"When Bob retired, he started visiting for days at a time, and developed deep relationships with the staff here,” recalled Scott English, the APS executive director, in a recent phone conversation about Robert A. Mason’s unexpected — and hefty — 2017 bequest to the American Philatelic Research Library.
With no family of his own, Mr. Mason in his later years had found companionship and support at the library, often inviting staff to lunch.
“What’s unique about Bob is that he never popped up on anybody’s fund-raising radar,” English continued. “It’s really a testament to how amazing our staff is that he decided to leave everything he had” to the organization when he died.
The initial part of Mr. Mason’s estate allowed the APRL to retire its mortgage debt. The substantial collection Mr. Mason left behind of his specialty area, U.S. and worldwide revenue stamps, was then offered in two sales by Schuyler Rumsey Philatelic Auctions.
The first sale, featuring U.S., North and South American revenues, took place in 2021; the second, of British Commonwealth and other worldwide issues, was held at the Great American Stamp Show (GASS) in Sacramento this past August.
Rumsey said both sales smashed expectations.
“Overall, the numbers were amazing,” he said recently, speaking by phone from his offices in San Francisco. “The Commonwealth did very well.”
Estimates before the two sales had totaled $51,000 and $46,000, respectively. The first sale ended up with a total hammer result of $135,000, while the second brought $94,000.
Revenue collecting is a small but avid market, Rumsey explained. “When a good sale happens, they come out of the woodwork,” eager to obtain material that in some cases can be elusive or downright rare.
“It’s a robust field, a serious market, even though it’s smaller than front-of-the-book.”
Among the large lots offered at GASS, most of them grouped by country or region, were the New Zealand beer-tax stamps shown in Figure 1. These large-size, high-value Queen Victoria revenue stamps, which were often applied directly to kegs, were typically destroyed after use, and few have survived.
Figure 1. New Zealand beer-tax stamps, among the lots from the Mason collection by Rumsey.
Lurking in another lot, in the depths of a box of Great Britain National Health Insurance stamps, was the card shown in Figure 2, which was used to track health insurance payments for a British mariner on board a ship in 1914. It is an extremely rare survivor from a system that was likewise meant to destroy practically all its stamps upon use.
Figure 2. A Great Britain NHI card from 1914, an unusual survivor from the Mason worldwide revenue collection.
English said the proceeds from the two sales will provide seed money for the APRL’s digitization project, which has been gradually ramping up: over 1,300 new journals have been added so far this year, bringing the total to almost 5,000. All of these are now available free and unrestricted to visitors.
The APRL digital holdings have been renamed the Robert A. Mason Digital Library in honor of the generous bequest.
Thanks in part to the publicity the Rumsey sales brought to the digitization project, requests for research in that area have also jumped substantially, according to English. While the number of visitors seeking assistance in the physical library remains steady, library staff now responds to some 900 requests every month for help in the digital holdings, a several-fold increase during the past couple of years.
Thanks to the sales of Mr. Mason’s collection, the library is moving forward on the digitization project at a faster pace than previously planned, English said.