The John Kennel Collection and my forthcoming COLUMBIAN RARITIES Book

We haven’t ignored posting new material lately, but simply have been doing a lot of writing about the Columbian Expo that isn’t yet in print.

Working on our third World’s Columbian Exposition book has been nearly all-consuming for me roughly since I began working with the John Kennel Columbian collection in the Spring of 2019. And I’m optimistic I’ll make my own self-imposed deadlines leading up to the planned publication of the book in December 2021.

I’m very excited about the book and what I have been able to accomplish gathering the material for it. COLUMBIAN RARITIES has gone through many changes, large and very small, since I began researching and writing it. That’s typical with many nonfiction books, but in this case it has been quite a merry-go-round of planning deciding how best to structure the book. As of July I have selected all of the contents and have begun the task of writing. While I first contemplated dividing the book into simple sections–medals, tickets, other paper items and 3D material–I soon found that it simply didn’t afford the opportunity to present everything in the best possible way.

The book will have an editorial flow and logical progression, but rather than 4 major sections it will consist of several longer essays and dozens of shorter articles. Rather than a photo and caption of a particular medal in a chapter on medals, for instance, I will discuss the TOPIC and story about the medal and include it and other relevant items/collectibles in a story about the overall subject, not just the medal.

I will include a substantial overview of the Exposition and its unique rarities and a detailed article about John Kennel and the Kennel Columbian Collection that has been a major focus of mine for more than two years. From when my son and I loaded everything that would fit in the back seat and trunk of a full-size rental car on April 1, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio, I have catalogued, inventoried, photographed, researched and written about the more than 5,000 items in John’s collection.

His contribution to the forthcoming book has been immense. While many folks judge such collections based on quantity, my focus has always been on quality. The Kennel Collection had quantity, to be sure, but even moreso it contained perhaps the finest accumulation of RARITIES of any of the major private Columbian collections with which I am familiar. While I have many colleagues and clients with quite amazing collections, most folks prefer anonymity or at least a large degree of privacy so for the most part I can’t compare and discuss such collections.

Perhaps the largest collection out there fortunately belongs to a gentleman who happens to enjoy sharing information about his Columbiana. Steve Sheppard, the only collector I know of with his own museum/library, some years ago purchased the apartment next door to his in New York City (the Bronx to be precise) and turned it into what he lovingly refers to as his museum. While I’ve never visited, I know that Steve has thousands of documents, photos and paper items; his 3D collection simply must be even more voluminous than most any private or museum collections of Columbiana. Fortunately there is more than enough from the 1893 expo to go around.

I cite Steve’s collection while discussing the Kennel Collection to better describe just what the latter consisted of and how John built his collection. Everyone who is a collector, regardless of what they collect, has his or her own style of collecting. I think Steve’s approach has been similar to John’s–if you see a piece you don’t have, and you like it (a word about that in a minute), then buy it if you can afford it…and beat everyone else to it!

All of us who have been collectors for most of our lives have certain things that we find personally more important than others. For me it has always been tickets and paper first, medals second–and everything else third. I have a longtime customer/friend with an incredibly eclectic collection of Americana that I believe he wasn’t a Columbian collector when we met in the 1990s; in fact, while I’ve never asked, I suspect that he first turned seriously toward world’s fairs and expositions when he and I became friends. But despite the broadest range of collecting I know of, he purchases Columbia from me regularly. He also has his own “favorite” type of item–glassware. I don’t know what Steve covets more than any other, and I suspect that John’s passion was flip-flopped from mine, medals first, tickets second in his case. This is only speculation on my part but his collection seems to lean a bit in that direction and he was at one time both a serious coin collector and also a dealer, which contribute to my guesstimate of how he viewed Columbiana.

I’ve never asked Steve Sheppard about his favorite, but I suspect his answer might be “anything from the World’s Columbian Expo.”

I met Steve before Christine Laing and I wrote our history of the Columbian Expo for the National Trust for Historic Preservation that was published in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the fair in 1993. I am not quite certain of when I first met John and Heike Kennel, but it was around that same time nearly thirty years ago. I recall speaking to Heike on the phone more than John and exchanging lengthy notes with him about very detailed bits of research. The Kennels both sold me items and purchased others from me. But I found John to be more than the average collector, if there is such a thing. And his willingness to share information was a much appreciated trait for the rest of us in the Columbian community.

John shared what I consider my passion for historical information. He was more than perhaps any other Columbian collector, a historian. While that moniker is mine professionally–I’ve spent my entire adult life (and a bit of my youth, as well) studying historical Americana and writing about it and myriad other topics, he might unfairly be called an “amateur” historian. There was nothing amateurish about his constant hunting for information. Before most people identify their future careers–I don’t mean when quite young and the goal was policeman, fireman, cowboy or princess!–but when we became old enough to think seriously about our careers, I was already freelance writing and spent 2 1/2 years of high school as a newspaper writer and editor. I was very, very fortunate to have a world-class educator for a high school journalism teacher. All this is to say that everything I do with regards to collecting comes from a base of being a historical researcher and a journalist. While John Kennel was neither by trade, he certainly was by avocation.

