Interview with stamp expert David Feldman

Despite four days of stamp auctions taking place at David Feldman in Geneva, Switzerland later this week, the auction house's founder kindly found the time to pick out some of the likely highlights, and offer his thoughts on what you should be investing in.

Paul Fraser Collectibles: The first part of Dr Raymond Casey's Russian Post Offices in the Chinese Empire sale in April set a new record for Mongolian philately. Can we expect any further records from the second instalment on December 12?

David Feldman: Indeed the startling price achieved for the Uliyasutai cover in our Spring auction broke records for Asian philately well beyond Mongolian philately. This, and the demand for other items in the auction was the result of strong competition from astute collectors who realise that Dr Casey's collections represent a once in a lifetime opportunity to own such pieces.

Kobdo Mongolia cover
The 1917 Kobdo cover, 'possibly the rarest of all Mongolian covers', has a $91,000 estimate

With regard to our December auction, no one can predict with any certainty what will be the result, but with items such as the registered cover from Kobdo, possibly the rarest of all Mongolian covers, we see no reason to doubt collectors' appetite for the second part of the Casey collection.

Likewise with Anatoly Karpov's Belgian stamp collection, which saw one lot beat its estimate by 1,500% when part II sold in April. Which items are you expecting to receive the highest bids when part III sells on December 13-14?

Wow, I hadn't worked out the multiplier on that one! Of course items with five figure estimates are less likely to result in such a multiplier. With regards to specific items it is difficult to say as the offer covers a very broad range with many items that have not appeared on the market for decades.

This should be the perfect auction for specialists and we expect particular interest in specialities and varieties, shade differences and the like in all of the classic issues. While we certainly expect to see some "multiplier results", I am not so sure that these multipliers will be in the double-digits!

Are there any lots within these auctions that you believe are currently undervalued by the stamp collecting community?

These particular auctions present items from specialised collections which are very rarely offered, and therefore it is difficult to talk of items being undervalued. If the results of the Karpov and Casey collections are an indicator, it may be that our auction estimates represent conservative valuations that the stamp collecting community may well revalue to current market valuations during the auction.

The past decades have witnessed strong price growth at the top of the stamp market. What is your prognosis on the current state of the stamp sector from an investment point of view?

Russian post in China
The $130,000-valued earliest known cover from the official Russian post in Peking. Russia and Belgium are among the most robust countries to invest in, says David Feldman.

Yes there has been strong growth, but it is very important to stress that there have been troughs too. The global economic crisis has resulted in a decrease in the rarest items appearing on the market as their owners await a readjustment upwards, but there are also isolated opportunities to obtain some rarities at attractive prices.

If you are not a knowledgeable collector it is obviously important to work with an established and trustworthy firm to identify such opportunities. Indeed, in speaking of investments, I can only stress that it is important for investors to analyse potential buying opportunities just as you would with the stock market.

There are, however, opportunities out there for investors with medium to long term investment horizons - rare stamps and covers from countries with currently depressed economies like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal might represent such an opportunity for the investor with a five year investment horizon for example.

Is it a market only wealthy investors should consider or are there investment opportunities further down the price scale?

There is ample opportunity for price increase in the middle range classic material for those countries I just mentioned, plus some of the more robust collecting areas such as Great Britain, Belgium, India and Russia. One has to be careful to buy quality items however, and be patient. It is perhaps this last point that investors of all levels should pay particular attention to - while there may be opportunities for a knowledgeable specialist to identify areas of opportunities for short-term returns, the investor in stamps should try and follow the old maxim of "do your own research" and try to invest in what others collect not what others want you to buy.

What are the key attributes to look for in an investment grade stamp?

Quality first. Better pay a little more for top quality because this is what a passionate collector will always desire. Think also about the size and popularity of the stamp's potential market - a larger collecting area like France, USA, and GB would be far more liquid and potentially a safer investment than stamps from countries like Croatia or Paraguay for example. British Empire is also very widely collected outside of the UK and therefore gives you exposure to a more diverse market perhaps less impacted by a crisis in one particular country.

Investments in philately represent one of the few opportunities that people have to take physical possession of an investment, to learn more about it and to make selected additions that could even make a collection more valuable than the sum of its parts.

Have you seen the global economic crisis affect stamp sales?

1849 Belgian block of four
This $39,000-estimated Belgian block of
four Epaulettes from 1849 is among the
stars of the Karpov collection

Yes indeed. When times are tough and liquidity is hard to come by, we find that the number of collections coming to market decreases as there is a general acceptance that buyers will have less discretionary income to spend on their collecting passion. 

However, it must also be mentioned that the crisis has also pushed some collectors into selling their collections despite market conditions. For those with sufficient financial leverage there is perhaps an opportunity to buy items at attractive prices in the knowledge that unlike the stock market, the risk of a double-dip recession is not going to have the same impact on stamp values.

Which stamp would you most love to add to your own collection?

Not really a fair question as I have had so many chances to have all those I coveted! Rather let me answer the question differently: my biggest regret in that sense was when I auctioned off the famous Mauritius Bordeaux cover. I would have wanted to own that more than anything, but couldn't possibly afford it. At least I had the honour and pleasure of having it pass through my hands and perhaps I will live long enough to have a second opportunity to have it my hands... One must keep alive his dreams and ambitions!

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