The Jack Halpern Collection

Feb 11, 2020

We're honored to have been entrusted with the deaccession of a selection of Jack Halpern's famed collection of fine minerals, some of which we brought to market this 2020 Tucson Show, and others will be appearing online. Friend and mineral collector Lauren Megaw shared some thoughts, history, and personal interactions from her interview with Jack, below.

Foreward

By Dr. Robert Lavinsky

Growing up, I knew Jack was a force of the growing trend of aesthetic collecting and I respected him from a distance but did not know him well until I started visiting his home around the late 1990’s. I mostly just knew him as a kind older gentleman from the show scene. Then one year during the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, Jack struck up a conversation with me about the qualities of a truly great collection. He believed that truly great collections were those selected for the sole purpose of being visually delightful to the collector’s eye. In the truly great collections, Halpern feels there is a sense of that particular person. He said, “I saw your case, and I must tell you, I could tell it was your case.” We can all keep in mind Jack’s idea of the mark of a great collection as being personal to the owner. At the time, I was a very low level dealer who had started coming up on the internet, though I had already been “dealing” to build my own collection since the age of 12 in Ohio. I was the literally last and least noticeable room at the very end of the old Executive Inn hotel, on the upper floor with the least traffic. “Gentleman Jack” never cared about somebody’s status in the field. He has always been the most approachable and friendly of Top Collectors, to everybody. . He treated me - and anybody else - as a collector and co-adventurer, no matter your level of minerals or your age. It always felt like an honor to make the pilgrimage to San Francisco and see his beautiful collection in the home, something I referred to as entering a “surround-sound studio” of minerals and beauty. He has been almost uniquely gracious with showing his collection to guests and newbies to mineral collecting, to help inspire them, throughout the decades. Jack remains today, as much as ever, a force in this hobby!


By Lauren Megaw, with assistance from Jack's family and friends.

Definition of “Gentleman” in the Oxford dictionary:

gent·le·man

/ˈjen(t)lmən/ : a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man

Real-life Definition: Jack Halpern

Jack Halpern Photo, mineral collection Jack Halpern in front of minerals, at age 90. Photo from the Mineralogical Record Label Archive page.

Jack is the type of person who likes to revel in the joys of life, and it's absolutely contagious. When you recognize Jack strolling down the aisles of a mineral show, you smile. It’s an automatic response, and it's probably because you associate the wiry frame and hallmark bolo-tie with a man who is genuinely interested in the world. He believes that appreciating beauty is one of the greatest joys in life, and says so frequently as he pushed 100 years old this year.

Jack Halpern was born in Brooklyn to a couple of Jewish European immigrants who sold office supplies, which is fitting considering Jack spent his later years selling paper goods, though on a larger scale. As part of the Greatest Generation, the upheaval of his youth transformed and shaped Halpern’s life. After joining the Navy during the onset of World War II, he was shipped off to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay to learn how to use RADAR (at the time still a US military secret!). Halpern entered the Navy after graduating Summa Cum Laude from NYU; he left the Navy 13 years later as a Lt. Commander.

Rob told me a story about a shocking dinner he once had with Jack, back in the 1990's, when they were talking about his career and Jack brought those years up. It turns out that Jack, because he had no specific expertise on the Navy ship at the time, was designated to the brand-new "RADAR detail" to be trained by the scientists who developed the technique. Jack did not just USE radar in the US Navy...he was literally on one of the first teams trained to use it, and he then trained others throughout his career there. He retired with honor after a successful career. Yes, he was one of the first people to use radar. Crazy!

On his first leave in San Francisco fate took him to the USO, and her name was Leslie Baer. They fell in love, married in 1943 and had a pair of daughters, Jean and Lynn. They also shared a love of collecting; Jack with his minerals and flowers, and Leslie with her antique knife rests. Sadly, Leslie passed away in 1995, though Jack still speaks of her fondly.

Like so many collectors, Halpern’s first significant interaction with minerals was a life-changing event. He often even goes so far as to say he was given "a new lease on life” in 1962 when he first toured the California Academy of Sciences mineral collection in San Francisco. Something about the form, geometry and color captivated him. According to legend of the story, which he told many times, he thought they were too beautiful to be real; however, after being persuaded of their authenticity he was hooked! (Though there were always a couple of giant synthetic alum crystals in the cases, because they were fun looking and he collects for beauty foremost, he says).

Jack's daughter, Jean, shared this moment with us: "Jack was looking at the mineral display case of colorful crystals at the San Francisco Academy of Science, loving their geometry and color. He'd never seen or heard of mineral crystals before. He said to the man standing next to him that the Academy must have hired a skilled craftsman in order to have the facets of each mineral specimen cut in such precise and beautiful ways. The man he was addressing said, "Well, if these minerals were cut by anyone, they were cut by the Man Upstairs." My dad couldn't believe that these perfect facets were natural, but his companion reassured him, saying, "I'm the curator of this collection for this collection for the Academy, and I really do know what I'm telling you." The curator took my dad behind the scenes at the Academy, showed him more mineral crystals and taught my dad a little about them. The curator also recommended that my dad talk to another mineral crystal expert, Bill Sanborn, who became my dad's best friend and mineral mentor."

natural, but his companion reassured him, saying, "I'm the curator of this collection for this collection for the Academy, and I really do know what I'm telling you." The curator took my dad behind the scenes at the Academy, showed him more mineral crystals and taught my dad a little about them. The curator also recommended that my dad talk to another mineral crystal expert, Bill Sanborn, who became my dad's best friend and mineral mentor."

