On my desk are a number of auction catalogs that I keep within reach at all times. Occasionally, these are to research a specific project I’m working on, but more often than not these catalogs are the equivalent of magazines in a dentist's waiting room — philatelic eye-candy, something to idly flip through, allowing the images and stories to spark my imagination when I need to give the right side of my brain a rest.
So what is it that causes an auction catalog to make the cut, to force me to want to keep a physical copy on my desk, in an era when downloading a PDF has never been easier? And, more importantly, what can I, as an auctioneer, learn from these catalogs in order to emulate them and produce useful reference works for future generations of philatelists?
As both a collector and the president of an auction house I am frequently on both sides of auction catalogs, working alongside my staff to produce them while at the same time actively consuming them when they arrive in the mail. In a hobby built so strongly on tradition and history I believe it is imperative to look to the past in order to better predict where our hobby is headed in the future.
I also believe it is important for collectors to understand what goes into the production of an auction catalog. This should by no means be a clandestine process, and we enjoy working closely with our consignors from start to finish. But for those who may have had limited dealings with auction houses, it is my hope that this article will provide a look behind the curtain, exploring both the practical realities and overarching philosophies that guide our industry.
A Look Backwards
Before I talk about the creation of a modern auction catalog, I think it is important to look at how far we’ve come over the last century or so. Researchers much more qualified than myself have taken in-depth looks at the history of philatelic auctions, so I will keep my remarks brief. The catalogs mentioned are by no means meant to be a comprehensive list; instead I’ve used them as signposts to mark significant changes to the way in which auction houses have approached the production of a catalog.
While earlier auction catalogs exist, for our purposes we will start with the Philipp von Ferrary sales, held between 1921 and 1925 by M.G. Gilbert on behalf of the French government (Figure 1).
Figure 1. An early Ferrary catalog.
For the first few decades of their existence, auction catalogs were a purely utilitarian affair, little more than lines of text using the fewest words possible to describe what was being sold. In the case of the first Ferrary catalog (of 14 total), 172 lots are described across 12 pages, with six photo plates depicting the most significant items. Most descriptions simply state the country, denomination, and color of a stamp, as well as whether it is mint or used, with occasional “très bel ex.” (“very beautiful example”) thrown in for good measure.
A significant number of lots, particularly collections, are not illustrated at all. These prove particularly challenging for the modern researcher, as the ways in which items were grouped do not necessarily hold up to scrutiny. For example, many covers were sold alphabetically—the “A” towns (Augusta, Austin, and so on) in one lot, the “B” towns (Brenham, Buffalo, Burlington) in another. Such a system of describing makes little sense to a collector today, and results in many rare or unique items ending up in balance lots (or the groups that are leftover after single lots have been removed). Without any sort of verbal description, let alone a photograph, we are left grasping at straws to determine just what was being offered.
Fortunately, significant progress was made in the following decades. The Arthur Hind Collection (Charles J. Phillips, 1933) featured photo plates (Figure 2) bound separately from the auction catalog, adding an extra step for the reader, but both it and the Edward S. Knapp Collection of Philatelic Americana (Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1941-42) more closely resemble auction catalogs of today than the Ferrary sales(Figure 3). Further progress was made when, in 1955, H.R. Harmer began its series of sales of the Alfred H. Caspary Collection.
Figure 2. Separate photo plates from the Arthur Hind Collection.
Figure 3. The Edward S. Knapp Collection.
A comparison between the Ferrary and Caspary catalogs, although separated by just three decades, shows a world of difference. In the first Caspary catalog (Figure 4), featuring United States Postmasters’ Provisionals, each lot is illustrated alongside its description, eliminating photo plates completely. While this was not (and still is not) a feasible approach for every sale, it demonstrated a commitment to usability rarely seen in auction catalogs before. To this day, the Caspary catalogs remain essential reference works for philatelists around the globe.
Figure 4. The Alfred H. Caspary Collection.
The 1960s saw further refinement of the auction catalog format, with collections (Figure 5) of Josiah K. Lilly (Robert A. Siegel, 1967-68) and Alfred F. Lichtenstein/Louise Boyd Dale (H.R. Harmer, 1968-2004) setting new high-water marks. Descriptions were growing longer, with more useful adjectives mixed in and greater emphasis being placed on rarity and provenance.
Figure 5. Left, the Josiah K. Lilly Collection, courtesy R.A. Siegel. Right, Lichtenstein's Hawaii collection.
