In The Spotlight

GBCC Chronicle editor Paul Phillips interviews James Grimwood-Taylor, C.E.O. of Cavendish Auctions and Postal Historians’ Postal Historian.


James Grimwood-Taylor
Published in the July 2001 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Phillips: Well, James, it’s now 20 years since we met and I would never have expected to be doing this! I am delighted that you agreed to be interviewed; maybe we can learn a few secrets from you.

Before we start in with the philatelic questions, could you tell the readers a little about your background, education, etc.

Grimwood-Taylor: Education prior to Edinburgh University made little impression! I then got a Masters Degree in Prehistoric Archaeology (with a dissertation on “pre-Villanovan potsherds of northern Italy”!), before deciding that the academic world was not for me. I was born in Derby into a family of lawyers (my elder brother — Cavendish’s company Secretary — took that route) but I escaped; my father agreed to my trying a “hobby” job first, in case I could make a living at it. Luckily the family office’s attics and cellars were full of old (pre-1900) letters, and my grandfather had been a hoarder, so I discovered G.B. prestamp postal history in my ‘teens!

Phillips: I’ve been amazed over the years at your productivity. By that I mean the growth of Cavendish Auctions, your publications, every one of which has contained major new knowledge, your active roles in philatelic societies, and your exhibits. How do you do it all? Does one activity help the other? Is there a healthy synergism there?

Grimwood-Taylor: 24-hour-a-day hobby-work is the answer! I enjoy the hobby enough to do little else. As for productivity, that is all down to self-discipline, time-management and a (very) supportive wife, Pat (Finance Director of Cavendish). Yes, I guess it is all healthy synergism too.

Phillips: So would you recommend that all collectors become active in doing research, writing articles, and generally being active in societies?

Grimwood-Taylor: Chacun à son goût. I think research is for those frustrated academics amongst us, and I enjoy mixing with fellow enthusiasts (especially over a drink or two). Many other people prefer just to collect, and I have no problem with that.

Phillips: The GBCC is designed to encourage basic stamp collectors to develop into intermediate collectors through finding specialties. I am not aware of any society with similar objectives in the British Isles. Most societies tend to cater to active specialists and there seems to be a major need by philately as a whole for such societies. Do you agree?

Grimwood-Taylor: The National Philatelic Society in London is a very good all-rounder society, and I must have spoken to over 100 of the generalist local stamp-clubs dotted around Britain over the years; they thrive as non-specialist groups. We need both specialist and generalist societies in my view.

Phillips: Many collectors are very reluctant to write or publish their ideas and interpretations, often because of a lack of confidence due to the problems involved in locating information from the vast and, often, inaccessible philatelic literature. In other words, they don’t want to appear ignorant. What advice would you give to the average collector on this issue?

Grimwood-Taylor: Start with something brief; e.g. “A cover I like” or “What on earth is this?” feature for a society magazine (such as the GBCC Chronicle). Confidence comes from experience; you cannot go wrong if you describe an original item. The problems often come from misquoting or misconstruing others’ publications. I always pick obscure subjects, thereby reducing the chances of knowledgeable negative feedback. But everyone loves enthusiasm for the hobby, so I would say “go for it — publish!”


Figure 1. Highest recorded British prestamp inland rate. An 1816 package from India to Edinburgh at the 21 ounce rate. Charged 56/- ship letter rate (84 x 8d = £2-16-0d), of which the ship’s captain received only 2d for his work. Inland postage of 84 times 1/1d (£4-11-0d), producing a total charge of £7-7-0d, plus the additional halfpenny Scottish mail tax charge for roadbuilding.Highest known rate prestamp cover

Phillips: When did Cavendish Auctions start? Was it a family business?

Grimwood-Taylor: 1952. Yes, Geoff Manton (just turned 80) — who still comes in one day a week, and writes regularly for the “Cavendish Chronicle” — and his first wife ran it in parallel with the Derby Stamp Shop until 1982 (by which time it had eclipsed the shop), when he “retired” for the first time.

Phillips: So how did you come to be involved with Cavendish? Was this an early ambition?

Grimwood-Taylor: Prior to graduation (in 1979), I sought Geoff’s advice on a career in stamps; he did not (alas!) offer me a job, but pointed me towards London. Ten years later I came back and took over. I had always thought stamp auctions looked interesting; I just had not expected to have 10 years’ “training” in London!

