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WELCOME TO MAYFAIR PHILATELIC AUCTIONS
Mayfair is part of the Scholium Group Plc, an AIM listed company who specialise in Rare Books, Works on Paper and other Fine Arts.
SALE NUMBER 9 – Closing Thursday 7th November 2019
Towards the end of August I went to Budapest for a couple of nights with some old school buddies. It’s a jaunt we make once
a year, to somewhere within a couple of hours’ flying time from London. Give or take. Old has an increasingly literal meaning.
The toast to absent friends is longer. Animated discussion of the world’s problems over dinner and digestifs once more drew
arm waving a-plenty and no workable solutions (if the use of gunboats is ruled out). Tellingly, no one was politely but firmly
removed from the hotel bar in the early hours; we’d all voluntarily gone to our rooms long since. It’s a lovely city with
construction to refurbish the centre proceeding at a furious pace, mirrored in the suburbs to replace the 1950s faceless,
concrete, communist-era housing blocks with their 21st century equivalents, sadly often just as faceless and drab. The bank
along the Buda side of the Danube river carries a tramline and you can ride along it (and back) for very little. At approx 350
forints to the pound, all the prices at first look heroically expensive, till you do the maths. It’s actually quite a cheap city to
visit. We stayed at the D8 hotel, conveniently situated in the town centre and not far from the river. 3 stars, small rooms but
clean and comfortable. Efficient air con, friendly staff. About £120 per night incl tax but excl (slightly disappointing) breakfast.
I’d go back.
One of our group turned up with some forints in cash. About £100 worth at the official rate. He rather smugly announced he
had bought them from a friend the night before for £50. As the only one with actual cash, he was nominated to go in search
of beer only to come back five minutes later, with beer, yes, but also with waitress in tow mumbling something about credit
cards. Turned out his banknotes were old to historic and no longer valid. We did what blokes always do for other blokes. We
burst out laughing.
The Hungarian language is utterly impenetrable. According to Wikipedia “Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, which is a
member of the Uralic language family. The group of Finno-Ugric languages also includes Finnish, Estonian, Lappic (Sámi) and
some other languages spoken in the Russian Federation.” Which means that if you are fluent in Finnish, Sámi or Estonian –
who isn’t? – you have a fair chance of getting some sense out of raw Hungarian. Otherwise, forget it. The carrier bag the local
Spar gave me exhorts me to “Kedvezo ar jo minoseg.” No, me neither. Fortunately (or not, depending on your viewpoint)
English has penetrated to such an extent that just about no one, from bar staff to churchwardens, tram drivers to street
hustlers (absolutely not an endangered species) bothers with Hungarian and all go straight into English. (Tip – I answered the
hustlers in French. Repelled them as does garlic a vampire. Make of that what you will.)
To compare, imagine a trip to somewhere else eastwards, such as to Poland or the Czech Republic. Their languages will likely
be equally unfamiliar, yet you can quickly pick up recognisably similar words and patterns, known linguistically as cognates.
Example - you may not know that the German word for paper is Papier but it’s not that hard to work it backwards. (More
usefully beer is Bier and is pronounced the same way. It’s pivo in Czech, Polish and Russian, by the way. My life has not been
You can put a collection together of Hungarian stamps from 1st issues to modern day for relatively little. Or you could buy
one essentially ready-made at auction for the low £100s. The economics are self-evident; maybe takes the fun out of it. It’s
easy to get excited looking at a collection of early Hungarian stamps. They look old, esoteric and expensive. It’s the last bit
that deceives. There are a few positions worth a bob or two and you can always spend epic sums on postal history, but in
general the early stuff has little more value than the modern. After the fall of communism in 1990 many people expected
stamp values for the former Soviet satellite states to soar. Didn’t happen. Those countries’ stamps have become more
popular, especially the fringe places such as Estonia or Latvia. We almost never fail to sell collections of those, no matter how
basic. Russian stamps, by contrast, have appreciated. Mint ones, not freely available before 1990 are most sought after.
My daily paper this morning devotes several column inches to a report from a group of New Zealand scientists, who have
concluded that the Loch Ness monster is a giant eel. Nessie is the ad man’s dream. I suppose the philatelic equivalent would
be the rare stamp that everyone knows about but no one has yet found. Ticks just about every box for tourist appeal, folklore,
mysteriousness e tutti quanti, whilst delivering absolutely nothing whatsoever in return. That too, is a win win. If there is a
monster, it’s champagne all round. And if not, doesn’t matter in the slightest; proving the negative is all but impossible, so
people will carry on looking, regardless. Charles Hawtrey would have made an excellent, effete and misunderstood Nessie in
a Carry On film. The idea that Nessie could be some sort of plesiosaur from the age of the dinosaurs is at best surely fanciful.
No animal lives for 100 million years, so there would have to be a sustainable colony* of them, all of which would have to
surface regularly to breath air. Not happening. Add to that the fact that Loch Ness is closer to 10,000 years old than
100,000,000. Nor does it have any direct connection to the sea (save via a man-made canal). The scientists have checked DNA
in the loch and found plenty of eel, but no sturgeon (another candidate for Nessie) and, I presume, no plesiosaur. (* btw, does
anyone know what the collective noun for plesiosaurs is? Wikipedia fails me on this occasion, though I did learn it’s a bed of
eels and a bask of crocodiles.)
