Today’s post tells the story of one of the better finds in our fish and game hobby. It occurred, recently, in a way that many assiduous 20th century collectors dreamed might one day happen to them. In fact, many of us used to do more than just dream; we often made a serious effort to put ourselves in a position where it might actually be possible.
As a result, while a find of this magnitude always makes for a good story, this kind of thing would not have been quite so startling 20-30 years ago. The current internet age of online auctions and Ebay has made life easier for collectors – maybe too easy. Have we all gotten a little too soft? This story and its protagonist serve to remind us that “old-school” collecting methods, involving time, hard work and extra effort, can still be rewarded.
Meet Alan Webb
When Alan Webb was a kid growing up in Tennessee, he spent a lot of time going to garage sales, estate sales and moving sales with his father, Bill. William Webb was a used book dealer with a keen interest in history. One of the ways Bill obtained new stock for his business was by participating in the following weekly ritual:
He would comb all of the local newspapers for notices of sales; methodically map out a prioritized driving route and, perhaps most important, get up very early so he could be assured of being one of the first to appear on the scene. Bill often took his young son with him and one of Alan’s earliest memories has to do with learning the early bird gets the worm.
Bill also taught his son to keep an eye out for other items of potential value, aside from books, while they attended these sales. After they took a chance, Bill showed his son how to find out if the items had any collector value. In the days before the internet and texting, this involved a lot of personal interaction – going to the library and talking to other collectors – which Alan enjoyed.
It frequently required making phone calls – sometimes a lot of calls following up on leads. Alan soon began to learn a little bit about a wide variety of collectibles. Unlike many kids, he did not mind getting up while it was still dark – as he found the prospect of making a good find to be exciting. Most of all, he cherished this time he got to spend together with his dad.
Alan developed an interest in history at an early age and feels this was a direct result of helping out his dad and researching their new acquisitions. This is really what got him hooked – the opportunity to expand his knowledge and make some extra money in the process. It got to the point where Alan, once he was able to drive, would even go alone on the days his dad was busy.
Over time, this weekly ritual became deeply ingrained in Alan and, therefore, a big part of his life. The experience he gained attending sales with his dad allowed Alan to develop his own instincts, whose importance shall be revealed shortly.
As an adult, Alan developed his own collectible interests – different from those of his father. When he went to sales he was especially pleased when he was able to add new vinyl records to his rapidly growing collection. Alan sold duplicate records to supplement his income, along with the other things of value he located. He never forgot the lesson his dad had taught him – to always keep his eye out for other things of potential value.
The Summer of ’17
Late last August, Alan was going about his weekly ritual. Having long since supplemented his newspaper resources with those found online, Alan ran across a post on a local community website. A family in the Nashville area was moving and they had taken out an ad for a garage sale. The ad specifically mentioned collectibles, including stamps, coins and postcards (see Figure 1).
The sale was unusual in that is was to be held during the middle of the week, on a Wednesday and Thursday – starting at mid-afternoon. Just about everyone with any common sense would realize that holding a garage sale on a workday afternoon is a bad idea, however, this family was motivated by the fact that they were moving and they really just wanted to get rid of as much stuff as possible.
Hoping to find some old records and realizing the midweek sale offered an unusual opportunity, Alan arrived at 1:30 – two hours before the sale was scheduled to start. When he pulled up, he noticed there was already one other car parked along the curb. It was a warm, sunny day.
Alan was disappointed to find there were no records, however, there were a lot of old coins – another of his main interests – going all the way back to Roman times. In talking to members of the family, he learned the guy who got there first had already made a deal for all of the American coins, leaving the foreign ones for Alan to buy.
There were also a lot of stamps, which Alan knew little about and initially passed on, and boxes of old postcards which Alan also did not buy. He quickly determined this was not your typical garage sale stuff and started asking the family questions. They told him that much of the sale consisted of collectible and otherwise historical items which had belonged to a male relative who passed away. He was associated with a now defunct historical society in the Nashville area.
