George Frederick Kolbe: 50 Years of Numismatic Bookselling

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by David F. Fanning

December 7, 2017 – When coin collecting as an avocation became fashionable during the late Renaissance, the number of people involved was quite small and the number of books on the subject even smaller. Today, our hobby involves millions of people and the printed record of these enthusiasts – whether hobbyists, investors, scholars or dealers – has become voluminous. Keeping track of the myriad publications on coins, separating the wheat from the chaff, and maintaining a bibliographic tradition going back to the 16th century is no simple task. Happily for us, we have had George Frederick Kolbe to guide us in our efforts to understand the coins we study and admire so much.

George Frederick Kolbe: He is celebrating his 50th anniversary as expert in numismatic literature.

George was not the first numismatic bookseller, even if we limit our scope to the United States. However, numismatic booksellers before George Kolbe were generally coin dealers who kept a supply of books around for their more studious clients. Even the ones who became passionate about numismatic books on their own merits were, and I use the word in both its general senses, amateurs. They loved the books, but they were out of their element when it came to anything like formal bibliography and were generally unfamiliar with the traditions of bookselling. One of the revolutionary aspects of George’s catalogues was his introduction of formal bibliographic descriptions to an area of the hobby that was used to seeing simple lists of authors and titles. Part of this was salesmanship: surely books would sell better if customers could be certain of which edition they were buying, or whether it was illustrated, or how it was bound. But part of this was also an effort on his part to educate others, to share his knowledge. Finally, George felt the books deserved the dignity of proper description. 

The other revolutionary aspect of George’s catalogues was his willingness to offer EVERYTHING. If it was numismatic literature it was fair game, and George felt obligated to know something about it and to describe it to the best of his ability. If a consignor presented him with five boxes of rare coin books in Serbian, then it was time to learn about Serbian books. He became an avid collector of numismatic bibliographies, eagerly buying an obscure one he didn’t already have because he knew he’d have use for it later. Antiquarian books of the 16th and 17th centuries presented significant challenges, but also significant opportunities to learn, and George was an eager student. He never declined a consignment because he was unfamiliar with an area, but instead took it as an opportunity to learn about that new area. 

As time went on, George’s catalogues improved and his efforts became appreciated in the marketplace. As demand grew and supply stayed the same, prices rose. What started out as a side business, an extension of a hobby, became a full-time business. George’s wife, Linda, and children routinely found themselves involved in what had become a rather busy family business. Modest fixed-price lists had been succeeded by professionally printed auction catalogues and other offerings. Sales were held jointly with foreign coin firms. Libraries were purchased from all over the world. As a sign of the respect he had earned within the bookselling trade, he was accepted as a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America; reflecting the respect he held within the numismatic world, he was elected a member of the International Association of Professional Numismatists. 

Though numismatic booksellers face an uncertain future, George has provided this vocation with a solid foundation to weather our current storms. As he often says, Onward and Upward!

This text is a condensed version of the introduction written by David Fanning for the tribute volume recently published in honor of George F. Kolbe: “Fifty Years of Numismatic Bookselling”. To order the book from Kolbe & Fanning, click here.

In his “Reminiscences”, George Kolbe is sharing his memories and experiences as a Numismatic Bookseller with the readers of CoinsWeekly. Here you can find Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Georg Kolbe of course has an entry in the CoinsWeekly Numismatic Who’s Who.