Thursday, June 08, 2006

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This afternoon we buried a very great man, a Renaissance man, a man for the ages – Joel Malter. I shall treasure his memory and example forever.

Joel passed away early Monday morning, June 5th, aged 75. He was then at the crest of a triumphal wave. The first day of the sale of his fabulous numismatic library had just set all time records for prices realized on many titles, and the second day promised to be (and indeed it was) another spectacular success. There have not been ten sales in all history equal to this one.

The Lord could choose a far worse time to take a man. Still, it has been a terrible blow to his family, friends and associates. Since the passing of my own beloved father three years ago, nothing has affected me so intensely. No one outside the Malter family can begin to understand the magnitude of this loss, but I am deeply afflicted.

The service began at 3 pm at Mount Sinai in Simi Valley, attended by several hundred close friends and associates. After a moving ceremony in the chapel (in which there was not a dry eye), it resumed at the graveside. After the Psalms, we each threw a ceremonial shovel of earth over the casket, and then the family recited the mourner’s Kaddish.

I’ll never forget the last words I spoke to Joel. I was reminiscing with him about visiting his house in Venice, before he acquired NFA from Edward Gans, when the auction resumed and we had to get back to business.

I’ve never mentioned this before, but when I left Joel’s house that long-ago evening, had Mephistopheles offered me what Joel then had (in exchange for my immortal soul at some future date) I very likely would have accepted. At that time I wanted nothing in the world so much as to be a successful dealer in ancient coins, but that required capital. I could make good profits on the few coins I could afford to buy, and was valued as an employee of other dealers, but could not make a decent living as a dealer without capital I did not have and could not get. So instead I became an engineer, which required no capital and paid well, and for a long time I forgot about ancient coins.

Decades passed during which Joel and I had very different careers. I became an expert in fiber optics technology, and in 1994 found myself in Paris for a technical conference. Susan and I attended the biennial antiquarian exposition (a fabulous antiques show) and met Jean-Bruno Vigne, a French dealer with an unquenchable love for Greek coins. I realized that I really had not lost my passion for ancient coins. During the long flight back to Los Angeles, I also realized that I now had the capital in the form of retirement savings. So I began investing in ancient coins, with a view toward opening a coin business as a second career, which eventually materialized as Classical Coins (

Meanwhile Joel had soared to fantastic, dizzying heights as one of the world’s leading professional numismatists. He built NFA into one of the most important numismatic auction firms, but the fate of Icarus has taught us that it is dangerous for mortals to reach such levels. Joel fell into bad company – in the person of Bruce McNall. He then lost control of NFA, which eventually went out of business while McNall went to prison.

When I met Joel again in 1994 he was operating Malter Galleries, picking up the pieces left by the fall of NFA. In 1996 Joel retired, and Mike took over management of the business (though Joel was still actively involved). Malter Galleries was not on the scale of NFA, but was doing well until Joel was entrapped in a 1998 “sting” operation and was charged with conspiracy to smuggle antiquities.

Had Joel had the resources to contest this unjustified charge (based on a novel and highly questionable legal doctrine), many experts believe he could have won the case, but only billionaires can fight a government. It is painful for me to discuss this politically motivated miscarriage of justice, which made me feel ashamed to be an American. It impelled me to found Unidroit-L and become a collectors’ rights advocate.

After that Joel really retired, and mostly kept a low profile. I could sense what a terrible injury he had suffered.

When I took leave of Joel near the end of the first day’s session, my buying effort had been very unrewarding for Classical Coins, for I was only able to acquire four minor titles. But the overwhelming success of the sale was such a huge triumph for Joel that it swept away all frustration. After what Joel had been through, my happiness for him was intense. He deserved this. He deserved so much more, but at any rate he had this.

Next day the dire news came, and as my stunned mind recoiled from the shock of a terrible death-knell, I knew for whom it was that dread bell tolled. It tolled for us all, and most particularly, it tolled for me.

Goodbye, Joel.

Monday, June 05, 2006


I’ve returned from a very tiring and frustrating, though interesting day spent attending an auction that will go down in history as one of the greatest literature sales ever: the numismatic library of Joel Malter. It was held in the library annex of his Southern California residence (attendance by invitation only), and I expected to spend thousands of dollars. I came away with only four inexpensive titles, even though I bid actively on many lots.

