In part three of our inside view of the Bill Webster sale, we shall focus on the federal waterfowl stamps. This session of the auction proved to be quite an experience for all who participated; for myself it was at various times exciting, frustrating, humbling and – ultimately – encouraging and heartening.
When discussing the prints session in part two of this series, I tried to avoid using dollar amounts in an attempt to avoid from being coarse. However, one of the my goals for this third post is to convey a point: the waterfowl stamp market is very much alive and well. For this reason, I have decided to take the traditional approach when reporting auction results for the session two and, in most cases, will use dollar amounts to help illustrate how the events unfolded.
It is important to note that this was, everything considered, an unprecedented event. In the past, when a major waterfowl or fish and game holding has come to market, it has been handled by one of a handful of “duck stamp dealers”, including myself. In instances involving portions of the Vanderford and Rudy collections, Sam Houston Philatelics conducted auctions on a much smaller scale.
While this has proven fairly expedient – for we have, over the years, identified large numbers of collectors who specialize in this material – it is important for everyone to realize (myself included) that there is a much larger market that we often fail to reach.
In other words, our name recognition, advertising budget and mailing list (our potential market) is, in fact, quite limited when compared to a venerable philatelic auction house such as Robert A. Siegel.
On occasion, collectors and dealers have discussed the possibility of a major collection in our niche area of philately being sold through a large auction house; more specifically – what would happen? Would it show that there is little outside interest in our hobby and the sale(s) would perform poorly? Or is it possible that the stamps we love could, in fact, be appreciated by a much wider audience?
The Bill Webster sale, from where I sat…
Session Two – Hunting Permit Stamps
In the waterfowl print session – essentially a specialty area within a specialty area – even though the bidding was surprisingly strong and we were not always successful, I felt confident throughout the auction. Representing many of the most serious collectors and exhibitors in the fish and game hobby, I fully expected this to continue in the waterfowl stamp session.
I have been around for a while and have bid in many (over a hundred) live auctions, generally with much success. Rarely have I been involved in a situation like session two of the Bill Webster sale. What happened on March 18th was sudden and swift. The first thing I noticed after the break was that there were a couple of more Siegel employees manning the phones, never a good sign for a someone bidding on the floor.
For those of you who are not familiar, let me set the stage: There were a number of people attending the auction (to either bid or observe) in person and these were seated in chairs in the auction room. This is known as being on the (auction) floor. Included were collectors, dealers and agents. An agent represents and executes bids on behalf of their clients. In this particular auction, I was a collector, dealer (in both cases bidding for myself) and an agent and I bid with multiple paddles.
A paddle is a piece of cardboard or plastic that has your corresponding bidder number written on it in large block letters, easily visible by the auctioneer. The bidder numbers are assigned in a pre-registration process. In addition to those bidding on the floor, there were people bidding on the phone via auction employees and people bidding on the internet. In this day and age, large auctions often employ multiple internet bidding services and I believe Siegel was using two that day. Finally, the auctioneer maintains a book with bids that collectors have submitted directly to the auction house.
The first lot (#2101) was a vertical strip of three of the 1934-35 issue (RW1). The strip appeared to be completely imperforate and is listed in the Scott Catalogue as RW1a. This item is both highly controversial and highly sought after at the same time. For decades promoted as a legitimate error, I have stated in the Scott Catalogue that the item is almost certainly derived from printers waste and more specifically, trimmed from stamps on a discarded pane that was imperforate horizontally.
The origin of this item has become irrelevant in recent years, as it has so much eye appeal that many collectors fall in love with it and want one (I have one myself). Although most pairs and strips have faults (as would be expected from something rescued from the trash), this particular strip was faultier than most with visible thins and creases (see Figure 1). The estimate printed in the catalog was $7,500-10,000.00 Going into the sale I had many bids in my agent’s book, ranging from $11,000 t0 22,000.00.
