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.


Blogger Nader Rastegar said...

What a great man you are David Walsh for making such an incredible personality so "feelable" and so much "alive".

Joel Malter shall live on because of friends like you who knew the man and who have made him "alive" for so many who did not know him from close by.

I never knew him, but now I know that they simply do not mint such great men as him any more.

His was a significant life.

Nader Rastegar, Atlanta, Georgia.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Joel will be surely missed, he was an honest person with an eye for quality. Some of my favorite coins were ones I bought from him. - Jim

4:40 AM  

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