Around the 1960s and 1970s, the proliferation of auction houses means that you can find catalogs in just about every conceivable format — from mimeographed price lists to lavishly-illustrated monographs. My bookshelves are filled with the names of yesteryear, from John A. Fox and Barry Rieger, to Richard Wolffers, Simmy Jacobs, and John W. Kaufmann. Each had their own specialty, and their catalogs are a fascinating glimpse into a bustling era of philatelic auctioneering.
While color illustrations had existed for some time, it is toward the later part of the 20th century that costs had dropped enough for it to become more practical.
The Marc Haas Collection of California Postal History (Richard C. Frajola, 1985), which is completely illustrated in full color(Figure 6), remains one of the most attractive catalogs of the era for this fact. Frajola would remain on the cutting edge with the 1998 sale of the George Y. Fisher Collection of United States Postal Agency in Shanghai, which was the first American philatelic sale catalog produced digitally.
Figure 6. The Haas California Postal History collection, courtesy of Richard C. Frajola.
Figure 7. From the Honolulu Advertiser collections, courtesy of R.A. Siegel.
By the 1990s and 2000s, auction catalogs reached the pinnacle of elegance and design. The three-part Honolulu Advertiser Collection (Robert A. Siegel, 1995) and Floyd E. Risvold Collection of American Expansion & The Journey West (Spink Shreves, 2010) came housed in slipcases, while hardbound catalogs such as the Robert Zoellner Collection of United States (Robert A. Siegel, 1998) (Figure 8) are as much coffee table books as they are auction catalogs.
Figure 8. The Robert Zoellner Collection and a sample page, courtesy of R.A. Siegel.
Which brings us to the modern era of auction catalogs. In today’s day and age, it is absolutely essential for auctions to be hosted online, both to spread awareness prior to a sale and to facilitate quick and simple bidding. However, for reasons both practical and sentimental, a number of auction firms in the United States still produce physical auction catalogs, and it is these that I will be focusing on for the rest of this article.
As the president of H.R. Harmer, my comments will naturally reflect my own personal experiences and should not be viewed as indicative of the entire industry. I have, however, tried to make my perspective as universal as possible, and I believe that much of what I say can be applied to my colleagues and competitors as well.
Putting Together An Auction Catalog
Once a consignment enters our office, there are four main steps to turning it into something resembling the auction catalogs our customers receive in the mail. In examining each part of the process I have attempted to use individual examples where possible, but it goes without saying that every consignment presents unique challenges and opportunities and a blanket, one-size-fits-all solution is never possible. What follows is best viewed as a rough guide of the journey a collection takes from the time it walks through our door to the time our catalogs reach our customers.
The first step in putting together a useful auction catalog is, unsurprisingly, acquiring relevant literature to assist in descriptions. For the William B. Robinson Collection of Wisconsin Postal History, which we sold in October 2022, this meant:
General reference books, such as the American Stampless Cover Catalog (1997) and United States Cancellations 1845-1869 (Skinner and Eno, 1980).
Collection-specific books, such as The Territorial Post Offices of Wisconsin (1963).
Periodicals, such as Badger Postal History (1961 to present).
Past auction catalogs, such as the Arthur Van Vlissingen collection (R.A. Siegel, 1982) and the Floyd E. Risvold collection (Spink Shreves, 2010).
Once this sort of library is assembled, a describer can start to get a much better sense of whatever it is they intend to describe.
No philatelist can know everything about each individual niche, so it is incredibly important to rely on the work of past researchers (including the collector themself) to ensure accuracy and properly convey rarity and importance. My knowledge of Wisconsin postal history prior to several months ago was admittedly limited, but after spending some time with the material and essential references I found it much easier to construct a cohesive narrative and properly market such a specialized collection.
If you ask 10 different describers their philosophies about what constitutes a single auction lot and what should remain in a collection, you will naturally receive 10 different answers. This is one of the parts of catalog production that is more art than a science, so I’d like to make clear that all of my thoughts here represent a personal opinion rather than any sort of industry standard.
For this example. I will use John D. Bowman’s holding of Boyd’s City Express Post (offered in October 2022) since it is still at the forefront of my mind. A collection such as this contains items which, owing to a high catalog value or uniqueness, immediately qualify as individual lots. The earliest recorded usage of the first Boyd’s adhesive or the unique complete sheet of the 1866 1-cent Lilac issue are two perfect examples. Faulty material or stamps with a low catalog value definitely belong in a balanced collection. But where do you draw the line when deciding what should be offered individually?
Numerous factors go into this decision-making process. Value might be the obvious one, but I also like to consider aesthetics and historical significance.
