What do you do when the heritage and history of the world is being auctioned out of museums and into private hands? What do you do when historically important items are put into storage in favor of bigger draw pop culture exhibits? This is the question facing the world for the last several years.
Several museums including the world-renowned Smithsonian institution have packed away culturally and historically important collections of all sorts to put int exhibits that bring in more visitors, pop culture here today, gone tomorrow kind of flotsam, the same stuff that dirties the television channels with vacuousity not normally found in nature. Even more disturbing is the trend that started nearly fifteen years ago with institutions and cities who held important collections, selling off parts of all of those collections to either raise money for something that seems important at the time or just to keep their doors open.
I am reminded of the city of Omaha, the appointed caretaker of the Byron Reed Collection, which was/is a collection of rare books, manuscripts, autographs, tokens, coins, and other exonumia. The bulk of the collection is contained in the Durham Western Heritage Museum, however in 1996 the city decided they needed to part with part of the collection to raise money so they sold 562 irreplaceable lots through Christie’s. And they were gone, pretty much forever. Part of a collection that had been put together over a course of decades in the 19th century was broken up and parted with, and for what….six million lousy dollars. The remaining collection, especially the library, is widely considered to be the last remaining numismatic library left intact from the 19th century. Omaha will hopefully refrain from frittering away one of the last glorious things they have in the future in order to raise what amounts financially to a drop in the bucket.
Now we come to the Hispanic Society of America. They have been financially struggling for a few years now, despite a world-class facility and collection that includes paintings by Goya and other holdings that are unparalleled outside of the Iberian Peninsula. The society has decided the only way to stay solvent is to auction off most of their 38,000 item coin collection, the Arthur M Huntington collection. The collection includes a, I mean the, 50 Excelentes, the coin pictured above, a five ounce gold monster minted under Ferdinand and Isabella during the time of Columbus’ voyages. This coin is the only known surviving specimen from the 15th century and the largest surviving gold coin from the same period. Also included are significant coins from Rome to include an ides of march denarius, and other important coins.
The HSA wanted to keep the collection accessible to researchers and scholars, but no museum could be found to meet the $25 million dollar asking price for the collection, so it is going into private hands at auction. Some of the collection will most likely be purchased by museums and other organizations that will showcase it or protect it, and certainly there are those who would purchase pieces of the collection and then loan them out to other organizations for display. But those will be few and far between, happily an unidentified collector purchased 10,000 pieces of the collection and loaned them semi permanently to the American Numismatic Society so they can be displayed. Most likely of this collection is destined for private hands, scattered around the world.
This is what happens when people are no longer enthralled by our own history and culture. The digital age is replacing the world of the physical. Now that we have become digital sharecroppers of our own culture we have no need for actual history. Someday it will all be scattered, gone, and no one but a few will remember it, but the vast majority of people will remember what brainless bimbo did what, when, and with whom. So sad.