The lot opened below $10,000.00. I bid for the client that was highest in my book at one increment over my second highest bidder – $15,500.00. At this point I would not have been surprised to win it, however, knowing the item was in high demand, I was not real confident (confidence would prove to be problem on this particular day).
Bidding came rushing in from all directions; the floor, the auctioneer’s own book, the internet and the phones. As we went over $20,000.00, I used my discretion to raise my high client’s bid from $22,000 to 25,000.00 – to no avail. The strip sold for $26,000.00 (hammer) + a 15% buyer’s premium for a total of $29,900.00.
The second lot of interest was #2108, a 1934-35 (RW1) stamp affixed to the return postcard portion of a Minnesota hunting license. The stamp was signed “Ding Darling”. The postcard was trimmed on three sides, however, the stamp was nice enough (see Figure 2). This was an item that I was interested in for myself. It was estimated for $400.00-500.00. I dropped out at $3,000.00 and it sold for $3,250.00 +15% = $3,737.50.
The next item was #2111, a 1935-36 (RW2) block of four with top and side selvage that was signed (in the right selvage) in two places by J.N. Darling (see Figure 3). The item was listed with a catalog value for four normal unused singles at $2,800.00. The high bid in my book was $4,000.00. This was an interesting piece and I was not particularly confident with my bid going into the sale. However, my client had made it clear to me that if it went higher he did not care. It sold for $6,000.00 +15% = $6,900.00.
The next item was #2114, a 1936-37 (RW3) top plate number block of six that was signed in the selvage by artist Richard Bishop (see Figure 4). This piece was of interest to several of my clients, however, upon viewing I detected a scrape on the top center stamp, below the wing of the lead goose, that was not described. I felt they would therefore be overpaying as the competition would be bidding on the assumption that the piece was sound (had no faults). The Scott Catalog value for a normal plate block was listed as $3,250.00.
As I had just been beat out on the Ding Darling artist signed piece (and therefore ostensibly had a similar amount of unspent money in my auction allowance) I decided that I would bid on this item for myself, up to a point. I dropped out at $3,500.00 and it sold for $3,75.00 +15% = $4,312.50.
The next many lots consisted of plate number blocks (often in quantity and usually not in a very high grade). This section of the auction was another of my pre-sale “bomb” concerns but… wait, no worries, as lot after lot sold for good money to much higher than market values. As would be the case throughout this session, the bids were coming from all directions. It was sustained and impressive. I managed to buy a few lots for stock.
The next lot of interest was #2137, a 1941-42 (RW8) top plate number block of six that was signed in the selvage by artist E.R. Kalmbach. Similar to the RW3 lot except that aside from being a little off center, it had no faults (see Figure 5). This item was of interest to several of my clients and also to myself. The 1941-42 issue is my favorite federal “duck” stamp and I had wanted this piece for decades but Bill would not part with it. The Scott Catalog value for a normal plate block was listed at $2,750.00.
The high bid in my book was $3,000.00 + a 10% discretion which I did not feel obligated to employ since I had already decided I was going to buy it for myself at virtually any cost. After the bidding opened, I raised it to $3,250.00 (one bid higher than the highest bid in my book). Once again I was raised multiple times before finally prevailing at $4,750.00 + 15% = $5,462.50.
The next item was #2148, a 1945-46 (RW12) large die trial color proof mounted on card. I initially questioned the”trial color” description but was convinced at the viewing that the black ink had, in fact, a little blue mixed in with it when the proof was pulled. In addition to being rare and one of Bill’s favorites, it has the added distinction of being signed by the artist, Owen Gromme, on the card and beneath the proof (see Figure 6). This was done as a personal favor to Bill as Owen Gromme was a close friend. The Scott Catalog value for a normal large die proof was listed as $7,500.00.
I won’t mince words here. I have wanted this proof for decades and Bill would never sell it to me. We both loved it and it was very personal for both of us. This lot was number one on my wish list for this entire sale and if you would have told me before the sale that I would go home without it – I would never have believed you. Prior to the sale, I estimated it would sell for $5,000-10,000 and right before the lot came up I had adjusted that range upward in my mind to $7,500.00-12,500.00.
