The E-Sylum:  Volume 5, Number 46, November 17, 2002, Article 15


  So much for "last words".   The museum/collector
  discussion continues, this time with several jabs at
  curators who misappropriate artifacts (or allow
  misappropriation to happen through indifference or
  incompetence).   Present company excepted, naturally.
  While the instances cited are unfortunate, I believe
  they are intended as examples of what can happen,
  and certainly do not apply to all museums.

  Ed Krivoniak writes: "It's about time that someone spoke
  out against museums and archaeologists.  I have very little
  respect left for either.  It has become a practice over the last
  few years for museums, libraries and historical societies to
  sell off their coin collections to pay for other acquisitions. The
  Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh is a case in point.  Not only
  did they sell the collection but they did it poorly. Look back
  through your auction catalogs to find many other culprits.

  As far as the archeologists are concerned, I know of 2
  accumulations that have been sold in Pittsburgh in the last
  10 years where the items came from archaeologists. The first
  was a collection of Egyptian relics including a mummified
  cat and the second was a collection of late medieval to early
  modern Islamic coins. One group came from a retiring
  archaeologist and the other from the estate of an

  Personally I once sold a book about General Sherman's march
  written by his aide decamp. Where did I find it?  In the garbage
  in front of the Monessen Public Library!

  At least the relic or coin hunter is honest in trying to locate
  these items for a profit and not like the museums and
  archaeologists who betray the public's trust."

  [Although Ed's implication is that the items in the
   archaeologists' collections were misappropriated property,
   there is of course no way to know that.  The items could
   have been acquired quite legitimately.

  As for the Carnegie coin sales, I can attest to how poorly
  the sales were handled.   The encased postage stamps,
  which may have come from the collection of local collector
  Earl Coatsworth, were auctioned in London.  It's hard
  enough to find collectors of these rare items here in the
  states, but retail bidders were nonexistent in London.
  Through a dealer who attended the sale, I purchased a
  rare Ellis McAlpin 5 cent for a mere 95 dollars. It's an R9
  worth in excess of $1,000.   I assume my dealer friend
  bought most or all of the rest of the encased pieces at
  similar bargain prices.   The museum is currently in
  financial straits and had to lay off three curators. -Editor]

  Dave Bowers writes: "Concerning public museums with
  coins, it has been my very long term experience and
  observation that if a museum has a NUMISMATICALLY
  KNOWLEDGEABLE curator who is also honest (which
  is usually the case), all is well, and the collection can flourish
  and be an asset to the public as well as to numismatists.

  However, if there is an interregnum in which there is not a
  then there may be a problem, as things tend to "walk."

  A number of years ago our company received a nice letter
  from a state university, enclosing an inventory of its coin
  collection compiled years earlier. On the list were many rare
  and important pieces. The collection was long sealed in a vault
  and had not been inspected in recent times.  A representative
  of my company hopped on a plane, met with the university
  official in charge, and together they went to the vault for an
  inspection. When the vault was opened there was JUST
  ONE COIN remaining, a 1922 Peace silver dollar!

  I could relate MANY more such stories.  In case it might be
  relevant, the same situation occurs with other "collectibles"
  that are kept by museums, if the curators are not
  knowledgeable in that particular area. I am interested in
  meteorites and a few years ago my wife and I donated a
  nice collection of these to Harvard University (their most
  important acquisition in this field since 1882), the minerals
  and meteorites being well curated by Dr. Carl Francis and
  Bill Metropolis, both prominent in their fields and both
  personal friends. They, too, have "stories" to share about
  minerals and meteorites ONCE (but no longer) in various
  museum collections without experts in this field--the meteorites
  and minerals "walked."

  Similarly, any member of the Manuscript Society (of which I
  have been a member since 1958) knows the many dozens of
  stories about autographs, signatures, etc., once in public
  libraries and museums, but not carefully curated, that have
  "walked." Indeed, almost every issue of the Manuscript
  Society Newsletter has a new story in this regard.

  Recently I visited a prominent public library and found in
  file folders over $100,000 in historical obsolete currency.
  I paid for Xerox copies of each note (to record the serial
  numbers) and suggested to the curator that these, if
  discovered by someone with less than honest motives, might
  "walk."  He said he would make his own set of Xerox copies
  and put the originals in the library's vault.

  In summary, for a museum to have a successful numismatic
  holding of great importance, and to hold it, this should take

  The coins should be attributed, photographed (easy enough
  to do electronically these days), and an inventory should be
  made of them.

  There should be sensible precautions regarding those who
  have access to the specimens.

  The curator in charge should have basic numismatic knowledge,
  or take steps to secure same, or should enlist the services of
  an independent consultant or friend of the museum in this

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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