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Bill Gross: king of the philatelists

Bill Gross, the former bond king, still occupies another throne – but he’s about to abdicate, says Chris Carter.

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First class: a $1m postage stamp

There are limits at some point to a [stamp] collector's portfolio, because, if pursued long enough, and, admittedly, with enough money, it's possible to fill in all the spaces in an album in other words, to get them all," legendary bond investor Bill Gross told CNBC. "Get them all" sounds like something a crazed teenage follower of the smartphone game Pokmon Go might say. But the co-founder of Pacific Investment Management (Pimco) knows that stamp collectors are nothing if not tenacious.

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The problem for philatelists, and one of the reasons why the market has underperformed in recent years compared with, say, classic cars, is that nearly all of the rarest and most desirable specimens (particularly American stamps) have already been snapped up by museums around the world. In hoovering up what was left, Gross "effectively cornered the market", say Katya Kazakina and John Gittelsohn on Bloomberg Pursuits. So, when he sells the first part of his $42m collection at auction in September, "the entire field of philately will feel the effect". As Gross, once known as the bond king, for his huge influence in bond markets puts it, "I figured it's better to give other collectors a chance to own some of these stamps and to use the proceeds for philanthropy".

A new record is almost certain

That first sale of around 150 items is expected to raise at least $9.1m, breaking the record held by, you guessed it, Gross himself, for the most money made from a single day at auction. (Gross raised that amount when he sold his collection of British stamps in 2007.) "They are the greatest hits of American stamp [collecting]," Scott Trepel, president of Siegel Auction Galleries, which is handling the sale, tells Justin Baer in The Wall Street Journal. "When you add it all up, it comfortably breaks the record."

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Among the treasures for sale are a unique block of 24-cent stamps from 1869, which feature an inverted image, valued at up to $1m; and the two-cent "Blue Hawaiian Missionary" stamp, issued in 1851, more than a century before Hawaii became a US state. That one is valued at up to $750,000. The only stamp to feature the head of George Washington, issued by the state of Massachusetts in 1846, is expected to make $300,000 to $400,000.

Despite the market's disappointing performance in recent years, Gross could still do well. There have been instances of stamps fetching high prices, suggesting that demand is out there. Four stamps from 1948, featuring Mahatma Gandhi, set a record for Indian stamps when they sold for £500,000 last April. And the overall record price for a stamp was set only four years ago when the 1856 British Guiana one-cent magenta fetched $9.5m in New York. Gross will be hoping that his fellow collectors' tenacity can last until the autumn.

The luck of a canny collector

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A Mark Rothko painting, for example, picked up for $10,000 in 1959, fetched almost $73m in 2007 a profit of around 730,000%. Hence the (partial) reason for the sale: tax (the other being charity). "A lot of the art was purchased for good prices in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But the art market just went bonkers since then," says Johnson. "You can imagine what the capital gains tax [on the Rothko painting] was." By donating the proceeds to good causes (as will happen in May), "there was no tax to them".

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Valuing the collection, which includes items from Monets to Chinese porcelain (pictured), has been a "Herculean under- taking", says Tarmy, but the estimate of $500m suggests it will pay off for the charities. The sale is "consistent with the ethos of philanthropy, which is all about keeping energy and positivity flowing", Adam Rockefeller Growald, David Rockefeller's 32-year-old grandson, tells Lisa Grainger in The Times.

Auctions

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A sketch for a lost portrait of Winston Churchill is to be sold in London on 21 March as part of the Christie's sale of British and Irish modern art. Graham Sutherland created the painting in 1954 as an 80th birthday present for Churchill from his MPs, but Churchill hated the artwork, which showed him as an ageing figure, says the Evening Standard. Churchill's wife, Clementine, is thought to have had the painting burnt. The sketch is expected to make between £7,000 and £10,000.

Gone...

A note by Albert Einstein in 1921 (when he was 42) to Elisabetta Piccini, an Italian scientist 20 years his junior, sold for $6,100 at Winner's Auctions and Exhibitions in Jerusalem last week. The note (in German) starts: "To the scientific researcher, at whose feet I slept and sat for two full days, as a friendly souvenir", using an idiom signalling affection. A more intellectual note, setting out Einstein's thoughts on his "Third Stage of the Theory of Relativity", went for $103,700.

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