Notes from the Past

Early Auction Sales of Stamps

Auction sales of stamps have come a long way since the first sale in the United States was held by John Walter Scott in New York in 1870.  The sale took place Saturday evening, May 28th, and, quoting Scott, "it was held in the elegant auction rooms of Messrs. Leavitt, Strebeigh & Co., the well-known auctioneers, and in spite of a drizzling rain, which commenced falling quite heavily towards six o'clock, there was a very full attendance."  The location was Astor Place, at that time somewhat the "center" of the city.  the proceeds amounted to about $500 and the sale, starting at 6:25 P.M., ended about nine.  Scott was elated with his pioneering venture and announced that nearly every purchaser paid cash after the sale and, "took home his treasures."  There had been 269 lots, comprising about 14,000 stamps, the highest price for any lot $38, the lowest, 35¢.

The notorious S. Allan Taylor attended, accompanied by "Jersey" Brown, as Scott identified a man who must have been old William P. Brown, rival stamp dealer.  Scott noted that Brown, "in a seedy suit and sandy whiskers," occupied "the best seat in the hall" and went on to report that Brown "made not a single bid, but from his appearance this was not expected, and we are happy to say he made no disturbance but amused himself with marking a catalogue which someone had given him."  Reporting was unrestrained in the 1870s!

An interesting tabulation of auction sales covering the period from 1870 to the end of 1893 will be found in the Metropolitan Philatelist, for February, 1894.  From 1870 to 1885, the only sales were these conducted by J. W. Scott.  He had three sales in 1870, which grossed $1784.09, and one sale in 1871, which realized only $238.38.  In this fifteen year period his 43 sales totalled $40,799.36, an average of less than $1,000 per sale, but it was a new form of stamp selling and Scott found it profitable.

Beginning in 1886, others entered the auction field, but even then the totals of sales were modest by today's standards.  J. W. Scott, and the new firm, Scott Stamp & Coin Co., dominated the business.  (J. W. Scott had sold out, but reentered the stamp business.  A lawsuit resulted and an interesting decision was handed down, which I'll mention some day if I remember).  By the end of 1893, after 23 years, the total of stamps sold at auction by the six leading firms in 199 sales had reached $306,000, ignoring minor sales by others on the fringe who occasionally tried an auction.  The most spectacular sale was that by J. W. Scott in 1893, the De Coppet collection, racking up $32,195, an impressive total even today but a staggering figure for a collection sixty years ago.

- George B. Sloane
Sloane's Column
January 5, 1952
Posted November 26, 1999  

Index of 507 Notes from the Past

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