When her son William was born in 1944, Shirley Gross already had a plan for his college tuition. Every week or two, she would go to her local post office and buy a sheet of three-cent commemorative stamps.
After 17 years, she entrusted her then sizable collection to Bill and told him to see how much he could get for it—surely, she thought, it had accrued enough value to pay for his four years at Duke. When Bill learned the stamps weren't worth what they were printed on, he says, “she was crushed.”
Bill H. Gross proved a far savvier investor than his mother, building a $2.5 billion fortune as a bond trader. But he never forgot her gesture. In 1993, he started his own stamp collection. “Stamps can indeed make money,” he says, “but you gotta buy the right stamps.” That he did, amassing one of the finest collections in the world, including a complete set of U.S. stamps going back to 1847, the first year they were issued.
In a series of auctions starting on October 3, the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries in New York will sell off the bulk of Gross’s collection, valued at $42 million. The most prized single item is a hyper-rare two-cent blue Hawaiian “Missionary,” estimated at more than half a million dollars. Issued in 1851, the stamp is most famous for its role as the MacGuffin in the 1963 screwball thriller Charade.
Other lots to look out for are the “Inverted Center” block of four 24-cent stamps from 1869, accidentally printed upside down (estimated at $750,000 to $1 million), and the “Beaver” cover, a London-addressed envelope bearing a strip of 1847 five-cent stamps, as well as a three-pence Canadian beaver stamp, expected to fetch between $600,000 and $800,000.
Gross auctioned off half his collection in 2007 and gave the earnings to charity—including $9.1 million to Doctors Without Borders. Having gotten the remainder in the settlement for his notoriously messy divorce, he decided to sell the second half and once again donate the proceeds. If he’s not keeping the stamps or the money, then what was the point of his philatelic pursuit? For Gross, the motivation is the same for any collector: “It’s an attempt to bring order from disorder.”