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Foxcatcher…and other collectors I’d wish I’d met



You’ve probably seen the hype surrounding a new film called “Foxcatcher” telling the story of John Du Pont, heir to the Du Pont Chemical fortune and his ultimately doomed involvement with Olympic wrestling. I remember the arrest, he had been negotiating with Police from inside his mansion when they turned off the power and apprehended him when he stepped outside to investigate.

He was a famous stamp collector and owner of the mighty British Guiana 1856 1c black on magenta which he’d bought in 1980 for the then world record price of $935.000. The stamp was sold again last year for yet another world record price and the rest of his British Guiana collection (apparently not the best part of his philatelic holdings) broke every record in the book during a spectacular auction in Switzerland where just one buyer bought almost every stamp…and then died before paying!

Stamp collectors and auctioneers who knew John Du Pont describe a quiet and studious man, not the person he apparently became before the incident that cost him his liberty and another man his life. He was a renowned ornithologist and turned his scientific training not just to his philatelic studies but to a number of good causes during his lifetime. I’d have certainly enjoyed meeting this fascinating man during the high point of his collecting.

So, the film has got me thinking. Which other collectors would I have enjoyed meeting?

THE EARL OF CRAWFORD

The 26th Earl of Crawford (James Ludovic Lindsay) has to be on my list. Perhaps I would have met him on his steam yacht “Valhalla” during a trans- Atlantic race? Probably not, because although he took his stamps with him on his long voyages, I’m not a comfortable sailor. Maybe it would have been better to meet him at his home whilst he was President of the Royal Astronomical Society, or during his time as President of the Royal Photographic Society? During his lifetime he was awarded many honours from academia and the monarchy for his multifarious achievements and he helped promote philately by making the public aware that a man of such distinguished scientific achievements could find stamp collecting such an absorbing passion.

Wherever it took place such a meeting would have been memorable (for me), the Earl was a colourful character who under some ancient privilege was entitled to keep his hat on in the presence of royalty, and he never failed to reach for the nearest hat whenever royalty was present! During his lifetime this intellectual titan formed one of the greatest personal libraries in the world and his work helped to lay the foundation for enumerative bibliography. When he attended a book auction in 1899 and on a whim bought a stamp collection (formed by one of the officers who had fought at Rourkes Drift during the Zulu War), the world of philately gained perhaps its most intellectual devotee.

The Earl’s elaborate classifications, research & detailed notes were widely praised, and set the standard for a more scientific approach to our hobby including original artwork, essays & proofs. In fact the entire creation and production of a stamp from start to finish became his fascination and his outstanding collections became the envy of the Royal Philatelic Society and shaped catalogue listings, collection structure and advanced philately forever.

COLONEL GREEN

I think meeting the wealthiest philatelist America ever produced would have been a hoot. His life was so unusual it almost defies description, his mother, the so-called “Witch of Wall Street” was quite possibly the stingiest person ever to live, and she made Ebenezer Scrooge look positively profligate! Young Edward Green was to lose most of one leg simply because his incredibly wealthy mother refused to pay for treatment (during the 1880’s at the time of the accident she was worth many 10’s of millions of dollars, but she dressed her son in ill- fitting clothes and pretended to be destitute in an attempt to obtain free medical care). His life was hard and it is no surprise that when his mother died and he inherited over $100,000,000 he spent money with the same determination that his mother hoarded it!

His stamp purchasing was legendary. During the 1930’s he would be chauffeured from his New York office to Nassau Street. He would park, the door would open and a stream of hopeful dealers would jostle to offer him their new acquisitions. It would be normal for sums totalling $10,000 to $30,000 to be spent, every Saturday.

He bought many great collections including a famous collection of Belgium with re-entries and plate positions carefully appended to each stamp…until his secretary removed them from the album pages losing years of brilliant and irreplaceable research. However his most famous purchase was the complete sheet of the US 1918 24c INVERTED JENNY error which he subsequently split so other collectors could enjoy owning examples.

There is so much to be said about his hedonistic lifestyle that one barely knows how to begin. His wife was originally a prostitute, much to the disgust of his mother (she probably worried about the cost) and amongst several pranks we can point to the 14- foot whale penis he had stuffed and mounted on the balcony of his home. A home, incidentally, with almost 120 employees and raised toilet pedestals so guests would find themselves legs dangling, looking at their reflections in carefully- placed full- length mirrors!

After his death it took twenty- eight auction sales between 1942 and 1946 to dispose of his philatelic holdings in almost 50,000 individual lots, which included forty- one “Inverted Jennies”, thirty- five St Louis “Bear” Provisionals and twenty- one inverted centre errors from the US 1869 Pictorial issue.

Unlike the Earl of Crawford, Ned Green’s collection was chaotic and poorly researched, he bought anything that took his fancy and often failed to collate his material in anything like the correct order but his vast, near- limitless purchasing power allowed him to sample the best the golden age of philately had to offer.

It would have been a pleasure to meet these two characters who although quite disparate shared the same passion for philately and brought much attention to our great hobby.

If you enjoyed this article please let me know as I can write a lot more on this subject! Vincent Green.


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