Battle of the learned societies has begun at the Hispanic Society of America launched a broadside against its former neighbor, the American Numismatic Society, seeking the return of 38,000 coins the ANS has been cataloging since the death of Arthur Milton Huntington in 1955 at age 85.
Huntington was a major benefactor, multimillionaire, and philanthropist who largely funded Audubon Terrace in New York City?s Washington Heights at the turn of the 20th century. Among the organizations that he sponsored were the American Numismatic Society, and Hispanic Society of America, the American Geographic Society, and other learned organizations dedicated to scholarly analysis of the arts and sciences.
In 1948, the Hispanic Society of America collection consisting of some 30,000 coins, many of which were hammer-struck, including many of the ancient world, was placed on deposit with the ANS, making it the finest collection of its kind in the Americas. That is the source of the 2008 legal controversy.
Founded in 1858, the American Numismatic Society celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2008, having recently moved to Fulton Street in the New York financial district. It is preparing to abandon the new building in favor of a downtown location on the west side of Manhattan.
Since its founding in 1858, what was then known as the American Numismatic and Archeological Society has provided a quasi-academic setting for the serious study of the various components of organized numismatics.
With an initial focus on the classics, and the ancient coinages of the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, the Society in the last 15 years has also given closer scrutiny to coinage of the Americas and to its U.S. numismatic heritage.
One result of this is that there are now over a million numismatic objects in the ANS Museum. So, too, its library, with over 100,000 items included, is the largest in existence ? though the material does not circulate and must be viewed at the headquarters building.
More than 2,000 individuals, firms and organizations are members of the ANS, with most residing in the United States. There are corresponding members from at least a dozen European and Asian countries, and a surprising number of university libraries who are subscription members, for the wealth of publishing that the ANS does.
Its activity as a non-profit publisher is not given widespread recognition, but today it is the largest non-profit publisher of numismatic material anywhere in the world.
Edward T. Newell, the ANS president from 1916 until his death in 1941, was the source of about a tenth of the Society?s cabinet. More than 130,000 pieces came from his collection in the form of a donation during his lifetime, and bequest.
There were significant donations in succeeding years. Among them: in 1946 the Clapp collection of large cents, in 1947 the Gautier collection of ancient coins (given by Archer Huntington), in 1948 the collections of H. W. Bell and W. B. Osgood Field, and over the period 1948-1952 nearly 2,700 coins and medals of Poland given by Alexandre Orlowski.
In the early 1990s there was another legal controversy involving the Clapp collection, when it was alleged, and finally proved to a court?s satisfaction, that the late Dr. William Sheldon, well-known for his book on large cents and research on old coppers, had stolen significant chunks of the Clapp collection from the ANS.
Evidently, Dr. Sheldon removed specimens and substituted pieces of lesser quality. By 1997 a California Court was called upon to rule upon some of the specimens that had, years after Sheldon?s death, wound up in private hands.
The ANS was judged to be the legal owner of 38 early United States cents dated from 1794 to 1814, then in the possession of Roy E. Naftzger Jr.
In addition, the ruling awarded the ANS $229,500 in damages for the value of an additional 20 U.S. cents belonging to the ANS which Naftzger had previously possessed and sold.
To reach this determination, the court ruled that Naftzger never had title to these coins which had been donated to the ANS in 1946 and removed from the ANS in a substitution scheme by Dr. William H. Sheldon about 1950.
For many years, the ANS was also the repository for the coin collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mostly consisting of Greek and Roman coins, many of which were star specimens, the Met?s decision to sell its collection at auction some 35 years ago could have had a crippling effect on the ANS collection, but its members stepped in.
The withdrawal also brought about the single largest purchase in the Society?s history: $150,000 was paid to the Metropolitan for over 7,000 ?minor? coins, principally of Roman Alexandria and of the Islamic world.
Only one other purchase ? the Bastien collection in 1984, which consisted of 2,225 Roman coins ? even came close to it in size or cost.
The Byzantine department at the ANS grew by virtue of a bequest from Robert F. Kelley, a foreign service officer who made his purchases in post-World War II Turkey. He bought them as they were freshly plowed from the fields as part of the Marshall Plan.
The Kelley notebooks, which were part of a separate bequest to Georgetown University library, where Kelley had gone to the School of Foreign Service, were not part of the donation. Because I was then a member of the Georgetown Library Board, I was able to arrange for the notebooks to be reunited with the coins.
The approximate breakdown of the Museum is as follows: Greek coinage, 120,000 pieces; Roman/Byzantine coins, 95,000 pieces; Medieval, Medals, Decorations 120,000 items; Islamic, South Asian, Far Eastern 150,000 pieces, and Modern, 250,000 items.
Origins of the 2008 lawsuit probably started a half-century ago when Huntington died, the Hispanic Society then having control over some 38,000 coins represent the finest collection of Spanish coins outside of Spain. An agreement was reached under which the ANS undertook to catalog them and to have them on ?permanent loan.?
A similar arrangement is in effect for Greek and Roman coins of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which the Met withdrew when they found the numismatic items antithetical to their organization?s main mission. A public auction of those coins followed, but the Met gets some points for doing the right thing by donating some coins to the ANS, selling others, and the ANS itself buying still more to maintain their preeminence.
When the ANS left Audubon Terrace, in effect abandoning the Hispanic Society which remained in what had then become a largely Hispanic neighborhood, the Hispanic Society altered the terms of the ?permanent loan? to the ANS to constitute an annual agreement. When ANS announced its intention to move yet again, the Hispanic Society declined to renew the agreement and asked for the return of the coins.
According to papers on file with the court, the ANS declined to return the items, which are valued in the millions. A Madrid-based newspaper described the holding as part of Spanish patrimony, implying it belonged to the people of Spain, not an organization.
On Feb. 13, 2008, the Hispanic Society brought suit against the ANS in Supreme Court, New York County, seeking replevin of the permanently loaned items because they had declined to renew the annual agreement permitting the ANS to catalog and display them as they had during the preceding half-century.
Strook & Strook & Lavan issued a summons and complaint seeking replevin of the collection, an injunction, and ancillary relief, filing a $500,000 bond to secure its demand. Madrid-based La Razon suggests that the Hispanic Society wishes to sell the coins and raise millions for itself.
This will offer a fascinating insight into both organizations, as well as the bequest of Archer Huntington, the Union Pacific heir whose generosity made Audubon Terrace possible and gave great vitality to the ANS. It will also no doubt have a serious impact on the ANS collection of medieval coinage as well as a subsequent Spanish coinage which is now threatened by the lawsuit.
Supreme Court Justice Charles A. Ramos now has the case. The court records show a disposition deadline of Jan. 14, 2010.