As an angler, I’ve caught dozens, probably hundreds of eels over the years, freshwater silver eels and the much bigger,
saltwater congers alike. None have been any bigger than 4 feet long (approx 1m22). A 6 ft conger is a worthwhile specimen,
7 ft a fish of a lifetime and at 8ft a thing of dreams. A freshwater species of eel in New Zealand is reported to grow to 6 or 7
feet. For something to be visible at distance it would have to be even bigger still, minimum 10 feet and conceivably 20 feet or
more, the size of the biggest known anacondas. Which are hard to spot, because they spend most of their time underwater
and have colouring that blends with the water they live in. Somewhat like eels, in fact. And that’s all before you factor in the
low level of food (other fish, birds, Sassenachs, Nessie hunters in general) in the loch to sustain them and the low average
water temperature that discourages growth. Perhaps I’m overlooking something basic. Hope so, because Nesseel just doesn’t
have the same class, does it?
Postbid sales and public sales are similar animals in many ways – to each other that is, not to putative prehistoric creatures
– though they are cousins, not siblings. At one time the PTS “recommended” that its members did not use the term “postal
auction.” The logic being that since open, public and visible competitive bidding had been taken out of the mix, such sales
were lacking the key, fundamental element. The merits and demerits of that argument you should decide for yourself. As the
PTS no longer makes the same stipulation – not my doing – it’s now no more than a note in history. One big difference is that
public sales normally have a buyers’ premium. To be clear, this is a postal sale and it does NOT have a BP. No add-on is
undoubtedly simpler and more convenient. And it runs counter to common sense that something with 20% added on could
be cheaper than the same thing without the 20%. I’d recommend you do all the maths; it’s the final figure that counts rather
than how it’s made up. No premium makes it all easier, but it doesn’t always and forever mean cheaper.
If I may let you into another little secret, not everything we offer sells first time round. Unsold doesn’t mean unsaleable; lots
are re-run. That process repeats with reducing estimates until sold. I’d like to claim we invented the concept, but as it was
well-established 100, maybe 200 years before I was born, that might be a claim too far. The actual mechanics of what we do
are probably unique, in the narrow sense that no one else does it all exactly the same as Mayfair. For the record, approx 60%
of this sale comprises new material, 35% being re-offered for the first time (some discounted, some not) and a final small
percentage up for the third time (majority discounted by 20%). Should any come up for the fourth time, they will be
discounted by a further 20%. The computer does it automatically.
Administratively we are by and large working on four or five sales at a time; from tidying up past ones to preparing new ones.
Modern technology is invaluable in keeping track of many thousands of lots. I really don’t know how they managed in the days
before computers. I was involved with a couple of auction businesses in the 1970s where simply numbering the sale literally
meant physically laying everything out in order – no small task – and then walking around the tables and round sticking (lot)
numbers on the lots. Miss the little box squatting behind the big one and every lot after that was misnumbered. (Welcome
to our friends, lots 100A and 100B). Only when numbered could the sale catalogue be prepared, a manual task using a
typewriter (remember them?), bits of sticky paper, lots of coffee and colourful vocabulary and then finally to the printers. Who
in turn had to make sense of the hieroglyphs, handwritten corrections and incorrectly spelled specialised vocabulary. After
that, it all had to come back to be proofread and further corrections made. Inordinately time-consuming and inevitably error-ridden.
(It got even worse on the day of the sale, with paper being shuffled here and there and handwritten notes being
copied. Always under time pressure. Were mistakes made? One or two!)
Databases and spreadsheets nowadays allow us to do most of the pre-sale stuff in so-called virtual mode: the putting in
order, proofreading and numbering, the latter no longer taking days on end, but being all but instantaneous. And accurate.
It’s at the physical level where errors and omissions rear their ugly head, working out whether a handwritten figure is a 3 or
an 8, or whether 123465 means a bid of £12 on lot 3465 or £465 on lot 123. Also commonly when a lot isn’t actually where
it should be. The phantoms have an irritating habit of not being the cheap lots. Regularly (often? always?) it’s because Tim has
slipped them into his briefcase to do stuff and not got round to putting them back. To be fair, Tim has a lot to do and when
the moon is not full, he can do most of it. Often correctly. His head really is at the epicentre of an impressive amount of grey
matter. If only more of it were on the inside.
This sale has 6,000 lots, by value GB 19%, BE 57%, Foreign 13% and “other” (incl collections) 11%. Approx 60% is being offered
for the first time. Catalogue values given for BE stamps in this sale are generally from the SG Commonwealth catalogue, 2019
edition. The 2020 edition had not been published when the sale went to press. Estimated valuations are based on what
similar material has fetched in the past. The catalogue value is given as a cross-reference. With the major international
London 2020 taking place in May, we have adjusted our auction diary to match so there will be another postbid sale in
January. In between (in December) Sadie will be managing a timed internet-only sale using the Philasearch platform. I admit
to a certain amount of philistine ignorance as to what a timed internet-only sale might be precisely, but it does sound
impressive. Watch this space.
On the team since August is Roj Geleri. Her previous life was spent running her own business in a busy Euston sandwich bar.
Apparently not her cup of tea, even if it was her bread and butter. Ho ho. Now she's spreading a healthy dose of Kurdish
glamour across the stamp trade. That puts the gender balance of the Mayfair team 60:40 in favour of the ladies. Never in the
history of philately have men been so discriminated against. Next will come a demand to put the toilet seat down after use;
mark my words, it’s the thin edge of the wedge. Welcome Roj. Word on the vine is that you are fluent in German. In which
case you’ll know what verrückt means. (My plea is guilty as charged.)
BREXIT. At the time of writing the UK is still part of the EU, but due to leave on the 31st of October. For something that is “certain”
there still appears to be much uncertainty. Perhaps I’ll have to write a similar paragraph for every sale from now to the end
of time. What effect leaving the EU, should it happen, will have on this particular business is unknown. We can put any number
of contingencies in place. At best they can only be based on speculation and conjecture (= guesswork) and so would probably
be a waste of time. Until we have a clear idea of what changes need to be made, it is business as usual and as before.
Whatever happens, you will not be unfairly disadvantaged. That’s a promise.