Phillips: Over the years I’ve seen the Cavendish catalogs grow tremendously in size, yet retaining their high quality. Obviously this reflects the major growth in your business and the confidence in the auction house. To what do you attribute the growth?

Grimwood-Taylor: Pure hard work by all the team at Cavendish (there are some 13 full-time staff now, compared to 5 in 1988). We are all stamp/postal history collectors, and I have been lucky enough to find a few other people as keen as me to help with flying the collector-friendly flag at Cavendish. Reputation is everything; it has taken 50 years to build Cavendish’s; it is a great (and enjoyable) responsibility to maintain it.

Phillips: Can you give us some statistics on the realized value of the items that pass through Cavendish in a year?

Grimwood-Taylor: This can vary greatly from year to year, but these days we need a couple of million pounds sterling turnover each year to pay all the bills; that is all through our auctions. (Say $3 million or so).

Phillips: How are these figures broken up between stamps and postal history?

Grimwood-Taylor: The computer struggles to differentiate between stamps and covers sometimes (and so do I!), but we still turn over much more total value in stamps (individual, groups, collections, etc.) than we do in Postal History (for which we have the reputation).

Phillips: I always thought there was a lot of competition amongst auction houses for the better material. How do you go about landing the major collections as they come on the market?

Grimwood-Taylor: I should say “personal charm” to this one! Naturally I cannot reveal our secret weapons, but personal service and the most knowledgeable philatelic team in the business are our greatest assets.

Phillips: You do have a reputation for getting the major postal history collections in the British area, but I have noticed more recently quite a lot of stamp collections, too. Are the two markets very different in the ways they function?

Grimwood-Taylor: That would take a whole article in itself! Robson Lowe used to charge higher vendor commissions for postal history than for stamps, and I like to kid my stamp-expert colleagues that we “Postal Historians” have to work harder, but they disagree. The two markets are so closely connected that they fit together very well; we usually offer both in each “Worldwide” auction at Cavendish.

Phillips: Many collectors do worry, with the reduction of interest in philately in general in mind, that they may have trouble selling their collections when they need to. Is there any real evidence that a problem exists or is developing? For instance, even the Postal History Society (the U.K. one) is worried about its membership rolls, and so members I know have expressed worries about having anybody to sell to when the time comes.

Grimwood-Taylor: No slow-down in either market yet in our experience. Youth Philately (which Cavendish energetically supports in the U.K.) is alive and kicking, and the affluent “young retired” are boosting demand for all specialised material. Society memberships do not always reflect the overall levels of demand; the British Postal History Society (P.H.S.) has seen levels of membership fall largely because there are now some 50 other specialised P.H. societies based in Britain. People often prefer to join a specialised P.H. group rather than the “all-rounder” P.H.S. (I am a member of both types).


Figure 2. Official letter from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands mailed in 1665 to Edinburgh, 100 years before the first post office in the islands.1665 letter from Shetland Islands

Phillips: Most specialist societies seem to be thriving, but the more general societies are seeing a membership decline. For instance, this is certainly happening in the U.S. and the APS rolls are dropping slowly. Is this an international trend?

Grimwood-Taylor: The same is true, I think, of the APS. There is an increasing number of collectors who prefer specialist societies (e.g. GBCC!) to all-rounder societies. Yes, it is happening everywhere; no bad thing, merely proof of increasing specialisation.

Phillips: The majority of collectors do not have very valuable collections and they wonder about the best way to sell when the time comes. They certainly know not to go to a local dealer, but are auctions the way to go? I believe most auction houses have a minimal consignment value and a minimum value for each lot. Does Cavendish follow a similar policy? If so, what are the values?

Grimwood-Taylor: Yes, the laws of economics govern us too, but we strive to maintain a more accessible lot structure (for buyers and vendors). Most of our competitors operate a minimum consignment threshold (up to £5,000 in some cases), and aim to have average lots of £500 ($750) and minimum lots close to that. Cavendish has no minimum consignment, but a minimum lot charge of £10 ($15) which means lots below £66 ($100) are not economical. We average around £200 ($300) per sold lot across the year, but still have one or two £30 ($45) – £40 ($60) lots. If we owned any material, maybe we could offer cheaper lots, but we are consignment-only auctioneers (we do not have time to deal!), because we believe dealing as well as running auctions leads to too many conflicts of interest.

