US Stamps

By William Weiss

Recalling a life and career in the remarkable world of philately

January 13, 2015 01:40 PM

  • The United States 1863 2¢ black Andrew Jackson stamp, popularly known as the Black Jack.

We all would like to believe we are immortal, and as a teenage stamp collector, I felt that way. But half a century later I now realize, of course, that the journey from there to here is quickly ending.

But along the way, the accumulated accomplishments add up to a great ride in this world of philately we all love. I’ve gone from buying cheap approvals as a kid from companies that once advertised on the backs of matchbook, but which now no longer exist, to the glitzy world of exhibiting, running auctions and finally, running an expertizing service, my current occupation.

Along the way, my experiences have included working as a retail dealer at bourses along the East Coast, writing a few books and numerous shorter articles, and teaching classes at the summer seminars so capably run by our national stamp club, the American Philatelic Society.

If I am able to attend the next big international stamp show in New York City in 2016, that will be the sixth international show I have attended in this country between 1966 and 2016, and coincidentally will also mark my 50th year of membership in APS.

I clearly recall the first of those shows, held in Washington, D.C., in 1966. It was called Sipex, which stands for the Sixth International Philatelic Exhibition. I was a 23-year-old wide-eyed viewer of all of that wonderful stamp and cover material that I could ill-afford on my hourly pay of less than $3, at Bethlehem Steel Co. But I managed to gather together perhaps $150 to buy goodies at that show.

I also remember seeing and speaking to some of the “living legends” of our hobby: names like Siegel, Cole, Fox, Weill and others, and how awestruck I was.

They were all friendly — despite my inability to help them pay their bills.

I never could have imagined then that by the year 1986 I would become a big enough retail dealer that I could afford to have a booth at the Ameripex international show in Chicago, with my booth situated between two legends, Richard Champagne and William Fox. What a thrill!

A few years after Sipex, I started working at shows with a varied inventory of United States stamps and postal history. Most of the shows in the early years were in the Washington-Baltimore area and were run back then by Herman Most (whose business evolved into what it is today Maryland Stamp and Coin and Potomac Supplies).

It was at these shows that I became acquainted with many of the other bourse dealers on the East Coast, many of who became mentors or long-term friends.

But my most important mentor was a fellow named Raymond Jacobs, from Dallas, Pa., whose business name was Elray Stamp Co. His wife was Eleanor, so “EL” was for her and “RAY” was for him.

It was Ray who first invited me to attend bourses and help him at his table. He also allowed me to fill in for him at some of the bigger annual shows, like Sepad in Philadelphia and Balpex in Baltimore, when he was unable to attend for some reason.

And it was through those opportunities that I met the people in charge of the bourses, got my name on waiting lists, and finally was able to get tables at most of them.

I was grateful to Ray my entire career and never forgot his early kindness to me. Sadly, Ray passed away a few years back, but Eleanor lives on.

The first really significant larger show we did was Napex in 1973, which was a great success for us. As the years passed, our inventory grew substantially since both Addie (my dear wife of 50 years) and I both had decent full-time occupations — I at Bethlehem Steel, and she at Air Products. This enabled us to plow stamp profits back into new inventory, which is critical for success as a retail dealer.

By the time of the Aripex show in 1986, we had built an inventory primarily of United States postal history that only had two other rival dealers with larger inventories of covers: New England Stamp Co. (Bill Bogg) and Elwyn Doubleday.

Ameripex was a rousing success for us, but within the next few years we gradually evolved from retail dealers into a public auction firm.

In 1975 we had established Net Price Sales, in which items were listed and illustrated, and the first person who ordered each item (mostly by telephone) bought it.

This method of selling was new back then, and only The Empire Group had started using that format before us, with Chris Rupp following shortly after us. Chris is still going strong, and his firm Rupp Brothers is respected as sellers of high quality U.S. material.

Weiss Auctions was born in 1983, which also happened to be the same year that I left Bethlehem Steel. More accurately, the department I worked in was permanently shut down, so along with all of the other employees of that department, I was shown the door, with severance allowances and pensions, if eligible; I was not.

We decided that our future in philately was going to be steadier and more lucrative in public auctions, so between 1983 and 2007 we ran about 100 auctions, mostly at the venerable Collector’s Club of New York, but in later years near Newark Airport in New Jersey.

Some of my fondest memories are of people we met during those years. But none are fonder than my memories of Lou Robbins (now deceased) and Norman Scrivener (now running the Stamp and Coin Division of Doyle Auctions).

