Australian cover prices on move, good value still abounds
At the Sydney Stamp Show, 31 April-3 May, I made a point of inspecting every exhibit. I was keen to overview the level of cover content in the exhibits, in order to determine discernible trends, if any, since the last time I carried out such an exercise. The initiative was positive for, aside from seeing some very nice covers for the first time, I came away impressed that covers were playing a more dominant role in most exhibits, including Traditional code. Clearly, exhibitors are becoming increasingly aware that covers play an important role in generating interest and diversity in an exhibit, which in turn can improve the bottom line in terms of points awarded in judging.
In most auctions, also, one witnesses ever-increasing cover content. That isn't the auction houses becoming altruistic; it's the logical response to demand from bidders. I take great pleasure admiring in auction catalogues so many covers featured in vibrant colour, particularly items that 5 or 10 years ago would unceremoniously have been left in the "collection-remainder" carton. Two Australian auction houses which are foremost in presentation of covers in their respective catalogues are Phoenix Auctions and Prestige Philately. This month I'm acknowledging their contributions to cover promotion by featuring a number of interesting Australian items (one from a former Territory) offered at recent auctions. Philatelists who are serious about cover collecting regard these auctions as "not to be missed events". My thanks to Phoenix (Figures 1-3) and Prestige (Figures 4-7) for use of their scans. Prices exclude Buyer's premium.
Figure 1. Rare, aesthetic, Philately-as-Art candidates such as this have a very bright future
The first item, Figure 1, was featured on the back cover of the Phoenix 13 May sale, a lucky Friday the 13th for the purchaser, in my opinion. The previous record franking for a 2/- Silver Jubilee was a cover bearing three examples. This has nine (!); one of the blocks contains the scarce listed Vertical line through tablet (ACSC 168f) as a bonus. The aggregate franking of 19/8d, just short of requiring a £1 Kangaroo, represents 2/9d per ½oz. airmail x7 (3-3½ozs.) + 3d registration fee + 2d Late fee for registered article. From Sydney to a philatelic trader in Johannesburg, I have no problem classifying this as a commercial cover. Philatelic traders are allowed to receive mail, and on 4 June 1935, when this article was dispatched, it would have been perfectly normal to expect a Sydney Post Office to have these stamps in stock. Despite the realization of $5500 (estimate was $2500), I rate this as a shrewd purchase, perceived as a bargain in a few short years. Why? Finds of show-stopping covers such as this come along on average once in a generation. This cover is in a league of its own, and smart collectors increasingly are becoming aware of the importance of inclusion of such items in an exhibit. I endorse the Phoenix comment "One of the most stunning pre-war covers of Australia". Incidentally, I understand the cover turned up in South Africa, where it had been since arriving 76 years ago!
Figure 2. Rare usage item does not go undetected
There was a time, not long ago, when an item such as Figure 2 would be found in a "mixed lot" in an auction, or a trader's "Dollar box". I know that for a fact; for many years I was frequently making such purchases, like there was no tomorrow! It's rare to enjoy such bargains nowadays; specialists are way too informed. Rarer still is the featured item, a 26 Apr 1962 solo use of the 1/2d Thylacine for Certified second weight step letter (ie. 8d 2nd weight step + 6d Certified fee), Moorabbin to Melbourne. I've seen only two examples of solo use of the stamp for this purpose, making it a much more elusive item than the better known 1/2d solo for airmail postcard and greetings card rate to Europe. Estimated at $140, the lot went on to realize $230, a respectable result.
Figure 3. PNG 10/- Map cover, unloved at $290 reserve
The PNG 1952 10/- Map is very scarce on commercial cover. The only examples I've noted are from the Lawson correspondence (Br. Solomon Is.), which have realized upwards of $500. Lot 1987 (Figure 3) at Phoenix was a nice 10/- usage item to France, which is unusual. The aggregate franking of 16/- was for 2/- airmail rate x8. It was sold at $290 reserve; a lot of cover for the money. Less money, actually, than one can pay for a mint set (11) of the PNG 1994 Emergency overprints, which I regard as common (a set on commercial covers is quite another story). My Trader colleagues won't like me being so brutally honest, but ring around, go on the internet offering to pay the going price for mint sets in quantity and see how many would gravitate your way. You'd have to sell the house to accommodate what would be available to you.