I have always been impressed by the historical knowledge of many serious collectors and in John’s case he was fastidious about details and information regarding whatever Columbiana he encountered and most definitely with those items he acquired.

More about John and his collecting will be a chapter in the forthcoming book because whether it was his intention or not, he seemed to find and purchase more rarities than just about any other collector I know. John and I would discuss the minutiae of Columbiana. He was interested in much more than just an assigned rarity (R1…R10) of a piece based on someone’s or a committee’s consensus that 10 to 20 or 100 to 500 of a medal was known to exist. He did his own research to quantify such things, and to often show the fallacy of some of those accepted “facts.” While others collected for rarity of course and for financial considerations (say ‘to make money!’), as well as to obtain the most complete subcategories within their main focus, John relished collecting history–facts, figures, details and unknown information about items he found.

I have always been irritated that HK154 and 155 are categorized the same, even though most collectors acknowledge that 155 (the small type variety of the Columbian medal struck by the U.S. Mint) is seen somewhat less frequently than its 154 (large type) counterpart. John agreed with me that HK155 was not “a little” scarcer than HK154, but rather significantly so. At one point I undertook an informal tally, logging every appearance and sale of them on Ebay over several months. HK 155 wasn’t seen a little less frequently, but rather dramatically so. I saw ten times more HK154s than HK155s which would hardly make them at all equally scarce or common.

John undertook a similar study on Ebay, not to determine rarity but to identify as many Columbian medal recipients as possible. At the time of his death he had logged close to 300 different award medals on Ebay (K don’t know when he began) and it also underscored something he and I knew–that in determining rarity you have to be cognizant of the same coin or medal being resold. Unless a coin or medal is well-known–such as a million-dollar coin that sold at auction three years earlier for half as much–we don’t often have a handle on just how often items are resold and thus give us perhaps a false sense of their scarcity. Tallying award medals with the winner’s name on it tells us, as my Russian grandfather used to say, “the exactly situation.” John pointed this out to me as he more often than he would have guessed, I believe, the same medals would pop on Ebay being resold with some regularity.

I cannot not tell just how John came to own so many rarities, but I suspect I know at least part of the answer: He didn’t just collect, he studied not only the market in general but items in particular. He noticed transactions most of us would have missed.

My COLUMBIAN RARITIES will lean heavily on the collection I’ve been proudly handling since April 2019. I don’t think John could have been blessed with a supernatural power to find the “best” material but I saw in him the approach I’ve always tried to take. When you focus on the historical details you naturally put yourself in a position to FIND more rarities. A simple story of mine regarding an Ebay purchase I made illustrates that very clearly.

In the very early 2000s while in the midst of my constant surfing through Ebay, I spotted a simple and small group of items that mentioned the World’s Columbian Expo. The listing featured two cabinet card photos, one taken in Chicago at the same time the fair was underway while the other was taken some years later in Los Angeles. The first was a picture of a young bride and the other was a photo identified as the first Cadillac in LA. Why only these two photos? I wish I would have thought to quiz the seller further about the mini-collection for sale. It obviously was a little microcosm of this woman’s life and it spanned more than two decades from her wedding to her life halfway across the country years later.

The wedding photo was of a YOUNG bride; the Cadillac photo with she and her husband proudly seated in the pre-World War I vintage automobile, showed a much heavier and older woman. Lord knows just twenty years can change how we look!

I was intrigued by the photos and of course that the fair was mentioned; that naturally caught my eye but so did the cabinet cards. Most of the history books I have written have relied heavily on period photos, from the Civil War to the Columbian Expo. I wasn’t so interested, at least at first, in purchasing the group but in why it was such a very tiny snapshot of a significant portion of one person’s life. I don’t recall the other two or three other insignificant in the lot (I believe they were just ‘scrapbook’ material from California in the 1900-1930 era and not of particular interest to me). But knowing that the woman had been at the World’s Columbian Expo I was intrigued by a portion of another piece of paper that peaked out from behind the cabinet cards in the Ebay listing photo.

It was easy to discern it was a ticket and the bit that showed mentioned “tree of wonder,” which held absolutely no meaning for me. I recall that my first thought was of that wonderful “Trees of Mystery” in the California Redwoods. It was a highlight of my first major vacation as a wide-eyed five-year-old on his first extended family vacation. I couldn’t think of a correlation between that “ticket” and the Columbian Expo but it seemed a possibility.

I purchased the lot for about $35 just because it was interesting, personal and sort of oozed of late 19th century history.

I share that bit of history because, much like John Kennel’s approach, it was the history that caught my collector’s eye more than a specific item.

