Heath Heist of Emerald Ventures LLC shows where an 1862 stamp has been altered to appear unused. (Photo by Jay Paul)
On a rainy day, an 18-foot moving truck pulled up outside a small office on Lakeside Avenue. Then a van pulled up behind it. Both were filled to the brim with postage stamps.
A collector in West Virginia had spent 60 years amassing these stamps, meticulously assembling them in albums, and stacking them in his house until he was left with only narrow pathways from room to room. After his death, the collection came here. Now, this truckload of albums is being dissected, catalogued and prepared for sale to other collectors, all driven by the same thrill of the hunt.
Richmond stamp collectors have found a clubhouse in the bright, tidy office of Emerald Ventures LLC (also known as Alan Blair Stamp Auctions). Every Tuesday and Thursday, a few dozen come here to sift through bins and albums and talk shop. Presiding over the hubbub from a desk in the corner is partner Paul Detwiler, who wears a black corduroy jacket, a skull-blazoned T-shirt and an amused smile.
Detwiler’s interest began at the age of 8, when he received stamps from a pen pal. Before TV, he says, “stamps provided a window to other countries — flora, fauna, potentates, history, everything. … You saw things you never saw.”
Photo by Jay Paul
I understand this. Fifteen years ago, in a thrift shop in Bristol, England, I bought a stamp album that had belonged to a schoolgirl in the early 1970s. I became fascinated by the stamps she had taped haphazardly to its yellowed pages.
Portraits of unsmiling monarchs hovered over the engraved landscapes of Bechuanaland and Tanganyika, landscapes majestic even in miniature. Steam engines coursed through the mountains of Pakistan. I liked, too, the Soviet stamps of serious women and chubby spacecraft.
These stamps are worth nothing. But that’s okay. I am what you might call an emotional collector, someone who seeks out certain subjects. One of Detwiler’s customers looks for stamps with German shepherds. Another likes aardvarks and squid.
Other collectors are completists who want to fill every space in an album. “I like to fill up the blank holes. … It’s like a puzzle, almost,” says Patricia Dewey, a frequent customer who collects international stamps.
Some take particular pleasure in taxonomy. “We had an album in this auction that was nothing but blue stamps in a blue album,” recalls Heath Heist, Detwiler’s partner in the business. “There were 20-cent stamps and $200 stamps in it.” All blue.
Some are investors, who covet rarities. Like the Inverted Jenny, perhaps the most famous of rare stamps, one of which recently sold at auction for close to a million dollars. All known Inverted Jennies — a misprint with an upside-down biplane — come from a single sheet of 100 stamps, purchased by a collector in 1918. Four were stolen in the 1950s, and the whereabouts of one remain unknown.
“Everybody’s a treasure hunter,” Detwiler says. There are plenty of valuable stamps out there hiding in bins, or grandmothers’ albums, or even in plain sight.
Detwiler and Heist recently received, in a consignment lot of common stamps, a blue, 1-cent Benjamin Franklin stamp from the 1850s. There are about 1,500 slightly different variants of this stamp, Heist explains; one can be worth $100,000, while others may sell for $5 or $10.
Peering at this stamp under magnification, Detwiler spotted some distinctive lines on its edge. He knew what it meant: This was a stamp produced with the “big Plate 2 flaw,” a crack in the steel printing plate. In perfect condition, it could be worth $1,200; the one he had might sell for a few hundred.
Detwiler and Heist also watch vigilantly for fraud: stamps that have been altered to make them appear more valuable. Heist pulls out an 1862 12-cent stamp bearing George Washington’s head. It looks pretty pristine, is labeled “unused” and priced at $395. But under magnification, Heist noticed that the perforations on one side had been punched by hand. And the paper only appears bright because it has been cleaned with chemicals to remove the cancellation mark.
This diligence doesn’t serve to enrich Detwiler and Heist. They’re just doing their best to make sure the stamps they accept on consignment are genuine and described accurately. If someone were to purchase an altered stamp and find that it was not as advertised, Heist says, he would buy it back.
Paul Detwiler, right, of Emerald Ventures examines stamps with Ed Piper, who has been collecting for about three years. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Emerald Ventures’ office is filled with neatly stacked Priority Mail boxes, ready for the next auction on March 11, at 2 p.m. It’s the only live stamp auction in the Southeast, Heist says. Most buyers bid online, but around 50 dealers and collectors usually show up in the rotunda of the Franco’s Fine Clothier building to bid in person.
Stamp collecting is not a pursuit for the young. How many children today have pen pals, or ever stick a stamp on a letter? Yet Heist, who is 39, is optimistic that the art of collecting will persist. It’s “just beautiful and great,” he says, “the artwork, the history, the stories.” And, he adds ruefully, “I love them too much to think it’s a dying hobby.”
Chris McElfresh, a watercolor artist who photographs the thousands of stamps for auction, is the lone person who professes no interest in them. “It’s a piece of paper,” he says. “It’s, like, a square inch.”
“Yeah,” Heist says. “But it’s a piece of history.”
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