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Monday, November 15, 2004

The Big Idea: Walsh’s Philatelic Service

By MOIRA BAIRD, The Telegram


Name: John Michael Walsh
BIRTH: April 1, 1948, in Twillingate.
HIGHEST EDUCATION LEVEL: Trained as a registered laboratory technologist at trades school and worked at the Marine Sciences Laboratory in Logy Bay. He retired from that work in 1990.
BUSINESS HOLDINGS: Owner of Walsh’s Philatelic Service in St. John’s and publisher of the Newfoundland Specialized Stamp Catalogue, Walsh has been selling and appraising Newfoundland stamps since 1974.


He started publishing the catalogue with John G. Butt in 1988.

“He was a very good friend and the two of us did it together.”

Although Butt died in an accident at the container pier in St. John’s in 2000, the catalogue still bears his name.


So far, five editions have been published, with each one selling about 1,000 copies. Distribution is mostly international, such as to Russia, Sweden, Australia — anywhere a collector has an interest in Newfoundland stamps.


“Local sales would be small — 100 units.”


There are about 300 Newfoundland stamps that were issued prior to Confederation.


Collectors of Newfoundland stamps fall into two categories — regular postage and airmail. Airmail stamps tend to fetch higher prices and there were no more than 25 different ones issued.


“Covers” — which show the stamp as used on an envelope — are also coveted.


“The survival rate of those — back in 1870 — would be miniscule.


“A lot of them were sent to reverends, who were literate and who would read the letter to the correct owner, and then a lot of it was used to start the fire.


“There’s lots of used stamps out there and lots of mint stamps.”


But not many are on the original envelopes.


THE IDEA: “There was a big international stamp show in Toronto and we met Robson Lowe and some other people — they’re all dead now … four people who were Newfoundland collectors.”


Lowe had written an encyclopedia about British Empire postage stamps.


“We were saying, ‘It would be nice to come up with a catalogue of Newfoundland (stamps). We have some ideas.’ They said, ‘Go with it. It needs to be done.’


“So, we got the little push from this and we did it.”


That was in 1987, and Walsh and Butt published their first catalogue the following year.


“It was a start, and after that we just kept on going. Once it got going, there was a lot of interest in the world.”


Butt was collecting Commonwealth stamps when he met Walsh in 1975.


“I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you collecting Newfoundland?’ We chatted, and he said, ‘I’m going to collect Newfoundland mint and used, but the used will be on envelopes showing its rate.’


“And right away, his whole mindset switched to Newfoundland collecting. So, the two of us ended up competing for a given item that might come on the market. It was interesting that way.


“That’s what we did, but we were very good friends. We had a fine history.”


Before starting the catalogue, the pair organized a St. John’s stamp show in 1983, commemorating Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 arrival in Newfoundland.


Walsh’s business also includes appraising stamp collections and brokering them. He doesn’t deal in stamps.


“I’m too far away from the mainstream to carry stock. You’d need a million dollars for the stock, so that means at least three of everything and a lot of other countries besides Newfoundland.


“I’ll tell you (if your collection) has a certain catalogue value. The catalogue value is usually high, but I’ll also tell you what you’re going to get for it and I’ll charge a fee for what will be realized. A person can look it up in the catalogue, but the catalogue doesn’t always tell the full story — it’s a gauge.”


The sale price of a stamp may only be 20 per cent to 60 per cent of the catalogue value.


“The more common the material, the closer to 20 per cent you’re going to get, because most people will have it.”


WHY THIS BUSINESS: “It’s just something we slid into … I was a collector. It’s just an offshoot of being a strong collector.


“Now, here I am working full time at a salaried job. Stuff happens.


“The catalogue ended up being the interesting item — and I’m a researcher by mindset anyway, and that’s what I like to do.


“It’s a book that you wouldn’t try to put out every year, and in my estimation people are buying it for information, not just prices. So, I’m really selling information.”


That means finding new information for each issue of the catalogue.


One source is revenue stamps that were first issued in 1888.


They were placed on documents and cancelled to authenticate birth certificates, wills, mortgage papers, dog licences, passage on boats and land transactions, among other uses.


In the early years, those stamps were perforated — Newfoundland used the shape of a snowflake — to indicate the fee had been paid.