They did not know anything about collectibles and were far more interested in the relative’s possessions finding a good home than monetary considerations. Predictably, it was a poor turnout and only six people showed up on Wednesday. Alan saw that little was going to sell and he could think about purchasing more items overnight.
He drove home and started to research the foreign coins. Surprisingly, many were of considerable value. This led Alan to believe some of the family’s other collectibles may be also be of some value. After discussing it with his wife, Heather, she encouraged him to go back the next day for more.
A Strong Breeze Kicked Up
Alan got there early on Thursday and started looking through more boxes. He happened across a box full of paper currency and thought that if the coins were good, perhaps the currency was valuable as well. On top of the box were a number of Tennessee state revenue stamps. Most of them were hinged to homemade album pages and the pages were stapled together.
Alan was aware that some postage stamps were quite valuable, however, he really knew nothing about revenue stamps. He asked the family a few questions and learned they had taken the stamps to a local club meeting, where nobody expressed any interest. At this point the family had offered to donate the stamps to the club and they were told, “We have enough stamps and don’t want them”.
This information did not make Alan very optimistic about the potential value of the stamps and he set them aside. As he was leaving, a strong breeze kicked up and the currency began to blow out of the box. At this point he picked up the stamp album pages and asked them how much they wanted for them. The price seemed reasonable enough and Alan did think they seemed kind of interesting – and pertained to Tennessee history – so he bought some of the stamps (not all) and placed them on top of the box to prevent the currency from blowing away as he walked to his car.
When Alan got home he put the stamps aside for several weeks while he continued to work on the coins and paper currency. Finally he was ready to research the stamps. At this point, Alan still did not know what a revenue stamp was.
Alan Joins the State Revenue Society
Alan started searching state revenue stamps online and this soon led him to the website for the State Revenue Society (SRS). He joined and also purchased a copy of The State Revenue Catalog (see Figure 2). After receiving the catalog, he began looking-up his Tennessee stamps to see if they had any value. As he was flipping through the Tennessee section, he recognized some items that were included in the stuff he had recently acquired – the Tennessee Shell Tax stamps.
He saw some of the unused stamps had considerable value and started to get kind of excited, for in addition to having complete sets of singles for 1937 and 1938 – he also had complete sets of blocks for both years, with the exception of the rare 1937 two cent blue value (see Figures 3 and 4).
The next thing Alan noticed was that he had nine different Tennessee Fur Tax stamps, whereas the SRS catalog only listed eight. This led him to do a more exhaustive web search. He found the Waterfowl Stamps and More website and plugged “Tennessee” into the search box. This provided him with much additional information – some of which now needs to be updated.
In Morton Dean Joyce: Fish and Game Hall of Famer – Part Two, I reproduced the 1937 Tennessee Senate Bill (401, Chapter 84) that created the Fur Tax stamps. It listed and described nine different stamps, including one for Otter. A little later in the post I stated:
“… Second, nine separate stamps are listed in Figure 28, including one for otter. To my knowledge, the otter stamp has not been recorded and was probably never issued. In addition to the 15-20 various used examples, I have seen two “complete” unused sets, one came in Mort’s collection and one in the Bert Hubbard collection. I know of one other collector that has a set. All of the sets consist of eight stamps, with no otter.
I have also bought and sold two or three unused singles over the years and this leads me to believe that, somewhere along the way, a set was broken up – but still no otter. The eight Joyce Tennessee Fur Tax stamps include opossum, weasel, muskrat, skunk, gray fox, raccoon, mink and red fox …”
Well Guess what? Alan Webb had just discovered the first recorded example of the once mythical Tennessee Otter stamp (see Figure 4). At this point Alan began sending me a series of emails, telling me about his find in detail.
My Turn to Get Excited
I have to admit, Alan’s emails (backed up by the photos above) came as somewhat of a surprise for a number of reasons. First, the unused blocks of the first issue shell tax stamps in the Morton Dean Joyce collection were the only ones any collector had ever heard of – until now. Further, I had long believed that all unused Tennessee Shell Tax stamps to enter the collector market were as a result of Mort’s efforts. Second, in a subsequent email, Alan revealed he also had an unused block of four of the rare 1938 three cent value (see Figure 6).
