Owner Biography

Louis Grunin

Louis Grunin, who emerged in the 1970s as a dominant collector, exhibitor and leader in United States philately, passed away on March 17, 2021, at the age of 93.

A native New Yorker with a booming voice, golfer’s tan and welcoming smile, Mr. Grunin epitomized the industrial entrepreneur of the post-World War II era. As he liked to say, his financial fortune and early retirement came from “making plastic buttons.”

With a BS degree in chemistry from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Mr. Grunin entered the plastics industry in 1953. In 1961 he and his partner successfully patented the process for “the imparting of iridescence to various objects such as containers, cosmetic preparations, buttons and other ornamental objects…” (U.S. Patent 3,008,844). This process was used to manufacture millions of imitation mother-of-pearl buttons used for clothing. Appropriately, Mr. Grunin’s wife and constant companion was named Pearl.

After merging his company with another, which was eventually sold to the huge conglomerate Koppers Industries (now Beazer), Mr. Grunin was able to retire in 1970. With his hard-earned wealth and a childhood passion for stamp collecting, he was then able to devote most of his time to philately. Mr. Grunin’s achievements in collecting and supporting the hobby earned him a place in the pantheon of the world’s most renowned and highly respected philatelists.

In forming his collections, Mr. Grunin followed a strategy that some call the “Boker Method,” in honor of John R. Boker, Jr., the American titan of post-war philately who was Mr. Grunin’s friend and mentor. This collecting method is analogous to real estate development. Find a good location, build on it, sell the property, and then move on to start another project. For this reason, collectors such as Mr. Boker and Mr. Grunin became associated with numerous collecting subjects, but in fact did not possess more than a few of them at any given time.

The first major collection formed by Mr. Grunin was his United States 20th century, which won gold medals in exhibitions and was presented in its own single-owner sale catalog by Siegel Auction Galleries in 1971. Acclaimed for its completeness, the collection was always one of Mr. Grunin’s proudest collecting achievements. It featured all of the major rarities, including a cover with the 1¢ Pan-American inverted center (Scott 294a), a pair of the 1¢ 1908 vertical coil (Scott 316), a cover with a 2¢ 1908 vertical coil (Scott 321), a 24¢ Inverted Jenny (Position 31), and blocks and plate blocks of most issues.

After selling his 20th century collection, Mr. Grunin exhibited his collection of U.S. 1847-1857 Issues, on and off cover, which won the American Philatelic Society Champion of Champions award in 1972. He captured the Grand Prix National at INTERPHIL ’76 with an improved version of this collection, in competition with Ryohei Ishikawa’s 1¢ 1851-57 issues and Thurston Twigg-Smith’s Hawaii, which received a “Special” Grand Prix award because it was owned by a corporation. In April 1975, one year before his triumph at INTERPHIL, Mr. Grunin sold his off-cover 1861-69 stamps through the Siegel firm. After winning the Grand Prix in 1976, later that year he sold his off-cover 1847-57 stamps through H. R. Harmer in New York. Mr. Grunin’s collecting preferences gravitated to covers exclusively, and he started or continued to build separate collections of the 1845 New York Postmaster Provisional, 1847 Issue, 1851-57 Issue, 1869 Pictorial Issue, New York City fancy cancellations, and free franked covers, among other U.S.-related subjects.

The sale of Mr. Grunin’s 1847 Issue cover collection around 1978 was handled privately through the late Andrew Levitt, a prominent dealer residing in Danbury, Connecticut. Mr. Levitt was Robert Siegel’s stepson and had been a principal in the Siegel firm until 1971, when he sold his shares and struck out on his own. Mr. Levitt approached Mr. Grunin about selling his 1847 covers to a young, wealthy and aggressive new collector named Duane Garrett, a California attorney and major player in Democratic Party fundraising who later ended his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.

As Mr. Grunin told the story of the 1847 sale, Mr. Levitt asked him to write down the highest possible value he could think of for each cover and then double it. The private transaction was completed, and Mr. Garrett acquired an extraordinary group of 1847 covers, which included the single 5¢ 1847 and Canada 3d Beaver combination cover purchased privately by Mr. Grunin from the Duane Hillmer collection. In January 1977 Mr. Grunin made national news when he bought the celebrated Waterbury, Connecticut, three-strike Running Chicken cover for $45,000 at the Siegel firm’s auction of the Katherine Matthies collection. The price was the highest ever paid for what the Associated Press called a “postal envelope.” It was roughly equal to the value of a 24¢ Inverted Jenny at the time. Mr. Grunin’s 1861-1869 covers were offered for private sale in 1979 through his longtime friend and dealer, the late Seymour Kaplan. This group of covers, which included the Running Chicken cover, was eventually placed with Mr. Levitt, who offered them in a Sotheby Parke Bernet auction in October 1980. Fortuitously, at this time the Japanese collector Ryohei Ishikawa was building his 1847-1869 exhibit to win the coveted Grand Prix award. In the Sotheby’s auction, Mr. Ishikawa’s agent, William Crowe, paid $264,000 for the three chickens.

After selling his 1847 Issue, 1861-1869 Issues and New York Provisional covers, Mr. Grunin focused on his 1851-57 Issue covers. He was a major buyer of items from the Marc Haas collection, which was bought for $11 million in 1979 by Stanley Gibbons Ltd., the British firm that was then owned by Letraset, the dry-transfer lettering manufacturer. In fact, it was Letraset and Gibbons that tapped Mr. Grunin and Mr. Kaplan to head up the New York auction division in 1980. The return to a working life lasted about one year before a severe contraction in the “tangibles” boom and stamp market led Gibbons to withdraw from the U.S. market. Mr. Grunin was proud of the fact that, despite operating losses, they turned a profit from his negotiations involving the lavish Olympic Tower office.

Mr. Grunin’s collection of 1851-57 Issue covers is today still regarded by many as his greatest achievement. It was 20 years in the making and formed from material acquired privately and at auction. The collection’s quality was uniformly outstanding, and it included some of the greatest covers bearing the 1851-56 imperforate and 1857-61 perforated Toppan, Carpenter & Co. stamps. One of Mr. Grunin’s disappointments was failing to win the Grand Prix National at AMERIPEX ’86 with the 1851-57 collection. By then the winds of judging were shifting, and his style of self-generated pages with minimal write-up had fallen out of favor. The exhibit was also competing with Dr. Leonard Kapiloff’s 1847 Issue and Ishikawa’s revamped 1847-1869 exhibit.

The 1851-57 collection was sold in three auctions held by Christie’s Robson Lowe in 1987 and 1988. From this point, Mr. Grunin continued to collect New York City fancy cancellations (later sold privately) and free franks (sold in a 1993 Siegel auction), but his passion shifted from collecting United States to building his collection of Great Britain Mulready stationery and illustrated covers. Helped by his friends, the late William and Michael Lea, second-generation British dealers, Mr. Grunin assembled one of the largest and finest collections of these beautiful covers ever formed. The Mulready collection was sold by Spink in 2004, and the hand-illustrated covers were sold by Siegel in 2010.

Apart from his collecting activity, Mr. Grunin was a major supporter of organized philately. He served The Collectors Club of New York as vice president (1980-1982) and president (1983-1986), and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years (1973-1991). He served The Philatelic Foundation as chairman of the board of trustees and a member of the board and executive committee for many years.

Mr. Grunin was honored by The Collectors Club in 1995 with the Alfred F. Lichtenstein Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to Philately. In 2001 he received the Mortimer L. Neinken Award for Meritorious Service from The Philatelic Foundation.

Positions Owned

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