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Tribute to Famed Collector Charlie Conlon

Rob Lifson of REA Auctions pays a tribute to Charlie Conlon, one of the true collectors of his time. Lifson also announced that Conlon's collection will be featured in an April auction.

The April 2009 REA auction catalog will include the collection of longtime collector and friend Charlie Conlon. Charlie passed away unexpectedly on Aug. 31. REA was chosen by the executors of his estate to handle the sale of his collection. We are honored.

We could not present the Conlon Collection without saying a few words about Charlie, who was both a fine gentleman and one of the most interesting characters in the history of card collecting.

CHARLIE CONLON is shown above left playing cards with a longtime friend and another Charley of some renown, Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley.

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Few collectors or dealers were around as long (he was extremely active continuously from 1975 until his passing earlier this year), and few collectors or dealers traveled as extensively. Charlie thought nothing of driving hundreds of miles, or hopping on a plane to visit a show, many times just for the day. There was hardly a show that we ever attended, even for a few hours, from the late 1970s through modern times when we would not see Charlie, briefcase in hand, walking down the aisle. So many times, especially at shows that were far from his hometown of Ypsilanti, Mich., we would ask him, “What the heck are you doing here?” And he would tell us he was “just in for the day” in case there were good buys or anything rare that showed up. It was as if he lived down the block.

Charlie was not much for technology. He never did get used to bidding by computer, and in recent years was one of the few who always bid by phone. That was a plus for us. He was always a pleasure to speak with, was always very articulate and polite, and was extremely knowledgeable about cards, especially the ones that were of special interest to him.

His gentlemanly demeanor served him very well in his hobby dealings. Charlie was one of the few collector/dealers who could deal with everyone, and over the years, with all his travel and wheeling and dealing he did, in fact, deal with just about everyone.

He had a very unusual style when he was buying or trading, and when he was negotiating difficult deals. If a price was too high, or a trade not yet quite to his liking, he could be very dramatic. He would grimace and wince (as if he had a sudden toothache). He would shake his head. He would occasionally inhale and exhale deeply, as if the fate of the world depended on his decision. He would leave a dealer’s table and come back, and leave again, and come back again. He had time on his side, was always sincere in his interest in making a deal if possible, and was always such a gentleman that even though a deal could take hours, all day, or all weekend, if there was a common ground, he was able to find it and a deal usually did happen.

Charlie had a great sense of humor about himself, and we would sometimes kid him about his negotiations. But Charlie never wasted anyone’s time, and all his successful dealings throughout the country over a period of more than 35 years speak for themselves. He was able to make many deals when a deal seemed too far apart to accomplish. He had a gift, and a big part of his gift was his patience and his respectful and gentlemanly approach to dealing with everyone.

Charlie’s big jump start as a dealer and advanced collector is one of card collecting’s most legendary stories. Charlie dabbled in cards for a few years in the early 1970s, but in 1975, he accomplished one of the great coups of modern collecting. In 1975, at the very beginning of the baseball card season, he could not help but notice that the Topps cards at the local store were very different than the Topps cards from past years, and very different from the 1975 Topps cards that were sold elsewhere in the county. It was impossible to miss. They were smaller!

That was the year of the 1975 Topps Mini cards. As a test, presumably to see how well smaller cards would sell (which of course could save Topps lots of money in production and shipping costs), in 1975 Topps produced a small print run of cards in much smaller than standard dimensions, on a very limited test basis. By chance, most of these test cases were sent to Charlie’s area in Michigan. When Charlie realized these cards were in short supply and not available anywhere else and would likely sell for a premium, he went from store to store, and wholesaler to wholesaler, and bought all he could find. Anyone who thought he was crazy soon stood corrected.

His great foresight paid off almost immediately. From the year of issue on, Charlie was the one to go to for 1975 Topps Minis. It seems that just about every unopened box of 1975 Topps Minis in the entire collecting world today can be traced back to Charlie! As the years rolled by and prices went up, he slowly sold off his seemingly never-ending supply. When asked how the supply was holding up in recent years, he would simply say, “I’m running low,” and leave it at that.

We don’t know how many cases he had at one time. It was certainly in the hundreds (and most of these have been opened to make sets). But we now know that his supply had diminished to exactly 26 unopened wax cases (with 16, 36-pack boxes per case), with an original cost to Charlie in 1975 of less than $1,000.

The story of the 1975s minis is one of the great card collecting investment stories of all time, but it was really just the beginning of Charlie’s involvement as a card collector and dealer. Charlie took some of the proceeds from the sale of his 1975 Topps Minis and bought vintage cards. And not just any vintage cards.

His favorites were extreme card rarities such as R300 George C. Millers, R306 Butter Cream Confectionary, 1953 Glendale Meats and 1968 Topps 3Ds.

He didn’t talk much about his personal collection; it was always a mystery exactly what he had, but everyone could see that for decades, while he was buying and selling as a dealer, he was also always acquiring rare cards for his personal collection. And once a card entered what Charlie considered his personal collection, one thing was certain: it was never sold.

Charlie was well known to have one of the very few authentic rare T206 Doyle NY Nat’l cards, and also well known to have the only uncut sheet of R300 George C. Millers in the world. These and many other vintage card treasures, as well as Charlie’s vintage card inventory, will all be presented in the spring 2009 REA auction catalog. We are sorry that he can’t personally be here to share the experience.

He loved everything about collecting: auctions, shows, traveling, dealing and especially the many friendships he made over a period of decades. He has left a giant footprint.

One last note: The auction proceeds of The Charlie Conlon Collection, per Charlie’s instructions, will be donated to 10 different charities, each with a special meaning to Charlie. It has been a privilege to know Charlie all these years, and it is a privilege also to be a part of executing his wishes on behalf of so many worthy charitable causes. It also seems like a most fitting footnote to the sale of the collection of one of the hobby’s true pioneers and finest gentlemen.

This article appeared (and is still available) on Lifson’s blog at It’s used here with permission.