“Truth and Plain Dealing”: The Fate of the Archer Huntington Collection of Spanish Coinage

by Robert Hoge, Andrew Meadows, and Ute Wartenberg Kagan

“If my effort to facilitate work does not accomplish the desired result then I have done but little in the field. It is along such lines that I have worked for my country in paths aside in some measure from the obvious. And now that I draw near in a few days to the entrance into my eightieth year, it is with such convictions that I hope I have lived in gratitude to the man who created my fortune, a man than whom I have known no one of greater heart and mind. He said to me: ‘Do what you like with your money, but do it well.’ Perhaps that is why I built your building and you have my collection.”

Fig. 1. El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington, wife of Archer M. Huntington, at Audubon Terrace, New York City, former home of the ANS and current home of the Hispanic Society of America.

This is the conclusion of a long letter that Archer Huntington (fig. 2), an early leader of both the American Numismatic Society and the Hispanic Society of America, wrote to ANS President Louis West on March 9, 1949, in which the elderly philanthropist explained to West how he had developed the interest in numismatics that led to the formation of one of the world’s most important collections of coins. Huntington had just donated his collection of over 38,000 coins and medals relating to the history of the Iberian lands and peoples to the Hispanic Society of America, which he later placed on long term loan with the ANS.

Fig. 2. Archer M. Huntington, c. 1950 (ANS archives).

On January 25, 2008, the current director of the American Numismatic Society received a letter quite different in tone concerning Archer M. Huntington’s collection. It came from the director of the Hispanic Society of America and concluded, “At the Hispanic Society’s annual meeting on January 23, 2008, the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution to deaccession the Loan [Huntington Coin] Collection.”

Three weeks before their resolution to “deaccession” the collection, it turned out, the Hispanic Society’s lawyers had also written a letter to the New York Attorney General’s office paving the way for their decision to dispose of the coins: “The [Hispanic] Society . . . embarked upon a review of its mission and collection policies to determine what other options it might have as to the coins. . . . In the course of this review, the Society learned that the value of the coins may be quite substantial, perhaps thirty or forty million dollars or more.”

The staff of the ANS were astonished. Archer Huntington’s wishes—that his coin collection be preserved for the benefit of scholarship and education—had been evident to all and unquestioned for more than half a century. Now they were to be brushed aside with little regard for the importance of the collection for scholars and the public and their vast importance for the history of the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula. It rapidly became clear that there was little the ANS could do to dissuade the Hispanic Society’s board from its decision to dispose of one of the great treasures of Hispanic cultural heritage. Nevertheless, the ANS is determined that this story of cavalier disregard for the intentions of one of the greatest benefactors of both the ANS and HAS should not go unrecorded. First, one must ask who was Archer Huntington, the man who created this extraordinary collection by the time he was thirty-five years old?

Archer Huntington was the stepson of Collis P. Huntington (fig. 3), the builder of the Central Pacific Railroad. A dedicated philanthropist, Huntington spent a good deal of his early life in Europe, where he formed a particular interest in the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula. The period of Arab rule of Spain was one focus of his study and inspired him to take up the study of the Arabic language. With the benefit of his substantial wealth, inherited from his father, Huntington was able to assemble the finest collection of Hispanic art and literature in private hands. In his early years, he alighted upon coinage as a particularly important area for study, and he began collecting. His initial intention had been to publish a study of the entirety of Spanish numismatic history himself, but he soon realized the impossibility of that task, given his other commitments, and stopped. Huntington married twice, latterly to the famous sculptress Anna Hyatt, with whom he shared responsibility for numerous foundations and museums, including the Hispanic Society of America; the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia; and Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Huntington also endowed the position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Fig. 3. Collis P. Huntington, railroad magnate and adoptive father of Archer M. Huntington.

