Printed: June 14, 2021

History for sale

Philadelphia institute cashes in George Washington medals


When William Spohn Baker, legendary collector and authority on all things George 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 elsewhere.

On Nov. 16, with little notice to the general public, the entire Baker Collection of 1,102 medals was 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.

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 in Philadelphia, just blocks away from the city’s historic City Hall.

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 holdings had “hardly any research value in them that I could see” to the historical society, which is a library and not a museum.

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 Collection 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 the New York City 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 to the U.S. Constitution 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 Mr. Cullen.

“The Freedom Box is available for sale,” Mr. Cullen said.

HSP has been unable to find a buyer so far.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” he wrote.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”

In the case of the Baker Collection, 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 that Mr. 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 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said he met with Mr. Cullen quite a while ago. Mr. 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.