Singer was a Jewish emigrant who was born in Bratislava in 1911. In 1930 his family settled in London, but by 1953 his family's finance company had gone bust with debts of £50,000 so he moved to Ireland.
At the time Ireland was a sleepy place and people were hungry for excitement and change. Singer was a very plausible salesman with huge confidence and few scruples. The scene was a set for a disaster.
Singer approached a small family auction firm – Shanahans - based in Dun Laoghaire – just outside Dublin. Shanahans was a typical family-run auction house which sold antiques and furniture.
Singer suggested that they could do far better if they sold stamps. He would go to England to buy collections, bring them back to Ireland and sell them at auction. This worked very well at first, but Singer was not happy with ordinary sales of stamps. He wanted to move into another league.
Singer had a tremendous gift for publicity. He put out adverts telling people to invest in stamps. He told them stamps were the great investment of the future. He published a magazine called Green ISLE Philately, where ISLE stood for Irish Stamp Lovers Edition. He got celebrity endorsements. Alfie Byrne, the popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, wrote in the magazine. 'Let your magazine show the world the Irish spirit in philately. Let the world know that we too have great specialist knowledge and that we can make our contribution to this hobby of hobbies, to this gold chain of International peace and friendship' Stamp collecting was portrayed not just as a hobby, but almost as a patriotic duty.
He also offered guaranteed returns on investment. He wrote: 'We give you the opportunity to invest small sums from £10 upwards...We will buy, in your name,..stamps which we know will fetch higher prices in our own auctions.'
He asked people to form investors' syndicates and promised guaranteed dividends. At first it all seemed to be going wonderfully. People told their friends and Ireland, in the midst of a recession, was hit by a sort of stamp mania.
They flocked to give him money. And Singer spent lavishly. He bought a huge house which he filled with antiques. He held huge parties, dished out Champagne and caviar and drank copiously. He was very fat, ate at the best restaurants, had a chauffeur-driver Rolls Royce and a butler. Every time he went abroad, the members of the firm would greet him at the airport – like a returning pop star.
Things started to go wrong after a break-in, in which stock – much of it from the famous Lombardo Venezia collection – was stolen. Although the stock was returned, people began to ask serious questions. Did the stamps really exist? Were they worth as much as was assumed? Was the theft some sort of cover-up?
Investors started to withdraw their money. And the firm was forced into liquidation. It was rapidly realised that there was a shortfall over over £1million. And Singer was unable to produce receipts for stamps that he claimed to have bought.
It was rapidly realised that Singer had been simply recycling much of the money put in by investors and had not really made the sort of profits that he claimed. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but it was discovered that the foreman of the jury had done work for the liquidators and was one of the people who had lost money in the affair. As a result, a mistrial was declared. A second trial found that the government had not done the necessary accounting work to prove that a theft. Singer had to be released and he left the country and died in Canada in 1985.
As for the Shanahan family, they were ruined. The Shanahans spent some months in jail, but lost their business and had to leave Ireland. And of course, the investors were left high and dry. Which all goes to show that – especially in the world of stamps - there is no such thing as a guaranteed investment and that people who say otherwise should be treated with tremendous caution.
see also Raife Wellsted - the crooked curator