Gross complete collection of classic U.S. stamps sells for record-setting $19.2 million

Jun 25, 2024, 8 AM

By Charles Snee

Philatelic history was made June 14-15 when Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries in New York City sold William H. “Bill” Gross’ complete collection of classic-era United States stamps for more than $19 million.

The total realization of $19,201,550, which includes the 18 percent buyer’s premium Siegel charges on all lots sold, is a record for a U.S. collection.

(All realized prices cited in this story include the buyer’s premium.)

This remarkable collection was offered by Charles F. Shreve and Tracy L. Carey in association with Siegel. Both Shreve and Carey have worked closely with Gross throughout his quest. Shreve serves as director of Siegel International.

“This is, without question, the most significant and most valuable collection of United States stamps formed this past half century,” Shreve said.

The top 100 rarest and most valuable items in the collection were sold the evening of Friday, June 14, in the drawing room of the Villard Mansion at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

The remaining lots (Nos. 101-317) were gaveled down the afternoon of Saturday, June 15, at the Collectors Club near Bryant Park in Manhattan.

Linn’s Stamp News covered the June 14 auction of the top 100 most valuable lots. Lots 1-99 were mostly single stamps; lot 100 was a set of 1875 Continental Bank Note Co. special printings of the 1¢ through 90¢ Official stamps.

According to Siegel, lots 1-99 came with new 2024 expertizing certificates from the Philatelic Foundation.

“All 100 lots are like my children,” Shreve said in brief remarks before the start of the June 14 auction. “I’m very prolific. They’re all my favorites. Treat them fairly.”

Following Shreve’s introduction, Siegel president Scott R. Trepel settled in behind the podium, his self-described lucky gavel (which he’s had since 1982) in hand.

Opening the sale was the superb unused example of the Alexandria, Va., 5¢ black postmaster’s provisional type II stamp on buff paper (Scott 1X1a). Type II stamps have 39 ornaments around the border of the circle; type I stamps have 40 ornaments.

The stamp sold for $619,500, somewhat less than the $625,000 value listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers and the $632,500 Gross paid for the stamp in a 2012 Siegel auction.

Perhaps the most anticipated lot of the evening was one of the philatelic crown jewels of the collection: an 1868 1¢ blue Benjamin Franklin stamp with a Z grill (Scott 85A), known to collectors as the 1¢ Z grill.

Two examples of this iconic stamp are recorded. The other is in the New York Public Library collection, which is on long-term loan to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The latter stamp has been held by the New York Public Library since 1925 as part of the Benjamin K. Miller collection.

The 1¢ Z grill in the Gross collection was up for bids for the first time in 26 years.

The current $3 million value for the 1¢ Z grill in the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog is based on the 2005 trade between Shreve (representing Gross) and Don Sundman of Mystic Stamp Co. of the 1918 24¢ Jenny Invert plate block for which Gross had paid $2.97 million for the 1¢ Z grill that Sundman had acquired in 1998 for $935,000. Gross’ acquisition of the 1¢ Z grill completed his U.S. collection.

To build momentum prior to the sale and to generate interest in the 1¢ Z grill outside philatelic circles, Siegel commissioned a custom-made, hand-painted Louis Vuitton tresor (French for treasure) trunk to house and display the stamp. Artist Sylvia Macchiaverna accented the sides of the trunk with vibrantly colored travel stamps.

“We are proud to present the One-Cent ‘Z’ Grill in a beautiful and unique way that will ensure the safety of the stamp for generations to come,” Shreve and Trepel said in a June 7 email to clients. “We are so very grateful to Alayne Sylvia Macchiaverna and the team at Louis Vuitton for making this possible.”

The red-carpet treatment of the stamp evidently attracted the attention of its new anonymous owner, who paid $4,366,000 for it. That price is the new record for a single U.S. stamp and resoundingly surpasses the former record holder: the position 49 1918 24¢ Jenny Invert airmail error stamp that sold for $2,006,000 in November 2023.

In general, the 13 rare grilled 1867-68 stamps in the Gross collection did very well.

The finer of the two known examples of the 15¢ black Abraham Lincoln with a Z grill (Scott 85F) sold for $2,773,000, against a current Scott U.S. Specialized catalog value of $2 million. Gross acquired the stamp during a 1998 Siegel auction for $209,000.

According to Siegel, the stamp has “virtually perfect centering” along with a faint manuscript “X” cancel and a “small part of octagonal town datestamp — probably a small-town marking from a registered cover.”

Another famous stamp in the collection is the finest of three unused examples of the 1851 1¢ blue type I Franklin (Scott 5). This stamp is often referred to as “7R1E,” identifying it as coming from position 7 of the right pane on plate 1, early state, which is the only position of 200 on the early plate 1 to show a complete design and ornaments.

The stamp is from a strip of three that once resided in the Ferrari collection.

