photography by Dana Edmunds

One man’s stamp is a very notable collector’s treasure.

Between the mélange of auction catalogs spread out on thurston “twigg” twigg-smith’s breakfast table, three small black books caught my attention. roughly the size of an iphone, each book had nothing more on its cover than his name and the years 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. interest piqued, i sought a little more insight. apparently, these notebooks are planners that date back all the way to 1961, and are filled with twigg-smith’s record of… practically everything he’s done in the last five decades.

“Twigg is almost more famous for these little books than he is for his stamp collection,” laughs wife sharon.

Those close to him may know him for his diminutive diaries; others may know twigg-smith for his philanthropy. as for titles? businessman, author, beloved patron of the arts-twigg-smith has more than a few he can go by. but perhaps the one appellation that never fails to put a twinkle in his eye is that of “philatelist.”

For some, stamp collecting is a mere hobby. but when an extensive collection-specifically The Honolulu Advertiser collection of hawaiian stamps and postal history-fetched a price tag just south of $10 million at auction, one comes to realize that amassing such coveted selection of stamps delves much deeper than the appreciation of the objects themselves. for a true stamp collector, one ventures into a kaleidoscopic realm of retracing steps, theorizing trains of thought from centuries’ past, and engaging in heated discussions pertaining to topics like philatelic covers, postmarks and stamp cancellations. it becomes a collection of history instead-where its inherent value truly lies. sharon, conceivably a philatelist by association, says, “The thing about stamps that differ from other collections [like art] is that with art, people can kind of intuit what art is all about. with stamps, it’s the most mysterious of all the collectibles because there are so many facets and aspects to it. most people don’t really realize what it’s all about. it’s so much more than just a stamp. it’s about the covers, the letters, the postal history, the ships passing mail back and forth, and how it was cancelled. it’s a history of history.”

Was twigg-smith thinking of such technicalities at eight years old, when the seeds of philately started to sprout? maybe not quite to that extent. but for the 91-year-old, fifth-generation kama’aina, he admits that he’d been infected with the thrill of collecting for as long as he can recall. “i think it’s a sickness,” he jokes. “some people are born with it-a collecting sickness.”

While the set containing the famed Hawaiian Missionaries is no longer in his possession-it has since been dispersed to various collectors, private institutions, including the Smithsonian who now houses the only known, unused 2-cent Hawaiian Mission-ary-the experiences associated with it remain, whether stored as a perfect memory or as previously mentioned, chronicled in impressive detail in one of Twigg-Smith’s ubiquitous black notebooks.

He references one of them for the list of places he had exhibited the collection-Switzerland, England, Amsterdam, Australia, New York, just to name a few. As early as 1971, Twigg-Smith and his companions travelled the world on invitation to showcase his stamps, winning awards at philatelic shows, as well as being part of the select few chosen for the Court of Honor-a noncompetitive exhibit of outstanding stamps forming part of a large exhibition-year after year.

Ultimately, The Honolulu Advertiser collection was formed when Twigg-Smith and Alfred Ostheimer III decided to combine their personal collections with the aim of building the best and most comprehensive collection of Hawaiian stamps and postal history. It included the famous Missionary stamps as well as many unique and important examples of the numerals, and subsequent issues in addition to equally rare though not as famous examples of stampless letters, town cancels, railroad markings and port documents.

Traveling with such valuable “cargo” perpetuates its own share of adventures. With a globetrotting itinerary like TwiggSmith’s, caution was key. He always preferred discretion, though other collectors during those days were not as unassuming. Take fellow philatelist Raymond Weill, who according to Twigg-Smith “would come sweeping in with some rare stamp…”

Twigg-Smith shares of his past brushes with Weill: “Raymond would show up with a guy sitting in the back with an AK-47, and we’d be coming in with shopping bags. Our theory was that if you carry the thing [stamps] in a paper sack, no upstanding bandit was going to reach out and grab a paper sack-he’s going to look for the leather [case].”

Runaround tactics such as conducting package exchanges to create confusion for possible swindlers; switching departure times at the last moment, and various misdirection plots served Twigg-Smith well-he was never accosted-and made for plenty of interesting stories to tell upon returning home to Hawai’i.

Twigg-Smith’s legendary collection may have sold in 1995, but he has been anything but idle. Another stamp sale that made headlines was his Pony Express stamps, which sold for $4 million in 2009. And though Twigg-Smith and other like-minded philatelists agree that the art of stamp collecting is being thwarted by modern post office mechanics-gone are those postmark inconsistencies, printing mistakes and other human “errors” that have long given stamps their worth-it hasn’t prevented him from continuing to collect.

Twigg-Smith has a box brought to him from his upstairs study containing a small bundle of expertly opened, stamped envelopes (yes, there’s a proper way to open them). He takes a few of them out and says, “I’ve started a new collection. I’ve been collecting stamps with different characteristics of stampings on them, etc. But I’m not quite sure what its focus will be… yet.”