I BECAME A CHINA DEALER
Andy Levitt used to say I had good instincts, but that’s not how
I became a China dealer. Others’ greed transformed me, the
proprietor of a local mom-and-pop stamp shop, into an
internationally recognized philatelist. The acquisition that
changed my life occurred in 1982. Arthur Bateman passed away
unexpectedly at the young age of 54, leaving a bewildered widow.
Mrs. Bateman had sustained a frontal lobotomy, something you just
don’t see anymore, but the effects are as numbing as in the
movies. Sweet lady, kind and trusting.
Fortunately, Art had arranged for three stamp collecting friends
to watch out for his family. As a traveling salesman for some 30
years, Art had wonderful opportunities to augment his
collections. Moreover, he was the sales manager for some
specialist societies. The man knew his stuff. Understandably
secretive about his holdings as everything was kept at home
without an alarm system, this worked against the perceptive disposition of
the material because his friends were philatelically
unsophisticated in China/Asia. It was a recipe for disaster.
Upon Art’s passing, Mrs. Bateman threw out his checkbooks,
records and inventories. No one told her to do otherwise.
There’s a lesson for us all here—we need step by step written
instructions in the event of our death or incapacity. The
friends came up with a game plan.
There was a well-established local dealer invited in to make an
offer. And they called in a national level dealer of great
reknown. These two made closed bids for the entire lot
which filled a bedroom. The Bateman hoard could be divided into
three areas: China/Asia, Scandinavia and everything else.
When the two independent offers came in and both were for
$10,000 each, the friends at first thought it the right value.
You have to understand China was simply not popular back then.
Some stamps sold for 1% (!) of what it sells for today. But
there was so much more material than just China. One of Art’s
friends, David Peterson, a Methodist minister, considered the
$10,000 “too round” a number, like a throw-away bid, off the
cuff. He spoke to Mrs. Bateman and thought the dealers had spent
too little time evaluating the material, coming up with the
price. None of this was told to me when I was invited in.
So David told me that the estate had received two bids for the
collection and asked whether I would evaluate the offers. I
halted him before he could tell me the amount and asked if I
could do my own appraisal. I asked who was I
bidding against? Then I knew there was no way I was going to be
able to buy the Bateman collection: that famous national level
dealer was a star! He had the reputation, money, etc. How was I
going to bid against him?
I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to be able to buy the
collection because I was going against a guy I was in awe of.
And I sure didn’t have the money to buy the whole lot. It just
didn’t occur to me that someone of his stature would try to buy
this whole room from a lady with a lobotomy on the cheap. So I
spent three days in the Bateman home, having great fun. It was a
grand opportunity to view Art’s China.
I “walked” the room to gain a sense of what was there. What at
first glance appeared to be disorganized heaps actually made
sense. China/Asia was in 28 cartons in one corner, U.S. was in
the closet, Scandinavia off to the left, everything else plumb
in the middle. This was a working stamp collection, something
that Art attended to right up to when he got sick.
In every direction, there were treasures. U.N. was very popular
at the time. I found a pad of 100 of the 1955 souvenir sheet
VFNH, buy price $115 (x100) = $11,500. I saw a U.S. $4 Columbian
mint block, an African collection that still resonates, great
and small collections of the world. Some collections were built
to the point of excellence, some were acquisitions waiting to be
merged. Cards, covers, boxes. It would take a skilled eye to
derive the most money possible out of it.
I concentrated on the China/Asia cartons revealing albums and
envelopes. Junk upon treasures. Famous names: Allen Brown, J.M.
Henry, Sir David Roseway, others. I swooned when I opened a
plain manila envelope, revealing a set of China’s 1878 Large
Dragons in complete sheets! A whole carton of classic Macau. Red
Revenue covers were selling for $75 in those days and there were
Three days passed, appraisal finished. I requested David
Peterson’s presence with Mrs. Bateman. I had a suggestion. “Let
me purchase the China and Asia. I’ll accept the balance on a
consignment basis.” Since my offer for just the China and Asia
was multiples of what had been offered for everything, fair to
say they were real happy. Did the paperwork, got a long truck
and now I was a China dealer. I made three rules for myself on
the Bateman material. I’d never wholesale any of it. I’d develop
a full service business with it. (I had a pocket sized pricelist
of the stamps of Finland, pics and prices. I thought: Wow: What
a great thing to do!). And I’d give back to the hobby. Write
columns, publish, serve.
When the national dealer found out the details on the Bateman
material, he called to say that I’d never be a success in the
business because I’d left money on the table, that a smarter way
to have handled the transaction would have been to ask what the
competing offer was. He didn’t get it: the rules were closed
I realize I was fortunate to have had this opportunity not only
to have a jump start into the China/Asia business with a mammoth
inventory but more importantly, it reinforced that integrity was
all important - a lesson that has stayed with me ever since.
Chinese Philately wasn’t popular then, but it was so
interesting. Don Alexander, Rick Kavin, Richard Sarchet, Don
East, and numerous other collectors bent over
backwards helping me in those formative years. It never occurred
to me that the business would be successful, yet it satisfied my
sense of adventure.
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