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Cash-strapped Historical Society of Pennsylvania is selling off parts of its collection

A collection of historic medals has been sold for about $2.2 million at auction in Baltimore. And now the precious “Freedom Box” is being shopped around.

Extremely Rare Silver Washington "Seasons" Medal Designed by John Trumbull in 1796. The Shepherd, part of the legendary Baker Collection owned by HSP for over a century, sold at auction at Stack's Bowers in Baltimore for $43,200 Nov. 16, 2019. Detail.
Extremely Rare Silver Washington "Seasons" Medal Designed by John Trumbull in 1796. The Shepherd, part of the legendary Baker Collection owned by HSP for over a century, sold at auction at Stack's Bowers in Baltimore for $43,200 Nov. 16, 2019. Detail.Read moreStack's Bowers

When William Spohn Baker, legendary collector and authority on all things Washington, died in 1897, he gave his vast trove of books, prints, engravings, documents, coins, and commemorative George Washington medals to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where he had served on the board for about 15 years.

And the historical society was overjoyed to have it all.

“With this material, carefully used, he formed a collection of great value, enabling him to speak with authority in his own work on the Revolution, and especially the career of Washington," wrote John W. Jordan in HSP’s scholarly journal, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, in 1898. “In bequeathing all his treasures to the Historical Society, he knew that they would always be appreciated and receive the care and attention he had bestowed on them and that they would be made accessible to the historical student.”

But times change, and students will now have to seek enlightenment without some of those treasures.

On Nov. 16, 2019, with little notice to the general public, the 1,102 medals in the Baker Collection were sold in individual lots at a Baltimore auction, fetching about $2.2 million for the cash-strapped historical society. The medals all relate to Washington in some way, whether they were made during his time, ordered struck by him, depict him, or have another connection. The rest of the Baker Collection, including documentation of the medals, remains with the society.

Baker had explicitly stated in his will that the prints, medals, books, and other elements of the collection should be “kept together” and “marked and known as ‘The Baker Collection’ with the distinct understanding that no print, medal or book shall on any pretense whatsoever be removed from the building” housing the historical society at 13th and Locust Streets.

The medals are now in private hands, scattered to the winds, and the collection is irrevocably broken.

According to public records, the sale came after Philadelphia Orphans’ Court lifted Baker’s supposedly permanent restrictions without even holding a hearing. The state Attorney General’s Office, which is charged with looking after the public interest in matters related to charitable nonprofits, had no objections to the sale and advised HSP on how to write its petition to achieve the desired result — liquidation.

Charles Cullen, HSP’s part-time chief executive, justified the sale in a recent interview by arguing that the Baker Collection medals had “hardly any research value in them that I could see” to the historical society, which is a library and not a museum.

“They were objects, and we don’t collect objects actively anymore as of several years ago. We don’t add objects to our collection. And it was thought that we should not try to place these objects elsewhere, but sell them and support the collections with the proceeds.”

The senior deputy attorney general handling the case, Lawrence Barth, has retired and is not available for comment, a spokesperson from the AG’s office said.

The sale comes at a time when the historical society is under such extreme financial stress that it laid off a third of its self-described “bare bones” staff last April. Then, this past summer, plans and hopes for an affiliation with Drexel University died, a Drexel spokesperson says now.

“After an in-depth examination of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s financial situation and a lot of due diligence, Drexel found it was unable to move forward with the affiliation,” the spokesperson said.

HSP says the proceeds from the Baker sale will be used solely for care of its collection, which now numbers about 21 million documents and a handful of artifacts. But under the society’s collections management policy, those funds can cover staff salaries, utility bills, and other operating costs that might be tied to “care of the collections.”

What comes next, after the Baker medal windfall, could well involve sale of another HSP treasure — the legendary gold “Freedom Box” given by the citizens of New York in 1735 to Philadelphian Andrew Hamilton, the man who inspired the tag “Philadelphia Lawyer," for his spirited defense of New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger.

Zenger was under attack by the king’s colonial governor and no New York lawyers would defend him. Hamilton rode to the rescue, cleared Zenger of libel charges — establishing the basis for freedom of the press and the First Amendment in the process — and was presented by grateful New York officials and citizens with a small golden box in thanks.

Etched on the box: “Acquired not by money, but by character.”

After being held by Hamilton’s descendants for two centuries, the box was bestowed on HSP by Lena Cadwalader Evans in 1935. The gift was made permanent in 1939. The box is now being shopped around, according to HSP’s Cullen.

“The Freedom Box is available for sale,” Cullen said. HSP has been unable to find a buyer so far.

