Delivering a profit

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A PEER’S albums may raise £4m, but philately doesn’t always pay off. John Vincent reflects on what might have been.

WHEN I was 15, my well-meaning Godfather decreed that I should have a hobby. Stamps, he decided... and proceeded, at great cost to himself, to send me a specimen of every new Commonwealth issue from that day onwards.

Every few weeks, I was inundated with envelopes full of colourful mint stamps from places such as Pitcairn Islands, Turks and Caicos, St Helena, New Hebrides Condominium and St Kitts Nevis Anguilla and I dutifully used hinges to stick them into expensive leather-bound albums.

Finally, after about three years, my Godfather realised that I was not really interested in philately and stopped the supply. A decade or so later I decided to sell this huge collection of thousands of stamps and put the money towards a deposit on a house.

I was appalled to be offered, by several different dealers, only about £200 for the lot, which worked out at about a halfpenny each.

I didn’t dare tell my uncle what they were worth – but the message is plain: in collecting, as with many things in life, go for quality – not quantity.

Having a genuine interest in the subject helps, too, of course – and Lord Steinberg of Belfast certainly had that, approaching the task of assembling his fabulous collection of Great Britain and British Empire stamps with the same meticulous attention to detail that characterised his acquisition of companies.

What makes his collection so special – and worth an anticipated £4m – is that he carefully limited his collection to mint blocks of four or more.

His penny blacks alone should fetch up to £1,425, 000 – with one block of nine from the dawn of the philatelic age in 1840 estimated at up to £200,000 – when his 33 albums go under the hammer in 2,068 lots at two Sotheby’s auctions in London this month.

The Empire mint multiples are offered at a three-day sale starting on Wednesday while the GB ones are due to go on sale on September 21.

Lord Steinberg, who died in 2009, represents one of the great entrepreneurial success stories of the 20th century. He turned a single unlicensed betting shop at the back of his father’s milk counter into the Stanley Leisure Group, a chain of 640 betting outlets and 45 casinos which employed 7,000 people.

After surviving being shot five times in an IRA on the doorstep of his home in the Antrim Road in 1977, he settled in North West England, where he later became president of Lancashire Cricket Club.

The peer’s collection of GB stamps ranges from early Victorian times until the 1950s. But the most valuable are those blocks of penny blacks and twopenny blues from 1840. The Empire collection includes a unique block of Newfoundland airmail stamps from 1927, valued at £120,000 to £150,000.

Nothing in the Empire section appears to date from after 1942 – a quarter of a century before the earliest of my Godfather’s acquisitions on my behalf.

Pity he could not have Lord Steinberg for advice about what to buy. I might have ended up with a decent collection.