Excerpts from the E-Sylum: The Estate of Numismatic Bookseller John Burns
Each week, CoinWeek, in collaboration with the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, brings you a highlighted feature from the current volume of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.
This week, E-Sylum editor Wayne Homren writes about a collaborative effort to settle the estate of numismatic bookseller John Burns….
This was Big John’s big week. Numismatic literature dealer John Burns passed away earlier this year. Pat McBride of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists is the executor of the estate, and I’ve been working with Pat and a crew of Pittsburgh-area helpers to settle John’s affairs.
The crew spent these last months cleaning out John’s townhouse and storage units and organizing sales of his belongings. A memorial dinner was held Friday May 9th, but before we could relax and raise a glass there was a big job to be done – selling John’s massive stash of numismatic literature.
Thursday morning I got up early and pointed my car toward Pittsburgh. By 8am I’d already passed through Virginia and Maryland and crossed the Pennsylvania line. About 10:30 I arrived at the storage units where we would hold the sale. I opened the padlock and rattled open the metal door of unit 631. It was a sunny day, and the light revealed an impressive array of books.
Books lined shelves along both walls of the 40-foot long unit. Boxes lined a long table filling the center, with aisles on each side. Book, books, and more books – books on U.S. coins, world and ancient coins, paper money, tokens, medals, orders and decorations. Sets of periodicals, including bound runs of Coin Collector’s Journal and The Numismatist from 1913 through 1988. Below the tables were boxes of softbound auction catalogs piled two deep.
And that was just the FIRST unit. Next door an identical 40-foot unit was similarly lined with bookshelves and piles and piles and piles of boxes of numismatic literature. God Bless the crew. It was a glorious “after” picture to pair with the “before”. John’s strong suit wasn’t organization.
Tom Fort arrived around 11 and we did some last-minute organization. Soon our out-of-state guests arrived – literature dealers David Fanning from Ohio and Chris Karmody of Connecticut. Chris isn’t well known in coin circles, but he has been involved in stamp and coin literature for decades. He worked earlier with Sanford Durst and now publishes reprints and distributes books wholesale. He had known and worked with John over the years, and the two bought and traded coin books frequently.
After some introductions and a brief tour of the units we locked up and piled in my car to head to lunch. I drove to a nearby bar and restaurant. As we settled into a booth I ordered a beer. Chris had one too. Three of us ordered the Italian Hoagie. I warned everyone they were big, but we happily stuffed ourselves while sharing tales of John Burns and Sandy Durst.
The rest of the afternoon we all spent knee deep in numismatic literature as the bidders reviewed the material. After we went our separate ways for the evening I went to the nearby mall to shop for a Mother’s Day gift for my wife. I stopped in a restaurant to grab dinner and ran into Gerry Krupa, a longtime PAN show dealer from central Pennsylvania. We caught up on old times.
Friday morning I arrived at the storage lockers at 10am sharp. Tom and David were already there. I unlocked the doors and reopened for business. Today was the big day.
We knew there we some local bidders interested in the Numismatist set. Several were eager to buy individual books, but with so much to sell we had to focus on our wholesale bidders. We couldn’t risk letting the sale get cherry-picked, but encouraged anyone interested to see the buyers of large lots afterwards.
Soon I was pleasantly surprised to see two E-Sylum readers arrive – Roger Persichilli and O.T. Thompson from North Carolina. It was great to meet O.T. for the first time and reconnect with Roger, whom I hadn’t seen in years. Others looking over the books included PAN folks Dick Gaetano, Richard Crosby and Robert Zavos. I hadn’t seen Robert in years either, and we had a great time catching up.
The sale was to begin at 1pm. As the hour approached more people arrived, including some locals who were misinformed by the grapevine that individual books were being auctioned. Sorry – this was organized in bulk lots, a whole rack or ten or more boxes at a time.
While we were hoping for more local interest in the bulk lots, we weren’t expecting much. It turned out to be a pretty dull auction. Most of the lots had only one interested bidder (either David or Chris), and we just recorded their interest to follow up with negotiation afterward. One lot of nine boxes drew competition, as did the Numismatist set. Both lots sold. PAN President Tom Uram won the Numismatist set (pictured at right), and friends helped him box it up.
With the “auction” over, Pat and I still had our toughest job ahead. We met separately with Chris and David. After much back and forth, offers, counteroffers, eye-rolling and some amusing concessions, deals were reached. We pretty much sold the inventory to the bare walls, but not before Chris talked Pat into throwing in John’s Glock handgun to seal a deal. Pat added a twist of his own, with David agreeing to allow Pat and I to select a book each for our own libraries.
That caught me off guard, but it was a pleasant surprise. David was agreeable; there were no blockbuster $1,000 titles in there. Pat picked a nice antiquarian numismatic book, and I selected a bound volume of 19th century U.S. auction sales. We’ll still need to reimburse the estate, but we both have nice souvenirs to remember our friend by.
Now the fun could begin. Some people were already buying books from Chris, and now others could buy some from David. He and Chris also started some horsetrading among themselves. In the end Pat and I just handed them the keys and let them go to work organizing the lockers. Both will have to come back with trucks to haul away the bulk of their booty.
We had backup plans in case we couldn’t negotiate what we felt were fair prices for the estate, but Pat’s long ordeal as executor was finally moving to a new phase. It will only be a matter of time before the storage units are as empty as John’s old townhouse. He looked a little shell-shocked.
I guess I was a little shell-shocked, too, but glad we were able to come to a resolution. John’s books were now in good hands.
After stopping at the PAN show to visit friends and check out the nascent John Burns Reference Library I went to my hotel to get ready for the evening’s memorial dinner. Over fifty people were in attendance. A guitar player played Scottish songs in honor of John’s proud heritage. Rich Jewell kindly bought me a drink at the bar. I mingled with Paul Cunningham, Simcha Kuritsky, Sam and Diane Deep and many others. Tom and Gosia Fort and I grabbed seats at one of the remaining open tables.
I mingled a bit more before the buffet-style dinner was served. One table included Gerry Krupa, Byron Weston and Al Boulanger. I recounted the story of how Ed Krivoniak managed to open John’s safe. At another table I greeted Don Carlucci and Pat’s wife Dawn. I was engrossed in conversation with Sam’s grandson Josh Wadsworth when Tom Fort tugged at my sleeve. Gosia had sent him to tell me I’d better grab my dinner. She was right – the pickings were slim, but I managed to fill a plate with some salmon, potatoes and broccoli. It was very good.
After dinner Sam worked the room, handing person after person the microphone to tell their remembrances of John Burns. It was a fun program, with lots of laughter. The big guy would have been deeply touched, and laughed along with the good-natured jabs at his personality.
Afterwards Pat and Sam ran a short auction of items to raise funds for the estate, including a 1950s ANA banquet photograph, checks signed by Walter Breen, a 1935 Pittsburgh ANA medal, and local newspaper with historic headlines such as Roosevelt’s death and the bombing of Hiroshima.
Brad Karoleff needed a ride back to the hotel but first we went to the bar with Bryce Doxson to raise a glass or two to John. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. Back at the hotel Brad talked me into having yet another. Good thing all I had to do was take an elevator ride to my room.
Saturday was a travel day. After breakfast and some work on The E-Sylum I picked up a Mother’s day cake for my wife and her Mom at their favorite Pittsburgh bakery. By 12:30 I was on the road back to Virginia. It’s been a long adventure.
Many thanks to everyone who’s helped on this project, and to all who came and shared the evening of remembrance. Rest in peace, Big John.
Click here to read the rest of this week’s issue of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.
For additional CoinWeek coverage on the passing of John Burns click here.