Cullen said there are no donor restrictions hampering the sale of the box. In 1941, the donor wrote HSP saying “it was her ‘desire’ that the box not leave the building," Cullen wrote in an email. “Over the ensuing decades, staff considered the item restricted until reviewing the documents revealed that her letter sent 14 months after the gift was precatory [a request] and not binding since it was not made at the time of gifting.”

Cullen says HSP consulted with the Attorney General’s Office regarding the proper procedure for deaccessioning the Freedom Box. The attorney general determined that the box was not restricted by the donor and no Orphans’ Court petition is necessary to sell it, Cullen said.

Attorney Mark Zecca, an authority on such cases, disagrees with this decision. He believes that “the later request from the donor to HSP that the box not leave the building indicates that the donor always believed that the gift was to be owned by HSP and not put up for sale.”

“There’s a process,” said Zecca, “and they should go to court. Particularly with something of such huge significance to the nation, the First Amendment, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia."

In the case of the Baker Collection medals because of the donor restrictions, HSP was obligated to petition Philadelphia Orphans’ Court prior to any sale or transfer.

The court petition, filed in 2018, says that HSP is a library, not a museum, and is not equipped to care for three-dimensional objects.

“HSP has discussed the acquisition of the Washington medals with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the Museum of the American Revolution, and Mount Vernon in Virginia,” the petition reads. “Each such entity has expressed no interest in purchasing the Washington medals because the entities recognize that the Washington medals have no research value and provide no historical context as to George Washington and his times. Each entity believes the medals are the 19th century equivalent of Franklin Mint medals which are of interest to and given value by collectors of such items.”

“It’s shocking that that language, or that comparison, would find its way into a legal argument,” said Kenneth Finkel, a professor of history at Temple University. “There are 19th century equivalents of the Franklin Mint and this is not it. This is a serious collection and eventually its time will come. If it’s not going to be valuable to one generation, that doesn’t mean it won’t be to the next.”

Leaders of the four institutions who Cullen said were offered the collection said they did not turn it down because of a purported lack of “research value” or a similar objection.

Douglas Bradburn, president and chief executive of Mount Vernon, said HSP wanted “well over $1,000,000, which was a non-starter for us at the time.” He said he made no negative comparisons regarding the collection.

David Brigham, head of PAFA, said he met with Cullen quite a while ago. Brigham also said he recalled no comments about the collection’s research value. Curators and directors of the Museum of the American Revolution and the Philadelphia History Museum (which is in the process of joining with Drexel) said they were not aware of any offers made by HSP.

Cullen said, "I talked to PAFA, Mount Vernon, and a few other places to see if they had any interest in acquiring the medals, and they did not, partly for the same reason that I’ve just said: We thought they had no research value, and they were collectors’ items instead of things that were of historic interest.”

The spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said, in an email, that the petition seeking the lifting of the donor restrictions on the Baker Collection was properly filed in 2018 and the attorney general was notified. HSP’s court petition contained a copy of a letter from Barth to HSP’s counsel stating the Attorney General’s Office had no objection to the lifting of the restrictions.

“We will not object to this petition to sell the Baker Collection’s Washington Medals," Barth wrote on May 18, 2018. "I would suggest, however, that to assist the court in reaching the conclusion that I have, the information contained in the second paragraph of your letter also be included in the petition.”

According the court records, the information contained in the letter to the attorney general became the petition’s assertion that the Baker Collection medals had no historic research value and were akin to Franklin Mint commemoratives, and that HSP was seeking “the best and appropriate method of sale.”

Zecca, a private attorney with no involvement in the case, called the sale of the Baker Collection medals “particularly frustrating." He cited the minimal public notice and the absence of a hearing on the matter.

In addition to the gold Freedom Box, HSP has been seeking to sell a large Benjamin West double portrait of William Hamilton, Andrew’s grandson, and William’s niece, Ann Hamilton Lyle. The painting is in need of substantial conservation and has not sold.

“We’re sort of trying to correct what was done in the past," Cullen said, "or at least set a course that will be smooth and correct and restore us to health, financial health specifically.”

Might anything else go on the block?

“That’s it," said Cullen. “No more discussion about objects that we might deaccession because the only objects remaining” are now-built-in fireplace mantels rescued in the 1890s after the Graff House, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, was torn down in 1883.

“There’s no talk about trying to get rid of those or trying to liquidate them,” Cullen said.

If the HSP building is torn down, he said, there might be interest in a sale.

“I’ve been told that the State Department would be interested in having the fireplace,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story did not specify that only the Baker Collection medals have been sold. The rest of the Baker Collection, including documentation of the medals, remains with the society.