Not only did Joyce not have a block of this rare stamp, neither did any of the other pioneer fish and game or Tennessee collectors, including Bert Hubbard, E.L. Vanderford, Les Lebo or Barry Porter – all members of our Hall of Fame. Prior to this find, the largest recorded multiple of this stamp was an unused pair that I acquired from Bert Hubbard.
Third, I had long given up any hope of acquiring a Tennessee Otter stamp. If the stamp had actually been issued, it must have been in such a small quantity that it simply had eluded my best efforts – along with the Madeline Plains waterfowl stamp.
Needless to say, I was anxious to acquire this material from Alan and offered to pay him top dollar. Alan readily accepted and also agreed to help me document his find with this post – no doubt the the greatest garage sale find in the history of our niche hobby and probably one of the better ones in the history of philately.
One Last Surprise
When Alan sent me photos of the stamps, there was one more item that did not seem like it could possibly be real. I asked him to send the stamps via Fedex priority overnight service (as specified in my stamp dealers insurance policy) so I did not have long to wait.
Upon receiving the package I quickly located the item and carefully removed it from it’s mount (it was the only item on the page that was not hinged). I put on my strongest prescription glasses that I use for close up work and then pulled out a strong magnifying glass for good measure – it was real!
They say a picture is worth a million words so here goes:
Bert Hubbard told me the 1938 Tennessee Shell Tax stamps were printed in sheets of 100. As the two cent value would have produced a sheet with an even monetary value of $2.00, there would have been no reason for the printer to omit a design intentionally. We are left to conclude Alan’s garage sale find included one of the most dramatic errors in the fish and game stamp hobby.
A Complete Breakdown of Alan’s Find
Here is a complete listing of the Tennessee stamps Alan purchased at the garage sale last summer:
- Complete set of unused 1937 Shell Tax singles, including the finest recorded examples of the two most difficult stamps – the five mills and two cents values (see Figures 3, 8 and 9).
2. The second recorded set of unused 1937 blocks of four – both sets minus the two cents value (see Figure 3).
3. A complete unused set of 1938 Shell Tax singles.
4. The only recorded set of unused 1938 blocks of four, including the only recorded three cent block (see Figure 6).
5. The unique 1938 two cents error block of four, with image missing from the UR position.
6. Examples of all recorded ammunition stamp decals in singles and blocks of ten.
7. The only recorded complete set of Fur Tax stamps, including the only recorded example of the stamp for Otter (see Figures 5 and 10).
What Can We Learn from This?
First and foremost, it demonstrates there are still rare fish and game stamps out there, yet to be discovered. Second, perhaps we need to reevaluate our procurement strategies in the computer age. There was a day, before the internet, when many of the best sources for fish and game stamps were attics, antique shops, flea markets, gun shows, estate sales and, yes, garage sales.
We should not assume that if something of value to us turns up, somewhere across the country, that it will automatically wind up on Ebay or in a dealer’s hands. To understand our material, even a philatelist needs specialized knowledge. While the goal of Waterfowl stamps and More is to make this specialized knowledge available to everyone with access to the internet – it is a fact that many people still do not even own a computer.
I am aware that, for many people, time has become a precious, rare thing to be carefully allotted. Many of us have come to place a high value on our downtime. With this in mind, perhaps we should all think about visiting an antique shop or taking in an estate or garage sale once in a while. It can make for a fun, relaxing day out with the wife or family. If everyone reading this blog made a point of doing this just a few times a year – think of the coverage we could collectively achieve!
The alternative is this; if Alan Webb does not make the effort to attend this particular garage sale – the family very likely, at that point, throws the stamps away and they are lost to our hobby forever. Food for thought.
From everyone at Waterfowl Stamps and More, we would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation to Alan Webb for continuing to put in the hard work and long hours required to, on occasion, bring hidden gems like these into the various collector markets – Kudos, Alan! And to Heather, thank you for encouraging Alan to go back to the sale on the second day.