A Treasure Travels, Inconspicuously By GLENN COLLINS
Published: June 16, 2008
Once the coins reached their destination at the new home of
The American Numismatic Society, the trove of coins was quickly
unwrapped and filed in the new vault.
They didnt exactly hire two guys with a truck to secretly
move one of the worlds largest and most valuable coin
collections over the weekend in Manhattan. But they did use
five standard-issue moving vans.
No armored-car convoys. No helicopter gunships. No National
Guard outriders flourishing automatic weapons. Just sweaty
movers, in blue shirts with their names stitched at the front,
schlepping 425 plastic packing crates that were filled with
treasures trussed in humble bubble wrap and garden-variety
vinyl packing tape.
Yes, the New York Police Department provided an escort, but
during more than eight hours on Saturday, one of the great
hoards of coins and currency on the planet, worth hundreds
of millions of dollars, was utterly unalarmed as it was bumped
through potholes, squeezed by double-parked cars and slowed
by tunnel-bound traffic during the trip to its fortresslike
new vault a mile to the north.
In the end, the move did not become a caper movie.
The idea was to make this as inconspicuous as possible,
said Ute Wartenberg Kagan, executive director of the American
Numismatic Society. It had to resemble a totally ordinary
collection of 800,000 coins, bank notes, medals, commemorative
badges, pins, historic advertising tokens, campaign buttons
and other artifacts has been amassed during the 150-year existence
of the nonprofit society.
It was transported from the societys high-security
headquarters at 96 Fulton Street, in the former Fidelity and
Deposit Company building at the corner of William Street,
to its future home, a secure $4 million vault and exhibition
space 22 blocks away, on the 11th floor of One Hudson Square,
at Varick and Canal Streets.
Even as the moving vans shuttled back and forth, the societys
14 employees began the endlessly tedious work of unpacking
the boxes. They began freeing 12,000 metal trays full of coins
from their quarter-inch foam packing, then stacking them in
their new locations in custom-built cabinets in a vault erected
on the concrete floor of a former printing building.
The societys holdings rival the comprehensiveness and
rarity of those in the Smithsonian Institution and comprise
one of the worlds great collections, the equivalent
of those in Berlin, Paris and the British Museum, said
Christopher S. Lightfoot, an associate curator in the department
of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is a vast, encyclopedic collection of the highest
quality, he added.
Of the collections value, Dr. Wartenberg Kagan said,
It is priceless because it has so many unique pieces,
adding with deliberate vagueness that experts had valued it
in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The collection is incredibly valuable, so you can understand
why they dont want to publicize exactly how much,
said Rosemary Lazenby, curator of the Federal Reserve Bank
of New York.
During the move, coded numbers on each sealed crate were
checked again and again, and nothing fell off a truck,
said Andrew R. Meadows, the societys deputy director.
Society staff members were pledged to secrecy about the timing
of the move, and we didnt tell our movers what
the cargo was until the morning of, said James McVeigh,
operations manager of Time Moving and Storage Inc. of Manhattan,
referring to the crew of 20 workers.
How could you not think that there are crazy people
out there who want to do crazy things? he added, noting
that he spent six months planning the move with his brother,
Tom, another manager of Time Moving.
And so as bright orange rubber-wheeled crates concealing
fabulous doubloons rumbled out onto the sidewalk, pedestrians
obliviously headed into the Duane Reade two doors away at
130 William Street.
Amid much shouting and hand gesturing, the moving vans barely
squeezed past a parked Duane Reade truck on the narrow street
as the drivers maneuvered past water and gas main renovation
work on Fulton Street.
Then, before arriving at their loading-dock destination on
Watts Street, the trucks had to battle Holland Tunnel approaches
clotted with weekenders on the way to the Jersey Shore.
Its our first coin collection, said a New
York police detective, Gregory Welch, of Emergency Service
Unit Truck One, which shadowed the move with hidden heavy
weapons just in case, along with patrol cars from
the First Precinct. He said his unit was accustomed to protecting
Federal Reserve gold transfers and gem shipments in the Midtown
The numismatic society, which has about 2,000 members, was
founded by a group of New York collectors in 1858. Thanks
to the discovery and minting of gold in California and the
development of new federal coinage, interest in coin collecting
as well as the size of the societys collection
grew quickly. By 1908, the society had its first permanent
home, in a neoclassical building next to the Hispanic Society
of America on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway.
Portions of the collection which grew through donations
from the societys members and officers were long
on view. But a decline in its finances starting in the 1970s
resulted in a whittling down of the staff, and the society
considered shutting its doors, Dr. Wartenberg Kagan said.
However, she added, an infusion of new board members and wealthy
donors has given it a current endowment of $45 million.
In 1998, the society bought the seven-story Fulton Street
building for $6.5 million and reopened its doors to scholars
in 2004, but the growing cost of renovations in the antiquated
structure proved too great to provide an exhibition space,
Dr. Wartenberg Kagan said.
So the society lent hundreds of its rarest and most valuable
holdings to a museum in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York,
as well as some 250 gold and silver coins to the Metropolitan.
The society sold its building this year for $23.9 million,
which was mostly for the endowment, and some for the
build-out in the new space, Dr. Wartenberg Kagan said.
The oldest item in the societys cabinet
(the coin-maven word for collection) is one of the first coins
ever produced, made of gold-silver alloy and issued around
650 B.C. by a Lydian king who was an ancestor of Croesus.
There is also a 2,000-year-old gold aureus coin of the Roman
Emperor Augustus; a gold stater of Alexander the Great, dating
to about 330 B.C. (minted in Babylon from Persian loot); and
one of the rarest examples of Confederate States currency,
a $1,000 note printed in Alabama in 1861. Fewer than 700 were
The society also has a library of 100,000 books, pamphlets,
manuscripts, catalogs and other items, which will open to
the public in September.
The new, 20,000-foot space, with its 14-foot ceilings, has
panoramic views north to the Chrysler Building and west to
the Hudson River and will have a climate-controlled rare-book
room, conference and lecture spaces, administrative offices
and an exhibition hall.
Our collection is amazing, and much of it has not been
on view, Dr. Wartenberg Kagan said. The first exhibition,
celebrating the societys 150th anniversary, is to open
The society deserves a new home, where its holdings
can be displayed to the public, said Ms. Lazenby of
the Federal Reserve, which has exhibited parts of the societys
collection in recent years in the banks admission-free
coin museum, in its massive iron-barred neo-Florentine building
at 33 Liberty Street.
All day Saturday, after the movers put the crates in place,
workers quietly and steadily unpacked the coins, some golden
and gleaming, others dulled by the centuries. For long stretches,
the only sounds were the popping of tape and bubble wrap,
the squawk of trays sliding into cabinets and the very occasional
ring of a coin bouncing on the concrete floor, accidentally
tipped from its tray. Instantly work would cease as the errant
coin was hunted down and restored to its niche, undamaged.
Finally, after the massive doors and gates of the vault slammed
shut, Dr. Wartenberg Kagan expressed gratitude to the police
and the heroic efforts of her staff, and gave the order for
the alarm to be armed. To say Im relieved,
she said after the lockdown, is putting it mildly.