In 1899, Huntington joined the American Numismatic Society, and in 1905 he became its president. With his generous contributions, the ANS acquired the land at Audubon Terrace upon which the first building of the Society was constructed; later, in 1928–1930, he financed the extension to the building. Huntington was not just interested in the physical space: one of his most remarkable donations to the ANS financed a publication fund. His interest in academic scholarship and research helped the ANS and its curatorial staff produce many important publications in the numismatic field. His donations of non-Spanish material to the ANS were also numerous, and he endowed several general operating funds. Many of his gifts were anonymous, making it difficult to determine the exact level of his contributions; they certainly total more than $3 million (more than $30 million in today’s money) in cash plus many very valuable donations made in kind. Archer Huntington transformed the ANS from a relatively small club of collectors into a research institution of international standing.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Huntington, then a young man from one of the country’s wealthiest families, amassed one of the greatest collections of Spanish art and artifacts. In 1904, he founded the Hispanic Society of America; in 1908, all his Iberian treasures were installed in a beautiful building on Audubon Terrace. In the same year, the American Numismatic Society also opened its building next door—a building also financed largely by Archer Huntington. Among his acquisitions was a collection of over 38,000 coins relating to the Iberian peninsula and its history, easily the best ever put together by a private collector and arguably the most comprehensive in existence, then or now. In 1946, Archer Huntington decided to transfer the collection, which was then still his personal property but housed in the basement of the Hispanic Society, to the American Numismatic Society. He also donated $50,000 for a new curator for a ten-year period. For the fifty years since the exhaustion of that fund, the ANS has met the costs of the curator of the Huntington collection.

Huntington’s momentous decision and generous gift brought one of the greatest Islamic numismatists, Dr. George Miles, to the ANS. Specifically charged with cataloguing the vast mass of unattributed coins, Miles and subsequent ANS curators identified the coins, labeling, boxing, and arraying them in numismatic order within the cabinets. At that time, ANS maintained the collection separately from its own holdings. This arrangement proved difficult at times, particularly when scholars working on a specific area had to move from room to room to examine coins from both the ANS and Huntington collections. It was the occasion of a visit to the ANS by Kenneth Jenkins, the renowned curator of Greek coins at the British Museum, to work on the ancient Spanish collection that prompted a discussion between the two societies as to how matters might be improved. On August 8, 1956, over lunch at the Le Petit Paris Restaurant in New York, a proposal was discussed, which was subsequently adopted by the HSA’s board, that the Huntington collection could and should be incorporated into the overall ANS collections. From this moment onward, the ANS treated the Huntington collection as if it were a permanent loan and thus no longer sought to acquire varieties or mints represented in the Huntington collection, in order to avoid duplication.

The process of identifying, labeling, and cataloguing the collection immediately began. The coins had been numbered and photographed by Huntington himself. Prints of the photos were mounted into albums so that both the ANS and Huntington could have a set. Huntington’s numbered tickets were kept with the specimens and used as part of the accession numbering system when the ANS began entering all its collections into a computerized database catalog, beginning in 1980.

In August 1949, a little over a year after he had carried his last parcel of coins to the ANS, Huntington advised the Hispanic Society that he had presented them with ownership of these coins. Following Huntington’s death in 1955, the Hispanic Society discovered that a significant part of his collection had not yet been transferred to the ANS, as he had intended, and thus had not been studied and included in the research completed to that time. In 1957, HSA transferred this important additional collection to the ANS, consistent with Huntington’s original wishes. This portion of his collection, which had not been numbered or photographed by Huntington, amounted to 6,390 pieces.

Fig. 4. Hispania Citerior, Turiaso. AR denarius imitating tetradrachm of Philip II of Macedonia (HSA collection 12518, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

Fig. 5. Roman Empire, Lugdunum mint, AV aureus of Augustus. RIC 166a (HSA collection 22221, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

Fig. 6. Spain, Sevilla under Alfonso XI. AV dobla, c. 1320 (HSA collection 25567, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

Fig. 7. Spain under Nasrid dynasty, Gharnata mint, AR 1/2 dirham, c. 1400 (HSA collection 686, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

The components of the collection are as varied and interesting as the history and people of the Iberian peninsula.

Ancient Spain

Before and during the period of the Roman conquest of Spain, coinage was produced by numerous cities in the Iberian peninsula. Some of these cities were populated by Greek colonists, while many belonged to native Celtiberian cultures. These coinages are a vivid testament to the process of cultural exchange between “indigenous” groups and immigrant and invading populations. They offer some of the best examples of cultural patterns of behavior still familiar today. The Huntington collection is world class, on a par with those in London (British Museum), Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale), and Madrid (National Archeological Museum).

Roman Republic and Empire

Spain during the period of Roman rule was a major source of silver bullion to the Roman state. It was also, on occasion, the source of rebellion against central Roman authority. For these reasons, numerous important and rare issues of Roman coinage were produced at Spanish mints. Huntington’s interest in ancient Spain led him to collect one of the world’s foremost collections of Roman coins from Spanish mints, as well as those used and found in ancient Spain. The collection of Roman gold (aurei) is particularly strong and accounts for almost 20 percent of the ANS collection in this metal.

