Philatelists love their niche markets, the quirkier the better.
As part of the Rod Perry Collection of air mail sold in June by Phoenix Auctions, sub-sections included a selection of Zeppelin mail, envelopes salvaged from plane accidents, and an ultra-rare letter on tissue paper carried by pigeon from Great Barrier Island to Melbourne in 1899.
Collectors pay big money for such exotica. A Hindenburg cover sent to Melbourne via Frankfurt sold for $4600.
A charred envelope retrieved from the Douglas DC-6 aircraft that crashed approaching San Francisco International Airport in 1953 sold for $6200.
That pigeon post was estimated at $15,000 but didn't sell on the day.
Another esoteric collection went up for sale on August 2 through Prestige Philately in Melbourne, concentrating on what are known as BCOF overprints (for British Commonwealth Occupation Forces). These Australian stamps were used briefly in postwar Japan by the surprisingly large numbers of Australian soldiers involved in the transition period.
Soldiers needed stamps to send letters home but the authorities soon noted that there was such a black market in ordinary stamps that special issues were overprinted with the BCOF Japan code. These were used exclusively in Japan until 1949.
Gary Watson from Prestige claims in his catalogue notes that these rarities are both undervalued and underappreciated by the wider philatelic community, describing them as an issue of unusual world importance. The majority of collectors may not totally agree, but there are enough BCOF devotees for Watson to stage a one-off sale of the collection of Sybrand Bakker.
As it happens, Bakker lives in Holland but chose to sell in Australia, a wise move as the majority of collectors live here. Response was varied, but typical of the value of these stamps was the $2350 paid for a small parcel tag bearing two BCOF stamps, sent to an address in Adelaide. This result was the most surprising of the sale, fetching more than triple the estimate.
There are serious collectors of rare parcel tags. Overall, 71.7 per cent of lots from the sale sold for a total of $97,240, or 94 per cent of the pre-sale estimates of $103,175. Because the collection was imported, GST had to be charged. All results quoted here include 10 per cent GST and the 15 per cent buyer's premium. Hammer prices are shown on the online gallery.
While nearly a third didn't sell, most of the key items did, indicating that philatelists are still happy to pay top dollar for high-quality rarities. Top price was $5566 for a part-sheet of the 5/- BCOF issue on thin paper. Estimate was $5000. The 5/- thick paper John Ash imprint block of four sold for $2403 against an estimate of $1500. Only three of these are recorded. A similar 5/- block of four on thick paper is not as rare but sold higher for $2656.
Parcel labels and tags bearing BCOF stamps also did well, a registered airmail parcel piece with 5/- thick paper stamps selling for $2783. And a faded scrap of linen that was probably stitched to a parcel brought a healthy $917, still with original stamps and customs declaration attached. You may wonder what inspired someone to keep this piece from more than 60 years ago.
The total result of close to $100,000 is not all profit, of course. It's known that Bakker paid a lot of money for some items so his initial investment needs to be factored in, as do the countless hours of research required to assemble a collection of this standard. Whatever the profit margin, Bakker told Watson that he was very happy he'd chosen to sell in Australia. Watson also expressed cautious optimism in this relatively new style of sale. It's a very small niche market and there aren't many serious players, he says. The results were certainly not stunted by the flagging economy.
In fact, the top end of the market remains robust, the biggest problem being the difficulty in sourcing enough exceptional material. He predicts stronger results in the future once collectors from other countries decide to join in.
"Our sliding dollar has helped exports but hasn't yet brought the fickle Yanks back into the market," he says.