Cloisters hopes to cash in big on coins Children's museum to benefit from sale

August 26, 1991|By David Michael Ettlin

A hoard of coins and bank notes lay unnoticed for years in a safe at the Cloisters, the hilltop castle in Brooklandville that became a Baltimore-owned children's museum.

Now, the city expects the find to pay off. Christie's, a New York auction house, has put a high value on the collection and will sell it Sept. 13 to benefit the museum.

"I think $350,000 is a perfectly reasonable expectation," said James Lamb, director of Christie's coin department. "Perhaps we can come up with a bit more."

The old U.S. coins and notes were found in a safe at the Cloisters by city employees during the conversion of the mansion into a museum in 1977, five years after its owner's death. The hoard -- estimated then to be worth $91,000 -- was stashed in a bank storage vault.

"We're going to hold on to them," Joan Bereska, an aide to Mayor William Donald Schaefer, said at the time. "They have just got to keep increasing in value."

The Cloisters, a French Gothic mansion with nearly three dozen rooms, was built over 14 years by Sumner A. and Grace Dudrea Wagner Parker as a summer home and private museum for their extensive collection of art, antiques and historical oddities. The mansion's crypt holds the couple's remains.

Mr. Parker died in 1946, two years after the mansion's completion. His widow died in 1972, leaving to family members relatively little of an estate valued at about $800,000.

In a will that was tied up for several years in litigation, Mrs. Parker stipulated that the bulk of her assets be used to form a foundation dedicated largely to the preservation of the Cloisters as a public art museum.

With the estate in legal limbo, the foundation had no money to maintain the mansion and acted under a fallback provision of the will in turning the property over to the city in 1977.

The $500,000-plus price tag for the Cloisters' overhaul and budget in the first year irked the City Council and other public officials as the museum -- a pet project of Mr. Schaefer and the brainchild of his cultural aide, Jody R. Albright -- was rushed to completion. Contracts worth thousands of dollars were let without competitive bidding for work designated as emergency repairs.

Although the coins and notes were found that July, the discovery was not announced formally for more than six months -- and then was hailed as the first return from the city's new acquisition.

The mansion is located off Falls Road on a large hillside tract overlooking the busy cloverleaf interchange of the Jones Falls Expressway and Baltimore Beltway. The site was known many years ago as "the Bad Road to Midnight," according to Mr. Parker's obituary in The Sun.

Because of its location in Baltimore County, operation and funding of the museum were envisioned as a joint project of the city and county governments. But the city was left with all the bills, and it remains in charge of the museum through the Mayor's Committee on Art and Culture.

Under its management, the museum's activities have widened substantially in the past decade. Attendance -- by individuals and school groups -- is expected to reach a record 60,000 this year.

Clair List, director of the committee, said the museum's annual budget amounts to about $400,000. In the last fiscal year, revenue from admissions, special events and party rentals was about $154,000 -- slightly more than the $139,000 contributed by the city. The state chipped in $32,000, Baltimore County provided $10,000, and another $70,000 came from corporations, foundations and an annual museum gala.

Proceeds from the Christie's auction will add another source of revenue -- establishing for the first time a Cloisters endowment fund, Ms. List said. The endowment income will be used for museum programming, she said.

Little is known about the origin of the coin and bank note collection. According to Mr. Lamb, it was put together by an ancestor of Mrs. Parker in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"The collector concentrated on what were, at the time, fairly 'modern' issues," the auction catalog notes -- among them partial rolls of 1862 half-dimes, 1875-S 20-cent pieces, and 1860-O half-dollars. The collection appeared to have been completed around the end of World War I with the purchases of rolls of 1918-S quarters, 1919 buffalo nickels, and "a splendid Panama Pacific Exposition five-piece Commemorative Set," the catalog notes.

The 1915 Panama-Pacific gold and silver coins make up the most valuable lot in the sale -- to be auctioned as a set, with an estimated worth more than $55,000.

But the 1860 half-dollars -- minted in New Orleans and found in a partially filled paper bank roll of 15 coins -- are nothing to sneeze at. Valued at $40,000, the coins are to be sold off individually.

Some of the dimes are listed at more than $1,000, and buffalo coins at $300 to $1,500 each.

A few items have Baltimore origins -- a $10 "National Currency" note issued by the First National Bank of Baltimore, now believed to be worth $600 or more, and six 12 1/2 -cent notes issued in 1816 by the Bank of Baltimore and now valued at $300 to $500.

While the coins and notes may have been forgotten for the five years between Mrs. Parker's death and acquisition of the XTC mansion by the city, Ms. List noted that for the last 14 years the little treasure trove has been quietly appreciating in value in a rented box at the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co.

"We knew just where they were," she said. "We've been paying on the box every year."

But for the most part, the coins have been sitting in one vault or another since the end of World War I.

"The thing that makes them exciting is that no one has touched them for so long," said Mr. Lamb.

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