A WORD FROM OUR CHAIRMAN
Dear Friends and Clients,
A strange and challenging year.
Since I last wrote, and as I write, the UK and much of the rest of the world has gone back into versions of lockdown, meaning Spink is once again operating behind closed doors in some locations. But the lockdown will end soon, and I am sitting in our totally renovated offices in our historic location of Southampton Row. Therefore I am looking at the world from a different vantage point.
This year has left me and many of our staff exhausted, with a sense of a job done well and safely, but still so much to look forward to in the new year. 2021 will not see a total return to normality but at least the mood will change with the arrival of vaccines, and there are many, 200 of them including 50 in human trials now, which is great news. The mood is changing, hope is back, stock markets had an amazing run and are at record highs. Maybe it is the time to be a bit more prudent on the macro side as 2021 for sure is not going to be the walk in the park currently priced in the equities market.
In 2020 we have shown that we are well placed to serve our customers whatever the circumstance, as we move seamlessly between physical and virtual sales. In 2021, while we are going to continue to develop the digital side of the business, we hope to see many of you in our renovated showrooms for a totally different auction experience, and some good old-time social contact that we all miss so much. So the carriage on the cover of this magazine is an invitation to join us and enter with style a new era for collectables. Rest assured the Spink cellar is well stocked and we are all ready to welcome you “in the flesh” with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or even better an old rum! I am thinking of bottling a few casks of 25-year-old British Guyana I kept for a great celebration of life.
A busy Autumn
Between the beginning of September and Christmas we will have held no less than 30 auctions both online and behind closed doors – an incredible achievement even under normal circumstances – finishing with the ‘Hermione’ Collection of France, 1849-1950, Parts VII and VIII on 10th December.
September saw the sale of the Stratos Sale of Spectacular Gold Coins, along with the Ennismore Collection of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Coins, both of which achieved surprisingly strong results.
The Stamp Department had an incredible number of sales throughout the autumn, from the Charles Freeland Collection of Three Islands right at the start of September, to Part 2 of the Gary Diffen Collection of Australian Colonies Errors at the beginning of October, loOsely followed by part XIII of the ‘Lionheart’ Collection, the ‘Doyen’ Collection and Part 1 of the ‘Dubois’ Collection of Jamaica Postal History and Stamps in November, to name but a few. Prices continued to break records and show that collectors are as lively as ever whether bidding online or in the sale room.
Banknotes also achieved superb results this autumn, the Mark T Ray Collection of English Banknotes attracting keen interest and heated bidding throughout. Medals will complete their annual offering as we go to press, but we expect the trend to continue with fevered competition for some superb offerings including items from explorer Pen Hadow’s solo North Pole journey, which featured in our last edition.
In this issue we hope there will be something for every collector to inspire and entertain over the much deserved Christmas holidays. We start with the article by seasoned collector Judith Grant about what first interested her in historical documents, and how being a woman in a ‘man’s world’ has affected her career and hobby.
Also included is Chelsea Pensioner John Humphreys’ account of his incredible escape from not one but two German POW camps – a truly inspirational tale of courage in the face of adversity, and a fitting story of overcoming the odds in these strange times.
Other highlights include our Coin and Banknotes NYINC auctions, taking place over what would have been the annual show, but being offered virtually this year due to the current Covid-19 travel restrictions. We very much hope that this will be a one off, and that we will all be back for the live auctions in New York in 2022!
Stamps will have barely recovered from their manic autumn before they head straight into our first Philatelic Collectors’ Series Sale of the new year, followed by The ‘Lionheart’ Collection of Great Britain and British Empire Part XIV, Stamps and Covers of Great Britain and the Guadalajara Collection, all before the end of January.
Our views on how Covid-19 is affecting the market
Today I wanted to focus on the question most vendors and buyers are asking me and our specialists, and share some observations. I sincerely hope this issue will fade away and disappear from our conversations as collectors! I have the feeling there is a high probability it will be the case, like it is now in mainland China – just a bad memory. In Shanghai masks have almost disappeared. Covid-19 might be out, but we will still have to deal with its aftermath, i.e. the economic and psychological ravages brought by the fight against the pandemic, and for those in the UK and Europe, Brexit, which almost completely disappeared from the headlines …
Please allow me to put aside for a moment the human tragedies behind the pandemic, and to focus without emotion on the changes it brought to the collectables world.
Although at the time of writing none of our staff have been Covid-19 positive (we had our fair share of preventative self-isolations though), Spink, like most businesses, has been extremely affected as all our auctioneering centres – London, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland – have been among the most affected cities on the planet. In March 2020, it was in fact almost the “perfect storm” against us, with all our bases of operations grinding to a virtual stop due to stringent lockdowns and restrictions. Indeed in March, I was joking with clients working in the financial industry, and saying if listed Spink would have been the “perfect short”. But yet again a huge crisis would be turned by the smart and dedicated staff of Spink into a huge opportunity. We have kept a calm attitude as expressed in these columns in late March and August 2020, as we have seen a silver lining for collectables in this dreadful crisis. Indeed, Covid-19 has not yet brought anything new to the world, even if many commentators write about an “after” that will never be like before the crisis. Such statements are typical of any crisis, financial or otherwise, and the actual changes are often quite muted in the end. Humankind seems to have difficulty learning lessons from each crisis… but that’s another story.
