Pittsfield stamp dealer a worldwide eBay powerhouse

Last modified: Monday, January 05, 2015
In an unassuming mill building on the Suncook River in Pittsfield, Joe Cortese is in the middle of more than 400 simultaneous business transactions with buyers from around the world.

He said he’s made nearly 150,000 sales since 1998, first from the barn on his property and now from this newly remodeled three-floor space just off Main Street. But many in town – other than the UPS guy and the post office – don’t even know his business exists.

That’s because it’s run 100 percent through eBay. Cortese, 62, known online as NobleSpirit, is eBay’s go-to guy for anyone who is looking to sell a stamp collection. He has a staff of about 20 people, and he’s expanding.

On the bottom floor, there’s room for 18 different photographers, who attach sometimes hundreds of photos with each auction to give buyers confidence that they’re getting high-quality, thorough collections.

“That’s our unique competitive advantage,” Cortese said. “We take something, starting at a penny, which could be worth at least $3,000, but we’re taking enough photos so that the market can see what it is. We allow the market to arrive at what it believes the market value to be.”

He said the eBay market has so many collectors willing to buy that, if you have the goods, you can sell $1 million a month or more. He said more than just a hobby, stamp collecting is a form of investment. A friend of his bought a block of four Inverted Jenny stamps – a famous misprint – for $1 million seven years ago and recently sold them to an investment group for $5 million.

“You’ve got people now that don’t know the first thing about stamps and they’re buying $1 million stamps, $10 million stamps, because they’re building portfolios,” he said.

He said he bought and sold his first stamp at 8 years old and has remained interested in the trade his whole life. Before the internet, he sought out valuable stamps in large collections at low prices that he could piece apart, selling off the remainders. Now, people looking to sell their stamp collections go to him for his worldwide reach.

Cortese describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. His first venture was to borrow $30,000 from his friends and open a night club in Brooklyn in 1974 – a time when it was the only one around. Then he opened another one. Then, he said, he went off to see the world, opening a couple of collectible sporting goods stores in England and importing a variety of goods to a number of places.

One of his projects was using his connections in America to bring classic cars to buyers in Saudi Arabia and Europe. He said he created an engineer’s report that guaranteed the specifications of the cars, so buyers were confident in their purchases – similar to what he does today with stamps.

“It’s the next best thing to being there and kicking the tires,” he said.

He wanted to come back to the U.S. and lived just north of Boston before settling in Pittsfield about 20 years ago. He said for an international business, Pittsfield has everything you could want: small town, rural quality of life with easy access to Manchester and Boston, accommodating infrastructure, close access to recreation opportunities on the ocean and in the mountains, and an educated pool of employees.

Besides the photographers, there are also a couple of shippers – 65 percent of business is international – and a team of fact-checkers, who ensure the lots that are sent in for sale are what they purport to be. They compare minuscule details of each stamp against catalogs that point out the slight differences between different editions and note common forgeries. There’s also an IT guy, who designed software that streamlines the eBay posting process and gives the auctions a unified look.

Cortese said it’s this dedication that led eBay to point would-be stamp sellers to him.

“They do that because we’re not just a casual business, because we’ve invested in infrastructure. There isn’t anybody who sells stamps on eBay whose business looks like this,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached 
at 369-3325 or nreid@
cmonitor.com or on Twitter