The origins of the National Numismatic Collection date back to the early years of the Smithsonian Institution. When James Smithson died, among his personal effects were several coins and medals, including one with his likeness.
In 1862, the National Institute began sending its numismatic collection to the Institution. The Smithsonian also acquired numismatic objects from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. George Brown Goode, Assistant Secretary in charge of United States National Museum (USNM) and an avid collector of coins and medals, promoted the early growth of numismatic holdings at the Smithsonian. In 1881, he organized the numismatic objects as a Section in the Department of Arts and Industries, Division of Anthropology. By 1886 the Section had been eliminated and its objects assigned to the custody of A. Howard Clark, Curator of the Section of Historical Relics. They then fell under its successors: the Section of Historical Collections, Department of Arts and Industries, 1889-1897, the Division of History and Biography, Department of Anthropology, 1897-1904, and the Division of History, 1904-1948. Between 1897 and 1947, numerous collections were received, such as the George Bunker Glover bequest of Far Eastern coins and the United States Mint Collection.
In 1947, the Section of Numismatics was created in the Division of History, and the next year, the Section was given divisional status in the new Department of History. That same year Stuart M. Mosher succeeded the retiring Curator in charge, Theodore T. Belote, as Associate Curator of the Division of Numismatics, a position he held until his death in 1956. Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli became Curator at that time, and, shortly after his appointment, Elvira Eliza Clain-Stefanelli, joined the Division as Assistant Curator.
As a result of museum reorganizations, the Division of Numismatics was affiliated with the Departments of Civil History, 1957-1968, Applied Arts, 1969-1977, and National History, 1978-1979. In 1980, the Division was organized as the National Numismatic Collection in the National Museum of American History (NMAH), reporting to the Director. In 1981, the Clain-Stefanellis were made Historians of the National Numismatic Collection, followed by the 1984 appointment of Cora Lee C. Gillilland as Curator. Important acquisitions included the Willis H. DuPont Collection of Russian coins and the Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., Collection of gold coins ranging from ancient to modern times.
The National Numismatic Collection researches the history of numismatics worldwide, beginning with the earliest types of money, with the primary goal of presenting social, economic, and political history through money; the organization of monetary systems; the effect of money on events in history; and the value of the figurative language of coins and paper currency as witness to the art and culture of a society. The National Numismatic Collection primarily collects ancient and contemporary coinage, paper currency, medals and decorations, financial documents, minting equipment, and tokens.
Curators and staff included Theodore T. Belote, Curator in charge of numismatic collections, 1919-1948; Stuart M. Mosher, Associate Curator of Numismatics, 1948-1956; Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli, Curator of the Division of Numismatics, 1956-1979, Curator, 1980, and Historian, 1981-1982, of the National Numismatic Collection; Elvira Eliza Clain-Stefanelli, Assistant Curator, 1957-1961, Associate Curator, 1961-1968, Curator, 1969-1979, of Numismatics, and Curator, 1980, and Historian, 1981-1985, of the National Numismatic Collection; and Cora Lee C. Gillilland, Curator of the National Numismatic Collection, 1984- .