Top 5 Famous Coin Collections of All Time

Museums and Private Collectors Assemble Vast Coin Collections

the Harry W. Bass Jr. collection at the American Numismatic Association headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
 American Numismatic Association

Some famous coin collections are housed in museums so that the public can enjoy these snapshots of history captured on metal discs. Individuals assemble other world-class coin collections and are rarely displayed in public. These top five coin collections of all time were selected not based on size or value, but for their impact on the world of coin collecting.

1. Eliasberg Collection

Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (1896-1976) was a Baltimore businessman who actively collected coins from the mid-1920s until the late 1970s. He made his reputation known in numismatics for being the only person ever to assemble a complete collection of circulating United States coins by date and mint mark. The Eliasberg Sets are registered with PCGS.

Eliasberg did not differentiate between business strikes and Proof strikes, nor did he collect mint errors and die varieties. The goal of his coin collection was to collect one of every type of United States coin intended for general circulation by date and mint. He also collected subtypes such as the 1873 Liberty seated dime. One subtype head arrows next to the date and the other one did not.

The only coin that he did not have in his famous coin collection was the 1849 Double Eagle. There is only one of these known, and it is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Since this unique specimen was produced in the year before the coin officially went into production in 1850, most numismatists consider this a pattern coin and not a coin that was ever intended to circulate in American commerce.

Eliasberg spared no expense to obtain all the significant rarities. His collection included a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the unique 1873-CC no-arrows Liberty Seated dime, an 1804 silver dollar, an 1870-S three dollar gold piece and a 1933 gold $20 Saint Gaudens Double Eagle. When he learned that the 1933 gold coin might have been obtained through illegal means, he voluntarily surrendered it to the government. Bowers & Ruddy auctioned the first part of Eliasberg's collection in 1982, the second set in 1996 and the remaining lots in 1997. The total realized across all three auctions was more than $57 million.

2. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. houses the National Numismatic Collection (NNC). The collection contains over one million coins, medals, decorations, and paper currency. This most diverse collection of numismatic items contains ancient coins, medieval coins, world coins, and the United States issued coins. The NCC was jumpstarted in 1923 when the United States Mint gave its collection of rarities to the Smithsonian for storage and display.

In addition to many world coinage rarities, the collection contains many U.S. rarities. Examples include a 1787 Ephraim Brasher half doubloon, the unique 1849 $20 Gold Double Eagle, two 1877 one dollar pattern pieces, all three types of 1804 silver dollars, two 1933 $20 gold Saint Gaudens Double Eagles and a 1913 Liberty Head nickel.

In 2004 the "History of Money and Metals" exhibit closed permanently. The museum opened "Stories on Money," a smaller and less comprehensive ongoing exhibition. The show focuses on monetary issues from the sixteenth century through today. The Smithsonian regularly rotates many of its numismatic rarities into the exhibit for public display.

3. ANA Money Museum

The American Numismatic Association, one of the largest coin collecting organizations in the world, is home to the prominent "Money Museum" at its Colorado Springs, Colorado headquarters. The museum houses over a quarter of a million objects that capture the history of numismatics.

Its main exhibit is the Harry W. Bass Collection that consists of some of the finest U.S. gold coins, pattern coins, and paper money. Visitors can view an interactive multimedia presentation that features every coin and paper currency in the Bass Collection. Additionally, you can see such rarities as an 1804 silver dollar and two 1913 Liberty Head nickels. Admission for ANA members is free, and nonmembers pay a nominal admission charge.

4. John J. Ford, Jr. Collection

Collector and coin dealer John J. Ford, Jr. was born in 1924 in Hollywood, California. He later moved to the Long Island, New York area with his parents where he got his first job in numismatics working as a delivery boy for coin dealer Harvey Stack.

Ford's impact on numismatics began in the 1950s when he started his coin dealing career by publishing catalogs that provided detailed descriptions of coins and their grades. Ford's famous coin collection included pioneer gold pieces, pattern coins, early American copper coins, Confederate currency, medals, and several rare and unique numismatic books. In 2003, his numismatics holdings were sold in a series of 21 auctions that spanned three years, totaled 10,885 lots and realized over $56 million.

5. King Farouk of Egypt

King Farouk I of Egypt (1920-1965) ruled Egypt from 1936 to 1952 when he was overthrown in the Egyptian Revolution and forced to abdicate. Farouk was known for his extravagant lifestyle and glorious spending sprees. His panache for spending large amounts of money helped him build one of the world's most extravagant coin collections.

In the 1940s American coin dealers would frequently travel to Egypt to sell him thousands of dollars worth of coins at a time. His collection included approximately 8,500 gold coins, two examples of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels and hundreds of U.S. pattern coins, some of which are unique. The most famous of his numismatic possessions was a complete set of $20 gold Saint Gaudens Double Eagles, including the rare 1933 issue.

When his collection was auctioned in the 1950s, the United States government requested that the 1933 gold double eagle be returned since it believed it was stolen because none were issued to the public. The coin suddenly disappeared. In 1996 the coin surfaced again when the United States government seized the coin from British coin dealer Stephen Fenton. After a long legal battle, Fenton and the United States government agreed to sell the coin at public auction and split the proceeds. If it wasn't for King Farouk's passion for coins, they would not be a 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle available to the public.

1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle - $20 U.S. Gold Coin
1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle - $20 U.S. Gold Coin. Wikimedia Commons

Sotheby's of London auctioned Farouk's numismatics holdings as the Palace Collections of Egypt in Cairo in February and March of 1954, Many of these pieces found their way into other famous coin collections such as The Harry W. Bass Collection, The Norweb Collection, and John J. Pittman's collection.