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Hispanic Society, Metropolitan Museum, Middlebury: One Institution’s Trash Is Another’s Treasure

The privileged installation at the Metropolitan Museum of one of the many highly important coins cast off by the Hispanic Society of America (HSA)—the silver coin of Brutus, commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March—is “Exhibit A” in the case (pun intended) against museum disposals of museum quality objects.

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Isolated Splendor: Silver denarius with head of Brutus, commemorating the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 43-42 B.C., as installed at Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I’ve argued repeatedly, a museum-owned object that belongs in the public domain should remain in the public domain, not be monetized. What’s more, no museum or museum benefactor should be required to pay the “ransom” to get it back.

In the case of the HSA’s lamentable decision to cash in on its coins, the public has not exactly gotten them back, although many are now at the American Numismatic Society (ANS) on long-term loan. Now on public view (loaned from ANS to the Met), “Brutus,” as well as the rest of the ANS’s new arrivals, is no longer owned by a public institution: It was acquired (along with some 19,000 pieces from the HSA’s 38,000 jettisoned coins) by an anonymous benefactor, who put his purchases on long-term loan at the American Numismatic Society (where the HSA’s coins had formerly been kept).

It is expected that this anonymous benefactor, as well as another private buyer who put another 7,291 ex-HSA coins back on loan at the ANS, may eventually donate many of the reclaimed coins to the ANS. But they may sell others that duplicate ANS’s holdings or that are deemed less important. The eventual fate of this trove is still undetermined.

In its extensive label description of “Brutus,” the Met says this about the coin’s overwhelming importance:

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“The reverse of the coin shown here…”? Imagine my surprise when I didn’t get to ogle the famous Roman’s physiognomy! At the very least, the label should reproduce an image of what the other side looks like.

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Heads or Tails? Reverse side of silver denarius with the head of Brutus, as seen at the Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I suppose the curators called for “tails” because this side contains symbols related to the historic moment of Caesar’s assassination—the two daggers, the slave cap “symbolizing…the liberation of Rome” and the letters EID MAR, denoting the Ides of March.

Still, every other coin in that case is “heads, you win”:

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I think the importance of the “Brutus” coin and its subject merits a two-sided display, through use of either a mirror or a freestanding mount in a walk-around case. There must be plenty of teachers who would welcome the chance to give students a chance to eyeball Julius Caesar’s murderer.

While the Met has given prominence to this numismatic treasure that was almost lost to the public, it also recently auctioned off a piece that another museum had to pay $37,500 on Jan. 26, 2012 at Sotheby’s to reclaim for the public. It’s a 16th-century stone sculpture that had been given to the Met’s Cloisters by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Here it is (on the right), as installed at the Middlebury College Museum, Vermont. I had encountered it there last fall, during my speaking engagement at the invitation of Prof. Richard Saunders, who teaches a course in museum studies and also directs the museum:

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Left: French Gothic figure of Saint Barbara, 16th century, as she appeared in the Sotheby’s catalogue

Right: cleaned, restored and installed in the Middlebury College Museum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last month, when I asked Peter Barnet, the Met’s curator in charge of Medieval art and the Cloisters, about this sculpture (showing him my Middlebury photo), he said he had no recollection of it, even though it had been sold less than a year previously. He did say that the Met’s curators have been encouraged to identify for possible sale pieces they have no desire to display. He expressed pleasure that the successful bidder at auction had been another museum.

How much better it would have been, though, if that museum didn’t have to shell out its own funds to reclaim it for the public’s benefit.

As I wrote in my 2005 NY Times Op-Ed piece, For Sale: Our Permanent Collection:

If an institution really has no use for certain works that are worthy of public display, it should give or lend them to other public institutions that would gladly show them.

Maybe the establishment of a database of objects that art museums don’t need themselves but would be happy to share with other institutions should be a “hot topic” for the Association of Art Museum Directors’ annual meeting this June!

In the meantime, can anyone please tell me some specifics about how the Hispanic Society of America has used the proceeds from “Brutus” and the rest of its Huntington coins, sold last March? I have had no responses from the HSA to my repeated requests, over several months, for information on this. Perhaps another reporter who is not persona non grata there can elicit an answer.

According to the HSA’s previous statements, the proceeds were to be used for new acquisitions. So here’s one painting hanging in its main hall, which the Society’s senior curator, Marcus Burke, had told me during a brief conversation at the museum in September had been recently acquired:

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“The Stirling-Maxwell Master” (Miguel de Pret?), “Still Life with Cabbage, Artichokes, Melon, Fruit and Hanging Fowl,” ca. 1630
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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