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Thursday, September 9, 2010

The rare stamp collections of Jerome S Wagshal

With a passion for philately, Wagshal devoted his time to understanding details others had overlooked

Jerome Stanley Wagshal was born at the end of the 1920s. He trained and graduated as a lawyer, and worked for most of his life in Washington where his career began in the antitrust division of the Justice Department in 1957.

Wagshal later became general counsel of Ecological Science Corp. in New York and a partner in the law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro & Galigan. In 1973, Pearce & Wagshal came to be, with him as one of the founding partners. He retired in 1988.

His primary, life-long interest however was in philately, especially classic United States stamps, and Wagshal started collecting before his career had taken off.

Many people take on the collection of rare stamps, even if it has an investment angle, as a relatively casual hobby. Even those who take it seriously tend to use collecting as a means to relax (President F D Roosevelt described philately as a 'stressbuster'.)

Wagshal did not. He was passionate about the study of rarities, and is remembered by fellow collectors as pleading with them simply to look at their stamps. He was frustrated by the tendency of many to gaze idly at those with big margins and perfect centring, comparing them to men who gaze indefinitely at a woman's figure with no interest in finding out about her personality.

St Louis Bears rare stamps cover
The first use of the St Louis 10c black-on-greenish stamp on a cover ($30,000-40,000)
(Click to enlarge)

The deep understanding of stamps which Wagshal gained he applied to two purposes. First was for academic interest - many of the best stamp auction houses such as Robert A Siegel and Spink Shreves cite his research in stock descriptions.

Examples of these are the 5¢ 1847 "Wagshal Shift" and cases of a recut frameline on the 5¢ 1847 plate (which he kept secret until after his death), along with his articles detailing the history of the 1861 3c Scarlet trial and the Chicago Perforations.

Wagshal Shift
A 5c Brown with 'Wagshal Shift' affecting:
the top margin, upper left margin, 'U' and 'Post Office'

Secondly, there was a somewhat more competitive aspect: the discovery of 'sleepers' - overlooked, undervalued stamps which pass unnoticed between uneducated collectors and careless dealers. Wagshal spent many hours sifting through stock listings and auction previews for them with an impressive degree of success.

His collection reflects his attitude as a whole: whilst many of the stamps included in his collection are of a type which impress even at a casual glance, others may be faulty in some way, but nevertheless have some important, unusual characteristic which helps to tell their history, or just needed to be rescued from an unforgiveable mis-listing (at a bargain price!).

For example the collection includes a 1¢ 1857 Type Ia (Scott 19) sold by a dealer as a Type IIIa (Scott 22); a 12¢ 1875 Reprint (Scott 44) sold as a regular issue (Scott 36); a 3¢ Z Grill (Scott 85C) described in an auction as an E Grill (Scott 88).

1c die proof
A rare 1¢ 1851 Original Large Die Proof

Wagshal became most famous in philatelic circles for his study of America's 1¢ 1851-57 Issue and took on the work of Chase, Ashbrook and Neinken. In fact he formed a close friendship with Mortimer L Neinken, the great expert of the time on the subject. Wagshal acquired much of his collection following his death.

Of the 1851-56 Imperforate in particular, Wagshal noted "The learned interest in the issue, and its unique charm, is not in spite of, but because of, the incompetence of its manufacture, which made its study into a puzzle and thus an intellectual challenge."

Following his death aged 72 in 2001, a slow process of comprehending and arranging the extraordinary collection has taken place through the efforts of the experts at Siegel Auctions and Mary Wagshal, Jerome's wife. The proceeds will go to charities that Jerome and Mary supported.

Siegel, which has sold some quite substantial assemblies in single auctions before, has concluded that no fewer than four will be required to do justice to the full collection, starting with a variety of 1845-69 Issues on September 29, 2010 and ending with the One-Cent 1857-61 Perforated in 2011.

The latter in particular is described as "beyond doubt the greatest ever formed" by the auctioneer, and Siegel have taken the unusual step of featuring a blog for 1¢ and 3¢ 1851-57 specialists, where photos, comments and discoveries can be posted, just to give them a chance to ponder all the nuances of this amazing collection.