By Matthew Healey
The verdict is in, and it is split. Amid a packed room, the first part of William H. Gross’s superlative collection of United States stamps and covers was sold Oct. 3 in New York City, with many realizations far exceeding presale estimates.
Lurking in the results, however, are some question marks about the hobby’s long-term trajectory.
The sale, by Charles F. Shreve and Tracy L. Carey in association with Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, set a new record for a one-day stamp auction, grossing a smidgen more than $10 million with the 18 percent buyer’s commission added to all lots.
As has been his practice in the past, Gross announced through Siegel before the sale that the proceeds will go to charity. The beneficiaries this time are Doctors Without Borders, which provides emergency medical care in areas of war and disaster, and The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which gives small grants to individuals in dire straits.
The 120 attendees were treated to cocktails and snacks before the bidding got underway at 6:30 p.m. in an ornate room at the luxurious Lotte New York Palace hotel, on Madison Avenue just steps from the illuminated towers of Rockefeller Center. Additional bidders were on the phone and live on the internet.
Siegel’s president, Scott Trepel, who called the sale, said afterward the total number of bidders was in the “hundreds.”
Some of these bidders were, as Shreve had hoped, fresh faces. “Some were attracted by the pretty aggressive marketing we did before the sale,” Shreve said. “They sort of stuck their toe in the water for the first time.”
Rather than spending millions, the newcomers “spent maybe ten, twenty-five, fifty thousand on one item” before calling it a night, Shreve added.
Other buyers were regular clients of the auction firm who in the past typically spent $5,000 to $15,000 in a sale, but this time “upped their game,” spending in the hundreds of thousands. Shreve said one collector in this group told him that Gross’s retirement from the hobby provided the motivation to get more involved.
Shreve said bidding was “collector dominated,” with collectors or their agents bidding personally. Few lots went to dealers.
Forty-five of the 106 lots exceeded the presale high estimates, in some cases by a factor of three or more, while a mere 17 sold below their low estimates. The rest were spot-on within the estimated range. Just three items did not find a buyer at the sale and will be sold privately or offered later.
Among the unsold lots was a cover franked with the first issues of both the United States and Canada, pictured on the cover of Linn’s Oct. 1 issue. Gross had placed no reserves on any lots, Shreve said, but the Siegel firm did not receive bids it considered adequate for those lots.
The top realization of the night went to a used block of four of the 1869 24¢ pictorial stamp, in which the central vignette showing the signing of the Declaration of Independence was inverted in relation to its frame (Scott 120b). It went for $737,500, a little below its low estimate of $750,000 but still respectable (all results quoted here include Siegel’s 18 percent buyer’s commission). The block was shown on the front page of Linn’s March 5 issue announcing news of the sale.
The next best result went to the unique unused example of the famous 2¢ Hawaiian Missionary stamp of 1851 (Hawaii Scott 1), which brought $619,500. This was purchased by Gross at auction in 1997 for $575,000. Although its value on paper went up in the intervening 21 years, it did not keep pace with inflation.
That was one of the two diverging themes throughout the night. While some items did spectacularly well, bringing in much more than Gross had originally paid for them, a significant number of the five- and six-figure items either dropped or failed to keep up with inflation.
The famous “Bible block” of six 1847 10¢ Washington stamps (Scott 2), the largest surviving block of that issue that was discovered slipped between the pages of a Bible over a century ago, sold for $590,000 to Gordon Eubanks, a well-known collector who specializes in the 1847 issue.
Gross had acquired it in Christie’s famous 1993 Ryohei Ishikawa sale for $464,500 — a figure that, adjusted for inflation, would have been about $800,000 today.
Another Gross purchase from the Ishikawa sale, where he jumped into serious collecting for the first time, was a magnificent block of nine of the 1851 12¢ imperforate (Scott 17) that once resided in the famous Caspary and Lilly collections. Estimated conservatively at $30,000-$40,000, it drew an enthusiastic bidding war and ended up at $82,600 — certainly a splendid result, although not exactly a strong return on Gross’s investment of $59,700, over $100,000 in today’s dollars.
Even more sobering was the only known unused block of the perforated 1857 5¢ brick red Jefferson (Scott 27). Although it handily made its presale estimate, bringing $472,000, that amount measured up disappointingly to what Gross paid for it in Siegel’s 2009 sale of the Alan B. Whitman collection: $805,000.
Given the well-known vagaries and variables of auction bidding, it may be unfair to single out any two or three items as indicators. Shreve did sound an optimistic note after the sale, repeating his mantra that there remains a strong market for rare, beautiful, expensive items that tell an appealing story.
By way of counterexample, a group of Abraham Lincoln-themed lots did extremely well. A stampless 1864 campaign cover, the only one known that is also autographed by the 16th president himself, was acquired by Gross in 1995 for $11,000 and was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000.
It encountered spirited bidding and soared well beyond its estimate to sell for an astonishing $53,100.
Its proud buyer, a white-haired gentleman in attendance with his wife, was described by Shreve as one of those philatelic clients who had “upped their game” for this sale, beating out competition from collectors of rare documents.
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(The buyer asked afterward if it would be possible to frame the cover, to which Trepel replied that he would gladly provide a digital print for that purpose, as the original ought to be stored away from damaging light.)
A delightful and pristinely preserved Victorian-era Valentine, with a delicate gold-leaf border and hand-colored Romeo and Juliet vignette, neatly franked with a 3¢ Washington stamp of 1857 (Scott 26), was justifiably described as “the most beautiful example of 19th century Valentine postal history extant.”
Estimated at $7,500 to $10,000, it instead brought $23,010, much better than the $13,800 Gross paid nearly a decade ago, even after inflation.
The most astonishing appreciations went to a lengthy run of stamps and covers showing whimsical, hand-carved fancy cancels used at Waterbury, Conn., and other towns in the 1860s.
Several of these had drawn the most modest estimates of the sale, some as little as $1,000. Those figures crumbled in the face of bidder onslaught.
A charming “man in the moon” fancy cancel on a neat little cover from Mason, Ohio, nearly quadrupled its estimate to bring $5,900.
Minutes later, an iconic cover with a crisp, bold strike of the “man in hat smoking pipe” cancel of Waterbury, Conn., blew past its $30,000-$40,000 estimate to sell for $79,650, well beyond the $48,700 in today’s dollars that Gross paid for it in 2003.
The full results of this sale, and decades’ worth of past sales, can be searched and browsed online.
The next installment of the Gross collection will be offered by Siegel in spring 2019.
Charles Snee, Scott catalog editor, contributed to this article.