The lot opened for something like $5,000.00. To be honest, the approximately five minute period is a blur now and I can’t remember it too well. I remember holding my paddle high like the Statue of Liberty. At some point (I believe around $10,000.00) it came down to me and one phone bidder. Every subsequent bid was over my initial valuation for the piece and, therefore, stressful – but I had to have it. After bidding $17,500.00, I slowly lowered my hand. The phone bidder won the proof for $18,000.00 + 15% = $20,700.00.
I was now beyond surprised at the competitive bidding, the likes I had not seen for waterfowl stamps in maybe 15 years or more – and feeling a little shell-shocked. The next many lots were rather common plate number blocks (often in heavy duplication) and of little or no interest to my clients or myself.
Lot #2178 was a complete unused pane of the 1935-35 (RW2) issue. The piece is legitimately rare with four examples known to me (see Figure 7). It was advertised as the highlight of the entire sale and I had multiple serious bids in my book. The Scott catalog value for singles and the plate number block was listed at $26,550.00.
It opened well under $20,000.00, at which time I raised the bid to one increment over the next highest bid in my book – $23,000.00. Thus began an epic bidding war from all angles. The high bid in my book was $35,000.00 + a 10% discretion.
When the sheet eventually rose above $38,500.00, I added $500.00 of my own money onto my clients bid and went to $39,000.00. A phone bidder went to $40,000.00 and I pulled my paddle down. The phone bidder won the sheet for $40,000.00 + 15% = $46,000.00.
There was no time for me to think as were on to arguably the second best lot in the auction. Lot #2179 was an equally rare (if not rarer) complete unused pane of the 1938-39 (RW5) issue (see Figure 8). The Scott catalog value for singles and the plate number block was listed at a deceptive $13,300.00 All of my same bidders were in my book as on the previous lot, with a high bid of $27,500.00 + a 10% discretion. I opened the bidding at one increment over the second highest bid in my book, $11,500.00.
This particular lot was perhaps the most frustrating for me in the entire sale as I had advised my (high) client on the bid. Not to mention the fact that – although I am a seasoned professional – I was getting a bit frustrated. Therefore, when the bidding rose above my $27,500.00 authorization, I threw another $1,500.00 of my own money onto my client’s bid to go to $29,000.00. Much to my amazement and consternation, the same phone bidder that beat us out on the RW2 sheet went to $30,000.00. I lowered my paddle and he won it for $30,000.00 +15% = $34,500.00.
It was now evident that I was involved in a firestorm, the likes we have never seen before in the waterfowl or fish and game stamp market. I finally broke through on Bill’s duck panes at lot #2182, the 1941-42 (RW8) issue that I have a personal weakness for (see Figure 9). Although not nearly as rare as the previous two lots, this particular pane was especially well centered. I won the lot for $6,500.00 +15% = $7,475.00, a little more than a thousand dollars over it’s catalog value as singles and a plate number block. It was an upgrade for me, so I was happy with the win.
I had multiple bids in my book for most of the rest of the panes in the session and the momentum finally turned in our favor as we won a total of 18 different (I won two for myself). An unusual situation occurred with lot # 2201, a complete pane of the always popular 1959-60 (RW26) issue featuring King Buck (see Figure 10).
I had more bids in my book for this pane than for any other lot in the entire sale, with two being pretty high at $5,000.00 + 10% discretion and $5,750.00 + 5% discretion. The bidding opened at below $1,000.00. When I raised my hand to bid, I called for the auctioneer to pause and bid $5,250.00 – one increment over the second highest bid in my book.
This caused somewhat of a stir in the room and bewilderment on the part of the phone bidders. Some of the Siegel employees may have started thinking us waterfowl stamp collectors were not in complete control of our faculties. At any rate, the phone bidders were too taken aback to react and my client won the lot for $5,250.00 + 15% = $6,037.50, nearly double it’s catalog value of $3,695.00 for singles and a plate number block.
