Happy 70th Birthday – In Honor of Fritz Rudolf Künker

Fritz Rudolf Künker at the inauguration of the new head office at Nobbenburger Straße. Photo: UK.
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They all started out more or less in the same way, all those students in the 70s who made their love of coins their profession. What a glorious era! It was only knowledge that counted! There were neither price catalogs nor the internet. Standing before the trays of other coin dealers, trying to decide which purchase promised a certain profit, you had to know by heart exactly who had paid how much at which place for a certain coin. And the possible profits were large at a time when coin trade was still local and not international, and the fear of inflation made coin prices rise from one week to the next. Back then, everyone with sufficient knowledge could make a small fortune simply by buying a coin in one place and selling it somewhere else at a significantly higher price.

As mentioned before, in the early 70s, Fritz Rudolf Künker was one of many. But whereas the majority of the other coin dealers who started in the field back then never grew beyond their one-man company (and perhaps never wanted to), he succeeded in founding a business that has made a lasting impact on coin trade not just in Germany, but worldwide.

You may very well wonder why this is the case. It certainly is no coincidence. Instead, it is due to the fact that “K1”, as insiders among themselves lovingly call him, possesses a rare combination of virtues and skills that has made him a dominant figure in international coin trade, even though he is much too humble to ever let any of his interlocuters feel that.


Manfred Olding (left) worked for Fritz Rudolf Künker (right) for close to two decades before starting his own coin dealing business. The photo was taken at the IAPN Conference in Munich in 2003. Photo: UK.

Fritz Rudolf Künker, the team player

One of Fritz Rudolf Künker’s greatest qualities is the ability to recognize talents, nurture them and utilize them for his purpose, to the mutual benefit of both parties involved. I doubt there are many coin dealers who, at the very start of their career, bring their own brother into the business to delegate some of the tasks to him …

While many coin dealers shy away from the costs and the responsibility of expanding the business and hiring staff, “K1” systematically collaborated with people who were able to do the things he himself didn’t have the skills, desire or time to do. Naturally, that made the company grow and brought about its incredible market dominance. But apart from that, Fritz Rudolf Künker also discovered quite a few talents who were taught the business of coin trade by him from scratch. Many of the independent coin dealers of today gained their first experiences at the Künker company.

Who else besides Fritz Rudolf Künker would have opened up their own business to a coin dealer from Leipzig, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, in order to show her how coin trade worked in the “West”? Heidrun Höhn, who sadly died much too soon, received at Künker’s a crash course in West German business management before starting her own coin-trade company Leipziger Münzhandlung, which is flourishing today.

It is typical of Fritz Rudolf Künker not to be afraid of the competition, but to collaborate whenever possible. No other coin dealer that I know has as many co-operations and partners as the auction house Künker.

And of course, Fritz Rudolf Künker also made his contribution to the associations, promoting the case of numismatics. Between 1977 and 1986, he was president of the German coin dealers’ association Verband der Deutschen Münzenhändler. In the International Association of Professional Numismatists IAPN, too, he took up several work-intensive volunteer posts like that of the treasurer or, together with Alain Poinsignon, the Anti-Forgery Committee. Which leads us to his next virtue.


Fritz Rudolf Künker, the diplomat

Coin trade is a business that, almost more than banks, relies on confidentiality. In such a field, acquiring the reputation of complete reliability is an art that requires luck and deserves great merit. Fritz Rudolf Künker is reliable. Everyone knows that you can trust him with internal information without the risk of him spreading it or taking advantage of it. Only because of this, Fritz Rudolf Künker was able to convince a group of competitors to openly speak to him about their best supplier. By comparing the information thus acquired, he succeeded in exposing the counterfeiter Otto Wetzlaff, who had cheated the serious coin trade out of huge sums of money with his excellent forgeries.

But Fritz Rudolf Künker is not only reliable, he is also diplomatic. In a committee that features him as a member, less disputes are likely to arise than in one without him. Again and again, he manages to make people listen to the opinion of others and think about it. And he finds the right words to calm any agitated souls.

In a field where so many egos collide, it is a blessing to negotiate with someone who doesn’t put the focus on their ego, but on the subject matter. I have always known Fritz Rudolf as someone you can convince with objective arguments as long as they are good. Someone who admits when he is wrong, and who masters the greatest art of all, the art of apologizing if he wronged somebody – and that even to people who are not relevant to his business.