Phillips: About 400 of the approximately 500 members of the GBCC are Machin Maniacs. In recent years we have seen major growth in the value of items in this area, especially in the booklets and in the “printer’s waste.” What is your view of this area as an investment for the future? It has always seemed to me that one of the ways of seeing a lot of appreciation in value of a collecting area is to get in at ground level. Is it still possible for the intermediate collector to achieve a ground level collection of Machins, without taking out a second mortgage and possibly having a divorce?

Grimwood-Taylor: The best returns generally come from the most thorough (and original) research. If you know more than the professionals do, you will find bargains! Specialist material is always better: there is a smaller supply. Regular newly issued stamps are produced in such vast quantities that they will never be in short supply, so depreciation happens more often than appreciation, in my view. “Antique Stamps” (say pre-1950) perform best, if pursued with knowledge.

Phillips: There is a growing interest in the postal history of the Machin area, especially with the new book by Johnson and Peat. Have the really rare modern rates of the period started to surface in auctions yet?

Grimwood-Taylor: Machin Postal History will not be seen in separate item lots until prices reach around £100 ($150); some time to wait yet!

Phillips: There has always been a lot of criticism of modern British commemoratives and they seem to go through periodic spasms of atrocious issues. I remember many of the issues of the early 70s were terribly ugly and so people didn’t collect them very seriously. Is there any sign of an upturn in these items as postal history because of their scarcity? I still don’t see many covers with nice postmarks on pristine stamps, partly because of the surface finish. Presumably the difficult rate periods documented in the Johnson – Peat book must be even more difficult to find with commemoratives.

Grimwood-Taylor: Good point; I shall tease Robert Johnson about this! The shorter the period of commercial use, the rarer a stamp will be on genuine commercial covers.

Phillips: Those commemoratives remind me of the turn-of-the-century Merson issue of France, which was subject to unbelievable attacks when it came out because of the color combinations. Yet, now it has become a major collecting area, I suspect, partly due to publications about it. Will we have to wait until 2070 for modern British commemoratives to take off, or can we expect an authoritative publication? Is anyone taking them seriously?

Grimwood-Taylor: Sounds like a great opportunity for a budding author; the problem will be commercial usages of old (sometimes almost 30 years old currently) commemoratives, by Cavendish and others.

Phillips: We seem to be going through another one of those spasms right now, judging by recent articles from GBCC members. Has there been a similar reaction in the U.K.?

Grimwood-Taylor: Current G.B. commemoratives are, sadly, not popular with specialist collectors these days. They are simply over-produced.

Phillips: I would like to switch subjects now and chat a little more about your personal collecting interests. Your book, “The British Postal Reforms of 1839 and 1840,” and the collection behind it are bound to remain classics for many years to come. Was your association with Cavendish of major assistance in finding those spectacular high rate covers? I assume you have to bid along with everyone else!

Grimwood-Taylor: I certainly have to bid like anyone else at Cavendish, but I am unable to hide my excitement about something I like when I describe it for the catalogue, so I am very often outbid! Most of my great “British Postal Reforms” items were acquired before I took over Cavendish in 1988. I had 10 years as a dealer in Bond Street, London, and saw all the auctions from 1979 to 1988 — I was permanently broke, but my collection grew! My very best buys were made as an impecunious student during the mid–1970s.

Phillips: Robson Lowe always indicated that one of the great pleasures of life in running an auction was to able to sift through the collections and learn so much from them. Do you find that you have the time to learn as he did?

Grimwood-Taylor: Yes, I insist on making time to “play with” the best postal history collections that come into Cavendish, and I still describe many of them. I absorb a vast amount of information from reading collectors’ album pages. I spend most of my time working on Foreign and Commonwealth Postal History these days, but I still do the pick (my pick!) of the G.B. pre-1930 covers. I love to find rarities in unexpected places; the vendors love it too.

Phillips: Your use of the auction pages to encourage postal history research associated with items in a collection is unique to my knowledge. I am thinking specifically about your article on the Bishop marks (reproduced in The Chronicle) and the one about the hot cross bun marks. I think it’s a great idea. What has been the reaction of the postal history community to this innovation? Did you receive much more information as a result of it?

Grimwood-Taylor: It has been very well received when we put our own describers’ research in the catalogues, and the “Cavendish Chronicle” also encourages responses. My 1661-3 Bishop Mark theory is still intact, and additions to the “Hot Cross Bun” story came in thick and fast. All it takes is time — of which I never have enough!

