On Oct. 3 in New York City, Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries will hold the first of four auctions of William H. Gross’ United States stamp collection. Gross, in addition to being a hugely successful financier, is a world-renowned stamp collector. So renowned that the world’s largest gallery dedicated to philately (the study of postage stamps) is named after him: the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Gross sale is a big deal for stamp collectors. In fact, it’s expected to break the $9.1 million world record for the highest-grossing single-day stamp auction.
Here’s the Omaha connection:
Gross’ collection features numerous objects related to the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. That’s the Omaha-hosted world’s fair that drew an estimated 2.6 million visitors from June 1 through Nov. 1, 1898.
That year, the U.S. Post Office issued a set of nine stamps commemorating the expo, ranging in values from 1 cent to $2.
At the auction, Gross’ collection of Trans-Mississippi stamps alone are expected to fetch up to $600,000.
Scott Trepel, president of Siegel Auction Galleries, is organizing the Gross auction. He’s an expert on stamp history himself, and has sold more than $500 million worth of stamps throughout his career.
He knows all about the Omaha history that led to the creation of the expo stamps set.
Trepel said the expo stamps started as a business promotion, with the early involvement of Edward Rosewater, founder and publisher of the Omaha Bee newspaper.
“The images they used are all these great Wild West images, Trepel said. “And 1898 was still the Wild West. They wanted images that appealed to the Midwest and the growing population out there.”
That meant spotlighting scenes of troops guarding a train, a mining prospector, cattle in a storm, a bridge over the Mississippi, mountain climbers and pioneers staking their claims.
Trepel, being a stamp collector himself, loves to geek out at the history of the individual sets. The $1 stamp in the set, for instance, which shows cattle in a storm. That stamp, Trepel said, was issued with an image that was a borrowed engraving, based on an advertisement that was, unbeknownst to the post office at the time, taken from a painting by a Scottish landscape artist. Those cattle weren’t American!
One notable rarity in Gross’ collection is a block of stamps from the only known sheet of 8 cent Trans-Mississippi stamps without horizontal perforations. That’s a very rare error. And that error makes this block of stamps a treasure for collectors. One that could fetch up to $150,000 at auction.
“Collectors love errors,” Trepel said. “It’s everybody’s dream to go to the post office and plunk down the money for a sheet of stamps and find an error sheet.”
The most striking of the Trans-Mississippi objects in the auction is a letter that features all nine stamps from the commemorative collection.
The postage at the time totaled $3.80. The letter is expected to sell for up to $50,000.
The prize is a large blue letter addressed to The Bank of British North America in London, covered in stamps, seals and markings.
“It was remarkable what it looked like,” Trepel said. “It was more complicated and difficult to get mail from one place to another back then, which made the envelopes you received all the more interesting.”
Such is one of the many pleasures in collecting stamps.
The great thing about the hobby, Trepel said, “is that you can have a collection that brings you a lot of joy and spend really nothing on it.”
Or, if you have the money to do so, you can spend a fortune.