The last adhesive stamp issued by Boyd’s, for instance, only carries a catalog value of $100 on cover. In theory, such a cover would not be offered individually in one of our auctions. But what if the cover is postmarked October 24, 1885, the latest-known legitimate use of a Boyd’s stamp on cover? The historical and philatelic importance of this cover gives it a chance to shine, rather than being relegated to a group lot.
At the same time, there exists the concern that stripping all of the valuable items out of a collection will leave a balance that is undesirable or unsaleable. As the philatelic market continues to change, it is important that collection lots contain enough material of interest that they will find an interested bidder. Lotting, then, is essentially a tightrope that can only be learned through extensive trial and error, determining the optimal number of single lots that do not compromise the integrity of collection lots.
The description process itself is one of the most nuanced aspects of the auction industry, in my experience. The basics of a description — an item’s identity, condition, quality — are the same across the board, but within that framework exists significant room for individuality to shine through. Each auction house, and even individual describers, tend to have their own distinctive style ranging from sparse and minimalistic to verbose and flowery.
While it is both entertaining and essential for auction describers to each have their own voice, I also feel that stylistic consistency within a catalog greatly benefits both sellers and buyers. When everything from terminology to abbreviations are uniform from one description to the next, it helps an auction catalog feel more like a cohesive whole than simply a random assortment of material.
An auction description should, at a minimum, state what an item is and what condition it is in.
From there, a describer can go many different routes: providing relevant adjectives, census data, historical background, or more. Descriptors can be applied to a stamp’s color, centering, or gum that help to separate one $5 Columbian (for example) from the many others in existence. A stamp might be “post office fresh” or exhibit “near-perfect centering”; a cancellation might be “face-free” or “neat and unobtrusive”; a stamp’s color might be “warm” or “rich.”
Our firm keeps a long list of adjectives at hand at all times to ensure that the words we use are both accurate and diverse, as few things turn away a potential bidder quicker than repetitive descriptions.
When it comes to postal history, the opportunities to spruce up a description are seemingly limitless. Oftentimes I will find myself falling down rabbit holes to research a cover’s addressee for hours on end. In December of 2019 I sold a cover franked with a Hussey’s Post stamp. The cover was nowhere near the most expensive item in the sale (it sold for $2,800), but describing it allowed me to research the man it was addressed to and the home that he lived in. My description ended up reading, in part:
“The addressee of this cover, the Honorable Clarkson Nott Potter, was an attorney and politician who served in the House of Representatives from 1869 to 1875, and again from 1877 to 1879. Later in life he served as the President of the American Bar Association, from 1881 until his death in early 1882. His brothers include Henry Codman Potter, celebrated Episcopal bishop, and Robert Brown Potter, Union general who was shot during the Siege of Petersburg. In 1888, actor Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) purchased the building at 16 Gramercy Park and converted it into the Players Club.”
I have no way of knowing if the buyer of this lot found this extraneous information interesting, or if it impacted his bidding habits at all. What I do know, however, is that many of us are drawn to this hobby because of a shared love and appreciation of history. I personally cherish any opportunity I have to share these sorts of stories with our customers because I believe it taps into the root of what makes philately so special. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, I believe that covers are living, breathing witnesses to the past — and it is our responsibility to tell their stories.
In short, an auction description is both a practical and emotional appeal. It is not only important to explain what a stamp or cover is, but also why a bidder should care about it enough to bid.
Certain items will invariably sell themselves — a set of 1930 Graf Zeppelin stamps or a 1926 White Plains souvenir sheet, for example — but in other instances it is an item’s esoteric or intangible properties that need to be properly conveyed to potential bidders.
Another instance where art and science meet, the actual production of an auction catalog involves both technical skill and an eye for the attractive. Long gone are the days when stamps and covers had to be mounted on glass plates to be photographed; instead our catalog production is done more-or-less remotely, with the designers oftentimes on a different continent than the material they are working with.
Just as background information can help an auction description shine, additional images placed throughout a catalog can help to contextualize the material being sold. Whereas the design of auction catalogs in decades past rarely deviated, auction catalogs today can look more like a handbook or monograph than anything else.
When Robert A. Siegel offered the famed “Ice House” Cover in 2009 (Figure 9), it provided more than 20 lavishly illustrated pages of background information before even getting to the description itself. Siegel included images of past owners, an illustrated map of the route the cover took, and photographs of both the ship that carried the cover and the building it was addressed to. Such attention to detail ensures that a catalog like this will remain in collectors’ libraries for many years to come.
Figure 9. The "Ice House" Cover and sample scan, courtesy of R.A. Siegel.
