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A Visit to the ANS Vault: American Numismatic Society Sorts the Coins Recovered from the Dispersed Huntington Collection (with video)

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Public Access Restored: Visigothic coins from Archer Huntington’s collection, sold in March by the Hispanic Society of America, now (thanks to a generous donor) back on long-term loan at American Numismatic Society
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Below is Part II of my CultureGrrl Video report on the American Numismatic Society‘s triumphal retrieval of more than half of the nearly 38,000 coins it had lost due to their deplorable disposal by their former owner, the Hispanic Society of America. The HSA had placed the coins on long-term loan at the ANS, pursuant to the instructions of the HSA’s founder, collector/philanthropist Archer Huntington.

This is a quasi-happy ending to a disturbing story. One should not lose sight of the fact that the coins’ circuitous route back to public access was engineered through a multimillion-dollar expenditure by an ANS benefactor whose funds could otherwise have been applied to other worthwhile philanthropic purposes. If, as anticipated, he donates many of the coins to the ANS gradually, to take full advantage of available charitable-donation tax deductions, taxpayers will essentially be bearing part of the cost to recapture a collection that had already been (and should have always remained) theirs.

It’s likely to take several months for the ANS to sort out, identify and re-store the coins that had been on its premises for more than six decades, until removed by the HSA for sale. Nevertheless, as you will see below, this tedious process is a welcome task, undertaken by a congenial team that includes the ANS’s collections manager, Elena Stolyarik, and its very hands-on board chairman, Kenneth Edlow, who (as you’ll see) is deeply engaged in sorting through the returned medieval coins. You will also hear from the ANS’s executive director, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who shares the details about how Huntington formed his collection and how the ANS managed to get so much of it back.

The story of exactly how the HSA is applying its windfall from the Sotheby’s sealed-bid auction (which Wartenberg Kagan had heard from several sources fetched “slightly over $26 million”) is yet to be told. My query for details on this have not been answered at this writing. The financially pressed (go to P. 3) HSA previously stated that the proceeds from the coins would be used exclusively for acquisitions, in accordance with professional guidelines.

If you stick with my CultureGrrl Video to the end, you’ll hear me ask Ute a question that I wasn’t sure I’d get an answer to (but did): Why didn’t the ANS (through its generous donor) seek to acquire the collection directly, while it was still at Sotheby’s, rather than waiting until after the auction to get back parts of it from the consortium that placed the winning bid?

Her answer is a bit surprising. But as Wartenberg Kagan told me later, the way that this played out may have been for the best: The benefactor paid for only those categories of coins that were most needed for the ANS’s collection, rather than for the whole mixed bag of 37,895 items.

That’s enough background. Let’s go rummage around the vault:

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