Visigothic Spain

The Visigoths were the Germanic successors to the Roman Empire in southwestern France and much of the Iberian peninsula in the fifth through eighth centuries BC. Their gold coinage, rare today, is one of the principal sources of evidence for their activities in the turbulent times following the fall of the Roman Empire, and it owes much to Roman prototypes. Huntington’s collection remains the finest anywhere in the world and formed the basis for George Miles’s remarkable volume, The Coinage of the Visigoths of Spain: Leovigild to Achila II (1952). At the time Miles estimated that 20 percent of all known Visigothic specimens were in Huntington’s collection. This collection is particularly strong thanks in part to the acquisition by Huntington of the major portion of an important hoard of Visigothic coins discovered at La Capilla, Spain.

Islamic Spain

In the early eighth century, Muslim Arab armies swept across North Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula. The many Visigothic mints were closed, and coin production centered on Córdoba, where the Umayyad Caliphate became situated. The economic prosperity and artistic florescence of Islamic Spain are reflected in a splendid series of coins that, in accordance with Islamic propriety, avoided imagery while introducing calligraphic historical and religious inscriptions. The Huntington collection of Spanish Islamic coins is probably the most important such collection in existence. Although the seven-hundred-year history of Muslim Spain was a significant epoch in the transmission of ancient civilization to medieval Europe, the era’s history is notably understudied. The very idea of studying the Islamic coins, by making them available for analysis by ANS curator George Miles, was what had initially prompted Archer Huntington to deliver all of his coins to the ANS. The result of Miles’s study is his definitive volume The Coinage of the Umayyads of Spain (1950), published just two years of the arrival of Huntington’s original loan to the ANS.

Medieval Spain

Christian enclaves in northern Spain held out against the Muslim domination and gradually coalesced into the medieval kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Navarre, Aragon, and Portugal. Their Spanish rulers produced coinage influenced by the traditions of both the Arabs to the south and the French to the north. The Huntington collection of medieval Iberian coinages is undoubtedly one of the greatest in existence. Its richness is indicated through the discovery, made several years ago by a visiting Spanish scholar, of what may be the first Christian coinage of Castile (from the Toledo mint), among the yet unstudied pieces in the cabinet. At the end of the Middle Ages, Ferdinand and Isabella merged several Iberian kingdoms, and the birth of Spain as a country became evident through the coinage of this period. The great gold fifty-excelente piece of Ferdinand and Isabella (fig. 8), a key Spanish rarity, highlights the significance of the collection in this area as well.

Fig. 8. Spain, Seville mint. 50 excelente of Ferdinand V and Isabella, c. 1500 (HSA collection 57.2040, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

Latin America

The Huntington collection is rich in coinage of all the areas to which Spanish explorers and colonists traveled. Like the other elements of the Huntington collection and related holdings, the coins of these countries are complemented by the ANS’s own extensive holdings, which in many instances have been built around the Huntington pieces. The Latin American connection touches on United States history as well, since the Spanish colonial coinages were the primary legal tender of British colonial America and of the United States until 1857. Medals, too, form an interesting part of the collection, including issues from other regions relating to Latin American events, such as the Admiral Vernon series of the 1730s and 1740s.

Fig. 9. West Indies, Santo Domingo under Charles I, AE 2 maravedi, c. 1540. (HSA collection 27409, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

Fig. 10. Mexico under Philip V, Mexico City mint. AV 8 escudo, 1742 (HSA collection 791, Archer M. Huntington bequest).

The Medieval and Modern World

Spain and her Iberian neighbors have enjoyed a conspicuous place throughout history, and this too is reflected in the Huntington collection. The Hapsburg Empire, for instance, is encompassed in the collection, and it is represented by issues from many other parts of Europe where these monarchs reigned. Medieval France, the Spanish kingdoms’ northern neighbor, is represented by a splendid suite of fifteenth-century gold écus. The Italian States over which Spanish kings ruled are included in the Huntington collection, as are issues of the provinces of the Netherlands, where an eighty-year civil war finally won the northern region independence from Spain while the southern Spanish Netherlands passed to Austria—all reflected by Huntington coins, medals, and tokens.

The Huntington Loan

With the clear understanding that Huntington had intended that his collection to remain on loan indefinitely at the ANS, the Society has added many purchases and donations over the years from other benefactors to expand and complement the Huntington collection and fill lacunae. Huntington himself also made substantial donations to the ANS directly to complement the coins he had placed on loan, including in 1948 the purchase of the Gautier collection of over 1,000 coins.

