Spanish coins face sale by Hispanic Society of America

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Spanish Coins Face Stealth Sale by Secret Museum
Frank Lorenzo Is Said to Change Hispanic Society of America

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press, in NYC: News Analysis

NEW YORK, August 6 -- Under a leaking ceiling on 155th Street in West Harlem, paintings by Goya and Velasquez hang in near obscurity in the Hispanic Society of America. Surrounded by the vacant shells left by museums which have decamped to lower Manhattan, and with controversial airline investor Frank Lorenzo now taking a leading role on the board of trustees, the Hispanic Society has taken to selling off the treasures collected by its founder, Archer Milton Huntington. Last year a 13th century Koran was sold in London.

   On August 6, Sotheby's began cataloguing for immanent auction a collection of 38,000 coins which Huntington lent to the American Numismatic Society. The HSA's board of trustees have assumed unfettered discretion to under-promote, under-protect and ultimately sell off Huntington's collection, in a process some analogize to Lorenzo's treatment of airlines during his heyday.

   "This is to cry," a Spanish art lover sighed during a recent visit. It didn't have to be this way -- and the coin sale could still be stopped.  Potential bidders should be aware of the history, particularly how the sale may run counter to not only the spirit but also the letter of Huntington's intent.

   Despite Huntington's transfer of the coins to the American Numismatic Society being described as a "permanent" loan, the HSA has fought and litigated to regain the coins, but only for the purpose of selling them, not for display.  In early 2007, the HSA drafted a Loan Agreement which gave it the right to cancel Huntington's transfer. In  response to persistent questions from the New York correspondent of the Madrid newspaper La Razon, HSA management denied the intent to sell the coins. But in a contemporaneous series of court filings and letters to the New York State Attorney General viewed by Inner City Press, the HSA refers to its board of trustee's January 23, 2008 resolution to "deaccession" the collection -- museum terminology for selling off.  Then Sotheby's today began cataloguing the coins for sale.

   During an August 6 visit to the American Numismatic Society's new location at 75 Varrick Street, Inner City Press observed a team from Sotheby's and a spin-off company specializing in coin sales, Morton & Eden, preparing to catalogue the coins, which number 38,000. A sworn affidavit by Sotheby's David Redden spells out the auction house's demands during the cataloguing process: a separate, carpeted room to which they will have their own key, Internet access and, strangely, the right to bring in their own food. Once catalogued, the coins will be sold the highest bidders. Pending a legislative proposal in New York State, A995A, which would limit the uses of "deaccession" profits, the Lorenzo-led Hispanic Society of America could put the proceeds to any use whatsoever.

  Lorenzo is best known for the bankruptcy of Eastern Airline; he has been described as, among other things, a "vulture investor." Now, museum sources say, he is applying to same slash and burn philosophy to the Hispanic Society of America, moving to sell off anything that is not nailed down. "It's a social club for a handful of businessmen," one well-placed source complained, describing these "gentlemen's" jockeying to meet Spanish royalty and other European dignitaries and titans of commerce.

   Archer Milton Huntington, himself the adopted son of a railroad magnate, stumbled into appreciation of Spanish art after reading a then-popular book about gypsies, George Borrow's The Zincali. He traveled to Spain and bought art works and coins. The museum opened in 1908, on land he purchased from naturalist James Audubon. Huntington gave 30,000 of the coins he had collected to the Hispanic Society and then, according to a HSA-printed biography, "in 1946 placed [the coin collection] on permanent loans with the American Numismatic Society."

But in the years after Huntington's death in 1955, the Hispanic Society museum drifted from its mission. By 1993, the Commissioner of New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs, Luis Cancel, accused the HSA's board of trustees of failing to engage with the museum's largely-Hispanic neighbors. The Society's then-director responded that the area would soon be gentrified, which largely has yet to happen.

   A visit to the museum by this reporter on a recent Sunday found only a handful of tourists and two security guards. The Society's library was closed to the public, and 16th century wood carvings sat under a leaking ceiling with peeling paint. Upstairs, rare ceramics sat on the floor next to electric fans of the type sold in discount stores, protected only by a two-foot high strip of plastic or Lexan. Even though no direct comment was offered for this initial story, it emerged that the HSA's trustees have also considered leaving 155th Street, but concluded that space lower in Manhattan was too expensive. Whether the subprime crisis changes that, or explains the shameless sell-off, is not yet clear.

   It is noteworthy, as least in coin and ceramic circles, that the Euphronios-painted "hot pot" that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had to return to Italy was purchased in 1972, with proceeds from the Met's controversial sale of its coins, which had been on loan to the American Numismatic Society. Call it karma or a cautionary tale.

   A review of tax returns of the Hispanic Society of America lists the HSA with $29 million. But if the Society's representations in its legal papers about the small percentage of its assets made up by the coins are true, its assets would be up to thirty times higher. Marcus Burke and Patrick Lanaghan are listed as annually receiving $65,000 and $63,000, respectively, along with $30,000 each in deferred compensation. Other trustees beyond Frank Lorenzo include William R. Harman, Miner H. Warner and George B. Moore, who signed the Trojan horse revised loan agreement, and who works at Merrill Lynch.

  None of these were present on Wednesday when Sotheby's began final cataloguing of the coins at the American Numismatic Society. The Sotheby's group were behind a locked and secured door, presumably with the lunch they had brought in. Archer Milton Huntington, one imagined, was rolling in his grave. Will his voice and intent be heard, before at Frank Lorenzo's direction, Huntington's hard-won collection disappears into the hands of the highest bidder?

Inner City Press
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.