traditionally places where dead collectors met living ones. Here is the best story I
ever heard about this traditional role:
A widow walks into a stamp
shop and says that she wishes to sell her late husband’s collection. She has
bought the albums with her and they are examined. Yes, says the dealer, it is
good material and I would be happy to buy it. But the widow says. Ah, no, I know it is good material and I
want to sell it by auction! And the dealer replies, We also sell collections by auction. If you consign the collection to
us, we will send you a catalogue and later your payment. It will take a few
months. The widow agrees and in due course she gets a catalogue and later a
cheque. But how many catalogues were printed? Well, one for the widow and one
for the dealer.
auction houses still exist exclusively to take in collections from widows and
large auction houses also welcome them, though they also rely now on living
collectors and on living dealers who want to sell. The living are more
impatient than the dead. It’s obvious that some rare items pass more time going
from auction to auction than they do in anybody’s collection. I’ve only been in
business twenty-five years but in that period the top Russian rarities seem to
have re-appeared twenty five times.
In the world, the
internet has vastly changed the auction world. In Europe, the single market and
the single currency have also effected large changes. Nowadays, ordinary
collectors in Europe are no longer obliged to buy locally and, for example,
French and Italian collectors can often buy better and cheaper in Germany than
they can at home and many now do. The ease and cheapness of online bank transfers in the
Single European Payments Area means that for most collectors, bank add on-costs
are now very low.
Local laws do still
make some difference. You can’t really run an international auction house in
Poland or Russia because of state laws, held over from Soviet times, limiting the export of objects classed
as cultural heritage. In France and Italy, excessive bureaucratic regulation
seems to limit the auction market. The UK now suffers from a currency barrier
and, as part of its ongoing madness, plans to add back Customs controls on trade with the real Europe.
Curiously, auctions thrive in Switzerland where regulation is tight and the
currency different. I think it must have something to do with the presence in
Switzerland itself of major collections and also of money looking for
investment outlets. There is also a tradition of philatelic expertise, like
that you find in Germany. In both countries, auction houses have highly competent members of staff who are AIEP or BPP accredited.
In the past, most auction
houses owned nothing they sold and made their money from their commissions.
Some big auction houses still follow this tradition. It usually means that
starting prices are kept as low as the vendor will permit since the auctioneer
makes money only on sales and the more sales the better. Auction days are very
expensive things to run – staff costs, viewing facilities, and so on.
Auctioneers want to see 75% + selling. When the late Kaj Hellman was alive, he
built up a very successful auction in Helsinki simply on the basis of using
ridiculously low start prices which attracted everyone’s attention. Sometimes,
he would get close to 100% of lots sold.
It is a bit of a
problem that some auction houses now own a large part of what they offer for
sale. At worst, the catalogue is simply a dealer’s retail price list. From the
dealer’s point of view, the prices can only go up. If the dealer takes the same
material to a stamp exhibition, prices can only go down because basic collector vocabulary in any language is headed by the word Discount. It’s a no brainer to
print a price list and call it an auction catalogue. From my point of view,
when I know that an auction house owns much of the material it sells, then it
is less interesting. Lots of catalogues I am sent go straight into the waste bin.
Some of the old
fashioned auction houses had little philatelic expertise. They took in a
collection and broke it up into lots which could be easily carried away directly after
the sale. They estimated every box in the same range (maybe 100 - 300) and left
it to bidders in the auction room to settle the final price. It still happens
and not only here in the UK.
Another story from around the year 2000:
A well-known collector
had died and instructed that his big collection go to a major auction house. The
house planned to make a major catalogue out of the major collection; they took
the sale very seriously. But there was also a side-line collection of Russian
Civil War period material which came along with the main consignment. The
auction house did not have the expertise or the time to study it seriously and
in terms of value it was surely unimportant. So they put it all in one big box
and stuck 1000 on it. I viewed it. The quantity of material was enormous and
there were nice things in it which I had not seen before. I decided I would bid
8000 which I think is all the money I had at the time. I left the bid with an auction agent who telephoned me after the sale,
very pleased: You got it for 2000. I
got most of that 2000 back on just one element of the collection. The box
contained the unissued 1919 Belarus National Republic stamps of Bulak-Bulakovich
in large complete sheets, perforated and imperforate, in very nice condition
because they had been rolled into a tube which stuck out of the box. I had never seen sheets before and I knew
collectors who wanted them.
And the rest of that box? Well, today I was
preparing for sale some of the very nice Ukraine which it contained in quantity
and which reminded me of my purchase nearly twenty years ago. I am afraid I am one of
those dealers who sells slower than they buy. I measure my turn around time in
years rather than days or ( in the case of at least one dealer I know) minutes.