Carl Subak (1919-2022)

Carl Subak in Prague, 1997. Photo courtesy of Susan Subak.
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Carl Hans Subak was one of the most charming and cosmopolitan coin dealers I had the privilege of getting to know throughout my life. He was a wonderful storyteller, who was able to bring the protagonists of the long-gone coin trade back to life by means of a few well-chosen words. He loved good food and good conversations. And, despite everything he experienced in his youth, he was always ready to meet new people and make new friends. With him we lose an old-school coin dealer, who ran his coin and stamp shop in the centre of Chicago for many decades.

Growing Up on the Ruins of Carnuntum

Karl Hans Subak was born on 16 January 1919 as the son of Ernst and Marianne Subak. His father ran a large agricultural business in Petronell as a tenant farmer. Petronell is well-known to all connoisseurs of Austria’s Roman history because the Carnuntum legionary camp was located there. This was the place from where Marcus Aurelius commanded the Roman army in the Marcomannic Wars. So when little Karl played on his father’s land, he would often find Roman coins. Therefore he was already a keen collector by the age of five. The greatest reward his father could give him was allowing him to choose a coin from the jar into which the servants threw the coins they found in the field.

A Destroyed Youth

Karl Subak came from a wealthy Jewish family, which enabled him to attend the grammar school in Vienna. And there’s more. By the time he was 16, Karl had enough pocket money to bid in the auction sale of the Traun collection. He never forgot this first acquisition: a denarius of Gordian III.

Karl’s parents were able to send their son to one of the top High School’s (gymnasium) in Vienna from which he graduated in 1937. He would have gone on to university or to manage the profitable dry goods/textile business his grandmother (Theresa Glaser) and mother had run since the death of Karl’s grandfather – if he had lived in a different age. But the Nazis marched into Austria on 13 March 1938. There had always been some anti-Semitism in Vienna, but now it escalated into brutal pogroms.

Karl fled Vienna. His escape led him via Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain to the United States of America. His family stayed in Austria. Karl Subak drew his own lessons from this, as he once revealed in a conversation with the coin dealer Fritz Rudolf Künker: “Do you know why I never bought a house in Chicago?” he is reported to have said. “My parents didn’t want to flee Vienna until the very end because they couldn’t get a good price for their house. I don’t want anything to hold me back when it’s time for me to go.”

In the US, Karl Subak started his studies at Harvard, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree and entered the US Army as an interpreter in 1943. There he changed his German name Karl to the American version Carl.

After the war, Carl Subak worked for the mail-order house Sears Roebuck, where he set up a philatelic department. Shanna Schmidt recounts that the Sears management insisted on him moving to Chicago, so he did so in 1949 – a decision he would never come to regret, just like marrying his wife Eileen the same year. Eileen supported him in his work from the very beginning. In return, however, she insisted that he would never make her cook lunch or dinner, she told me once.

Between Dealing and Collecting

Together with his wife Eileen, Carl Subak built one of the most successful coin and stamp shops in the Midwest. He joined the International Association of Professional Numismatists in 1977. Nevertheless, only a few collectors are familiar with the Subak name today. The reason for this is that Carl didn’t hold auction sales, he preferred consigning pieces to colleagues. He wanted to be courted as a potential consignor instead of having to compete for consignments himself. To this day, the SUBAK Inc. company, which has long been taken over by his son Jon Subak, does not have a website.

Nonetheless, Carl travelled a lot and constantly visited coin dealers throughout the world, studying their stock in detail. I had the pleasure of meeting him on such an occasion. Carl Subak was good friends with Pierre Strauss, who still had an office at the Münzen und Medaillen AG; and this is how Carl came to Basel’s Malzgasse. I had the task of showing him the countless trays that were stored in the enormous vaults of MMAG. Carl Subak carefully looked at each of them. He didn’t buy anything but he invited me to dinner – and he repeatedly did so in the future. He always let me know when he came to Basel and arranged a lunch or dinner with me. I always made it happen, I couldn’t get enough of his stories about the 1950s coin trade.

In this way, he also commissioned me to bid on his behalf at an auction sale in Lugano. A small series of quinarii was offered there. And Carl Subak was not only a coin dealer, he was a passionate collector too. He was interested in rare talers and multiple talers. But his true passion were Roman quinarii, which are incredibly difficult to get. His collection is one of the best ensembles that have ever been collected on this subject. Cathy King therefore used it as the basis for her important work in this field.

Although Carl Subak always appreciated the value of money and shied away from unnecessary spending, he was generous when it came to supporting the community. He always had a sympathetic ear for scholarly institutions that approached him with a request that he considered reasonable.

Carl Subak seemed indestructible. He worked well past his 90th birthday, played tennis every morning at 7 a.m. and, even at an advanced age, he could effortlessly outrun his companions on mountain hikes. He is survived by his children Jon and Susan as well as two grandchildren, to whom we extend our heartfelt condolences.