“The only ones that have been seen in many years are some of the stamps with the holes in them. Nobody’s ever seen it on a document — never seen those specific stamps with holes in them sitting on a document, until this year.”


Usually, the stamps were torn from the documents. Walsh’s new find will likely be an entry in the next catalogue.


Stamps that tell a story are becoming more popular with collectors.


Envelopes known as corner business cards feature a company name and logo in the top-left corner.


“Right away you have three collectors wanting it … where it was just a dollar to the stamp man, it’s now $2 for the name of the community, and it’ll be $5 if the collector wants it with the (business) information that came out of that community.


“That’s how stamp collecting has moved from just having a basic stamp … it’s a lot more history-oriented. That’s what the collector wants. You need that. Otherwise it becomes another stamp.”


FIRST DOLLAR EARNED: “It was selling a small Newfoundland collection in ’75 … it might have been a $10,000 collection.


“There was some nice material in it. I sold it for the owner. I moved from trying to it sell piecemeal to selling it outright — that way the entirety holds its value better.


“No trouble to sell the best pieces in a collection, but then you’re left with the rest and it’s no fun trying to sell something that nobody wants.”


Walsh earns a 10 per cent fee.


He also has little advice for anyone thinking of leaving their collection to relatives who may have no interest in stamps: sell it.


“If there’s no interest in the collection, they might as well buy a Canada Savings Bond with it. You’re better off doing that than giving someone a stamp collection that will deteriorate if it’s not handled well.”


That’s what Walsh plans to do with his own stamps. Collections that are part of estates usually get a lower price than those sold by the collector himself.


“The estate usually loses — they’ll get about 20 per cent less. You’re not dealing with the owner anymore. When it goes to the marketplace, there’s a different perception.


“A dealer may have sold (the stamp) to the owner initially, but now they’re not dealing with the owner. … It’s hard to insult an individual — not that you’re insulting the estate. But with the estate, you make your offer and others are going to be offering the same way.”


BUSINESS WHIZ MOST ADMIRED: Gary Lyon, a stamp dealer in Bathurst, N.B., and Kasimir Bileski, a well-known stamp dealer in Winnipeg, Man.


Lyon has two companies, Gary J. Lyon (Philatelist) Ltd. and Eastern Auction Ltd., and started out as a two-man operation.


These days, the former chartered accountant has 17 employees in his stamp-dealing business.


“He’s a strong dealer across Canada and recognized throughout the world. He’s straight business. He was able to take stamp dealing to a good height, and I admire him for that.”


Bileski, the founder of K. Bileski Ltd., which still operates , has been dealing in stamps since he was 13 years old.


“I think he was the biggest promoter of stamps, I’d say in the world, but definitely in Canada.


“He was a salesman. He was very good and he could package up bundles of stamps and sell them. He also cornered the market on what they call the Seaway invert.”


In error, the upside-down images of an American eagle and a Canadian maple leaf were featured on a 1959 Canada Post stamp marking the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.


“He was able to get people to sell to him … he offered big money at the time and he’d then market it. That was his forte, and that one really put him on the map. He was a man who promoted philately overall.”


BUSINESS MOTTO: “I try to give people the correct information. I find that being up front with a person is the best way, but sometimes the receiver


doesn’t like to receive the information … doesn’t like the answers you give him.


“I give the news, either way.”


Walsh gets plenty of phone calls from people with two-cent stamps featuring the Queen Mother, or a stamp found in a drawer bearing a 1932 post mark.


“They say it has to be worth money, and you try to let them know that it’s not a valuable stamp because there were many of them produced.


“Supply and demand comes into play instantly. We answer them the same way as somebody who says, ‘I’ve got a $3,000 collection.’ There’s no reason to be insulting.”


In the case of the caribou stamps issued after the First World War, for instance, millions of the one-cent stamp were produced. The 36-cent stamp, on the other hand, numbered about 50,000.


“I let the owners make up their minds. I give them the information and then let them decide how they want to do it — whether they should keep it, meaning it will hold its value or go up, or whether the time has come to sell it.”


Moira Baird is the business reporter at The Telegram. She can be reached by e-mail at mbaird@thetelegram.com.