Jack already was a rising star in collecting orchids and flowers, eventually serving in the presidency of both the San Francisco Rose Society and the San Francisco Orchid Society, even before his "collecting bug" grew to include minerals.

A wide assortment of specimens in the Jack Halpern Collection Fine minerals from Jack Halpern's collection.
© Rob Lavinsky

Halpern believes in the power of relationships. Relationships with fellow collectors and dealers, both. After all, a good dealer is worth their weight in gold. In the early years, Halpern bought nearly exclusively from Walt Lidstrom - which made his wins in 99’ with his twinned Cubanite (only recently deaccessed) and again in 2007 with his Zoisite var. Tanzanite even more special. While I wasn’t born yet, the stories abound of the magnificence of Jack’s collection prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake. Jack’s house was a short distance from Candlestick Park where the quake was felt strongly and after peeking into his basement, he didn’t go back down for months. However, the damage was actually minimal. This did not turn him away from collecting, as it was a part of him, and his collecting was soon reinvigorated. He filled all the wall-to-wall shelves in his basement, this time anchoring every single one of the thousands of specimens with both mineral putty and plastic bases when needed - and adding on insurance.

By 2003, Jack’s home and garden teemed with over 400 orchids and roses, and the basement contained dozens of display cases filled with nearly 3,200 specimens! Yet each and every one of them were there because their aesthetics Sparked Joy[1] for the vivacious gentleman. Jack was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and loved showing his collection to friends, fellow collectors, and several school groups. Many in the hobby do believe that his was the most-seen private collection in the country, for this reason. Rob told me that on many visits in the 1990s, he'd have to wait upstairs until after school field trip hours for Jack to finish escorting a group of 20-30 schoolkids through the collection, and Jack often urged the elderly in their retirement homes to make bus trips to his basement (which was conveniently accessible by a sloping driveway, even for wheelchairs).

Jack Halpern with children in his mineral displays Jack Halpern tours children around his mineral displays. © Rob Lavinsky

"...I admire their beauty. And I admit: I'm addicted to them."
- Jack Halpern during a 2003 interview with the SFGate about his mineral exhibition at Pacific Orchid Exposition at Fort Mason.

While looks and form were a must for Halpern, strategic and disciplined acquisition was required to put together a singularly exquisite collection. He did this by seeing as many examples as he could by going to shows and museums, visiting friends’ collections, and reading his favorite mineral magazines. He wanted to buy one of everything, and size and price did not matter. He was just as happy with a $100 specimen as with a $10,000 specimen. Essentially, Halpern was building a visual database and if his collection is anything to go by, he did a marvelous job!

In Halpern’s 2005 for the Mineralogical Record, Criteria for Selecting Crystallized Minerals for a Display Collection”, he laid out a fantastically articulated breakdown of the identification and acquisition of visually delightful specimens. Honestly, it is probably one of the most important reads for new and upcoming fine mineral collectors. Picking specimens a multivariable problem that Jack, giving you the benefit of his years of collecting, makes approachable and understandable. He’ll even make you feel better about buying something expensive - so long as it's an excellent piece! Perhaps that is a lesson to learn from a man who ended up having 2 species of orchids named after him: mediocre will always be mediocre, but quality has the chance to become something important. You finish the article feeling empowered to go forth and assemble the collection of your dreams!

Jack believed that collections were also for sharing with others - whether that was his mineral friends or a group of children who visited his home. Maybe one of them would also have a moment of awakening! He likes to say that through each visit, each interaction, each memory, our fondness for the minerals grow. Perhaps this is the reason some collectors get so emotionally attached to their specimens. They are an extension of us, our friendships, and our experiences. And perhaps if your heart is as big as Jack’s, you need the extra room.

Emerald Specimen - Pre-trim (markings for where to trim)

Emerald from Colombia Emerald specimen before trimming from the Jack Halpern Collection. © BVA for The Arkenstone

Emerald Specimen - After Trimming

Emerald specimen from Jack Halpern's collection Emerald after trimming, from Jack Halpern's Collection. © BVA for The Arkenstone

I remember in all my interactions with him that Jack was an absolute, old-school gentleman. He wrote to his friends, dealers, and dealer-friends, long letters in beautiful cursive where he expounded on his enjoyment of time spent with friends and minerals. He wrote an entire letter to Rob saying how much he appreciated his chocolate Birthday cake! At the Arkenstone, I saw a stack of letter after beautiful letter about visits, and about their mineral dealings and trades, and there is something so personal about an old fashioned letter. Though perhaps his most touching letter, was about how he missed a particular Rhodochrosite he’d just exchanged to Rob about ten years ago. It wasn’t the lament of someone having sold an object, but rather of a parent letting their child go off into the world. That’s the kind of person Halpern is : the kind who seeks beauty in the world and makes friends with rocks.

References:

Interviews with Peter Megaw and Rob Lavinsky, and assistance from Jack's daughter, Jean Sward

LARSON, W. F. (2005) A lucky man: Jack Halpern and his colorful collection. Mineralogical Record, 36, 189-194.

WILSON, Wendell E. (2020), Mineralogical Record Biographical Archive, at www.mineralogicalrecord.com.

[1] Yes, this is a Marie Kondo reference