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Coin Toss: Hispanic Society’s Contradictory Stances on the Rights of Archer Huntington’s Heirs

The far-flung, tortuous odyssey continues for the superlative collection of coins related to Spain that were once owned by collector/philanthropist Archer Huntington and were donated by him in 1946 to the Hispanic Society of America.

One of the most important of these emblems of history and culture has now happily landed on loan at the Metropolitan Museum (Gallery 166), in a small case with coins of Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, and Roman emperors of the 1st century A.D.

The Met labels this silver piece as “one of the most famous and historic coins ever minted”:

Loaned to the Met: Silver denarius with the head of Brutus, commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of MarchHispBrut

Loaned to the Met: Silver denarius with the head of Brutus, commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March

This ancient Roman coin was one of a very large group from the HSA’s 37,895-piece Huntington trove that was purchased by a private collector, who put his acquisitions on “permanent loan” at the American Numismatic Society, (which, in turn, sent “Brutus” on loan to the Met). The ANS has enthusiastically welcomed back the partially retrieved collection, and is in the process of photographing these coins and creating an online catalogue for them.

The collection was sold as one lot last March by the Hispanic Society of America (HSA) in a sealed-bid auction at Sotheby’s. This trove was bought for an undisclosed price by a consortium of dealers, who broke it up for piecemeal resale. Until shortly before their disposal at Sotheby’s, the coins had resided at the American Numismatic Society, where the HSA had deposited them on loan in 1949 at Huntington’s behest.

They have now been widely dispersed in a series of European sales. Yet another auction of more than 1,300 Huntington coins is scheduled for Mar. 6 by London coin auctioneers Morton & Eden.

I have previously discussed in detail why unloading and allowing the piecemeal dispersal of this consummate collection was not only deplorable but also appeared to run afoul of written stipulations in Archer Huntington’s 1907 trust indenture governing the HSA. That document (see pp. 3-4) directed that all of Huntington’s benefactions to the HSA should revert to him or to his heirs if any portion of his gift were disposed of. The legal term for this punitive provision is “right of reentry.”

I have now learned that the Hispanic Society previously took a legal position diametrically opposed to its current stance regarding the Huntington heirs’ right of reentry. It did so in a 1990 State Supreme Court case (Index Number: 17954/90, not available online) involving the desire of the Heye Foundation to transfer to Boricua College the property occupied by the Museum of the American Indian (which, under new Smithsonian auspices, was planning to move to Washington and to the Customs House in Manhattan). The Museum of the American Indian (like the Hispanic Society) had been granted its property on Audubon Terrace in Manhattan by Archer Huntington.

The court papers show that against strong pressure for the property to go to Boricua (from both the State Attorney General’s office and then Mayor David Dinkins, among others), the Hispanic Society, together with Huntington’s heirs, argued that Huntington would have preferred the property to go to the Society, which he had founded. They asserted that any attempt to transfer the property to a new owner such as Boricua, without an agreement from the heirs, would trigger the heirs’ right to “reenter” and take the property.

The HSA and Huntington heirs won. The judge ruled: “There can be no conveyance of the property [emphasis added] to Boricua College or any other grantee, free of Archer Huntington’s heirs’ right of reentry.” Since the heirs (individuals who were specifically named as defendants in the Heye Foundation’s lawsuit) wanted the property to go to the Hispanic Society, that’s where it had to go. Both the HSA and Boricua had made monetary offers to the heirs to purchase the property. The heirs chose (and the court approved) the HSA’s $2.1-million offer.

I learned about this court case when one of the relatives of the defendants in the Heye lawsuit contacted me after reading prior CultureGrrl posts on the coins’ sale.

The 1990 case involved real estate owned by the Heye Foundation, not a collection owned by the HSA. But this court precedent upholding the Huntington heirs’ right of reentry (then defended by the HSA) strongly indicates that, at the very least, court approval should have been sought before the HSA undertook the disposal of Huntington’s coins, which appear to have been similarly encumbered by a right-of-reentry stipulation.

The State Attorney General’s office, which went along with the Hispanic Society’s highly debatable assertion that no court approval was necessary, should have instead seen to it that the legally prudent course was taken. With the public’s watchdog asleep, the public’s patrimony was dispersed.

At least some of it has now returned to public access (albeit on loan from private purchasers):

Elena Stolyarik, collections manager of the American Numismatic Society, with a tray of coins reclaimed from the Hispanic Society of America's disposalPhoto by Lee Rosenbaum

Elena Stolyarik, collections manager of the American Numismatic Society, with a tray of coins reclaimed from the Hispanic Society of America’s disposal
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum took a more judicious course when confronting a similar right-of-reentry issue: As discussed in recent press accounts (here and here), it is seeking court approval for its planned disposal of inauthentic, misattributed or otherwise inferior works that were part of its 1932 Michael Friedsam bequest. Like Huntington, Friedsam stipulated in writing that his institutional beneficiary could not dispose of any portion of his gift and he stipulated a right of reentry for his heirs if that provision were violated.

In the Friedsam case, a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge instructed the Brooklyn Museum to seek out those possibly eligible for the right of reentry. According to Patricia Cohen‘s report in the NY Times, “The museum has yet to begin looking, as it confers with the Attorney General’s office on how to proceed.”

Both of these sticky situations underscore the perils of overly restrictive agreements with donors. Brooklyn’s handling of its Friedsam flotsam underscores the irregularities of the approach taken by Hispanic Society of America regarding its more highly esteemed group of objects. Unlike Brooklyn, though, the HSA was never in a position to strike a better deal with its donor, because he was also the institution’s founder.

In the short run, it could be argued that dead donors and founders should not unduly tie the hands of today’s museum administrators. But in the long run, playing fast and loose with restrictions governing past gifts or bequests could dangerously undermine the confidence of today’s and tomorrow’s benefactors.

Promises made should be promises kept.

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