Diary of an auctioneer

DIARY OF AN AUCTION

The day I sat down to write this piece, I heard on the radio that a Picasso painting had just sold for many tens of millions of dollars. No stamp or cover has ever fetched anything like as much, of course, though individual sales in excess of one hundred thousand pounds happen often enough that not every one gets reported. When they do, such transactions attract plenty of publicity, of course. But items in these lofty price brackets remain comfortably beyond the pocket of just about every collector - and, whisper it not, dealer, too! No, the hum-drum of daily life for a stamp auctioneer is a rather more mundane matter of stamps and collections worth dozens or hundreds or pounds, sometimes thousands, rarely, if ever, tens of thousands.

When can you sell this for me? And how much will I get? If all the correspondence Apex has received from would-be vendors were to be condensed into two questions, those would be they. And not, I have to say, in that order! Our job is to get as much as we can for the seller, whilst leaving the buyer content with what he has purchased. Striking the balance is a simple of matter of whether and how to break down the collection in front of us. Simplicity, as Churchill once said, is no simple thing.

An auctioneer acts as a go-between for buyer and seller and charges a commission for his services, sometimes to just the buyer, or just the seller, more often than not to both. His commission is used to pay for the costs of putting the sale together: of these by far the greatest is for printing and mailing the catalogue, then come hire of the room, staff costs and all the other sundry expenses. The day of the sale is the centre of all activity as far as the bidders are concerned. For the auctioneer it is just the public few hours of a job which lasts for months.

A sale which is held, for sake or argument, at the end of the year may well have its beginnings at the start of that year, or even earlier. A date for the sale must be settled, which is never as simple as saying, "Let's have it then." The venue must be available for hire, and it is better if the date chosen does not clash with obvious external distractions such as a World Cup Final. In the case of Apex, we also need to be sure that our staff have no personal prior engagements, such as looking after their children during school holidays. We then decide how many lots will be in the sale (800-1000 for a public sale, 3000 for a postal only sale) and set about allocating the available material - principally we look for a good balanced spread of mixed lots/collections and singles, an equally balanced spread of countries, lots valued at levels from a few pounds to thousands and we try to avoid having several lots of the same thing.

About 8 weeks before the sale, the content of the sale is finalised and can go to press. Today's powerful computers make it a relatively simple affair to juggle lots between sales and to be certain of the number of lots. The computers take care of the hi-tech end: numbering the lots, arranging the text and printing address labels. In contrast the stamps to be illustrated are selected by hand and arranged on a black background -all very low-tech. The printers will later scan the images for full colour reproduction. The catalogues are usually mailed about 4 weeks before the sale. Bids are faxed, phoned in, e-mailed, bid on-line through our web site, handed in by person, or bid on the day, in the "room". That's complicated enough without the many please-do-this-and-don't-do-thats which accompany the bids. Most firms will do their utmost to accommodate even the trickiest requests. Some, such as "I only want lot 100 if I don't get lot 200" present obvious challenges, as do questions such as "how fine is your fine used?". Using discretion and giving one's opinion is fine, provided always that said discretion and opinion are the same as the questioner's!

How do we arrive at our valuations? (Am I being presumptuous in thinking you are more interested in the answer to this question, than in the mechanics?) The answer is that there is no one methodology. Stamps are not all worth x% of catalogue value and mint stamps are not always better than used ones. Nor is it a sure-fire certainty that buying at auction is cheaper than buying direct from a dealer (though on balance it probably is - and I speak with both dealer and auctioneer hats on). Correspondingly it is no more certain that a vendor will end up with more cash selling by auction, than he will selling directly to a dealer. Some firms undoubtedly place very low estimates or start prices on the lots, others rather high ones and there are good reasons for so doing. Apex's policy is to provide estimates which we believe are within 10% of the likely selling price. Our belief is based on our combined 100+ years of full-time stamp trade expertise, and experience in handling several millions of pounds worth of stamps each year.