The eloquent Fritz Rudolf Künker

It was a rather simple skill that gave Fritz Rudolf Künker an incredible advantage in the first years of his business. He had done Romance studies and spoke perfect French, which at the time not even a handful of German coin dealers could. Obviously, he thus had better access to the French market, where in the 70s and 80s several old and renowned collections were liquidated.

He was a regular at Rue Richelieu in Paris and developed a friendly relationship with many French coin dealers, which – and this is just how the coin market works – made him a popular business partner in a market that remained inaccessible for many others who didn’t speak French.


The honest Fritz Rudolf Künker

When I first saw “K1” at an auction, I thought to myself: “He has integrated his success into his face. How can someone look so honest?” It took me many years to understand that this honesty, or rather integrity, is part of Fritz Rudolf’s personality. He is true to his word, no matter what. And that makes him a predictable business partner everybody loves to work with.

However, in no way does this integrity come with what is best described as guilelessness. He is not guileless. On the contrary. He knows people, and he knows what every one of his business partners is like. He knows where he needs to tread carefully, and whom he can rely on unconditionally.

Fritz Rudolf Künker knows his people, and he likes them anyway. Which is probably his greatest virtue.


Fritz Rudolf Künker, the philanthropist

Visit any Künker auction you like: If you see a crowd of people forming, that’s where “K1” is standing. Every collector feels honored to get the chance to talk to him. Colleagues seek his attention for a problem, staff for a decision. It is exhausting to always be at the center of attention. Fritz Rudolf Künker takes it with stoic friendliness.

You only need to be wary when he wears his “jacket of horror”, known beyond the Künker company – a jacket he always wears when he wants to signal that he is not in a good mood that day and doesn’t want to be bothered with trivialities. But that, too, is a sign of his philanthropy: After all, everyone has a bad day now and then. And with this little gesture, “K1” saves the others from taking a potentially rough reaction of his too personal.


Bernd Kluge (left), at the time director of the Berlin Münzkabinett, with Fritz Rudolf Künker. Photo: UK.

Fritz Rudolf Künker, the patron

There is probably no author, no coin association, no museum that doesn’t know that you can trustingly turn towards Fritz Rudolf Künker if you need support for a numismatic endeavor. The list of projects that have been co-financed by the Künker company is endless. Numismatic life in the German-speaking area may not come to a standstill without Künker’s, but there certainly would be large financial bottlenecks, for numerous institutions.


Live and let live

Apart from that, Künker’s is not to be underestimated as a reliable and generous client of many smaller coin dealers, auction houses and service providers in the field of numismatics. Live and let live is the motto. Those who collaborate with Künker’s know that you need to offer good service for good money. On the other hand, Fritz Rudolf Künker is not the miser in person, either. The company does not make use of its size and ubiquity to demand ruinous prices and conditions from its business partners.


Fritz Rudolf Künker, the spirit

In 2014, Fritz Rudolf Künker conferred the management of the auction house he built onto his successors Ulrich Künker and Dr. Andreas Kaiser. Legally, the two of them are now responsible for Künker’s, but with his frequent presence, “K1” makes sure the company continues to be run in his interest. Which probably wouldn’t even be necessary. His ideas of integrity, expertise and dedication for the greater numismatic good are so closely tied to the company that Künker’s is perceived by the outside world as a monolith living these virtues.

During the International Numismatic Congress of 2015 in Taormina – in the middle of the controversy about the German Kulturgutschutzgesetz [Law on the Protection of Cultural Property] –, the scientific world of numismatics vociferously stood behind the collectors, in order to show the world of politics that science, trade and collecting form a union in numismatics – and that was in part thanks to Fritz Rudolf Künker, who has always been close to the scientific world.

It was also Fritz Rudolf Künker who set the scene for politicians to specifically listen to what the coin trade had to say in the discussion about the Kulturgutschutzgesetz. It is a blessing that his son Ulrich has inherited this political-diplomatic gene from his father.

All of Fritz Rudolf Künker’s children work or have worked in the world of coins. And they all played and will continue to play their part in internationalizing, forming and furthering the world of coins.

Fritz Rudolf, I wish you all the best for your birthday. As a German children’s song puts it: How nice that you were born, for otherwise we would have missed you greatly.

Without you, the world of numismatics would be much poorer.

If, instead of this honoring, you would rather have read about Fritz Rudolf Künker’s life, take a look at our numismatic Who’s who.