The other two stamps, which exist as a pair today, are type Ib (Scott 5A). That type is like the type I stamp, except the balls below the bottom label are not as clear, and the plumelike scrolls at the bottom are incomplete, according to the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog.

The unused Scott 5 single and the 5A pair were offered as two separate lots in the June 14 auction. The single sold for $401,200, while the pair realized $88,500. Gross paid $187,000 for all three stamps, which were offered as a single lot during Siegel’s 1994 Rarities of the World sale.

Of the trio of unused 1869 Pictorial inverts in the collection, the no gum example of the 30¢ Eagle and Shield (Scott 121b) possesses the best centering and freshness.

In the catalog description of the stamp, Siegel stated that “the flags and eagle-and-shield are rich in color and printed with proof-like impressions, bright fresh paper, extraordinarily precise centering with wide margins all around.”

Gross acquired the famous invert for $115,500 during the 1993 Christie’s sale of the Ryohei Ishikawa collection of U.S. 1847-69 stamps and covers. This time, it sold for $312,700, somewhat more than the $300,000 value for a no gum example in the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog.

A standout among stamps from the Banknote era in the Gross collection was the only recorded example of the 1873 24¢ Winfield Scott stamp printed by the Continental Bank Note Co. on ribbed paper (Scott 164), which sold for an impressive $826,000, about 2.3 times more than the $357,000 Gross paid during Siegel’s 2004 sale of the Lake Shore collection.

A footnote in the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog explains the listing for this unique stamp: “The Philatelic Foundation has certified as genuine a 24c on vertically ribbed paper, and that is the unique stamp listed as No. 164. Specialists believe that only Continental used ribbed paper. It is not known for sure whether or not Continental also printed the 24c value on regular paper; if it did, specialists currently are not able to distinguish these from No. 153.”

“The key to identifying Continental’s 24¢ stamp is ribbed paper, which shows either horizontal or vertical ribbed lines at the rate of approximately 40 lines per inch” Siegel said in the catalog description. “Experts agree that ribbed paper was used exclusively by Continental. Therefore, the certification of a 24¢ stamp on ribbed paper provided the first undisputed example of Scott 164.”

“Just like the 1¢ Z Grill, the 24¢ Continental is a key to completing a collection of 19th century United States stamps,” Siegel said.

Among the 20th-century rarities in the Gross collection was an unused, original gum pair of the 1908 2¢ carmine George Washington type I vertical coil stamp (Scott 321), one of just four pairs available to collectors.

Gross bought the pair for $357,500 during Shreves Philatelic Galleries’ 2002 auction of the Roger S. Brody collection. On June 14, Siegel sold the pair for a whopping $1,091,500.

Siegel’s detailed lot description for the Scott 321 pair puts its scarcity in perspective:

“Rolls of government vertical coils were furnished to the American Stamp and Ticket Co. (Washington, D.C.) and the Parkhurst Co. (Indianapolis). The other three companies used their own privately perforated coils. The vertical coils in collector hands come from these small supplies. A few used in Indianapolis in 1908 can be attributed to Parkhurst.

“Our census of Scott 321 contains five pairs and two covers with singles. One of the pairs is part of the Miller collection owned by The New York Public Library. That leaves only four pairs plus the two covers available to collectors. The last pair sold by our firm was in the April 29-30, 2021, sale of the Gary Petersen collection (Sale 1234, lot 299), which realized $1,475,000 (including 18% premium).”

Near the end of the June 14 top 100 sale was another historic error: a 1918 24¢ carmine and blue airmail stamp with the blue center inverted (Scott C3a), popularly known as the Jenny Invert.

The stamp, from position 69 in the discovery pane of 100 that was purchased May 14, 1918, by William T. Robey for its $24 face value in Washington, D.C., is unused with lightly hinged original gum, according to Siegel.

Against a value of $450,000 in the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog, the position 69 Jenny Invert realized $495,600.

According to Siegel, after Gross gave blocks of the Jenny Invert that he had acquired to his children, he needed a single to fill the space in his Scott National album.

“In 2015, with the sale of the Robert R. Hall collection by Siegel, Mr. Gross found an opportunity to fill the blank space with Position 69,” Siegel said. With the 15 percent buyer’s premium at the time, Gross paid $345,000 for the stamp.

(A wealth of additional information about the iconic Jenny Invert is available on Siegel’s specialized website.)

The June 15 sale at the Collectors Club presented the remaining 217 lots, beginning with the 1845-47 postmasters’ provisionals and continuing through special delivery and Official stamps. Nine balance lots concluded the two-day action.

One balance lot, which realized $11,800, featured a handsome selection of unused 1870-88 Bank Note issues and has a Scott catalog value of approximately $11,000. Virtually all the stamps have original gum, and 26 are accompanied by expertizing certificates issued in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Siegel.