Lot #2215 consisted of a nearly complete run of plate number blocks starting with the 1943-44 (RW10) issue to date – all signed in the selvage by the artist (see Figure 11). The estimate printed in the catalog was $3,000-4,000.00. The condition was mixed and some were damaged. I therefore gave what I thought was good advice to a couple of interested clients – to be conservative.
As a consequence, the high bid in my book was $5,500.00 + a 10% discretion. Within no time the bidding was over my client and I was now questioning my advice in this unforeseen market. Therefore, I switched paddles and bid up to $10,500.00. I figured that if I won the lot, I would give it to my client at cost (if he wanted it) and forgo my agent’s commission.
All was for naught, as two phone bidders carried the lot to $21,000.00 + 15% = $24,150.00, six to eight times the estimate!
The final lot of interest was #2216, which consisted of Bill’s accumulation of artist signed single stamps (no photo provided). I had several clients interested in the lot and so I examined it on three separate occasions. Each time I came away with the same opinion: virtually all of the early stamps were damaged, some of the later signatures were not authentic and it was not a good lot. Therefore I advised everyone to pass.
Recognizing the lot was problematic, Siegel estimated it at $500-750.00. However, by the time this lot came up in session two the feeding frenzy was uncontrollable. Bidding came rapidly from all directions and the lot ended up selling for $10,500.00 + 15% = $12,075.00, twenty times the estimate.
In an auction environment, my knowledge and experience usually makes it very difficult for others to beat me out. When combined with with my clients in a major event like this, we can be force to be reckoned with. And although we did mange to win a third of the lots, I left the building feeling a lot like bullies had taken my lunch money away from me in grade school. Not real great.
I initially felt frustrated about the RW12 proof and was particularly disappointed that I was unable to win many of the best lots for my clients. I purposefully took some time to analyze this auction before writing these posts. This is my interpretation:
1) The market for waterfowl stamps and prints is much stronger than we realized going into the auction. It was equally strong across the board for prints, plate blocks, panes, errors and artist signed material – for items in every condition and all price ranges.
2) The market is much larger than we think it is. One of the great advantages to the waterfowl and fish and game stamp market is that there are so many crossover collectors. By this I mean that in addition to those of us that specialize in this material – there are many people outside our hobby who enjoy it. Apparently, more than we thought.
Crossover collectors may include general revenue stamp collectors, U.S. stamp collectors, wildlife enthusiasts, art collectors and sportsmen (and women).
3) Perhaps we have become more mainstream than we are aware. The people I spoke to at Siegel’s were all very happy (and probably somewhat relieved) with the results from this auction. They obviously did a great job and deserve our thanks for helping to prove that our material is viable in a major philatelic auction.
Anyone thinking of selling a significant accumulation or collection of waterfowl stamps and prints should seriously consider talking to a large, well established philatelic auction firm with a good reputation.
The market they are able to deliver is simply far greater than we, as duck stamp dealers, can offer you.
I have, for the most part, gotten over it. Competition is good for markets. Now realizing the market for waterfowl stamps is, in fact, much larger than we thought, we shall simply have to step-up our game the next time an opportunity to acquire rare and unusual material presents itself.
The Bill Webster sale conducted by the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries is one of the best things to ever happen to our hobby. Along with being an eye-opener it was reinvigorating and, perhaps most important, reassuring.
The next time someone asks you about the market for duck stamps and prints – send them a link to this post. While it is true that the most common material was produced in quantities too large to have much of a collectible value (the same can be said for most hobbies), it is clearly a different story when talking about anything that can be labeled as better.
This is shaping up to be a big year for waterfowl and fish and game stamps. In addition to these positive recent auction results, we now have this website / blog / forum, Will and Abby Csaplar received the first international gold medal awarded to a waterfowl stamp exhibit at New York 2016 and a new documentary movie called The Million Dollar Duck has just been released on iTunes and Amazon.
I feel very optimistic about our future and you should too.