This was the first day of a two day sale, mostly covering titles relating to ancient coins. The second day, which I won’t attend, covers world coins, US coinage, miscellanea and sale catalogues.

Since the 1960s Joel has ranked among the world’s leading dealers in ancient coins and antiquities. He’s seen it all, developing Numismatic Fine Arts from a mail order list acquired in the 1960s from Edward Gans into one of the world’s leading numismatic auction firms, then losing control to Bruce McNall. Through all the ups and downs Joel has always had the heart of a scholar, and his library reflects that. This is a man who venerates books. His library has had the finest care and conservation imaginable.

Even so, one would suppose that a book is a book is a book. Even the best cared for book is only worth so much – or is it?

I’ve just observed a sale room full of coin and book collectors and dealers going absolutely insane, spurred on by unseen bidders connected through a real time online link to eBay. Many of these unseen participants (and even some of those in the sale room) appeared to have very little understanding of the market. At the first break I remarked to George Kolbe that I had seen at least 50 of the first 300 lots sell at hammer prices far higher than their current market prices. These titles I knew to be either still in print, or widely available on the used book market. I have quite a few of them in inventory at Classical Coins ( George just shook his head and replied: “You only saw 50?”

The climax came when Joel’s set of Gnecchi’s “Roman Medallions” came up for bid. This is one of those rare and important reference works in which interests of book collectors and numismatists coincide. It’s a very handsome production, beautifully bound with spectacular plates, in superb condition. Still, this is a very specialized field (few can afford the prices that choice specimens of these rare medallions bring these days) and the work has been reprinted. Malter Galleries has never been noted for being bashful about estimates, but even so the estimate of $4,300 for this title was a bit breathtaking. I expected it to be knocked down at $2,800 to $3,500.

I sometimes watch “The World’s Strongest Man” on TV, in which athletes compete at feats of strength, including “The Pillars of Hercules.” Two enormous pillars weighing a ton each lean outward, at an angle of about twenty degrees. They are prevented from falling by an athlete standing between them, gripping a handle connected to each pillar. The strain of holding the pillars is enormous, a minute being more than most can manage. Pain can really be seen on the faces of the contestants as the last few seconds tick away.

I was reminded of this as two determined collectors held their bidding cards high while Mike Malter called the auction for the Gnecchi title. As bidding reached $2,500 I looked to see one of them start to waver a bit, but both held firm. No sign of stress appeared at $3,000. Surprisingly, both stayed on to $3,500, and then even to the full, very generous estimate of $4,300. I was fascinated. How long could these bidders stand the financial pain? Although each of them just had to have that title, and undoubtedly could afford it, there’s always a limit.

The library (whose ventilation was not designed for so many people) was hot and stuffy, and some of those attending tended to doze off, but everyone woke up when bidding went through $4,500 to $5,000. This was going to be a record price for a set of Gnecchi. The auction roared past $5,500 to $6,000. Incredibly, $6,500 was reached, then $7,000. At $7,500 one bidder finally dropped out and the hammer fell on a price more than twice what I had expected this title to sell for.

The cataloguer had very little time to bring everything together and in the end, was clearly overwhelmed by the enormous task of compiling and describing 1694 lots, many of them bulk groups of catalogues. Numerous titles apparently had duplicate entries in Joel’s database, which was no doubt organized to speed searching for references. Thus lots were omitted, duplicated or misdescribed, and ten pages of addenda and corrections were issued, occasionally making the sale somewhat chaotic. Still, it was a noteworthy event, and even with all its imperfections this catalogue may eventually come to take on the significance of landmark numismatic auctions such as the Sotheby Hunt sales. I did not attend those auctions, but have heard the frenzied bidding described by several who were there when famous specimens such as the Akragas Dekadrachm came up for sale.

So I’ll keep this catalogue (and prices realized) as an essential reference, difficult though it may be to use because of the additions and corrections. If this sale truly defines today’s numismatic literature market, the used book inventory and reference library of Classical Coins may just have become worth much more than I had thought.

Perhaps the four lots that I came away with don’t really measure the value of attending this sale.