Standing outside his Miracle Mile office, veteran philatelist George W. Holschauer of the Colonial Stamp Company takes a puff of his ever-present pipe and talks about recent press coverage of the world’s most expensive stamp, the British Guiana one-cent Magenta, currently on show at the National Postal Museum.
It’s worth around $10 million, but that number doesn’t faze Holschauer.
“I have 50 to 100 regular clients whose budgets literally run the gamut,” he says matter-of-factly.
Coming from a man who claims to be perhaps the last dealer in Los Angeles who compiles and curates stamp collections for lawyers, doctors, “captains of industry and Silicon Valley guys who need to tune out but have almost no free time," this isn’t mere bragging.
Even so, Holschauer loves to talk about stamps with anyone.
“People call and say, ‘My grandfather left me his stamp collection,’ and I just can’t help myself, because you never know. Maybe one in 100 is worth something. My wife says I’m the world’s oldest living optimist,” he laughs.
Gregarious and outgoing — his imaginary generic client is a “Dr. Pfefflfinger” and he frequently refers to a generic exotic country called “Zuzuland” — he’s carrying the latest edition of Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps 1840-1970 from industry behemoth Gibbons. The reference catalog is already so well used that its spine has been reinforced with black duct tape; its pages are full of Holschauer's notes and scribbles.
“Every stamp in here has a price," Holschauer says, "but many of them are rare, some so much so that since I’ve never seen one in 50 years, I’ll pay far more than their list price."
"I’m a vicious bidder,” he adds, raising his pipe as if he’s at an auction.
“Rare” is considered to be worth more than $25,000, and it’s that area — what George calls “the difficult 5 percent” — that he operates in, tracking and buying specific “key” stamps that he knows, one day, an enthusiast is going to need to complete his collection.
“Sometimes I know what a client needs before he even says it,” says George, tapping the side of his head. “That’s 50 years of experience, all up here.”
Some stamps are so rare that a collection might never be finished, though George feels that is part of the attraction of this hobby. “It’s why collections are passed from father to son and sometimes father to daughter. It can be a cradle-to-grave hobby,” he says, proud that he has a third-generation client, and has done business on a handshake for decades.
Back at the Colonial Stamp Company, amid the organized chaos of piled boxes, catalogs, folders and files in an office he shares with a small team that includes his son Kevin, Holschauer opens a large filing cabinet of 50 to 60 folders of the most widely collected stamps, those from the reign of Victoria, Edward VII, and George V and VI.
“It was when the British Empire was at its height,” he explains, “and many collectors focus on that, while others might pick just one country, or perhaps have hundreds of volumes.”
He takes out the Malaya folder and opens a random page of the vertically arranged stamps. They all look the same, at least at first glance. Upon closer inspection, you'll see that they’re all in fact slightly different. They differ in color, size, font, letters and perforations, just a few of the elements that are important to collectors.
“When I was a child, I loved stamps from Zanzibar — they were just so exotic — and I love ones from Madagascar; they’re so large.”
The company maintains an extensive "reference collection,” his own philately bible, which he began when his father introduced him to the hobby as a 15-year-old living in Detroit.
“Every year, I’d save up and buy a bus ticket to New York. I’d take all the new stamps I’d collected, visit all the major dealers and pick their brains. They realized I was serious, and they all helped me.”
After graduating college Holschauer worked in private industry for a while, but after realizing he was “fooling himself,” he moved to Boston with his 20-year-old collection as a starting point. He then moved to California in the 1970s when he realized that there was a large VIP market here — and no one to fill it.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he says, although he immediately declines to name any of his big-name clients.
“They’re diplomats, politicians, actors, celebrities — but I am the soul of discretion,” Holschauer intones. “They prefer anonymity because they don’t want people to know they have a $5 million collection someone could carry away under their arm,” he adds, admitting that the biggest collection he has assembled was worth around $30 million to $40 million.
He uses auction agents around the world but still finds himself “running around like a Looney Tune,” traveling to see clients and attending annual events such as an upcoming conference in Monte Carlo, where he's the only American dealer invited. It's hosted by avid stamp enthusiast Albert II, Prince of Monaco, son of Princess Grace (the former actress Grace Kelly).
“All I need are my stamp tongs, envelopes, a magnifying glass, a perforation gauge and an approval card [a manila card with sleeves to hold stamps], and I’m ready to rock and roll!”
He often works weekends, but when he’s taking time off he and his wife of 30 years are big classical music fans — Bach is a favorite — and he feels that the best dealers were always collectors first.
He recalls childhood vacations to Switzerland, Austria and Germany, where he had family connections.
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“Luckily my mother ran a small travel agency,” Holschauer says, “and she collected silver and antiques. Now I collect them, too, as well as letter seals and 18th-century European firearms – flintlock pistols. I bought two when I was in Vienna recently.”
But which catalog or stamp would he save if the office caught fire?
“Impossible. I’d just burn to death,” Holschauer says, seemingly not joking. “When I do die, I hope to be 106 years old, sitting at my desk, looking out the window, my stamp tongs in my hand and classical music on the radio."
5757 Wilshire Blvd., Penthouse 8, Mid-Wilshire; (323) 933-9435, colonialstamps.com.