Pittsfield’s father-son eBay team take stamp world by storm

Last modified: 6/21/2015 1:25:00 AM
It’s the age-old story of the father-son business: inherent trust among partners and an invaluable mentorship for the heir.

But at NobleSpirit in Pittsfield, Joe Cortese isn’t just handing over the keys to his son. What’s more meaningful than that? In this business, it’s the family’s eBay password.

The company that Michael Cortese, 25, is increasingly taking control over compiles collections of stamps and takes consignments to be sold at auction online. Since 1998, NobleSpirit has made more than 150,000 sales online and moved from the barn attached to the Corteses’ Pittsfield farmhouse to a newly remodeled three-story office downtown.

When Michael Cortese talks about the “household names” of stamp collecting, it reveals something about the sort of household he came from.

It’s the sort where his father, when Michael was 4 years old, sat him down on his knee and watched him identify minuscule differences in stamps, like it was a hidden pictures game in a children’s magazine.

Michael says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t photographing or cataloguing stamps. These days, he manages almost all aspects – and more than 20 employees – at the family business, which is the one of the top sellers of stamps on eBay.

For much of the company’s history, Joe Cortese was doing almost all the work himself, “because the nature of the business dictates that you have to have an above-average level of expertise with the material,” he said.

Growing up, Michael was always working to learn more about the esoteric world of stamps.

“It’s such a humbling hobby. There’s not one person in the entire hobby who knows absolutely everything about it, so it’s interesting in an aspect because you can spend your whole life studying it and you’d still never know everything,” he said.

At Southern New Hampshire University he studied psychology, because it interested him, but he always saw himself coming back to the family business.

“I never really assumed I’d be doing anything else. It’s weird to say, but my schooling that I had wasn’t really my schooling. . . . Most of my education came from outside of school,” he said.

Joe Cortese said that when Michael joined the business in earnest, it transformed the possibilities, both by having someone to manage the operation while the other traveled to shows or auctions, and by injecting a passionate, youthful perspective into a field being disrupted by technology.

“Michael’s coming into the business, actually and his ability to command that technological opportunity, has allowed us to do things that we really couldn’t have done on our own,” the elder Cortese said. “We wouldn’t be here today without Michael. . . . I’m becoming more and more like a consultant than anything else, which is great.”

When consignments come in, a group of fact-checkers determine whether the stamps are what they purport to be and prepare them for the photographers, who will attach sometimes hundreds of photos to the auction online, then pass along the collection for shipping. Michael Cortese has worked at length in all these roles and directs more than 20 employees, most of whom are his age.

The younger Cortese also travels to shows and auctions – sometimes overhearing talk about NobleSpirit from people who don’t realize who he is – and his father said he’s already surpassed him in buying valuable collections.

“I see him engage at shows and other venues with expert collectors and dealers – longtime established dealers who are three times his age – and he commands tremendous respect,” Joe Cortese said.

The elder Cortese said he feels it’s important to bestow responsibility on his son and let him find his own way.

“What Michael has already brought to the table is beyond value, beyond what somebody can appreciate. It brings tears to your eyes.

“It’s the classic empowering the right person to do something, then just getting out of the way,” he said.

Michael Cortese, for his part, hopes to keep propelling the business forward. Within a matter of years, he sees NobleSpirit becoming even better-known in the stamp trade.

“I don’t see why a year, two years down the road, maybe three, that we can’t become a household name either. I see no reason why that’s not possible,” he said.



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




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