Coin theft an expensive security wake-up call for the ANA

Published : 01/18/12
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How does one person steal at least 338 rare and historic coins from a museum vault in 73 days? (That’s an average of more than four per day, counting weekends and holidays.)

The question has yet to be answered.

American Numismatic Association and law enforcement officials revealed Jan. 12 that Wyatt E. Yeager, a former collections manager at the American Numismatic Association’s numismatic museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., had that day entered a guilty plea in Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del., to the theft of historically significant and rare coins and patterns valued at nearly $1 million.

Yeager is now 33 years old.

On Jan. 8, 2007, the ANA announced Yeager had joined its staff and as collections manager would be cataloging and coordinating holdings and new acquisitions of the Edward C. Rochette Money Museum. The ANA press release also noted that he would co-instruct “Numismatics for the Museum Professional” and lead two mini-seminars on coin care, preservation and conservation at the ANA’s 39th Annual Summer Seminar.

So far as we are aware, Yeager never got around to teaching. He abruptly quit his job at the ANA on March 21, 2007.

From the bill of information released by federal prosecutors we learn that Yeager lost little time in cashing in on his crime spree. He consigned some of the stolen coins for sale at three successive public numismatic auctions — in Baltimore in May, St. Louis in June, and Melbourne, Australia, in July — before the ANA staff and leaders were even aware coins were missing from ANA vaults.

According to ANA officials, members of the museum staff did not report discovery of missing items until October 2007.

Yeager’s obvious audacity in brazenly selling the coins right under the noses, so to speak, of ANA staff and elected leaders provides some clues to beginning to answer our initial question. He apparently quickly surmised that the ANA really did not know what was in its numismatic collection. At that time, the ANA had never completely inventoried all of the coins, paper money and other numismatic objects in its collection, nor did it have photographic records of all of its holdings.

He gained the staff’s trust with his impressive credentials. The press release announcing his arrival at ANA noted that he was a former conservation laboratory director for Odyssey Marine Exploration in Tampa, Fla. It also touted his academic background: a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archaeology from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in museum science from the University of Leicester in England. The press released also cited his work with metal weaponry at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, Calif., and conservation of cupreous metals at the National Museum of Ireland and coins salvaged from the SS Republic.

Curiously, what the press release did not mention was that from 2004 to 2006 his biography states that he also served as “Chief Archaeological Conservator” for Numismatic Guaranty Corp., the ANA’s official grading service of choice.

After the ANA realized that a large number of coins may be missing from its museum collection, it finally (in 2010) allocated the staff time and resources to conduct a full inventory and cataloged the entire collection plus established a current market value for its holdings.

According to ANA President Tom Hallenbeck, the ANA has also beefed up its museum and vault security, adding cameras. He also says the ANA is reviewing its access protocols.

While such measures are steps in the right direction, the ANA needs to also devote the resources to digitally photograph all of its numismatic holdings and publish at least its most significant holdings online to increase public awareness. Also, ANA needs to immediately devote resources to conduct a similar inventory and appraisal for its numismatic library holdings as well as developing a written acquisition and deaccession policy for the library, which holds many rare books.

ANA’s numismatic collection and library holdings are valuable assets, which its leaders are entrusted to secure and protect. They should learn from this theft and view it as an expensive wake-up call. ■

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