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One character Herst knew well, Y. Souren, was out of a Peter Lorre-Sydney Greenstreet movie. Souren, whose real name was Souren Yohannasiants, was a Georgian who had fled Russia during the revolution with a $100,000 collection of clocks hidden under the hay in a donkey cart. In the late 1930s Souren occupied a fancy office on Park Avenue, and visitors were admitted only after scrutiny, as though suspected members of a spy ring. He kept a private dossier on stamp dealers, collectors and those stamps that had passed through his hands. He had X-ray machines, ultraviolet apparatus and cameras at hand, and he was fond of bringing forth, with appreciative Near Eastern chuckles, photographs of what Herst describes as "unquestionably the same item, perhaps with a straight edge [of a stamp] reperforated [to make it more valuable], a fancy cancel added or other stamps added to the cover." Souren also had photographs of ads by stamp dealers offering items that were misleading. "Comes in handy whenever I want something from someone who doesn't want to cooperate," Souren told Herst.
Years ahead of the FBI, Souren had a camera hidden in the ceiling of his front door, "He was always afraid of being robbed," Herst recalls in Nassau Street, "and with good reason, for in his heyday it is doubtful whether any premises short of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and the stamp vaults in Washington held a more valuable accumulation of stamps. He showed me photographs of every person who had passed through that door in recent days. I saw my photograph several times."
With Herst, Souren unveiled his treasures, including his gem of gems, a block of the U.S. 24� 1869 inverted center, which went with him everywhere. Souren had the block mounted between glass panels in a small holder that he secreted in a special coat pocket. "Several times over a sandwich or a meal he would take it out and admire it," Herst says.
Always a keen student of stamps as well as a collector, Herst was not long in putting his knowledge to profit. While examining some minor purchases one day, he happened to notice that a copy of the U.S. 30� 1869 looked a bit odd. The flags were on top of the stamp instead of the bottom. It was a rare error, Scott No. 121b, which then cataloged at $4,500. Herst had paid $3 for it, and he sold it for $3,300. He bought a car and steamship tickets for himself and his mother for a trip to Europe, where he made several coups. In London, Herst learned the Coronation issue of Southern Rhodesia had suddenly become scarce because it was withdrawn from sale. The set had a face value of about 30�, but a British dealer offered Herst $4.03 for a set. Herst called New York, where the set was selling for only 40�, and asked a dealer to ship as many sets as possible. Herst wound up selling some for $5 each. In Paris, Herst made a find at one of the bookstalls along the Seine, an old album containing at least 500 copies of the U.S. 50� Omaha, Scott No. 291. He bought the collection for $20 and within six weeks had disposed of all the stamps for almost $1,000.
Back home on Nassau Street, Herst also prospered. On Pearl Harbor Day he reacted with philatelic foresight. The minute he heard news of the attack, he addressed five envelopes to fictitious addresses in Tokyo. When Germany declared war on the U.S., Herst sent five envelopes to fictitious addresses in Berlin. Eighteen months later all the envelopes came back to Herst with a series of unusual postmarks and censor stamps, and they have been in his World War II collection ever since.
Over age for service, Herst talked about stamps to wounded veterans at hospitals. He believes stamps are excellent therapy. He also asked any servicemen he knew to remember him wherever they went. Most did, and Herst now has the first letter mailed by the Marines from Guadalcanal, a collection of stamps used for espionage purposes, copies of Hitler's personal mail and the only propaganda leaflets dropped on the Japanese on Kiska and Attu.
"I don't collect the conventional things," says Heist. "Philately has no limits. There's nothing in life that philately doesn't cross." To prove his point, Herst once made a bet with a collector that he, Herst, could start a specialist collection that would win a prize at a major stamp show, and that he would assemble the collection at a total cost of less than $5. Herst won the bet with a collection of wanted notices sent out on postcards by sheriffs in the 1870s and 1880s. "In those days, mail service was faster than criminals," says Herst, who has scant regard for the present U.S. postal system.
In 1946 Herst moved from Nassau Street to Shrub Oak. "I had to get away," he says. "I couldn't get any work done. My office had become a lounge. There were all sorts of people there. One guy and his wife wanted to spend their honeymoon there."
In Shrub Oak the bane of Herst's existence is getting common stamps from people who send in a "rarity." Herst will run to his stock, pick out a copy and send both back with the reply, "Now you have two of them!" He is often called in by estates to appraise collections, and from time to time genuine rarities do come his way. A 10-year-old boy in New Brunswick, N.J. discovered a copy of the 5� Kenya stamp showing Owen Falls Dam with Queen Elizabeth upside down. Herst acted as agent for the youngster and sold the stamp, the only copy known, to the Maharajah of Bahawalpur for $10,000. The money was set aside for the boy's education.
When Herst pays a bill he often mails out a mimeographed sheet headed, "My hobby is philately" in which he notes that stamp collecting can not only be fun but a profitable hobby if one collects intelligently. In Herst's opinion, too many neophytes and collectors buy foolishly. "Age does not make value" is one of Herst's favorite sayings. Other Herst commandments are, "Cheap stamps never become rare," "Condition is a factor only in relation to value," "Demand is a more important factor than supply," "Beware of pitfalls that trap the unwary" and "There is no substitute for knowledge."