Among the mint, never-hinged stamps are Scott 136 (with split grill), 146, 148, 149, 150, 156-158, 160-161, 178-179, 182-186, 205-207, 209-211, 212-215 and 217, Siegel said.

Overall, the two-day auction of Gross’ finest philatelic achievement demonstrated a healthy market for classic-period U.S. stamps that are eagerly sought by collectors who have the inclination, means and persistence to acquire them.

“We had more than 370 registered bidders, including more than 200 who actually placed bids in the two-day sale,” Trepel told Linn’s two days after the sale. “It is difficult to say who came from ‘outside’ philatelic circles, but we certainly had one major buyer who bought a ‘stamp trophy’ in the auction.”

According to Linn’s analysis of the sale, bidders T(telephone)7, T9 and T16 spent (inclusive of the 18 percent buyer’s premium) a combined $8,206,900, roughly 43 percent of the $19.2 million total. Bidder T9 acquired both the 1¢ Z grill and the 24¢ Continental on ribbed paper.

In reply to Linn’s query about bidder T9, Trepel said the person “has requested anonymity for now.”

Linn’s asked Trepel about Gross’ comments a few days before the sale (as reported by the Financial Times and other media outlets) that the stamp market is headed for a correction.

“Mr. Gross based his comment on his personal impression that kids are not collecting stamps,” Trepel replied. “Ironically, his generosity in donating millions to rebuild the Smithsonian National Postal Museum has helped enormously to bring young collectors into the hobby.”

“The museum’s attendance is up 30% each year over the last couple of years,” Trepel said. “There will be an estimated 1.4 million online visitors in 2024. We had buyers in the Gross sale in the 40-60 year old range, and they bought significant lots. I think the high end is strong, and the low end seems to be equally strong, based on eBay statistics.”

Sonny Hagendorf, owner of Columbian Stamp Co. in Scarsdale, N.Y., attended the first day of the sale and acted as an agent for other bidders. He echoed Trepel’s upbeat assessment of the U.S. stamp market.

“I thought the Postmaster Provisionals were very strong, especially the Saint Louis Bears,” Hagendorf told Linn’s via email on June 17.

Hagendorf emphasized the superb overall condition of the stamps in the Gross collection.

“As you can see beauty reigns supreme, save for the [1867-68 grilled stamps] … , which are not beautiful, yet still maintain that allure among the more advanced collectors as witnessed by the active bidding on them all,” Hagendorf said.

Hagendorf added that “several different buyers rather than just one were victorious” during the sale, which is “evidence of a strong philatelic market with much depth at the high end.”

“I want to add that Scott Trepel and Charles Shreve did a fantastic job in promoting and offering the Gross Collection,” Hagendorf said. “The marketing and the presentation of the material is a template to others in the philatelic world on what is possible. The descriptions and research on each item are nonpareil and will no doubt be used by others when the stamps are offered again in the future.”

According to Shreve, Gross’ “initial interest was to build ‘an important collection of United States stamps,’ with a particular interest in trying to acquire every major Scott number in unused/mint condition (used, if it only existed that way, i.e. the 1¢ and 15¢ “Z” Grills [Scott 85A and 85F, respectively])”.

“His quest was no different than every collector’s dream — to fill every space in his album,” Shreve said. “But, in his case, he had the financial means to try to be successful. He quickly learned that it also takes patience and determination, as some of the rarest stamps might not appear for 20 years or more.”

“The 1993 Christie’s sale [of the Ishikawa collection] really opened his eyes to what else that could be collected in U.S. philately,” Shreve recalled. “That’s when he started augmenting his collection with important multiples and postal history.”

Siegel held the first of what would be a series of five Gross U.S. collection sales on Oct. 3, 2018. That sale realized a total of $10,038,555 and featured what Siegel called “treasures,” such as the largest recorded unused multiple of the 1847 5¢ Franklin stamp (Scott 1), a block of 16.

In 2019, Siegel sold two parts of the Gross U.S. collection: a spectacular array of multiples on May 8-9 (total realization: $6,200,900), and more than 500 lots of eye-catching postal history (including a marvelous selection of Waterbury, Conn., fancy cancels) on Oct. 29-30 ($5,599,223.90).

Crossing the auction block for the fourth sale on Oct. 27-29, 2020, was Gross’ unparalleled collection of the 1847 issue, which realized $2,472,524.80).

All five Gross U.S. auctions realized a remarkable total of $43,512,753.70.

Shreve is grateful for all that has transpired during his more than three decades of collaboration with Gross, whom he considers a close friend.

“I have been incredibly lucky and honored to help Mr. Gross in the building of what will always be known as one of the finest, if not the finest, holdings of U.S. stamp and postal history rarities ever formed,” Shreve said.

“It’s been an extraordinary ride for more than 30 years,” Shreve said. “I was blessed to be part of it.”

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