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November 25, 09

NEWS / Smithsonian Rare Russian Coin Collection Seeks Exhibition Sponsor

Extremely rare coins chronicle history of Russian empire

By Jonathan Schaffer
Staff Writer

Washington — On the fourth-floor offices of the National Museum of American History, a place few people ever get to visit, is a collection of more than 14,000 Russian coins and medals dating back 1,000 years. The collection, rivaled only by the coin collection in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is so extraordinary that many of these objects cannot be found in any other private or public collection worldwide. And the collection’s journey to the United States is a story filled with
intrigue and mystery.

The Smithsonian Institution wants to share this story with audiences worldwide, but putting together a traveling exhibition faces a few major hurdles. The Smithsonian isn’t allocated government funds for overseas exhibitions, and museum officials say they need a sponsor to help defray the cost of developing the exhibits and providing security, which could run upwards of $2 million. The institution says it is ready to collaborate with its museum counterparts in Russia and Eastern Europe to make its hope a reality — if not an actual exhibition, at least a virtual one that highlights the best of the collections at the Smithsonian and the Hermitage.

On a recent visit to the museum, Smithsonian officials outlined
how the collection chronicles the history of Russia, from the early principalities which made it, up to the time of Peter the Great, and on to the 20th century and beyond.

Most of the collection was donated in the 1950s to the Smithsonian by Willis du Pont, the youngest of 10 children born to Lammot du Pont, the former head of DuPont Company and one of the heirs to a vast fortune. But this is just the end of the story.

The tale begins in the late 1800s with Russian Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich, who was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and executed by firing squad in 1919 at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Mikhailovich was a nephew of Tsar Alexander II and first cousin of Tsar Alexander III.

In 1895, the grand duke, who was an avid coin collector, was appointed director of the newly founded Alexander III Museum. He devoted much of his time and resources to increasing the museum’s numismatic collection, to which he donated his own collection of rare and outstanding pieces in 1909.

According to Smithsonian officials, during World War I, Mikhailovich was concerned about the safety of the collection and had it stored in five large crates at the State Loan Bank in St. Petersburg for safekeeping. During the Russian Revolution, the crates were moved out of the bank, and this is where the story gets murky.

Some believe that the crates were moved to Moscow, while others believe they were moved elsewhere. Smithsonian officials say that four of the five crates ended up in southern Russia, from where they were sent to Yugoslavia in 1919. A suit was filed in Yugoslav courts by the grand duke’s wife, Maria Georgievna, to obtain possession of the coins, and a countersuit was filed by the Bolshevik government. The court awarded the collection to the grand duchess, who moved it to Rome.

Plans had been made by the grand duchess to sell the coins in an October 1939 auction in Switzerland, but the auction was canceled with the outbreak of World War II. When she died, ownership of the coins passed to her daughters. In 1950, the collection’s gold and platinum coins were sold by Christie’s auction house in England. One of the daughters married an American and the collection’s silver and copper coins were moved to the United States. Sol Kaplan, a New York coin dealer, convinced Willis du Pont to buy what remained of the collection and give it to the Smithsonian. Du Pont also instructed Kaplan to go into the open market and buy back some of the gold and platinum coins, Smithsonian officials say.

Among the collection’s treasures are early ingots dating back nearly 1,000 years, a unique 1710 “denga” copper coin, a 1704 ruble struck over a British crown minted 40 years earlier, a beautiful one and one-half ruble coin depicting the wife and children of Tsar Nicholas I and a piece called the Constantine ruble of 1825 that brings with it an interesting story of its own.

The Constantine ruble bears a depiction of Constantine Pavlovitch, the governor of Poland and the brother of Alexander I. The St. Petersburg mint started production of rubles after Alexander’s death when Constantine was expected to succeed as tsar. But Constantine didn’t want the title and his younger brother was proclaimed tsar instead. The coins could not be issued, their existence forgotten for half a century. Today, only five are known to exist.

The ruble has been the unit of currency in Russia since the early 18th century, when the name first appeared on a coin — a double-headed eagle on one side and the tsar riding a horse on the other. The double eagle, a design borrowed from the earlier Byzantine Empire, appears on Russian coins today. The name “ruble,” which dates from the 14th century, comes from the Russian verb “to chop” and was used to describe a measured piece of silver chopped off from a bar. In the early 18th century, Peter the Great adopted the decimal system and the ruble was divided into 100 kopeks. The first silver ruble coin was minted in 1704.

The Smithsonian collection also includes beard tokens of 1705, issued at the time when Peter had ordered the boyars (Russian nobility) and commoners to shave their traditional beards as part of his program to modernize Russia. If they wished to keep their beards, they had to pay a tax. For nobility and merchants, the tax could be as high as 100 rubles annually; for commoners it was much lower — as little as 1 kopek. Those paying the tax were given a token, silver for nobility and copper for commoners. Tokens have different inscriptions, some stating that “the beard tax has been taken” and others that “the money has been taken.” The tax was strongly opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church and led to several citizen revolts.

Visitors to the collection will also see 3, 6 and 12 ruble platinum coins. Russia was the first country to strike coins in platinum, which is a far more difficult metal to work with than silver or gold. These coins date from between 1828 and 1845. Platinum is now used by only a few countries — usually not for general circulation coins.

Coinage also was used to reflect economic and political realities. During the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855), a one and one-half ruble/10 zloty coin was inscribed in Russian and Polish to reflect the close monetary and economic union between the two governments. Polish lands were shared by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Russia struck coinage for its Polish domains whose values were expressed in the monetary systems of both Russia and Poland.

This rich history and much more are preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection, which consists of 1.6 million coins, tokens, medals and other numismatic objects. By working with Russian counterparts, the museum staff hopes to share the Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich collection with audiences worldwide.




AnnaMaria Realbuto
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