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Buried treasure

Recently discovered tucked away in a safe-deposit box, a coin collection donated to DU in 1968 has more than doubled in value. A portion of the collection will be sold; proceeds will aid the School of Art and Art History.

A rare gift of gold, silver and bronze—donated to DU nearly four decades ago and then forgotten—will benefit today’s students in the School of Art and Art History.

Shortly after its donation in 1968, the treasure—a collection of more than 1,500 coins—was tucked away in a safe-deposit box at a downtown Denver Wells Fargo bank. It wasn’t until last summer that the coins were rediscovered by curious DU staffers.

“It was like finding a buried treasure,” says Rich Holz, major gifts officer in the University’s advancement office.

When Holz and his staff attempted to track down the donor, they discovered that everyone associated with the coins had passed away. So from decades-old letters and dusty records, they traced the history of the collection.

Florence Frances Hepp, a Kappa Delta who graduated from DU in 1927 with a degree in English, amassed the collection of transportation tokens, buffalo nickels and gold and silver coins during her lifetime. After her death, her husband, Frederick Summerill of Maryland, donated the collection to DU in his wife’s memory. Vance Kirkland, founder of DU’s art school, accepted the donation in 1968. Letters between Kirkland and Summerill indicate that Kirkland intended to place the collection on display in the rare books room of the library, which at the time was housed in the Mary Reed Building.

No one is exactly sure how or why the coins wound up in the safe-deposit box. One theory is that Kirkland squirreled away the collection for safekeeping and failed to tell anyone about it when he left the University in 1969.

While the collection was tucked away, its value grew from about $21,000 in 1968 to more than $50,000 today, says Annette Stott, director of the School of Art and Art History.

Among the more valuable coins in the collection are a 1938 half-dollar proof worth about $1,200 and a 1916 Standing Liberty quarter worth about $3,500, says Lawrence Lee, former director of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs.

Along with gold coins, half dollars and buffalo nickels, the collection also includes transportation tokens. “The more recent ones are for buses. The older tokens are for streetcars. Older than that are tokens for horse-drawn buggies,” says Chuck Mattson, an American Numismatic Association volunteer. A horse-drawn buggy token from Lewiston, Maine, probably dates to 1875–1900, Mattson notes.

Since their rediscovery, the silver coins have been inventoried and re-housed in archival-quality storage to better protect them. A dozen of the collection’s pieces have been sent to a professional grading service for a final value estimate. Most of the collection will be sold to purchase new equipment for the School of Art and Art History, Stott says.

But the collection’s discovery means more than just funding for the DU art school. The collection also provides an educational opportunity. Nineteenth-century American sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens designed two of the coins, and the buffalo nickels show signs of bronze disease (a chemical reaction that causes acids to eat away at bronze coins). These coins will be used in the classroom rather than sold. For example, Stott says, “We can use the buffalo nickels for the pre-conservation program to show students examples of what went wrong and how to prevent such damage.

“Coins and medals are an art form,” Stott adds. “This collection is worth more than just the dollar amount.”





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