'Don't be afraid to purchase expensive things - these will probably be your best buys'
InterAsia Auctions' principal Rob Schneider chats exclusively about stamps to Paul Fraser Collectibles
Rob Schneider is a principal in InterAsia Auctions which has rapidly moved to become the leading name in the strengthening market of Asian stamps, holding a World Record-breaking sale in January this year.
Now looking forward to another great auction in July, he takes some time to talk to Paul Fraser Collectibles.
Congratulations on your world-breaking sale in Hong Kong. Did you expect it be such a huge success?
We expected it to be a very successful auction, but frankly we're a bit staggered by many of the prices, as well as the number of new people who were bidding.
We had interest from Greater China that we'd never seen before, even though our partner Jeffrey has been auctioning in Hong Kong for twenty years, as well as also additional and new people from all over the world.
On the prices, for example, US$ 712,000 for the 1897 Red Revenue Small One Dollar - a world record for a Chinese stamp - was more than double what an example had sold for at another auction firm just last September.
As another auctioneer pointed out the other night over a few bottles of wine, we were seeing higher price levels on the Classic China than what had transpired just in the preceding few months, and then we had the PRC (People's Republic of China), including the Five Treasures...
With five of China's rarest stamps in the auction (Five Treasures of the Cultural Revolution) it was a truly historical event. What were the highlights for you?
The interest in the People's Republic of China and the Five Great Treasures was truly phenomenal.
Among the Five were stamps that none of us had handled before and it was both a privilege and a treat to sell them to an enthralled and enthusiastic room - with old friends and with new faces.
Setting a world record for a PRC philatelic item - US$860,000 for the 1968 Victory of the Cultural Revolution imprint block of four - was phenomenal, especially when you consider that this is something from the late Sixties, almost a new issue as far as stamps are concerned.
At the same time, watching the Olssoens's Classical China was also awe-inspiring. I've already talked about the Small One Dollar.
Just to give you another example: similarly to see an incoming Dowager surcharge cover, used before the official issuance of the stamps, go for over US$100,000 (against a US$20,000 estimate), to an exultant room bidder - who's an expert and major collector on the issue - after fierce competition with telephone bids was absolutely remarkable.
One knowledgeable collector thought this was an extraordinary realisation, whilst the buyer was absolutely thrilled by his purchase as we talked about it at length.
This is a fantastic start to 2010 for InterAsia Auctions. Do you think this is the start of a particularly successful year? Is the number of mainland Chinese stamp collectors set to rise?
Yes, this should be a very exciting year. We already have some great items in our July sale, including the Olssoen's China 1897-1941 collection with all four Treasures of the Republic, the Dr Sun Yat-sen invert and all the other important rarities, along with some great proofs.
We also have, at this early date, more People's Republic of China as well as very nice Hong Kong postal history. There are a few other things nearing fruition and in a short time we look forward to giving some details on these. Our July sale will be another outstanding auction.
How does InterAsia Auctions stand apart from its competitors?
We built InterAsia to be the preeminent auction house for China and Hong Kong on strong fundamental principles.
Our preeminent expertise, long standing experience and relationships with the major collectors throughout the world, our worldwide distribution and extensive marketing and promotion, the outstanding material we offer along with the way we present it sets us apart from most.
What are InterAsia Auctions' plans for growth and development?
We have to keep a few things secret, but like any dynamic company, we are both looking to broaden and deepen our platform.
How has your interest in stamps evolved over the years? Are you a collector yourself?
My interest in stamps started in childhood like most serious collectors. I became interested in stamps at about 9 and my father's interest was rekindled.
My brother Jeffrey, who is the real philatelist of the family, collected alongside me. Now I get to live in the best of both worlds - I'm still a collector, albeit non-Asian (including Malta and Gambia) and get to work on some phenomenal stamps and covers.
Frankly, I find it difficult for anyone to be really good in this kind of business and not be a keen collector. You need to have a collector's passion to really understand your clients, and it really focuses you on all sorts of aspects of how you do your business.
What are your predictions for the stamp collectors market in 2010?
While we're not really in the business of making market predictions, I can say that there are a number of very positive factors influencing the market for Chinese stamps.
We're definitely seeing the fruits of the almost unprecedented economic growth of mainland China and the wealth it has created, that has brought a whole new group of collectors to serious Chinese stamp collecting.
There's also an investment boom in almost anything China-related, not only in Greater China but throughout the world, from Chinese and non-Chinese alike, whether it be stocks, real estate, art, stamps, coins...
Stamps have always had a special place in Chinese culture, where they are important cultural icons and treasures, just like art, which produces serious, keen collectors.
Likewise, not only are we seeing immense amounts of disposable income being created in China, but we're also seeing a renewed interest in mainland China, in understanding their cultural heritage and history that stamps naturally fit into.
Is there a specific type of stamp or era that is most in demand?
There is tremendous interest in mainland China in collecting People's Republic of China stamps, which is almost to be expected since most collectors start out collecting their own country's stamps.
Again, you have this relatively new affluence and the broadening of a professional/middle class in mainland China that underpin this demand.
We're also seeing a real upswing in interest in classical Chinese stamps, highlighted by the 1897 Red Revenue surcharges, which have traditionally had special place for Chinese collectors as 1897 is the real start of a national Chinese post office run by the Chinese government itself.
Before that even though the stamps said China on them, the postal system was through the Customs Department run by foreigners.
The Small One Dollar, that set a world record price, comes from this issue which, among other things, also reflects this handover of the postal function from the foreigner-run Customs Department to the Imperial Chinese state, as well as the initiation of a new Chinese currency as part of this historically important transitional moment.
They're also vivid red in colour, with red being a very lucky colour in Chinese culture.
What have been the highlights for you in this business?
Some of the highlights for me may be a little different from those of my partners. One of the things that's been thrilling for me, which probably comes from my background as a business lawyer and consultant, has been to be a part of and watch a new business.
InterAsia is only two years old this summer, although, of course, the principals' experience is many multiples of that.
It has developed and grown into the preeminent auction firm in its space (China, Hong Kong and Asian stamps and postal history), based on all the right things: a client-centric focus, a belief in doing things the right way, preeminent expertise and first-rate execution, the most outstanding material in our market.
What is the most memorable item you have sold at auction?
The Small One Dollar in this past January's sale has to be one of the real highlights. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and anticipation before the lot came up for sale.
Then to see the lot go through the levels I thought it should fetch - HK$3.5m-4m against an initial estimate of HK$2.5m-3 m - and watch the couple in the room ask their client over their cell phone at each bid whether they would go one more and see it finally knocked down to them for HK$4.8m (US$712,000 with the buyer's premium), a new world record for a Chinese stamp, that was remarkable. What a thrill!
What advice would you give to anyone starting out on collecting stamps?
On getting started, I would have to say that if you want to collect seriously, knowledge is a real key.
Besides your own abilities and at least until you've gotten a real understanding, don't be afraid to use a qualified advisor, who can both vet your purchases and direct you what to buy, as well as teach you things and how to learn along the way….
Also don't be overly afraid to purchase expensive things - properly done these will probably be your best buys in the long-term even if you stretch and pay more than you think you should or buy something above your then limits as a collector... so long as you have the items adequately verified.
Stamps have a verification process through expert committees to ascertain the genuineness and condition of an item, and collectors should take full advantage of it. Frankly, on better things, making sure the item is "right" is much more important than you whether you paid say 20 or 30 percent more or less for it.
Rob Schneider comes to InterAsia with a long background as a corporate lawyer and business consultant, as well as having extensive professional experience in British Commonwealth stamps, particularly Hong Kong and British Asia.
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Images: InterAsia Auctions