Commentaries on Items in the Gross Collection

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Wednesday and Thursday, May 8-9, 2019 — Scott R. Trepel

Sale 1200 — The William H. Gross Collection: Outstanding U.S. Stamp Multiples

The William H. Gross Collection

Philatelic Entropy

The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.    --STEVEN PINKER

As we all were taught and many of us have forgotten, entropy is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that all matter in the universe moves towards disorder unless affected by outside forces. It explains why two bodies close together, one very hot and one very cold, will seek a state of equilibrium and ultimately lose their temperature. In observing the passage of time, we depend on entropy. Eggs do not unscramble themselves after being broken, and iron does not turn from rust to a dense black beam. If they did, time itself would seem to be reversed.

So, what is philatelic entropy?

To create a physics analogy, the printing and sale of a sheet of stamps is the starting point (we are thinking at the stamp level, not the atomic). From that moment forward, the sheet will become neither bigger nor more ordered, only smaller and more disordered. Historically—at least during the first 75 years from the beginning of all stamp creation in 1840—the odds were the sheet would be divided into single stamps, used on letters, cancelled and tossed out. Those stamps would be defying the familiar patterns of entropy if they removed their cancels, reassembled themselves into their original places in the sheet, mended all of their scissors-cuts or torn perforations, grew back their gum, and became a perfect mint sheet again.

The entropy of stamp sheets has occurred for functional and philatelic reasons. In order to redeem their stored postage value, buyers of stamps had to affix them to mail. The act of cutting or tearing apart a sheet was, for most stamp issues, the first big force of nature pushing them toward entropy. The small percentage of stamps lucky enough to survive being ripped, licked and sticked on letters (please forgive the poetic license) might have lived long enough to find their way into the hands of stamp collectors or dealers. At that point, the second force pushing the sheet toward philatelic entropy would take over—the demand for profit.

From the 1880s through World War II, stamp collecting grew tremendously in popularity, fueled by stories of riches gained through the discovery of rarities in family papers and bibles, and demographically supported by a growing interest in hobbies built on taxonomic study—beetles, butterflies, coins and stamps, to name a few. It certainly helped that a British monarch and an extremely popular president both collected stamps and advocated the hobby (King George V and Franklin D. Roosevelt).

The business of stamps was built on albums, and printed albums were designed for most collectors with spaces for a single example of each stamp. A stamp dealer who needed to meet the demand from many collectors looking for single stamps could not afford to keep sheets or even blocks intact. Even the more advanced dealers catering to block collectors could usually make more selling three blocks to three collectors instead of one block, three times the size, to one collector. So, when a large multiple or sheet of a stamp left the safety of its hiding place and entered the philatelic market, the likeliest outcome was a push toward entropy.

As time passed and collecting tastes changed, a greater appreciation of sheets and blocks developed. Multiples populated the magnificent collections formed by collectors in the years leading up to the end of World War II—names such as Worthington, Hind, Sinkler, Gibson, Colonel Green, Newbury, Ward, Caspary and Waterhouse. These collectors and their interest in multiples influenced the next generation of philatelic titans, such as Phillips (the Weills’ principal client), Rust, Lilly and Hirzel. In the Phillips and Lilly collections alone, there was an enormous trove of multiples. When the Lilly and Phillips collections both came on the market in very close proximity (1967-68 and 1968, respectively), the market was inundated with rare blocks.

The Weills bought the entire Phillips collection in 1968 for $4.07 million, and they carefully controlled the market. Throughout the 1970s, the Weills ensured the health of the block market with capital to hold inventory and liquidity to hold up prices. The brothers divided some multiples to make it easier to find buyers and maximize profits (always at the request of an unnamed collector, of course). They released duplicates over time and supported prices. During this period the Weills were the source of material that allowed collectors to build their block holdings—Bechtel, Chapin, Klein, Grunin, Kobacker, Wunderlich and Ishikawa—and many Rarities of the World sales were filled with treasure sent north from the Weills of New Orleans.

With the exception of a few blocks divided to enhance their appearance or to sell as smaller units, most remained intact through the 1970s. Then, as the “gem” singles market was expanded in the 1980s, and old-time block collections came on the market, a large and devastating round of blockbusting occurred. With careful cuts from a razor, imperforate stamps were harvested from multiples to provide “superb, large margined” singles. Perforated blocks were folded back and forth along the perforations several times to ensure that separation left even perf teeth on each side of the row. From these blocks came the “Jumbo” and “Mint Never-Hinged” gems, even before numerical grading. Multiples of certain issues, such as 1861-66, 1868 Grills, Large Bank Notes and early commemoratives, were ravaged. The arbitrage was impossible to resist. Just as companies in the 80s were worth more broken up and sold in pieces, four singles brought double or triple what the whole block cost, even more.

Returning to the theme of entropy, what survives today is destined to become more disordered. However, as this catalogue shows, we can use digital photography to look back into the past and see what many of these multiples looked like closer to their original state. It is the Hubble effect— with Photoshop. Seeing the pieces put together again helps us appreciate how remarkable these multiples really are, and if we can appreciate them more, perhaps we can slow the entropy, for a little while at least.