An Auction Catalog’s Purpose
Auction catalogs are unique among philatelic literature in that they must simultaneously serve two purposes.
Ostensibly (and most immediately), an auction catalog presents material to customers that they are able to bid on in an upcoming sale. Most firms aim to have their catalogs distributed several weeks to several months before a particular auction, ensuring that there is sufficient opportunity for readers to review what is being offered and determine what they will be bidding on. Send out a catalog too early and you run the risk of people forgetting about the sale; send it out too late and there’s a chance it could get lost in the mail.
Once a sale is over, though, a catalog takes on a new purpose: it becomes a reference work for future collectors, dealers, and other auctioneers; especially when paired with a list of prices realized, an auction catalog can find a respectable place in a philatelic library alongside handbooks and journals. This is particularly important when material offered at auction represents a significant or important collection of a particular area. The real-world market data necessarily contained in an auction catalog gives it a unique advantage over other reference works.
The usefulness of auction catalogs is not merely commercial. If someone did not exhibit or write about their collection, an auction catalog might be the only record of their holding. Without auction catalogs we would have little way of knowing what Alfred H. Caspary or Josiah K. Lilly actually owned over half a century ago — which is incredibly important when establishing provenance for items today. Many of the world’s greatest stamp collections ever formed exist only in the form of auction catalogs, for which modern researchers owe a great deal of gratitude.
Outside of practical concerns such as market value and provenance, there is one last factor to be considered when measuring the value of an auction catalog, one which is a bit more metaphysical.
After a lifetime of bidding in auctions, visiting dealers at shows, and scouring the internet for the rarest or most interesting material, an auction catalog can serve as a fitting legacy for a collector — the culmination of a lifetime of dedication and perseverance. This is perhaps my favorite way to view an auction catalog, not merely as a means to sell stamps and covers but as a testament to someone who shares the same passion and enthusiasm for this hobby as myself.
As much as auction catalogs have changed over the last century, it is simultaneously remarkable to consider how little the format has evolved. This is not to say that technology has not been utilized by auction houses: aggregators such as StampAuctionNetwork and Philasearch have streamlined the bidding process over the last two decades, and the rise of the internet has also permitted auction houses to host images and videos that would otherwise be excluded from a printed auction catalog. But in essence, an auction catalog of 2022 is not all that different from an auction catalog of 1922.
I predict that the next few decades will see significant changes in the production and distribution of auction catalogs in the philatelic space.
At the end of 2019, Christie’s announced that it was planning to reduce the print runs of its catalogs by upwards of 50 percent (with other houses such as Sotheby’s making similar commitments). Each year, we see a greater percentage of our sales coming from customers who do not receive printed catalogs, and I expect this shift toward digital catalogs to continue at a quicker pace in the next few years. Digital catalogs can be much more than mere static PDFs, and I am excited to see the directions in which the industry moves further into the digital age.
As much as I anticipate growth in the digital space, I do think there’s something quite special about receiving a printed auction catalog in the mail. After all, this is a hobby that revolves around holding little pieces of paper in your hands, so it is only fitting that we get much joy out of tearing open an envelope to unveil the next collection crossing the auction block.
At the outset of this article I said I would try to determine what it is that makes an auction catalog worth keeping. I hope I’ve done something to that effect while also taking readers behind the scenes of our day-to-day operations.
So what makes me want to keep an auction catalog long after the sale occurs? Is it the inclusion of interesting anecdotes, or halftone background images, or authoritative descriptions, or something else entirely intangible and esoteric.
The auction catalogs that line my shelves span decades and touch upon all corners of the globe, as different in terms of style and substance as can be. But in looking at the stack of auction catalogs on my desk, I’ve realized that the one thing they all have in common is that they provide glimpses into the lives of the collectors behind them. I never knew the Weill Brothers or Floyd Risvold or Louise Boyd Dale, but at least I have their auction catalogs to keep me company.
Charles Epting is the President and CEO of H.R. Harmer in New York City. He currently serves as the Secretary of the American Philatelic Research Library and is a Director of the American Stamp Dealers Association. In 2021 Epting was named a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London, and more recently was the youngest person included in Linn’s Stamp News' "Most Influential Philatelists” issue. He has presented to the Collectors Clubs of New York and Chicago, as well as overseas at the Royal Philatelic Society London. His articles have appeared in a number of philatelic publications including The American Philatelist, Linn’s Stamp News, and The Chronicle. Before his 30th birthday he has already auctioned well-over eight figures worth of stamps and covers.