Covid-19 is only an accelerator of pre-existing trends
Instead we believe the Covid-19 crisis has acted, and will continue to act, as an accelerator, of all pre-existing trends, like the move to digital communication (Zoom, Teams …) and digital purchases (sharp increases in online sales for Amazon, Alibaba, of course, but also for all businesses with a user-friendly digital offering). It is also worth noting that one of the strongest bastions of resistance to online sales have also given in, as luxury brands previously hell-bent on the unique “in-store”experience as “the only one worthy of the brand” have now embraced online sales with many deals in the space, including the recent Farfetch deal with the luxury giant Richemont and Alibaba putting in US$300mn each. It is a tipping point. We will see later we have also reached the same tipping point for collectables.
As far as our collectables industry is concerned, there is also a K-shaped recovery. We would argue that Covid-19 has improved the outlook for all businesses at the cutting edge of technology like Spink. For many dealers or small auction houses, without a real access to technology, it has been a really tough time, and we hope many spring back to action, even if in private conversation some longtime players make no secret of the fact that they might take this opportunity to retire.
With people working from home, or just spending more time at home if retired (typical of many of our clients), collectors have had more time to play with their collections and more importantly, with limited opportunities to buy in multiple collector channels and the virtual stop placed on going out to eat, entertain oneself, travel etc, pent-up money has been lavished on their collections. In France for example, in the nine months since the beginning of the crisis French households have saved an extra €110bn – a staggering amount. A similar trend can be observed in most developed nations.
Presented in a blunt way, people deprived of all their usual social connections have been able to demonstrate they were still active and well through bidding at auctions.
To paraphrase the “Cogito, ergo sum” of Rene Descartes, I would dare the more contemporary “I bid, therefore I am”. Actually a good start for a reflection on a life of collecting over the festive season.
The 10/10 rule
Hence we have seen in all categories, our selling rate increase by 10%; and the prices realised by average or even common items rise by 10% or more. These items are usually the most difficult to sell and we have seen this window as a unique opportunity for clients to sell their duplicates or less attractive items. If starting at an attractive price, the bidding frenzy would very often take the realisation beyond any logical pricing. Rare and important items are always easy to sell and sold no better or worse during the crisis, probably slightly better at the margin. Internally we called this new phenomena the “10%-10% rule”. We believe this rule will stay in force while movement of people is still restricted and then will slowly fade away, probably in the Spring or Summer of 2021.
I can accept that it is a bit counter-intuitive, but there has never been a better time in the last 20 years at least to sell collectables, especially items priced in the £100 to £10,000 range, where in collectables the audience is quite large, and hence the pool of bidders quite deep. We know that above £10,000 if we have a handful of determined bidders on an item we tend to be very pleased. As people spend more time at home, combined with a top notch searching and bidding system like SpinkLive, the consequence is that no item goes unnoticed and the underbidders, the unsung heroes of the auction world, are present en masse.
The move to digital is now irreversible… even if we don’t welcome it, we have to accept it
Those of you who have met me know that I love human interaction, sharing a good meal, a good laugh, reuniting with old friends … however I have always made sure Spink would be at the forefront of technology with the first live bidding system in the industry 15 years ago, and the massive revamp of SpinkLive in late 2018. My simple view is that if you walk in front of the pack you have a better view of the lay of the ground, and you can choose the path you prefer. But the journey is always faster and more exciting than we think.
For example the community of active SpinkLive bidders was a few dozen in January 2019, circa 1,500 in January 2020, and in October 2020 it was well over 10,000, a number we were not planning to reach before 2024 at the earliest. Every month we have had a sharp increase as all clients move online progressively, and at a much faster pace than they would have done without Covid-19, as acceptance of new technology has been traditionally slower in our more conservative client base of stamp collectors, for example. As we have all communicated digitally with our loved ones for the first time, the switch to digital for our hobby was more natural to make.
Evolution but no revolution
We had many great successes in stamp auctions recently, with a 100% selling rate at record prices for the Doyen and Lady Joycey auctions to name only two recent “white glove” sales (ie 100% sold). Who would have thought a year ago, that an auction of stamps with no viewing, in an empty room with only staff to man phones and internet systems would set such records?
To conclude, while we integrate Covid-19 and its ever-changing government regulations in all our global jurisdictions into all our plans, we see it more as an opportunity for our industry and our clients.
We have always said that the future of our favourite hobbies is digital to some extent, or is bound to be lacklustre. Spink was the main sponsor of virtual Stampex and we were amazed at the level of engagement. The number of visitors to our virtual booth was probably ten times greater than during a traditional show.
One of the rare positive side effects of Covid-19 might be to have pushed our traditionally conservative customer base, led by me, into that bright new digital world where research, exchanges with like-minded collectors, and buying and selling are simpler.
Our grandchildren, at least those we have managed to bring to collecting, in a century’s time may think that Covid-19 was the single most important factor to elevate our beloved hobbies to the next level. Do please encourage any new collectors into the hobby by buying one of our brand new Stamps of the World Colouring Books, the perfect Christmas gift for any aspiring young philatelist!
… hence the human connection will be more important than ever!
So we have “cabled” the new Spink HQ exactly for that. A space for efficient work with the help of technologies, but where human contact is still at the forefront of everything we do. We believe that technology is just a way to save time, and have longer and more fruitful human interactions.
We hope that in 2021 we can welcome you once again to our newly refurbished London premises, where you will be able to see for yourself our technologically enhanced workspace and enjoy our physical auctions in a more fun and intimate setting – where your health and safety will as always be our number one priority. But hopefully by then, we could say, and be politically correct, that this priority is now on a par with the enjoyment of Life!
Stay safe, stay happy and stay sane,
We are almost there!