It's in the Mail
A letter from Stephen Austin ...
By Bruce McKinney
Shame steals into town in the dark of night, pride and ambition strolls down Main Street at high noon. And then there is the Floyd E. Risvold Collection - American Expansion & The Journey West, a collection of Postal History and related materials that over three days in New York in late January brought $8,128,264. This one was an open top Duesenberg with Miss America holding roses and waving to the crowd on New Year's Day. This doesn't happen often. The sale was organized by Spink-Shreves Galleries and held in New York.
Floyd Risvold was a serious collector of the American Westward Expansion who saw that postal history, the envelopes, postal cancellations and the letters sent- together contained an emerging portrait of America that collectors would someday value highly. That the someday would be January 2010 is probably surprising to some, given the difficult economy. While he was buying [1970 to 1990 roughly] the field was nascent, the buds in April that become the fruit in September. He was a prescient collector with good taste, his judgment reconfirmed 1,296 times as all but one lot sold.
He did not live to see his collection sold for he passed away at 97 a year ago. But he wrote two books late in life: Minnesota Territory in Postmarks, Letters and Covers, and A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865 that now trade in the used book market.
The sale makes it onto the pages of AE Monthly and into the AED as part of the permanent search because about a hundred lots were books, most bought for reference, some collectible. Mr. Risvold wasn't a skilled book collector but his judgment about stamps was exceptional.
The sale was interesting because it was marketed as postal history. The promotion was extensive and finely tuned to stamp collectors and those interested American history. It was not pitched to book collectors mainly because the 149 lots of books and ephemera [of 1,294 lots in total] were almost an after-thought, not the focus of the sale but rather an adjunct. Ultimately the books and ephemera, 11.5% of the lots, would amount to only 7.3% of the outcome, or $589,958. In the postal history portion, which included both rare cancellations and important manuscript content, single items brought a third as much.
By dollar volume pride of place went to lot 330, a letter written in 1836 from Stephen F. Austin, at that point in Tennessee, to Gen. John McCalla to raise troops for Texas. The letter has a portion torn away but never mind. It is an important Texas artifact and brought $207,100. Three other lots brought more than $100,000.
It's in the Mail
An appealing map, an appealing price
One can only wonder whether John Adams, second President of the United States, had any idea that each word in a single letter he wrote in 1813 to Elbridge Gerry would bring $138, in New York in 2010, for each of the more than 1,300 words it contains. The money is in the perspective of course. He revisits events and interprets them. This is lot 36 which brought $184,100.
Lot 10 is a letter written by Robert Barrie, a doctor, to his wife in St. Augustine Florida. It took a circuitous journey via Jamaica and Pensacola, evidenced by its post marks, and thereby became a coveted piece of postal history. It was estimated at $30,000 to $40,000 but the market viewed the estimator as lacking gusto and so more or less tripled the high estimate to obtain $115,100. The last time I looked you could buy a decent house in St. Augustine for that sum.
One other lot brought more than $100,000: lot 452, a letter from Junipero Serra written in 1776, to the Military Lieutenant Governor of New California. He wants to establish a mail service. This letter brought $109,350 against an estimate of $75,000 to $100,000.
The books also did well if not so well. What's interesting about them is that they were sold at a successful postal sale rather than at a book auction. One hundred and forty nine lots, that could fit loosely into a book sale were included. They, together, brought $589,958 and managed to be only 7% of the proceeds: 149 of 1,298 lots offered. The average lot in this bibliophilic group was $3,387, the average realization for all other lots $6,664. Books were in the caboose in this sale.
I've prepared a spreadsheet to compare these items, their realized prices and number of records in the AED. For many of these items there are numerous recent records and therefore it's possible in such cases to generally compare how such books in this stamp sale, albeit an important one, did in comparison with similar material in book sales.
And the answer please: Generally, the realizations were below what book auctions obtain but given that condition varies, that Mr. Risvold was a collector of postal history for whom books were resources, not collectibles, that one buyer expressed unhappiness with some descriptions he viewed as masking deficiencies, and that the audience was in the rooms, online and on the phones primarily to buy postal history, the printed material did acceptably well and might have done better in a book sale.
It's in the Mail
According to a representative of the auction house there were about ten consistent bidders for the books, most of them dealers. In typical book sale there are 30 to 250 bidders.
And in a follow-up with Charles F. Shreve, President of Spink-Shreves Galleries, who organized the sale, I inquired if many lots had been turned back to the house because of undisclosed issues. His answer was telling. Of the 1,294 lots offered 1,293 sold and only two returned. In other words 99.92% of the lots sold and less than two tenths of one percent were returned. Those are numbers only a few auction houses ever achieve.
Taken together, the catalogue, the estimates, the advertising and promotion created an event. If the books did less well the stamps exceeded all expectations. Mr. Risvold is no longer with us but his catalogues are. They and the items they describe will be with us for generations to come.
Included is a comparison of 2001-2010 records in the AED with the 149 lots in this sale that more or less overlapped the field of books, manuscripts and ephemera. It suggests the Spink-Shreves did well but that these 149 items would probably have done better if pitched to book collectors.
Notes on the Sale