I am not giving myself any credit whatsoever as having some special collecting talent; but looking beyond the obvious and especially when a sought after collectible isn’t in the picture often yields surprisingly positive results, moreso than when one ignores what isn’t obvious. That ticket turned out to be one of my favorite stories of my 40+ years studying the Columbian Expo. Naturally the fact that it ultimately sold for more than any ticket in my collection (Heritage Auctions sold my WCE tickets for nearly $40,000 in 2008 and that mysterious ticket, by then identified, sold for more than $3,000) makes it an especially nice story! But it was the discovery of a ticket that was unique–by definition, one-of-a-kind!–that really does ring true for me. I’m nearly certain that John would have approached that lot similarly.

By the way, that ticket was the only one known to exist for a Midway Plaisance attraction that never operated, Camera Obscura, subtitled “Tree of Wonder” on that ticket. Look up the history of the camera obscura invention, a legitimate forerunner to photography; that’s another story, but the concession was assigned a number, was listed in many guides by its Midway location, yet for whatever unknown reason, never opened. I have speculated that perhaps it came close to opening and thus our beloved bride pictured in the cabinet card perhaps strolled the grounds as did tens of thousands of others while construction was still underway. A 25-cent ticket got one access to many areas of the fair before it opened. In fact, fair management had no plans to allow visitors before the opening, but relented due to the very high demand. They figured if they were going to allow mostly Chicago residents an early visit, why not charge a fee. Perhaps the camera obscura concession actually existed in some tangible form and they gave out a few tickets to folks who might come back after opening….but whatever the case, no other has ever been found that the concession never occupied the space allocated to it in several fair guides.

Rarities abounded in John’s collection because he was not just the consummate collector, but a very natural historian. I don’t even want to call him an “amateur” historian; many collectors are. John was a serious one, albeit not one trained in the field.

That knack and hard work studying and researching led him to have an inordinate number of rarities and to help build the foundation for my forthcoming book. I doubt that had I asked John about such a high percentage of rarities he probably wouldn’t have realized just how many items in his collection were as rare as they turned out to be. He wasn’t seeking specific rarities, but by the nature of his collecting, he found them.

When I sold my collection in 2008 a special item (it “only” brought about a third as much the camera obscura ticket) was a large ticket on thin and very dog-eared orange paper for the Oriental Odeon theater in the Moorish Palace.

At the time John mentioned that he was surprised to see it in my collection as he thought he owned the only one in existence. I had the opportunity to sell both known examples, as The History Bank sold John’s much nicer example of the ticket very early in 2019–and for much more than the only other known example in my collection.

When I began the daunting task of going through John’s Columbian collection it was far easier than it might have been because it was so well organized–tickets in sleeves in binders, medals meticulously identified in boxes, small 3D items in Riker boxes and so on–I was shocked in a very good way to see so many items I’d never seen before. I had no inkling that so many rarities existed about which I knew nothing.

Everyone evaluates collections in different ways. I am amazed at the enormous breadth of material in Steve Sheppard’s collection. He no doubt has hundreds of unique items, although they might not be categorized as “collectibles” per se. I refer to documents, letters, photos and so on that are historically invaluable and one of a kind. I only know about Steve’s ticket collecting, for example, because we used to go head-to-head for many years (along with a handful of other collectors including John Kennel) in auctions trying to add unique or rare tickets to our own collections. Steve, I think rather magnanimously became less aggressive many years ago, deferring to his protege. He introduced his son-in-law, Tom Duffy, to the Columbian Expo and Tom became one of the most dedicated Columbian ticket collectors. I assume since he’s well known in the collecting community and linked so obviously to Steve, that Tom would not object to being mentioned here. I have never seen his ticket collection but I have watched him build it and have contributed in some not insignificant way selling him many rare tickets over the years.

I have also learned that virtually every Columbian ticket collection has some rarity hidden in it, regardless of how insignificant the overall 50 to 100 tickets might otherwise be. Some years ago I sold a collection, like a great many, handed down over the years to relatives. Most of the tickets were $20-$50 items and they were neither rare nor even scarce.

But it included one item that will be mentioned in COLUMBIAN RARITIES, a hand-written pass to Cairo Street. The consignor’s great grandfather left this obscure little album of tickets he acquired at the Expo. I wish I knew details of his time at the fair–an employee, a supplier or just one of millions of visitors? I am quite certain (although with no verification) that the small hoard of tickets was just what he kept from his visits to the fair. Somewhere along the line he was given that hand-written pass. Obviously his relative had no insight into why. Perhaps he met the general manager over a cider on the Midway and the gentleman kindly scribbled a quick note allowing him to see Cairo Street at no charge. But it is the only such pass I have ever encountered; it is, however, interesting to note that such hastily written notes on scraps of paper or the back of business cards do exist for many Midway attractions. It apparently was not a terribly uncommon practice to hand out such passes.

The dozens, perhaps hundreds, of rarities John Kennel owned spanned all the various genres of Columbian items–tickets, medals, 3D items and others. I know for example that while my own ticket collection was worthy of note for several very rare pieces, John’s collection included many times the rarities that I had, tickets I’d never seen or heard of. I believe that most collectors would say the same thing. And, in December, I’ll be very pleased to introduce Columbian collectors and researchers with an unprecedented collection of COLUMBIAN RARITIES, a great many of which once belonged to John Kennel.

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