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Blind Oversight: AAMD, AAM Condone Hispanic Society’s Coin Dispersal

Catalogue for the “Extraordinary Auction” being held tomorrow in Madrid of 1,004 coins that were among the 37,895 sold last March by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, from the collection donated by its founder, Archer Huntington

In advance of tomorrow’s resale of 1,004 coins selected from the 37,895 that were sold en bloc in a sealed-bid auction in March at Sotheby’s, New York, by the Hispanic Society of America (HSA), the Spanish newspaper El País has reported that two more such dispersals, conducted by Madrid coin dealer/auctioneer Jesús Vico, SA, are already in the works.

Eva Saíz reports that tomorrow’s sale by Vico is “the first of three,” with the others planned for October and November.

An official from Vico told Saíz:

We are interested exclusively in those [coins] that were minted in the Spanish peninsula. We hope that the [Spanish] State will bid, because there are pieces that are part of our heritage and deserve to be in a museum.

The plans for (or fate of) some of the most valuable pieces in the collection, including Roman gold and the 15th-century Fifty Excelentes—are still unknown (and may remain so). The collection’s Islamic coins are also not represented in the first Vico sale. It is possible that these will be sold privately by the dealer consortium (unidentified, except for Vico) that placed the winning bid at Sotheby’s.

One thing’s certain: Sotheby’s was chillingly accurate when it proclaimed the following at the end of its promotional brochure for the March sale:

Archer M. Huntington assembled a collection of incredible complexity, astonishing diversity, and incalculable grandeur. Its like will not be seen again.

Given the provisions in Huntington’s trust indenture, which strongly indicate that this sale by the Hispanic Society of America ran contrary to donor intent, you might think that the leading arbiters of museum ethics—the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums—would have issued statements disapproving of this dispersal. But like the New York State Attorney General’s office, AAMD and AAM have been disturbingly silent.

Here’s what Kim Rorschach, AAMD’s new president, had to say when I asked for her reaction to the sale:

Chris Anagnos [AAMD’s executive director] has spoken with the HSA and they confirmed that they are abiding by AAMD’s policies for deaccessioning.

And here’s Dewey Blanton, AAM’s director of strategic communications:

At first blush on the HSA situation, the fact that they intend to use the proceeds for collection purposes is keeping with the [professional] standards. Breaking the will [actually, the trust indenture] is a question for the [HSA’s] board and, perhaps, the Attorney General, as you note.

These comments confirm what I have reluctantly come to understand about AAMD’s and AAM’s professional guidelines regarding collection sales: The associations’ strictures are largely toothless, except for the rule (which also, apparently, has some wiggle room) that proceeds from collection disposals must be plowed back into the collection, not diverted to capital expenses or general operations.

The financially pressed HSA (which lacks adequate space for its current collection, let alone new purchases), strongly maintains that all proceeds from the coins will be used for acquisitions. But this plan is called into question by its treatment of the “precious-metal” coins as “investments” (along with hedge funds, stocks and bonds) on its tax return (p. 46). It has previously classified proceeds from “sale of collection items” as “unrestricted assets” on its balance sheet (p. 41 of the above-linked tax return, which corresponds to p. 3 of the financial statement appended to the end of that return).

In addressing this situation, AAMD should have taken note of the following provision in its Professional Practices in Art Museums, concerning guidelines to be followed when making decisions about “Deaccessioning and Disposal” (p. 22):

As part of this process, the staff must undertake a thorough review of all records to determine donor intent, clear title, donor restrictions, and current market value [emphasis added].

As I discussed in more detail here, Huntington’s 1907 trust indenture governing the HSA explicitly stated (pp. 3-4) that his benefactions to the HSA were not to be transferred through any means (which would include sales) to any “library, corporation, institution or person, whomsoever or whatsoever.” He even included a penalty clause calling for forfeiture of his gifts if his no-transfer stipulation were violated. While there’s an outside chance that a court might have found a loophole in Huntington’s muddy prose, that determination should have been made by a judge, not by the self-interested institution that was intent on monetizing the monedas (coins).

Museums that deviate from donors’ written stipulations surrounding their gifts do so not only at their own peril but also at some cost to the viability of similar institutions: They may get away with it in the short run, but over the long haul, they undermine the bedrock foundation essential to all nonprofit institutions—the confidence of donors that their wishes regarding their benefactions will be scrupulously honored, not expediently circumvented.

The worst impact of this sorry episode is not the damage done to donor confidence. It’s the damage to scholarship and public access caused by breaking up an irreplaceable cultural and historic resource. That rupture can never be repaired.

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