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Unrecognized Smithsonian Balloonist Cover Brings Spirited eBay Bidding


Specialists and experts on eBay can make for exciting bidding. It used to be that pre-Internet those with specialized philatelic knowledge would wear down a lot of shoe leather and spend a lot on gas to get to stamp shows and off the beaten trail stamp shops where there were dealers who would have material that sat in their stocks unrecognized as something special and more valuable than its modest price tag indicated.

The Rise of the Specialist Buyer

Knowledge is power in the world of stamp and cover collecting and the specialist who knows his area well, whether particular stamps, postal history, or rare and obscure cachets on first day and airmail covers can make a purchase to their benefit. And it is not only knowledge of postal history that can give a collector an edge, but knowledge of national and world history.

After a time though most dealers targeted by these experts recognize them for what they were and give them a special name: cherry pickers. There's an obvious reference to taking advantage of the low hanging fruit and the best of the lot as they get good stuff for minimal expenditure. In some cases dealers have been known to hide the material related to the collector's interest.

With online auctions sellers have to contend with many of these experts, so it pays them to research an item thoroughly before putting it into an online sale or auction. If it is a simple sale, then it's first come, first served. But if it's an auction situation, the early bird catching the philatelic worm theory does not apply.

An Unrecognized Historic Cover

A recent eBay auction presented a situation full of potential for the specialist in the areas of postal history, aviation and American history. Because what looked like a fairly ordinary cover sent from the Smithsonian Institution in 1864 was actually an item closely related to T.S.C. Lowe, the balloonist who became the head of the Union observation balloon corps during the Civil War.

It was clear that the seller was not aware of this feature. It is good for collectors with a special interest, and accompanying knowledge to search out items that may have a value unknown to the seller. Those who collect special cancels scour the classic used U.S. categories for unrecognized cancels like the kicking mule.

If the unrecognized stamp or cover you've found has a Buy It Now you can rejoice, but only as you quickly make the purchase of the item - every specialist knows there are many like him tolling the sales for a bargain item. But if the item is an auction item and another recognizes the piece your work will be cut out for you.

Philatelic and American History Hammered Down

You may ask "Why don't I contact the seller and tell him I'll buy the piece for many multiples of his starting price? Surely he'll go for it." Well no. Such contact only signals to the seller that there is something more to the item and the chances of you making a deal in that way are virtually nil.

In this case there was little bidding on the item right up to the final hours. Seasoned bidders know that calling attention to an auction by bidding early will only bring more bidders and very possibly, more competition. As the bids went up incrementally, still below $100 it was obvious that there were at least two collectors who knew the true value of the cover. Still there were only two, with the first bidder maintaining the high bid as the second drove up the price, in an attempt to top the existing high bid. After a number of attempts the second became the high bidder at around the $100 level. The final minutes found the first bidder regaining dominance and finally taking the item at slightly more than $200.

What did that bidder win? An historic piece of American postal history. Dated June, 1861 it was only a number of weeks before Lowe would telegraph president Lincoln in the White House from the grounds of the Smithsonian, an act proving the value of observation balloons to the Union forces in the U.S.'s Civil War.

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