Hispanic Society to sell historic coin collection?
By Jason Edward Kaufman. Published online: 02 September 2008
NEW YORK. The Hispanic Society of America has recalled 38,000 coins from the American Numismatic Society (ANS) which have been on loan for more than half a century—and appears to be preparing to sell them.
The valuable collection consists of coins minted in Spain, its dependencies, and the powers that controlled Spain from the 5th century BC until the 20th century. They were deposited at ANS by the organisation’s president and patron Archer Huntington (1870-1955), who was also founder of the Hispanic Society. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, executive director of ANS, estimates that the collection may be worth $30m-$40m, with the Roman gold and silver and a rare 50 excelentes of Ferdinand V and Isabella—the world’s largest struck-gold coin—alone worth perhaps $15m—$20m. Sotheby’s and the London-based coin firm Morton & Eden began creating an inventory and appraising the Roman, Visigoth and Islamic gold coins last month.
A Hispanic Society spokesman says that the trustees “have decided to explore a deaccession [but] no decision has been made on going forward”. But The Art Newspaper has seen a copy of a letter that the Hispanic Society’s director Mitchell Codding sent to Ms Kagan on 25 January 2008 in which he informs her that “the board of trustees adopted a resolution to deaccession the loan collection” with the assistance of Sotheby’s International.
Ms Kagan believes that Huntington intended that the coins remain with the Numismatic Society, and that selling an irreplaceable body of material integrally connected to the Hispanic Society s mission should not be allowed.
Huntington, heir to a vast railroad fortune, amassed the collection before he was 35 and kept it at the Hispanic Society, which houses one of the greatest collections of art and books related to Spain. In the mid-1940s he placed more than 30,000 coins on indefinite loan to ANS, of which he was then president, and hired a curator to study and publish them. (Additional items were transferred after his death.)
Title to the coins became an issue in early 2007 when the Hispanic Society drew up a “modern” loan agreement. “We signed it in April 2007 and in July received a letter cancelling it and saying we want our coins back,” says Ms Kagan, calling the revised document a “set-up” intended to eliminate any questions of ownership related to the original informal deed of loan. In February 2008, two weeks after the loan expired, the Hispanic Society filed a lawsuit in Supreme Court of New York County demanding the return of the coins, and in April won a judgement that the Hispanic Society alone owned the coins and that ANS must return them.
Sotheby’s vice-chairman David Redden helped convince the judge that ANS should make available not only the photographic record that Huntington provided for most of the coins, but also the computer database that ANS subsequently created. “We were told to hand over the entire record and that we had no copyright on this material. We basically gave them a sales catalogue as well as the coins,” Ms Kagan says.
“We will submit a formal letter to the New York attorney general objecting to the sale,” she says, referring to the state official who oversees charities. “We want to point out the violation of Huntington’s very clear intent that nothing would be sold,” she says. The Hispanic spokesman maintains that any sale “would be done with full transparency and in compliance with the rules of the American Association of Museums and applicable laws of the State of New York”.
In recent years the Hispanic Society board altered the founder’s restrictions on sales and deaccessioned a number of valuable objects deemed outside the institution’s Spain-related mission: a 13th-century French ivory Madonna was bought by the Metropolitan Museum in 1999, and two Qurans brought more than $4m at Christie’s London last October, with one dated 1203 selling for $2.32m to a British dealer, a record for a Quran and an Islamic manuscript. But it remains to be seen how the society could justify selling material so integral to its Hispanic collection and identity.
The fear among scholars is that the historic Huntington collection will be broken up. Ms Kagan says ANS donors would not be able raise the funds to buy it, though she would particularly like to acquire the antique items that today cannot be obtained legally because of restrictive patrimony laws.
Some insiders believe the Spanish government may be interested in purchasing the collection en bloc. The Hispanic Society has cultivated close relations with Spain, and sought the government’s financial assistance to move the museum and its holdings from upper Manhattan to a more accessible location in the city centre, but that support never materialised and last year the relocation was abandoned. “We just want to preserve what can be preserved,” she says, “but I am pessimistic.”
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