OK, so that's the advert. What do we do? Better sets and single items, by which I mean ones which are worth selling as a lot in their own right, are the easiest to deal with. Apex has an extensive database, going back 7 years, of lots sold and the prices obtained. Taking the case of an imaginary set of Cuckooland 1950 Butterflies, our database will show us the bid range for previous sets sold and the estimated value will be set accordingly. Collections, estate lots, mixed lots - call them what you will - present a greater challenge. Any mixed lot worth, say, £1,000 can be broken into 11 lots at £100 each. The arithmetic of a politician? Well not really - at its crudest this is exactly how dealers earn their unholy crusts. And how many collectors finance their collections, let me add. Where the theory breaks down, is when only 9 of the £100 lots sell. Is the rest genuinely worth £200 - or did those two lots fail to sell because they are not worth £200?

Our job is first to decide whether to split. If yes, then it must be done in such a way as, if I may keep the political metaphor, to extract the maximum amount of feathers for the minimum amount of squwaking. This may mean breaking the collection by country, or by date range, or making up one mint collection and one used collection, or it may mean removing some better sets/singles to sell on their own and offering the rest as a lump. The permutations are many and varied and there is no one set way of doing it. I am happy to offer collectors some guidelines which may help them get the most for their stamps.

· First, collections in albums sell much more easily than collections in stockbooks. No-one pays good money for pretty writing, but it is far easier to identify stamps in an album. Time is money and where a buyer cannot economically check perfs/wmks/papers or whatever, they will be valued without exception as the cheapest variety.

· Don't cheat. Professionals know which the good stamps are and they will be the first (and often only) things to be checked. If you've slipped in a cheap watermark here and there, hoping no-one will notice, all you will end up doing is devaluing the better stamps which are there, as most buyers will leave such collections well alone.

· Make sure that your stamps are accessible to buyers. The worst thing you can do is to put them into hundreds of different packets, especially if you seal the packets down. It takes hours to take the stamps out and to put them back again and most buyers simply won't bother.

· Tidying up a messy rump end is seldom a good idea. Messy lots always sell. By all means tidy up the main part of your collection, but leave the bone pit as a bone pit.

Many people are daunted by the prospect of buying at auction and so don't do it. It's a personal choice, though I would say that the horror stories one hears of people scratching their chin and ending up with up an expensive white elephant and almost certainly apocryphal and at worst highly exaggerated. Yes, there are secret signals which an experienced auctioneer can pick up, but in general no-one is thought to be bidding unless it is made very clear that they are, such as by raising a bidding number high in the air. What should be stressed is that if you make a bid at a public auction, when the hammer falls, a legally binding contract has taken place and you are the buyer of that lot. If you have made a mistake, you have no right to insist that the auctioneer does anything - if the lot is re-offered, it is strictly at the auctioneer's discretion and you may be asked for the difference if the lot subsequently sells for less. Additionally, depending on the terms of the auction house, you may, or may not, be able to return lots which you feel are wrongly described: the policies vary at the one end from 'no returns under any circumstances' to 'return anything you like for any reason you like'.

Purchases made in the "room" may be paid for and taken away at the same time. Otherwise goods are packed and shipped afterwards. Those few days after the sale are when activity is at its highest. All the world and his dog wants to know how he has got on - we have one person in front of a computer screen for three days, pretty well doing nothing else but dealing with that repeating enquiry. A second is engaged in the wheeler-dealing of placing any unsold lots, whilst elsewhere in the business, someone else spends most of her time authorising credit card transactions, whilst the rest pack, pack and pack. If all goes well, we are finished by the third working day following a sale, though there are always tidying up jobs. For example there is always one lot which isn't where is should be and Murphy's Law says that it will be the one lot which cannot easily be replicated!

And inbetween time, we have put another catalogue to bed and the date of the next sale is gallopping ever closer ...

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