That Was Then, This Is Now

When David Feldman first began holding auctions, the majority of “serious” philatelists had as their primary objective the filling up of all the blank spaces in printed albums. Of course, if a nice multiple or cover should come to hand, it could be included on a blank page. There were many who collected the world, perhaps limiting themselves to the period of 1840-1940.

The ranks of exhibitors were dominated, world-wide, by a far smaller number than is active today. Exhibits were sparsely annotated, and the jury was expected to know world-wide issues – as some did, like Herbert Bloch or John Boker.

The auctions, even the “name” sales (e.g. Burrus) were dominated by dealers bidding for their customers or for their own accounts. Dr. Norman Hubbard remembers when, at most large and “important” auctions, pretty much the same crowd stayed throughout the auction, from Argentina to Venezuela, as the single lots were wanted by collectors world-wide and the dealers who serviced them.

What’s changed since then? First, many of the “space filling” collectors have filled all the spaces they could afford. This means that there are fewer customers, either collectors or dealers, for most of the so-called “standard mid range” items (from a few hundred to a few thousand Euros catalogue value).

Second, both collectors and dealers have found that buying relatively intact collections in order to pursue a new area or subject is a wonderful bargain – the albums are “free,” the research has often been done, and there is a limited number of things to seek in the future. Some collectors just place such collections on their shelves, treating them like fine books or works of art.

Third, more collectors than ever before have been bitten by the exhibiting bug, and are actively seeking for items that can be used to “tell part of the story,” be it a printing variety, a scarce rate or usage on cover, or a multiple that addresses the plating of an issue (showing a repeated transfer block, a retouch, a prominent variety). Thus, “boring” mid-range material is less in demand, and collectors must do more research (and so doing, appreciate the true scarcity of items in their field) and communicate their findings on their exhibit pages.

Fourth, the most advanced collectors – and those with the deepest pockets – have discovered the joys of becoming the temporary custodians of the true rarities of philately, items available in extremely limited numbers, and valued according to the number of collectors in what can be called the “demand pool” for the stamps of the relevant country or subject. This usually collates with provenance – prior ownership and exhibition or publication history – which has also become a paramount concern in the world of fine arts.

Rarities can be purchased for a few hundred Euros to well over a million, depending on their “importance” (potential demand + actual popularity + publicity). Some well-known collectors and exhibitors have both their primary subject areas to pursue as well as rarities they have long admired, even if outside their subject fields. Discretion prevents us from naming names, but such collectors (and a few dealers) can always be found.

What does all this imply?

The auction sale of mid-range material as individual lots, once the goal of anyone selling a “one of a kind” collection, has diminished, as competition for such lots has dwindled and other forms of sale, such as eBay, have become more important. The era of the 1970s and ’80s, when some dealers were buying up Germany Posthorn sets, Swiss PAX sets, Austria WIPA sheets, Gibraltar £5 KGV and other similar standard items, has well and truly ended, and collector demand has largely been slaked. That’s why all these are selling, in today’s auction market, worldwide, for less in real money than they did then.

On the other hand, the auction of relatively intact collections or exhibits, shorn perhaps only of a few great rarities, is stronger than ever as both collectors and dealers compete for fresh-to-the-market properties. Neatness counts; messy out-of-order accumulations, or material showing poor care or damage, will always bring a tiny fraction of catalogue value. Philatelic literature generally does not meet the threshhold for individual lots in public auctions, but when it does, its intrinsic rarity usually brings positive results.

Finally, the auction of rarities, whether in a “Rarities of the World” format or just among the single items from the respective country or area, has been a growing success for several decades. While the market as a whole might vary with the general economic climate, enough canny collectors are out there, many without significant financial worries, that great items in fine condition will usually find eager buyers – if they can be pried from the holdings of their current owners!

There is a truism that “anything can be sold at some price,” so it is in our best interest as active auctioneers both to stay on top of the market and find what currently is popular, as well as to do our job of promoting items we feel have been perhaps unjustly neglected, as they have not appeared in the global arena in many years.

So if you are thinking ahead to when you might want to sell some or all of your holdings, please contact us so we can discuss your ideas with you. We have always sought to be a reliable partner in the sale of philatelic material, with the full range of responsibility (research, write up, promotion and publicity, prompt payment, discretion) that this implies. Please contact us – at no obligation to you – and let’s see what we can do together.