A Ray Charles record player that wasn’t
  • 1963 March on Washington record album
  • A Josephine Baker record album
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    Auction Finds

    Selling the vast record collection of a lifetime

    When I finally walked into the basement of Maynard Bertolet’s stone house, I should have felt claustrophobic, but I didn’t. Before me were thousands of vinyl pop and classical albums he had collected over more than 50 years and nestled in row after row of evenly spaced five-foot shelves.

    I had come face to face with the crème de la crème of his collection.

    Someone had placed handwritten signs distinguishing the pop and classical albums, all of which were in plastic sleeves. I’m sure Bertolet never needed signs to find a Mozart or a Frank Sinatra or a Nat “King” Cole. He had grouped the pop albums near the stairway and classicals farther back in the low-ceiling room, with walk-through spaces in between the shelving. At the end of one row was a stool that I assumed was used for browsing or searching.

    Recordings by Mario Lanza in a room in Maynard Bertolet's home.

    A recording from “The Great Caruso” starring Mario Lanza in the story of the life of the Italian tenor, 1951.

    He had organized them efficiently, not haphazardly or messy the way hoarders’ houses look on TV. As I ventured inside the basement, I quickly spied a group of Broadway cast albums to my right, and saw the name Pearl Bailey in a play titled “House of Flowers” that I was unfamiliar with (It was penned by Truman Capote in the 1950s). The cast album was still in its original cellophane, unopened.

    The collection was part of an auction at Bertolet’s house on a rainy day that drew more vendors than I had expected. The weather forecast warned of something akin to a monsoon, but all we got was a steady rain. Inside, too many of us stood in the cramped house as one auctioneer sold kitchen and household items, furniture, clocks and knickknacks, while outside, another auctioneer sold small items on a patio.

    Waiting were three floors upstairs with tons of books, furniture and other items. The upstairs was a maze of meandering steps leading to rooms that felt like crannies in a cupboard. Each contained built-in bookcases filled with books ranging from mysteries to biographies, along with cassette tapes, movies and CDs.

    Vinyl pop albums in Maynard Bertolet's basement.

    Vinyl pop albums in Maynard Bertolet’s basement.

    I had never heard of Bertolet, but when I saw photos of his album collection on the auction-house website, I was obviously intrigued. The auction house called it “by reputation one of the largest of its kind in existence, with many thousands of both published and unpublished recordings of the early and mid-20th C. The record collection will be offered as an entirety.” That may have been an exaggeration of it being the largest, but the auctioneer was trying to sell a collection that he knew was going to be hard to off-load.

    Googling, I found a 2006 interview with Bertolet talking about his collection. He died in August.

    At the time, the collection consisted of 250,000 recordings – some commercial, some private, some released, some unreleased. Bertolet was apparently an avid enthusiast of Al Jolson and Mario Lanza, and had all of their commercial recordings, along with those of such people as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Burl Ives, Maria Callas and Barbra Streisand.

    A Columbia Graphophone, (right), along with horn, cover and wax cylinders with recordings (right).

    A Columbia Graphophone, (right), along with horn, cover and wax cylinders with recordings (right).

    He started collecting in 1947 when he was a teenager, Bertolet said in the interview. He wasn’t much of a collector until he saw “The Jolson Story,” and was awed by the singer’s voice. “Using my high-school lunch money, I bought all the Jolson 78s that came out,” he said in the interview.

    Then he heard Lanza sing in the movie “The Midnight Kiss” in 1949 and was again enamored with a lovely voice. Bertolet spent the next 58 years collecting recordings, including Big Band, Stephen Foster and more.

    He also collected musical accoutrements. At auction was an early phonograph called the Columbia Graphophone, along with Columbia wax cylinders with early recordings (I’ve picked up some cylinders along with early Edison phonographs at auction over the years). Near the stairs in the basement was an upright Edison phonograph.

    Rows of vinyl albums in the basement.

    Rows of vinyl albums in the basement.

    Some of Bertolet’s gems, as noted in the article: first live performances of the Metropolitan Opera from 1899 to 1902, Frank Sinatra recordings, and first and last recordings by Judy Garland.

    Bertolet also was an editor of the Lizzie Borden Quarterly for several years. The publication was founded around 1990 for fans of the woman who was acquitted of charges of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, MA, in 1892. He also wrote articles about the trial.

    He was also a former president of the Mario Lanza Institute in Philadelphia, and author of a self-published book about Jolson and Philadelphia. He also collaborated or shared recordings and photos on several compilations.

    Recordings by Mario Lanza.

    Recordings by Mario Lanza.

    In the interview, Bertolet said that he would like to leave his vast collection to a museum or university to share with the world. The treasure trove at his house seemed to be complete, so it was hard to tell if anything had been donated. The auctioneer believed that nothing had been removed.

    There were so many books in each room that the auctioneer was selling them room by room, and not in individual groups for those of us who wanted a few choice ones. The furniture and small items were sold individually. One room of books went for about $30 to $40.

    The auctioneer was saving the basement album collection for last. He even mentioned that he was willing to allow the buyer to break through a door to get all the albums out. The auction house was willing to reconstruct the door, he said.

    I wasn’t around when the vinyl collection sold, but I’m pretty sure that someone bought it. I’m also sure it didn’t bring in as much as it is worth.

    Cast album from "House of Flowers" with Pearl Bailey, along with sheet music featuring Al Jolson.

    Cast album from “House of Flowers” with Pearl Bailey, along with sheet music featuring Al Jolson.


    A book shelf loaded with books (left) in one room and an Edison phonograph in the basement.

    A book shelf loaded with books (left) in one room and an Edison phonograph in the basement.


    CDs on shelves in the basement and cassettes in drawers in a room at Maynard Bertolet's house.

    CDs on shelves in the basement and cassettes in drawers in a room at Maynard Bertolet’s house.

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