The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist: Part 5
“Right place, wrong time”
In every life and career there are some memories that stand the test of time above all others. Memories that, upon reflection, bring you back to a moment in time that can remain as sharp and vivid as if it were just yesterday. In my own case there are likely a few such candidates, however only one stands out when I think of my earliest years in the coin business, and that would undoubtedly be my brief and bizarre encounter with the “Jesse James” of stamp thieves.
It was June of 1990, and nearing the end of my second year working for Lincoln Heights Coin & Stamp in the west end of Ottawa (if memory serves, I had recently been “upped” to Director of Numismatics for the rapidly growing company).
Some days earlier, we had received a faxed bulletin from the Ottawa Police about a valuable stamp collection that had been stolen in the National Capital region. It was notable not only for its extensive value, but for the unique character and rarity of the some of the material involved. As was always the case, a file-number was attached with a request to contact the Police if anything matching the brief detailed inventory happened to surface.
I do not remember the ensuing day of the week in question, but I can clearly recall the setting. Our store at the time was quite narrow, with cash and hidden work area at the very back, and a long series of end-to-end counters that ran up one side of the store to the front entrance.
It was a busy day, pretty much standing room only, with myself, one of our staff ladies, and the late Bill Perrin all serving at the counters. Bill, a retired senior and former wheeler-and-dealer in coins on the flea-market circuit, worked with us part-time. He was mildly crusty and never shy to speak his mind, but he was also trustworthy and attentive. We appreciated him, and I like to think he appreciated us. On this particular day-of-days, I finished whatever task I was involved with and received a customer at the small counter located at the very back at the store, so that I was facing the sales-floor and front entrance to the store (as we were in a shopping center, the entire front of the store was wide-open during operating hours).
I did not recognize the customer, a youngish mustached man perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. He began the conversation by expressing an interest in selling his stamp collection, and I invited him to show me some samples (all the more ironic on reflection, knowing how little philatelic knowledge I had ever managed to absorb). That, however, wasn’t to be a problem on this occasion. There, on the counter before me, were placed two fabulous items that looked they had just exited out the back door of a museum. The first, an entire sheet of some early South American inverted stamp error, and the second some type of Spanish imperial envelope cover with ancient red wax seal still intact.
Why was my lack of philatelic knowledge not an issue here? The answer lay not five feet from where we were standing, in the police fax which contained images of these two precise items.
Hence – in addition to my heart which had temporarily planted itself in my throat – I realized I had an acute existential dilemma. There was no reasonable doubt that I was looking at a portion of the most valuable philatelic collection ever stolen in Canada. I obviously couldn’t confront the seller, however. I had no idea how he would react if he felt cornered – would he react violently, was he carrying a weapon, would he simply bolt?
I had a store full of people, which paradoxically provided both a sense of security as well as grave concern. Thankfully, customer-service auto-drive prevailed over panic, and we began an engaging discussion. The seller didn’t seem to know that much about his collection (no surprise there), and the need for higher philatelic expertise in order to properly evaluate the material before me may have been pretense for making a telephone call to Paul, the owner of the business.
The additional challenge, however, was that the telephone sat only about six feet away – although behind a glass door leading to a small processing room, I could still be both seen and heard by the suspect at the counter. Fortunately Paul was home to answer the call, and somehow – while trying to maintain a reasonably relaxed composure – I was able to convey the message that we needed help. And quickly. “Stay calm, the Police are on their way,” Paul assured me. I hung up, and turned my attention back to the stamp bandit.
I am not clear on how much time passed (it felt close to forever), but at one point I looked past the suspect and saw two uniformed Ottawa Police officers approach the front of the store. I felt frozen, not wanting to give the person any excuse to turn around, noting the sea of people that still stood between the Police and the two of us. As we continued to discuss the stamps, I watched one of the Police officers step to the end of the counter and begin a discussion with Bill.
“What the Hell!” was my immediate thought – resisting with every fibre the overwhelming desire to flail my arms at them like a drowning imbecile. And then it happened.
While the Police waited at our front entrance, Bill began making his way down the long inside path of the counter towards me, with a puzzled expression on his face. Coming up to me, he paused, looked briefly around, and then leaned forward so that only myself and the suspect could hear what he was about to say.
“Sean”, he quietly asked in his usual gravelly voice. “Do you know anything about a stolen coin collection?”
If ever I have experienced the sensation of feeling my life flash before my eyes, this was most certainly the moment. I’m pretty certain all the blood in my northern hemisphere drained away faster than you could say “let’s shank the rat”, though I could hear myself answering with a feigned “no” – which seemed an infinitely wiser response than “are you sure you don’t mean stamps, Bill?”
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the look on my face must have spoken volumes. The two officers quickly made their way into the store, and one actually moved around the counter to stand beside me in a protective stance. The suspect expressed cooperative confusion as he was taken into our sorting room for a chat, and only on showing them the faxed bulletin did the Police seem to understand the true dynamics of the situation.
Shortly afterwards, the suspect was led out of the office in handcuffs, and my last glimpse of him is something I will never forget – a look of genuine panic crossed his face as he watched one of the officers begin to fold the rare sheet of error stamps into quarters, for easier transport. A stamp thief he may have been, but at least he cared about the true philatelic integrity of the piece!
Some weeks later I received a nice letter of thanks from the Deputy Chief of the Ottawa police, informing us that three people had been arrested as part of the overall investigation. What the letter didn’t reveal was that the theft of the collection – apparently valued at a quarter million dollars – was apparently an “inside job” involving Canada Post employees.
Strangely (or perhaps not), the whole affair never seems to have hit the news, and I sometimes wonder who actually owned the stamps, and how they must have felt to have these treasures successfully returned to them.