Locked up or free to roam: considering coins in museums

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Published : 07/30/13
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In the week after Detroit’s decision to declare bankruptcy, much has been written about the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which, as a city asset, may possibly be sold to help pay the city’s creditors.

The value of a collection with more than 60,000 unique items is hard to calculate and estimates of its value start in the billions of dollars.

How much is lost when objects move from the public sphere and go to private collections? Is anything gained?

Especially in light of the internal thefts of the past several years, it’s been suggested on more than one occasion that the American Numismatic Association liquidate, or at least downsize, its museum collection.

General concepts of museum ethics dictate that a museum can sell objects from its collection only to purchase other objects consistent with its educational mission. Internal thefts certainly cast doubt on the argument that historic objects are safer and better cared for in museums.

One wonders how much the Harry W. Bass Jr. Foundation serves its stated mission to enrich the lives of the citizens of Texas by providing support to qualified organizations in the areas of education, civic and community, health and human services, science and research, and arts and cultures, by having millions of dollars in rare gold coins housed for the last decade at the ANA Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Bass Foundation’s collection has been described as the “centerpiece of the ANA Money Museum,” but it has already been extensively documented in Q. David Bowers’ sylloge of the Bass Collection. How much of an educational purpose does it continue to serve?

Does it make continued sense to have the pieces on display, or does it benefit the hobby more to have these individual rarities become actively traded participants in the global rare coin marketplace, where each auction appearance gives another opportunity to add scholarship.

The Bass Foundation has pruned its holdings at auction before, so it is not unfamiliar with the process. What remains is, as the foundation describes it, a collection of more than 500 coins from “one of the best collections ever in the history of U.S. numismatics,” featuring “premier examples of coins, currency and patterns, including some unique items that are not to be found anywhere else.”

One of the most elegant treatments of the intersection of public institutions, private collectors and the individual objects can be found in a July 24 article by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. He writes: “Art works have migrated throughout history. Unless destroyed, they are always somewhere. It’s best when they are on public display, but if they have special value their sojourns in private hands are likely temporary. At any rate, they are hardly altered by inhabiting one building rather than another. The relationship of art to the institutions that house and display it is a marriage of convenience, with self-interest on both sides, and not an ineluctable romance.”

Coins, or any object really, can easily replace art in the above quotation without loss of meaning.

Interesting food for thought.

Best,

Steve Roach

sroach@coinworld.com

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