationship with the ANS, and the original collection notebooks kept by T. Harrison and John W. Garrett. John’s card catalog, which contains over three thousand handwritten cards covering all the series in the collection, includes detailed descriptions of the coins along with provenance and purchase price. Except for the small collection of medical medals still housed at Evergreen, the gift of these archives from Johns Hopkins University has ended their relationship to the Garrett numismatic collection but has created an opportunity for researchers to study the archives of one of America’s greatest collecting families.

Fig. 15. Letter from Henry Chapman to John Garrett, dated August 15, 1929, asking if he would care to purchase the Virgil Brand collection. (ANS collections)

Fig. 16. Letter from John Garrett to Wayte Raymond dated February 3, 1934, inquiring about the purchase of 1933 U.S. gold coins, “if it’s not against the law.” (ANS collections)

Fig. 17. Wayte Raymond’s reply to the previous letters stating that he knows 1933 gold coins were struck, but had not been able find any. (ANS collections)

Works Cited

Bowers, Q. David. The History of United States Coinage As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, 1979.

“The Evergreen House.” The Historic Houses of Johns Hopkins University. Online article available at:

French, John C. A History of the University Founded by Johns Hopkins. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Grattan, Joan. “Garrett (John Work) 1872-1942.” Special Collections, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, The Johns Hopkins University. March 1997.

Harding, Robert S. “John W. Garrett Collection, 1850-1880.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Technology, Invention, and Innovation Collections. Available online at:

Lorber, Catharine Custis. “The Garretts of Baltimore: Collectors and Patrons.” In The Garrett Collection, Part I. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Numismatic Fine Arts, Inc., May 16-18, 1984.

Milton S. Eisenhower Library. “A Brief History of the Homewood Campus: Its Buildings, Monuments, and Sculpture.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1991.

Samet, Vanessa J. “ANS Receives Garrett Archives.” Press Release. New York: American Numismatic Society. February 2, 2000. Tripp, Susan Grewe. Foreword to The Garrett Collection, Part I. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Numismatic Fine Arts, Inc., May 16-18, 1984.