Phillips: James, could you share with the readership a couple of your most favorite items that have passed through Cavendish in recent years?

Grimwood-Taylor: I often get sidetracked in my collecting when really “great” collections come through Cavendish: the Bill Hart Boer War collection of 1993 led me to acquire a letter that had been sent out of besieged Ladysmith by heliograph. See Figure 3, below.

Ladysmith_letter Ladysmith_envelope

Figure 3. Letter from beseiged Ladysmith, during the Boer War, which was delivered within a few weeks. Most other letters were handled after the relief from the siege and delivered many months later.

Grimwood-Taylor: A few years later, I acquired a penny black “cheat” cover, where a stamp was used a second time (illegally!) and charged 2d postage due.

Phillips: We have several collectors of Scots material in the GBCC who have probably never seen your exhibit of Scottish Islands Mail. Will it be coming to the U.S. soon? Maybe to the International Exhibition in Washington D.C.?

Grimwood-Taylor: My “Islands” got a gold at the A.P.S. Orlando show (1998?), and it will be in the Tokyo show next month, but I have also agreed to show much of it to the Collectors’ Club in New York in November. I could show it to a GBCC meeting, if one could be arranged for 17th, 19th or 20th November 2001 within reach of New York. Over to you, Paul!

Phillips: As a collector of what many regard as an obscure area (namely, Carlisle), I can appreciate the degree of difficulty in acquiring a collection of Scottish islands. How did you go about amassing it?

Grimwood-Taylor: Oh, Carlisle is easy compared to Lerwick or Alderney! The keys to my success are luck and longevity! I had the luck to start collecting Islands postal history from the age of 18 (at University in Edinburgh for 4 years), and I am still alive and collecting. The 10 years in Bond Street helped, but, Paul, you have the disadvantage of collecting from “across the pond”, whereas I am on the spot. Early postal history is full of “unique” or “one-of-a-kind” items (prior to 1900), and so the great incentive is finding “Post Office Mauritius” rarity at “First Day Cover” prices!

Phillips: What do you think is your scarcest Scottish item?

Grimwood-Taylor: My 1665 letter from the Shetland Islands, written by the Islands’ Governor trying to ward off King Charles II’s anger and accusations that he (the Governor) had stolen a chest of gold bullion from a Dutch treasure-ship that was wrecked in the Shetlands! It is a 100 years older than any other Shetlands’ cover in private hands too. See Figure 2, above.

Phillips: Is it also your favorite item from that collection?

Grimwood-Taylor: No, that would be the 1816 letter from India to Edinburgh that was charged a postage £7-7s-1/2d; it cost more for the journey from London to Edinburgh than the £2-16s-0d part that was charged for the “Ship Letter” rate from India to London. See Figure 1 above.

Phillips: Did you have to do a lot of original research in order to convert the collection into an exhibit? If so, how did you go about it?

Grimwood-Taylor: Yes, I enjoy reading everything published, and that means P.O. Guides, Gazetteers, Maps and Parliamentary Reports, as well as postal history books and articles. Island P.O. opening dates (especially for Irish Islands) are the most difficult to track down. I simply like a challenge.

Phillips: Will there be a book forthcoming on the subject?

Grimwood-Taylor: Well, my “Post in Scotland” (1990) is an all-colour softback with a good introduction to the subject of Scottish Islands postal history (available from Cavendish directly; only $20 + postage to GBCC members) but the definitive work will have to await my retirement!

Phillips: Do you have any other collections that you expect to share with the general public in the near future?

Grimwood-Taylor: Did you ever see my “home-town” collection of Derby postal history (1611-1899)? It got a gold at the A.P.S. Cincinnati show in 1991 and astonished everyone by getting an International Gold in Oslo in 1998 with no ingoing mail, merely mail from Derby City and County. Next time I show it I will have to move up from 5 to 8 frames, so that will be the one for Washington 2006, I guess! Other “up-and-coming” collections of postal history include Upper Silesia Plebiscite (1920-2), Rhodes (1860-1939), and one or two “secret” projects.

Phillips: I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one collecting relatively obscure areas from Eastern Europe!

Phillips: Well, James, this has been a very interesting experience for me. I’m not sure I’ll be rated very highly for my journalistic expertise, but I’m sure your answers will receive accolades. Thank you once again for a very informative interview.

Thanks to James Grimwood-Taylor and Nick Wraith at Cavendish Auctions for providing the illustrations.

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