Figure 4. State stamps in combination with Kangaroos rightly now very popular
On to the Prestige sale (#164), I liked Lot 270 (Figure 4), so much in fact I was underbidder. This Perth 2 Dec 1913 combination of punctured "OS" 1d Kangaroo and W.A. 5d is particularly rare; I have the same combination unpunctured, and thought the two items would make for a nice page. Estimated at $500, it took $1800 to call it your own. Attractive State/Kangaroo commercial combinations are now much in demand. I commenced collecting them in 1985, and for many years was the only kid on the block. Gone are the days when a couple of hundred dollars would buy the best of what came on the market, and I confess I'm slow to adjust to the new paradigm in pricing. Consider this: I would estimate, in an average year (since 1985, that is), about three to four really nice combinations, such as that featured, appear worldwide. Compare that with the number of mint £2 Kangaroos which appear in a year, and I can see I'd better crank up my bidding paddle a cog or two if I want to stay in the combination covers contest.
Figure 5. Took nearly a century for one of these to turn up
The Arthur Gray collection contained a P.O. Parcel label bearing the remarkable franking of Kangaroo punctured "OS" 9d (Large) strip of four and 4d (Small) pair. It realized AU$392 (including "Buyer's"), prompting me at the time in this column to proclaim "One might readily agree with me that this lot is a contender for "Best Buy" in the [Gray] auction". I went on to compare the item with the Large "OS" 9d inverted watermark duo in Gray, which sold for scary, really scary sums of upwards of AU$19,000, each (!), concluding with "For my money it [the Parcel label] is a far superior exhibit". The same could be said for a comparison of Prestige Lot 271 (Figure 5) with those inverteds. This solo use of Large "OS" 9d, from Perth on 1 Dec 1913 (remarkably, the day before the preceding item) is the first use I've recorded of this stamp on cover. Almost a century went by before we received the pleasure of laying eyes upon it. Estimated at $1500, it realized $2700. Not dear in my opinion, particularly when one considers that this is a rarer item than the inverteds (not to mention far more exhibitable).
Figure 6. "Massive" postmark, ugly on loose stamps
Most collectors of Australian stamps will have noted, I suspect with horror, individual used stamps almost obliterated by the enormous oval rubber handstamps used at Parcels Offices around Australia. On the other hand, when applied carefully to stamps on an intact label, these cancellations can assume a very real appeal. A good example of that personality change can be seen in Lot 282 (Figure 6), where Kangaroo Third wmk. 2/- maroon pair (very scarce on "cover") and KGV 4d pair are tied to a parcel label by a very fine and largely complete strike of the massive cancellation in use at Melbourne. Prestige describe this item as "Impressive!", and I agree. Despite a conservative estimate of $400, it didn't sell, and is available (at time of writing at least) at reserve of $320. My opinion? A bargain. "Why don't I buy it then?", well may you ask. Simply put, I can't have everything, can I, and besides I did buy the next item featured.
Figure 7. Kangaroo 6d optd "OS" on cover, in need of catalogue price revision
I've seen very few Kangaroo 6d optd "OS" covers, irrespective of watermark. I priced them at $450 in ACSC (2004), which is looking a tad anorexic. Lot 286 (Figure 7) is a solo use, which is rare indeed. Sent 1 Jun 1932 from Sydney to U.K., the rate representing 2d British Empire letter + 3d domestic airmail + 1d Late fee (posted at 5.30pm, which is after advertised closing time for daily mails) = 6d. Stated to be CofA wmk. (I haven't yet inspected the item), that would be a bonus, for ACSC gives1 Jun 1932 September 1932 as time of issue. The Small Multiple and CofA wmks on cover are not the easiest challenge in Philately, so I wouldn't hold it against anyone if they occasionally got such classifications wrong. On the pricing front, I was pleasantly surprised to buy this item for $360 (estimate $300); it's a good example of having to be in it to win it philosophy.
The cocktail of high, low, and lack of realizations provided in the seven items above suggests to me that for cover collectors: game very far from over.
Rod Perry has been a philatelic trader since 1962. He founded Rodney A Perry Auction Galleries (now Millennium Philatelic Auctions) in 1971. As a collector he has exhibited nationally and internationally. Rod prefers his used stamps on cover and likens taking a stamp off its original cover to converting a tree to woodchips.