We are back from our trip and I am ready to provide you with an insider’s look at the Bill Webster Sale, held at the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries in New York on Friday, March March 18, 2016.
First, I am happy to inform everyone that for the second consecutive year, a fish and game exhibit was judged the best exhibit of United States stamps at the recent APS StampShow in Portland (see Figure 1). Last year the award was presented to Will and Abby Csaplar for A License and Stamp System for Waterfowl Conservation in the 20th Century U.S. This year the honor was bestowed upon Michael Jaffe for A Philatelic Survey of U.S. Waterfowl Hunting Jurisdictions.
This is a remarkable accomplishment, not only for the Csaplars and Michael but for all collectors of fish and game stamps. Whereas we once operated on the fringe of organized philately, we may now be seen to occupy a more central position of note, perhaps even of some importance, within the hobby of stamp collecting.
For more on Michael’s exhibit please click on the Show Awards icon located at the right side of this page, just above the American Philatelic Society logo.
The Bill Webster Collection and Sale Catalog
For those of you who are not aware, William B. Webster put together a major accumulation and collection of primarily federal waterfowl stamps and prints over his lifetime. I say accumulation because even though there was an attempt made for the material to be organized into a collection, Bill was not really a serious philatelist and there was much duplication – much more than would be typically found in a normal collection per se.
I believe the reason for this is because Bill loved duck stamps and prints and even though he was a dealer, he had a difficult time parting with them. I have found that collectors frequently fall into into two groups: those that make up excuses or reasons not to add items to their collection and those that make up excuses or reasons to add items to their collection. Bill was definitely a member of the latter.
Having known Bill for decades and having visited with him many times, I was generally aware of what to expect when I received the sale catalog. Additionally, I had been in contact with Bill’s family throughout last summer and members of the Siegel firm early in the year.
Upon reviewing the catalog (see Figure 2), my first impression was that although there were many fabulous items, the sale was a very mixed bag with the condition of many of the prints and plate blocks, in particular, being at the lower end of the scale. There was, in some cases, the additional potential problem of heavy duplication to contend with.
Taking into account that the sale consisted almost exclusively of federal waterfowl stamp material, an area that was (like so many other collectible areas) heavily impacted by the Great Recession – I was decidedly worried the sale would bomb and provide the hobby with unwanted negative publicity at a time when it seemed that it was just beginning on the road to recovery.
Much to my surprise, we are apparently further down the road than I thought, for not only did the sale not bomb, but results were remarkably strong throughout and in many cases resulted in world record prices being established.
I attended the sale with two purposes: 1) to represent bids for many of the most serious collectors in the hobby who desired to add items to their collections and / or exhibits and 2) to represent myself in trying to obtain some items from Bill’s collection that I had wanted for decades and, secondarily, to purchase items for resale and in so doing – to protect the market.
Waterfowl Stamp Print Background Information
The market for duck stamp prints has been generally weak for many, many years now – maybe as many as twenty. There are several reasons for this; perhaps most prominent is that a handful of artists, stamp dealers and print publishers decided in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to turn the once burgeoning print hobby into their own personal monopoly game and literally killed the proverbial goose.
In short, excess prints were produced in speculation that the market would continue to grow unabated. The limited edition prints became not so much and the recession ultimately provided somewhat of a death knell when the market, already showing weakness, seriously contracted.
In a bit of irony, it was Bill Webster that was the first print dealer and publisher to actively promote the market and produce excess prints. When his firm, Wild Wings, contracted with friend David Maass to produce the 1974-75 federal waterfowl stamp print, Webster made the unusual decision to not number the prints (see Figure 3).
When the prints went from being produced in black and white to multicolor in 1970, the edition sizes for 1970-1973 were 1000, 950, 950 and 1000, respectively. Although never formally announced, the edition size for 1974 was about 4,000 – a 400% increase. Not surprisingly, I purchased a lot in the auction that contained the remaining unsold 1974 prints and it amounted to 21 prints, over 40 years later.
After 1974 the edition sizes remained relatively high and steadily (sometimes dramatically) increased to a high of over 20,000 for 1984-85. While it is true that the ongoing promotion was actually having a positive effect in the number of collectors and, therefore, the actual number of prints sold (I sold 275 of the 1984-85 prints alone) it is important to keep in mind that a large portion of the edition sizes after 1973 were speculative, excess prints produced for an anticipated future market that was never fully realized.
Therefore, I think it is useful to view the federal waterfowl stamp prints in two very different groups. The first group corresponds to the stamps issued prior to 1974. The second group corresponds to stamps issued starting with the 1974 Maass design.
Prints from the first group are legitimately scarce to rare in the collector market today. In the extreme example, only 30 prints were pulled from the first edition stone in Francis Jaques’ 1940-41 lithograph (see Figure 4). Of these, four were destroyed in a fire soon after they were produced and four more were destroyed in the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Undoubtedly a few more have disappeared from the collector market over the years.
All of the other black and white first edition prints were produced in numbers ranging from 100 to 750. In addition, so called “museum framing” standards were not adopted by the stamp and print industry until starting in the early 1980s. Prior to that, the prints were framed in a variety of ways which can best be described as a horror show; they were usually trimmed to fit the frames, then taped, glued or dry-mounted to mat board containing a high acid content. The glass was not UV resistant and collectors were not advised to hang the prints in areas not exposed to direct sunlight.
Then, when the prints were resold, the new client often wished for the frames to be changed, necessitating the prints often be further trimmed to remove the old tape and glue. The reframing process was often repeated over and over. Over time, the majority of black and white prints had their original margins reduced to a fraction of their original size and in many cases to less than an inch on the top, both sides and beneath the signature on the bottom, resulting in a print that that cannot be correctly framed today with (archival) corner mounts hand-torn from acid free paper.
There simply is not enough margin left to prevent the mounts from showing through into the image area beneath the UV filtering plexi glass. Such prints are irreversibly damaged and should sell for a heavy discount. Black and white prints that have been either unframed or well cared for (stored) are in sill high demand by knowledgeable collectors.
On the other hand, colored prints starting in 1974 are around in large quantities. In many cases the quantities are so large that the prints have no intrinsic value other than as a decorative piece of art. Fortunately, in this regard they rise to the occasion as America’s wildlife artists, in general, are a truly gifted group and their work is greatly appreciated by collectors and wildlife enthusiasts around the world.
I took the time to explain this so that you can understand why the earlier and the more recent federal waterfowl stamp prints should not be grouped together – or painted with the same brush (no pun intended). In other words, just because post-1973 prints (or even older prints in very poor condition) seemingly abound today and often sell on Ebay for a fraction of their supposed retail, this is not indicative of the values for most pre-1974 prints in good (collectible) condition.
Most of the early federal prints are legitimately scarce to rare, are often unavailable in sufficient numbers to meet the demand and are, in my opinion, still undervalued today – some tremendously so.