Hispanic Society to sell historic coin collection?

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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Comments

30 Oct 09
19:31 CET

MICHAEL EWBANK, LINCOLN

When the Heyes Foundation's Museum of the American Indian relocated some years ago, the original deed of grant precluded sale of said building by the Heyes Foundation, and it permitted living relatives of Archer M. Huntington to exercise "right of reentry," which enabled Boricua College to bid in auction to obtain said facility in order to expand its own facilities. However, the Board of the Hispanic Society outbid Boricua to preclude such. Is it possible that living relatives of Archer Huntington might have legal recourse to protest the sale of these collections by the present Hispanic Society board, which seemingly violates A. Huntington's expressed intent to maintain the them intact?

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

DONALD P. BROOKS, MURRELLS INLET, SC

As I weekly walk that special area in SC so loved by the Huntingtons I think of Archers love of Spain and his efforts to share such with others. So careful of those coins that he would not give the Numismatic Society custody of them "on indefinite loan" until all were properly cataloged. Does not sound like a desire to sell to the highest bidder. The details of his research and love of Spain just do not support the Hispanic Society's effort to sell. In early 1900's he was constructing the HS building yet chose to direct the coins to the Numismatic Society. That action along should have directed the court in a different finding. But, that's New York Courts.Famous for bad decisions. Another reason why this is now my home and not the Empire State. At 83 Archer walked up three flights of stairs to see his coins and the impressive way they were preserved at the NS. Doesn't sound like a desire to sell or send over to the HS. NY lawyers at work again. Judges who look only at detail not logic nor a persons lifes work to establish a decision. They destroy a piece of real history and don't even see it. No longer can I direct my visitors to the HS with the same vigor as in the past.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

TIM WELO, NEW YORK

From this article it appears that the wishes of the donor, Archer Huntington, may be being ignored. The lesson here is that donors should be specific with their gifts. In this case he could have stipulated that the coins and medals, should they no longer be wanted by the Hispanic Society, be gifted to another institution and not sold, nor never sold.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

LYNN ROBERTS, UPPER MARLBORO

Frankly, I suspect Archer Huntington would have been aghast at the transfer of his very complete "Hispanic" numismatic collection to another institution half a century ago...! His wish was to make available the great richness and diversity of artistic and cultural production within HIS interest area so that others might learn. Too many cultural institutions in this country are being victimized on both sides of the table: some, by undereducated directors/ administrators who don't comprehend the big picture or are ineffectual in articulating why materials belong in their collections; meanwhile, as in this instance, knowledgeable professionals are ignored by "suits" who are unwilling to expend time and energy to raise funds to serve and protect and interpret the collections. Boards shouldn't be allowed to hijack institutions--there should be a higher standard. Certainly museums have to operate with the most up-to-date business standards and systems, and be treated in a business-like way. But an institution's collections, no matter how arcane or specialized, or currently out-of-fashion, are not profit centers or popularity contests and shouldn't be thought of as such. Where is the AAM and AAMD in all of this? Where is leadership? Senator Moynahan--Sidney Yates--please come back! Everyone seems to have forgotten what "the public trust" means in the legal sense in regard to 501-(C)-(3) educational institutions in the U.S. After the debacle at The Smithsonian Institution in recent times, have the rest of us learned anything?? There's the continuing ill-conceived de-accessioning of high-value, remarkable works by some institutions--well-loved icons once IN "the public trust" which were diverted to endowments because boards were too lazy or unwilling to do their work of raising funds. A few spoke out, but who listened--much less attempted to try to do something substantive.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

A. PETER WEISS, M.D., PROVIDENCE, RI

The actions (certainly transparent) by both the Hispanic Society and Sotheby's in regards to selling this irreplaceable cultural collection of historical coins related to Spanish history given by a sensitive US citizen for the public and scholarly use long term is truly despicable. It is quite clear that the intentions of the Hispanic Society are not noble and based solely on greed. This type of asset for the US academic community and public can never be replaced. The arguments of context of cultural property are so powerful in this matter that to see the collection broken up and distributed is a sad remark on what a non-profit organization should stand for. Even if the Spanish government buys the collection intact, the issue of transferring legally acquired cultural material from the shores of the USA forever, is problematic. Is this country just going to continue to sell all our cultural assets and material abroad? We could learn some lessons from the British, Austrians, Germans and French in this regard.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

TIM WELO, NEW YORK

I am a member of the ANS and, just this past week, made a visit to the Hispanic Society Museum so a very pertinent article for me. I do question if this action reflects the wished of the original donor - Archer Huntington. As I understand it, he wanted nothing sold and yet it appears that some sales have happened and this future sale will take place as well. I think this ia a great lesson to anyone that gifts materials to museums, institutions or societies. I would suggest to anyone gifting that their deed of gift be very specific. Any future gifts I am comtemplating will be made the with the proviso that should the recipient instution no longer deem the items pertinent they may only gift them to another instition. I would also stipulate that my gifts were for the enjoyment of the public and NEVER to be sold. Again, a great lesson learned.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

NUMISMATIST, ZURICH

The decision of the trustees of the Hispanic Society to remove 38,000 coins from the care of the American Numismatic Society, and disperse them through public sale, is a total betrayal of the intentions of the Society's founder, Archer Huntington. While the Roman gold coins, small in number but surely the most valuable part of the collection, come from well-published series and are of lesser interest,the thousands upon thousands of ancient, medieval and modern Spanish coins are an unparalleled resource for scholars and everyone interested in the coinage of Spain. In addition, given the fact that the staff of the ANS has spent 50 years cataloguing and ordering these coins, the decision of the NY court to turn over these records to Sotheby's in order to facilitate their sales catalogue is a crime in itself. Have the New York authorities in charge of charitable institutions given their ok to this deaccession? Can the trustees of the Hispanic Society rationally explain their actions, so much against the spirit of the society's founder's wishes? There is a mystery here.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET

ADRIAN DUNEVEIN, BURLINGTON

It sounds like the ANS has been hoodwinked in this situation and now has to comply with the letter of the law. The kicker has to be the handover of the catalogue which ought to have been used by ANS lawyers in proof of ownership. Is it not enough that the Hispanic society has the coins ?

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