These two men were our auctioneers. Lou became our auctioneer under unfortunate circumstances, when the man who was the regular auctioneer at the Collector’s Club in the early 1980s, Abbot Lutz, was stricken ill a few days before our first auction there in 1985. Lou offered to take Abbot’s place if that was agreeable to us.

All you need to know about the kind of person Lou Robbins was is that after the sale when we tried to pay him, he refused to accept it, instructing us to send it to Mrs. Lutz instead. God bless Lou Robbins.

And to this day, I count Norm Scrivener as one of my most significant philatelic friends.

Now despite the fact that our various businesses proved to be fruitful, I never lost the urge to collect, but I chose a path unlike most collectors, who tend to collect an entire country. I decided in my early 20s to be a specialist collector: that is, to choose a subject that was narrow, but to collect all facets.

My first such collection was the United States 2¢ Andrew Jackson stamp of 1863, the “Black Jack.”

It was at this time that I met my early mentor in exhibiting, Maryette B. Lane of St. Petersburg, Fla., who had authored the definitive book on the subject.

It was she who taught me the basics of exhibiting, and through her encouragement I learned enough to win a gold medal at Balpex while showing only four frames of material.

That experience with specializing led to many other such collections, some which were exhibited and some not, including essays and proofs of 1861-68; fancy cancellations on the 1¢ stamp of 1861-68; unused Zeppelin stamps of the world; inland waterway markings; Western Express franks; Confederate adversity covers; cameo advertising covers; New York foreign mail cancellations; the 15¢ stamp of 1870-90; and the most recent, major errors of United States postal cards, 1873-1990.

Many of these collections also served as raw material for books, and I authored five, several of which are considered the definitive works on the subjects, including The Foreign Mail Cancellations of New York City, 1870-1878, Union Civil War Patriotic Covers, The 15¢ 1870-1890 Stamp, Confederate Adversity Covers and Collecting United States Covers and Postal History.

I started expertizing U.S. material in the mid-1990s for Professional Stamp Experts of Miami, Fla., now in California.

Randy Shoemaker created PSE and later sold it, only to depart and establish his own expert service, Professional Stamp Authentication and Grading.

Sometime around 2000 I also started as a regular expertizer for the American Philatelic Expertizing Service (APEX), headed up for the APS by Mercer Bristow, who is still in charge there.

Around 2007 I realized that good auction consignments had become extremely difficult to acquire. It is a highly competitive market, and as a smaller-size auction house we were struggling to get enough material to justify the very high expense involved in running auctions, so we decided to segue into the expertizing field full time. We took a small expert service that originally had a fee of $3 for a certificate, and built it up into a substantial business that had as many as 6,000 to 7,000 submissions in the peak years.

In recent years, we have intentionally cut back the service but continue to offer the fastest service of any expert service in the world, usually less than one week and often faster. I continue also to expertize for APEX, viewing it as a contribution of my time and knowledge to help support our national stamp club.

It was during my many years as a retail dealer and later as an auction firm that I developed a deep interest in helping to protect less experienced buyers from material that was not accurately described when sold to them, sometimes in honest error and sometimes on purpose, by sellers I like to call “ethically challenged.”

To that end, I used the early years honing my skills so that by the time I was invited to work for PSE I was a proficient and recognized expertizer.

It is this same sense of advocacy that inspires me to give back to this hobby in helpful ways: teaching, expertizing, writing, contributing to online forums, and trying to be a “watchdog” for problematic philatelic material on sites like eBay, which I then report to Stamp Smarter, a website designed to help both buyers and sellers through education.

I cofounded this website along with Don Denman, a dedicated advocate with the same goals as me.

Before ending, I would be remiss not to mention my good friend Jim Lee, who has been a longtime friend. In 2006 I worked at Jim’s table at the international show in Washington, and I hope to do so again in 2016 in New York.

And last but certainly not least are my soul mate Addie, daughters Lori Ann and Donna, and grandson Alec.

My lifetime of collecting, writing, exhibiting, auctioning, selling and expertizing has been rich and full. I am grateful to anyone who was kind along the way.

It is a great hobby that we all should treasure and nurture by our participation in it and by our support for our national stamp society. I will spend my remaining time here as the advocate I previously described, trying to leave this a better place than I found it.

Bill Weiss is a full time stamp expert. His Weiss Expertizing Service is one of only six expert services based in the United States.