Reminiscences of a Numismatic Bookseller – Part 2

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by George Kolbe

March 10, 2016 – A man of many talents, Charles M. Johnson (January 8, 1908-February 3, 1979), was born and raised in Butte, Montana and received a law degree from the University of Montana. Johnson relocated to Long Beach, California, where he became a longtime resident and worked in the legal department of an oil firm located there. Following retirement he entered the building construction business. In 1961 he was elected an ANA governor and served four consecutive terms. In 1963, after having supervised the highly successful publication of the 1959.1960 four-volume series of Selections from the Numismatist, Johnson was appointed chairman of a committee to develop plans for constructing a headquarters building for the American Numismatic Association.
Three and a half years later, ground was broken for the Colorado Springs headquarters structure. In his obituary, appearing in the April 1979 issue of The Numismatist, Glenn Smedley termed Johnson “Mr. ANA Headquarters” and observed of his devotion to the American Numismatic Association that “There are many whose names are better known (Charlie was modest and quiet). But I’d be hard put to name any member of the last half century who contributed as much toward the Association’s advancement.”

Becoming acquainted with Charles Johnson and his library

In the late 1960s, I belonged to a number of Southern California coin clubs and, by the late 1970s, began manning bourse tables at major coin shows in Los Angeles. Charles Johnson and I probably met a number of times during this period but I do not recall exactly when or where. In early 1979 I was invited to visit his home to discuss the sale of his numismatic library. On a cool but sunny day I traveled from nearby Mission Viejo to an older residential area in Long Beach. I was greeted at the door, came inside to meet Mrs. Johnson, then we walked to the back yard where a structure had been added abutting the garage. The library! The ambience was modest; the aroma of old books intoxicating.

Johnson’s numismatic library was unusual in more than one respect. While it covered the numismatic spectrum, it was limited to numismatic works written in English. Charles was a practical man. Classic American numismatic books and periodicals were fairly comprehensive yet his holdings of earlier key American auction sale catalogues were sketchy. Having said that, it was a wonderful library, generally in nice condition. Virtually all volumes featured the Johnson bookplate, invariably accompanied by his name and address ink stamp on the endsheets and elsewhere, including the gutter margin of page 50 or page 100 depending on the length of the relevant volume. It was but a slight detraction, then and now, esthetics having been substantially counterbalanced by provenance.

Impressive material and a sad coincidence

After several hours were spent viewing the library and jotting down values, I made an offer to purchase the library and it was promptly accepted. We agreed to finalize the details in a few days and I was soon back on the freeway to Mission Viejo, with visions of rare numismatic books dancing in my head. After a few days I had not heard from Charles and I gave him a call. It was then that I learned from Mrs. Johnson that he had died later in the day that we met. I believe that she and I discussed the library that day but I decided that it would be appropriate to wait for the family to contact me.

Time went by and I received a call from Douglas Saville of Spink Ltd. to say that he was traveling from London to Long Beach to view the Johnson library. Bad news; not all bad as it turned out. One of Johnson’s sons had attended my first public auction, held on June 9th and 10th, 1979 at the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. Douglas Saville had also attended the sale and had purchased a number of works on ancient and foreign numismatics. Johnson fils approached Saville following the sale and late in the year, Douglas arrived in Long Beach. After considerable negotiation, he purchased the ancient and foreign component of the library. I was then contacted around December 1979 or early January 1980 about the American part of the library.

Charles Johnson’s son in real life was proprietor of a used car emporium. I was no match for him. While the ancient and foreign portion of the library was impressive, from my viewpoint something over half of the overall value was still present. Yet I ended up paying an amount equal to what I had agreed to earlier for the entire library! A few days later I drove a truck to Long Beach and produced several hundred $100 bills in exchange for the library. I had managed to come up with part of the amount but my brother had graciously agreed to lend me the remainder.

Witnessing a new market coming into being

Gulp! I had paid far more for Charles M. Johnson’s American numismatic library than was warranted by prevailing prices. But there was a new spirit in the air! Serious numismatists from all over the country were clamoring for classic numismatic works. Prices were marked up substantially yet the books flew out the door. Within a month I had repaid my brother. It was the start of a new market, one that culminated in the June 1981 Lee-Champa-Essex Institute auction which set new records for desirable numismatic works across the board. Years later, the topic of the loan came up with my brother and I mentioned that I had added ten $100 bills to the 250 that I had returned to him in a plain envelope. He was surprised. He had never opened the envelope before it went back into his safety deposit box.

The Johnson library was the third substantial numismatic library that I had the good fortune to buy during the 1977-1980 period. Perhaps a future article will discuss acquisition of the Floyd Hazelwood and Bill Castenholz libraries in 1977 and 1978. Both were notable though the Johnson library was the most important library that I ever acquired in terms of the impact that it had in the acceleration of interest in classic American numismatic works.

Some unexpected surprises

A few additional aspects of the purchase may prove of interest. A large cardboard box of miscellaneous Stack’s auction sales had been found at the last minute in the Johnson garage and was included in the deal. What a mixed blessing they were! Most of the library had already been unpacked and arranged on shelves in our 1100 square foot office in Mission Viejo. Then, while lifting the cardboard carton containing the Stack’s catalogues, the bottom of the box collapsed and, instantly, thousands of silverfish scurried across the warehouse floor in search of sustenance and darkness. It required several visits over several months by the friendly local pest control company before they were finally vanquished. 

The plan expressed at the time was to drive later on the day of the transaction to Jonathans in Inglewood, California, the premier purveyor of gold bullion coins at the time, to trade cash for Krugerrands. Gold bullion was approaching its zenith and I have wondered, after the gold market crashed and since, if the plan was actually implemented and, if so, what happened to the gold disks involved.

A few days after acquiring the library, a telephone caller inquired about an original edition of A.W. Browning’s rare 1925 work on quarter dollars. Yes, we just happened to have one in stock. After taking it off the shelf and looking at it briefly I was able to confirm that, yes, it was complete and in nice condition. Anxious to generate sales, a price was soon agreed to and upon looking at it more closely after the call I discovered that it was a presentation copy, signed by the author and inscribed to B. Max Mehl! I was a bit more careful after that.

This text was first published in The Asylum, Vol. 31 No. 2 (April-June 2013).

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And here you may find the first part of the Reminiscences series.