In all his generosity, Huntington had strongly held ideas regarding how his collection was to be used. The Huntington archives maintained by both the ANS and Syracuse University, the recipient of the bulk of the Huntington papers, provide a clear picture of his work on behalf of the Hispanic Society and the ANS, among other institutions. As is evident from Huntington’s letter to President West quoted above, Huntington viewed his collections as having been formed to benefit the nation. It is also clear that he viewed the coin collection as part of his overall effort to form an encyclopedic collection of objects related to the history and culture of the Iberian world. As Huntington wrote to George Miles in 1946, “originally, the idea, as is obvious, was the presenting of Spanish influence throughout the world from a numismatic standpoint.”

For many decades, the ANS kept the Huntington collection according to the very strict, often restrictive guidelines Huntington had imposed on the Hispanic Society: “No books, maps, periodical or other material . . . shall be allowed to circulate outside of the [HSA] Library or Museum Building.” As a result, photography, research, and exhibitions of the coin collection were, until recently, very limited. Although some scholars received permission from the HSA trustees to work on the coins, most of the Huntington collection remained virtually unknown to the academic world and to the public at large for decades. Recently, the HSA agreed to allow the collection to be photographed and exhibited for the first time. Thus it is only in the past few years that Huntington’s collection has begun to enjoy the full attention it deserves.

Fig. 11. In October, Maria Garcia Belledo of CSIC, Madrid, arrived at the ANS to work on the HSA’s coinage from the Cervera collection, to be published in conjunction with William Metcalf.

The Future of the Huntington Collection

Few other museum collections can illustrate the monetary and economic history of Spain from its early beginnings so well: by studying the coins, one gains a picture of a multicultural nation of extraordinary wealth and artistic excellence. Nobody seems to have seen this more clearly than Archer Huntington himself. At a time when Americans were hardly interested in the nation’s Hispanic heritage, Huntington predicted that this heritage would become a vital part of our national identity. As a collector, Huntington followed strict guidelines for buying coins and numismatic objects outside Spain, as he had no interest in removing treasures from the country. But he was not timid about buying whatever he could find in other European countries, often being aided in his search by Spanish curators and academics. Huntington approached his collection in a manner reminiscent of the great European institutions, where objects are assets to be held for future generations and not sold as a commodity. Huntington was deeply attached to the institutions he supported, and in the case of the Hispanic Society, he was concerned that after his death his wishes for his institution would be properly preserved by future Trustees.

Recognizing and appreciating Archer Huntington and his commitment to knowledge and learning, the ANS has challenged the entitlement of the Hispanic Society to reclaim Huntington’s coins as a first step in a deaccession program. Where the HSA’s immediate response was to file suit to compel the return of the coins, ANS demanded that HSA put Huntington’s deed of gift, the Foundation Deed, on the table for all parties to review, to confirm Huntington’s intent for the future care and study of the collection. Rather than share this crucial document with the ANS, the New York State Attorney General, or the public, HSA has kept it under wraps and repeatedly denied access.

The unfinished saga of the Huntington Collection presents two vital issues that are very familiar within the museum community. First, there is the fiduciary obligation of the museum to its donors. All but the most affluent institutions depend upon the generosity of collectors to donate objects that individually or as part of a larger whole add to the sum of human knowledge. Second, museums, as tax-exempt organizations and unlike private collectors, must honor their obligation to preserve the treasures of the past for the future enjoyment and edification of the public. (In New York State, the Attorney General acts as surrogate for the public with respect to the resolution of such issues.) To achieve these dual objectives, which are by no means inconsistent, museums must conduct themselves transparently with respect to their collections, their donors (or their heirs), and the public at large. Although the ANS is loath to be critical of a sister museum, particularly one with whom it enjoys the same benefactor, circumstances compel it to speak out on the announced deaccession of the Huntington collection. To be clear, the ANS has renewed its demand to the Hispanic Society of America that it make available for examination the HSA Foundation Deed. Let all interested parties read Archer Huntington’s express intent and be guided thereby. Let not his collection be dispersed without a clear statement from this great numismatist, collector, and philanthropist who did so much to preserve Hispanic art and culture.

There is little doubt that the engagement by HSA of Sotheby’s International to reclaim the collection is in complete contravention of the intentions of Archer Huntington, who deliberately put together this encyclopedic collection for the benefit of researchers, scholars, numismatists, and the general public.