Decades-gone stolen coins returned to ‘amazed’ museum

Mystery collection found during Portland white supremacy bust

Investigators with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office recovered during a May 2014 warrant search a set of commemorative coins once housed at an Oregon State University museum. (KOIN 6/Tyler Dunn)
Investigators with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office recovered during a May 2014 warrant search a set of commemorative coins once housed at an Oregon State University museum. (KOIN 6/Tyler Dunn)

PHILOMATH, Ore. (KOIN 6) — Museums don’t often get calls from sheriff’s offices half a state away, so when a staffer at the Benton County Historical Society in Philomath answered the phone back in May, she was shocked at who was on the other end.

“I was amazed when they called,” said Peggy Lee, the museum’s financial coordinator.

“They” were members of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, calling about an odd collection of coins deputies had recovered in a bust earlier that month in Portland.

The Burnaughs were alums of Oregon Agricultural College, renamed Oregon State University in 1961. (Benton County Historical Society & Museum)
The Burnaughs were alums of Oregon Agricultural College, renamed Oregon State University in 1961. (Benton County Historical Society & Museum)

Placed in a decorative-but-understated cardboard mount, the collection featured 35 commemorative faces of presidents long left to history. Their value and rarity were a total mystery to investigators, who would have had no real way of knowing who it belonged to if it weren’t for a lone traceable hint.

A small sticker on the back of the cardboard remained intact, reading “Horner Museum — O.S.C”.

The Horner Museum collection, located for years in the basement of Gill Coliseum on the Oregon State University campus, was a victim of budget cuts in the mid-90s and was closed to the public in 1995. Ten years later, the museum transferred its inventory to the Benton County Historical Society, finishing the hand-off in 2008.

Not included in the transition was the presidential coin set, and with thousands of pieces coming in, museum curators didn’t expect they’d ever hear of them again.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Lee was the lucky museum staff member tasked with picking up the coins last week.

“We were like ‘wow’,” Lee told sheriff’s officials of she and her co-workers’ initial reaction. “It’s just amazing.”

Now with the collection in hand, it was up to the museum to shed whatever light was possible on the mystery coins.

The collection, titled Presidential Medals, features 35 commemorative coins. (Benton County Historical Society & Museum)
The collection, titled Presidential Medals, features 35 commemorative coins. (Benton County Historical Society & Museum)

As the historical society’s executive director, Irene Zenev, explained, what they found were more deductions than concrete realities, though you can’t fault their reasoning. Their most interesting observation: the coins were probably stolen decades ago, possibly as far back as the 1960s.

Museum officials believe the coins were taken before Horner shut down 20 years ago, and because the presidential medals advance chronologically from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower — who left the Oval Office in 1961 — they knew it was donated sometime after.

After speaking with several former Horner staffers who each began working at the museum around the 1980s and who had no memory of the coins, the Philomath museum’s curators have a pretty good idea of when they disappeared.

Zenev’s also fairly certain the collection isn’t worth much money. A quick scroll through eBay suggests Zenev may be right about that, but to her, that’s a good thing: otherwise the museum probably never would have turned up.

“We’re really happy they made it back,” Zenev said.

One part of the mystery still unexplained, however, is who took them and how they ended up where they did: inside the home of suspected white supremacist gang members.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies seized the coins as part of Operation White Christmas, which began last summer to root out some of the Portland area’s worst crime and drug offenders. Mixed in among piles of money, guns and drugs, investigators brought in more than a few bizarre items: motorcycle parts, musical instruments and the coins.

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There’s no telling how many people had their hands on some of these, lead detective Josh Zwick said of the items at the time.

Both sheriff’s officials and museum staff say they’ll likely never know the full story of the collection, though neither seem all-together bothered either.

Shortly after receiving the coins, the Benton County Historical Society placed them on display. The museum is open to the public from 10 a.m-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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