It is hard for most museums and institutions to maintain and care for coin collections, and the sale of numismatic holdings provides a tempting avenue for an institution to raise cash.
Coins occupy an odd place in most museums. They are small, easy to steal and hard to display. Even numismatic museums have problems. In the late 1940s, the man who literally wrote the book on early large cents — William H. Sheldon — substituted lesser quality coins while working with the American Numismatic Society’s collection of large cents. The recovery effort continues today. More recently the American Numismatic Association has been dealing with the theft of nearly $1 million in coins from its museum, stolen by a former employee in 2007.
The Hispanic Society of America recently sold its collection of nearly 38,000 rare coins in a sealed-bid sale after failing to find an institution that would purchase the collection as a whole. The set sold to a bidder thought to represent a consortium of dealers for an amount that is reported to exceed $25 million.
The executive director of the Hispanic Society of America, Mitchell A. Codding, stated in a Sotheby’s press release, “Proceeds from the sale will allow us to continue to grow our extensive collection of important Spanish and Latin American paintings, sculpture and decorative arts in keeping with our mission to promote the study and appreciation of the arts and literature of the Hispanic world.” He has stated that the coins were never formally accessioned into the Hispanic Society’s collection.
The ANS housed the collection for more than 50 years and published extensively on it. It will receive 10,000 of the coins from the former Hispanic Society collection as an extended loan from an American collector. Thanks to this collector, the ANS will continue to have one of the world’s premier collections of ancient coins from the Iberian Peninsula.
Yet, it has to sting a bit for the ANS that its work on the collection was used as a marketing tool by Sotheby’s as other coins from the Hispanic Society are starting to make their way to the auction block.
In choosing to sell the coins rather than work out an arrangement to donate or sell at a below-market value to the ANS, the Hispanic Society effectively looked at its collection as a cash register. Further, the sale may have been a breach of donor Archer Huntington’s intent when he gave the coins to the Hispanic Society.
However, the New York attorney general’s office did not step in to stop the sale nor did the Hispanic Society get a judge’s ruling to clarify the terms of the Huntington gift. The ANS did contest the sale of the collection in court, but ultimately lost.
Coin collections at non-numismatic museums have often suffered undignified fates. In the 1970s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art underwent an aggressive deaccessioning policy under the leadership of then-director Thomas Hoving. Many of its Greek and Roman coins were sold at auction to finance the purchase of a painted sixth century B.C. red-figure Greek krater in 1972. Twenty years later, Hoving admitted knowing that the provenance of the krater was misrepresented at the time of purchase and the “hot pot” was returned to Italy. So, the Met lost many of its ancient coins and the object that replaced them.
In the past several years, the ANS has also deaccessioned parts of its collection including die duplicates of some ancient Greek coins and non-American orders and decorations. As a result, the ANS has raised millions of dollars for its acquisition funds, which have been and will be used to purchase more coins, consistent with its mission.
One hopes the future stewards of the Hispanic Society’s coins will continue the tradition of scholarship started by the ANS.