With few exceptions, stamp auctions today tend to be sparsely attended affairs. As Scott Trepel, the head of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, once quipped: “The former chairman of Christie’s liked to say ‘Auction is theater,’ but nowadays I guess it’s home theater.”
This is even truer post-covid. Bidding over the internet—which is booming—has joined phone and mail bidding as most collectors’ preferred way of participating in philatelic auctions.
That was not always the case. Keith Harmer, the owner of Harmers International stamp auctioneers and grandson of the legendary Henry Revell Harmer, was recently kind enough to lend me some items from his personal collection of Harmer family memorabilia.
Together, these documents paint a picture of an auction market that was, in its heyday, brisk, booming and largely in-person.
The materials include a bound set of annual reports on H.R. Harmer’s auction business, published for their well-heeled clientele in the late 1940s and early 1950s, featuring a recap of each philatelic “season” around the world, along with notable results and photographs from the firm’s auction-room floors.
Figure 1 shows one of the photos in the annual report for 1947, the year H.R. Harmer sold off the collection of the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sitting at a high podium resembling a church pulpit, Mr. Harmer points to someone in the audience. The caption reads, “It is going against you!” One can sense the theatricality of the moment.
Figure 1, Figure 2
To Mr. Harmer's left, three staffers field phone bidders. The front row is packed, and, of course, everyone is sharply dressed for business.
A set of snapshots from the London offices are in Figure 2, including one of a customer wearing an ermine collar, scrutinizing a catalog while holding a cup of tea and munching quietly on the refreshments.
Mr. Harmer was one of the first to build a global network of stamp auction firms, with offices in London, New York and Sydney. Figure 3 shows a spread entitled “Auctions both sides of the water,” with scenes from New Bond Street (London) and East 57th Street (Manhattan).
In each image, the room is packed, and the expressions on the faces are tense as bidders check their notes and prepare to make their moves. Even more than theater, these auctions appear to have been a participatory sport.
Though the firm of H.R. Harmer is now located elsewhere (and no longer associated with Keith or his family), those streets are still familiar as the homes of other philatelic auction houses. These days, though, most of their action takes place online.
The other item Keith Harmer gave me to study was an annotated set of catalogs from the sale of the Alfred H. Caspary collection in the late 1950s, including details of who bid on what – a philatelic “Who’s Who” of the era – and a seating plan showing who sat where in the auction room where it happened.
Figure 4 gives a glimpse of a handwritten ledger page slipped between the catalog leaves. To anyone who remembers the olden days, these are familiar friends: Boker, Colson, Fox, Middendorf, Perry. Sometimes only the high bid is noted, sometimes the underbidders are, too. In Caspary sale number 8, featuring U.S. Carriers and Locals, Middendorf won lot 497, a Philadelphia carrier’s stamp (Scott 7LB11) on cover, for $32, edging out a Mr. Emmons who bid $30; a Mr. Owens was left behind at $12.
Figure 5 shows the battered cover of the catalog and a rudimentary seating chart, revealing the presence in the far right corner of the room — just in front of the piano — of George Sloane, Raymond Weill, Ezra Cole and Bob Siegel.
These were the great collectors and dealers of the past. Anytime there was a great sale, they were sure to show up.
Matthew Healey is a freelance philatelic writer who loves classic stamps and postal history, with an emphasis on Great Britain and its current and former realms. He contributes regularly to Linn’s Stamp News and has also appeared in the Collectors Club Philatelist and The New York Times. His stamp auction newsletter is at matthewhealey.substack.com.