by Douglas Saville
July 6, 2017 – John passed away on 26 June 2017 in a hospice, not far from his home in central London – Cancer had been diagnosed a few months ago, and he will be remembered for his cheerfulness, generosity of spirit, reliability, and basic good-heartedness.
For many years to come the numismatic world will be grateful to him for his remarkable and indispensable – I don’t use these adjectives lightly – Ancient Coin Auction Catalogues 1880-1980, published in 2009 (Reviewed by Alan Walker in Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 89, 2010, pp. 277-280).
Over the years, I got to know John very well indeed, and more especially in more recent times when he started to deal in numismatic literature. He had previously collected coins, and slowly these were replaced by the literature of the subject, especially the sales catalogues.
He became increasingly fascinated by the personalities behind the collections sold at auction – the collectors, the dealers and the auction houses. During his visits to Spinks in the 1980s and 1990, we would discuss the famous collectors of the past, named and unnamed. With his computer-processing background – his first job in 1960 was with IBM, as a systems’ analyst – he started to organise the information, and to form an important collection of illustrated sales catalogues. This work resulted in his major Bibliography, and on and off, it took John almost 30 years.
John didn’t like to fly – I am not sure he ever did fly – and he travelled all over Europe by train, often with his bicycle on board. He rented left-luggage lockers in railway stations all over the Continent, where he deposited boxes of books ready to be hauled to coin fairs for sale; he worked hard at this for a number of years, and he loved every minute of the time he spent doing it.
He had one bad experience in France – at gunpoint police arrested him for a short time on a train, for “smuggling” – apparently for not “declaring” duty-free books … and put him off the train … imagine him sitting on the station in the middle of France, surrounded with his books and not much else. I don’t think he ever forgave the French police, and I am not sure if he ever travelled through France again by train.
John and I attended many of the well-known auctions of numismatic libraries – often he would spend days viewing lots, and adding to his ever-increasing database: the M & M (Basle) sales of the 1980s; the Werkner library sale Spink Taisei, (1993) and the Sotheby sale of the Furstenberg library, (1982) both sold in Zurich. Just the remnants, but still a massive library, of the famous Dutch dealership, Jacques Schulman, was sold in Frankfurt/Main in 1995. The enormous Rollin and Feuardent library, the Kampmann (Maison Platt), and the Etienne Page libraries were all sold in Paris between the years 1989-2003. John was at all these sales – in his element, and loving the thrill of auctions and the socialising, often with people he had corresponded with and previously not met. John Bergman attended one such sale, and George Kolbe was at almost all of these noted.
He would usually stay in the cheapest possible hotel – or hostel – that he could find, and would delight in inviting a few of us to a back-street restaurant (often at a hike of a couple of miles) he had found where the food was fantastic, but the price less than a third of what you might expect to pay. An additional “game” that John liked to play – searching out the cheapest of places.
Domenico Rossi’s sale of his huge collection of auction catalogues, and Marco Olivari’s impressive library were sold in Pavia in 2003-2005. I had been offered the Rossi collection en bloc – but I think John was relieved when I told him I wasn’t able to buy it, since he would then have missed the fun of an auction and the socialising …!
One of the most impressive libraries to have be sold at auction was that of Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basle, Künker, Osnabrück, in 2005. I think John viewed the sales catalogues in that library for more than a week prior to the sale – the library stayed in Basle, whilst the auction was held in Osnabrück.
Perhaps the most memorable of such sales was the auction of the remaining part, but still huge – nearly 3,000 lots sold over 3 very long days – of the Adolph Hess library sold by Peus in Frankfurt/Main in 1991. In his inimitable way, after the sale, John listed ALL the attendees at the auction. In room 1 he named the 30 or so “German speakers” – in room 2, there were 25 or so “English speakers”, and in room 3, there were 4 or 5 “others” … Peus conducted the whole sale simultaneously in German and English, and in French and Italian when required.
A few months ago, John presented me with his own annotated sale room copy of the catalogue of the Hess library sale – falling to pieces – and said: “… you had better have this, since you’re the only person who will understand what it is all about!”.