This sovereign was part of a bequest by James Smithson, a wealthy British chemist and mineralogist. When he died in 1829, he left everything to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. But, according to his will, if Dickinson died without leaving an heir, all of Smithson’s assets—worth 104,960 gold sovereigns—would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
In 1835, Dickinson died without heirs. Congress accepted the bequest in 1836 and the Smithsonian Institution was born, although the money wasn’t received until 1838.
Meanwhile, other developments were taking place. In 1837, King William IV died and his niece ascended to the throne: Queen Victoria. In 1838, when it came time to pass along Smithson’s fortune, the U.S. government demanded newly struck coins with the profile of the recently crowned queen.
But the coin’s journey wasn’t over. When Smithson’s gold reached our shores, the government melted down almost all of the coins (worth $508,318.46) and re-struck them as American 10 dollar gold coins, known as “Eagles” (hence a 20 dollar coin was called a “Double Eagle”). The 1838 sovereign shown above was one of two that were saved from being melted…