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Monday 21 January 2019

The curious tale of the doctor, the stamp collectors and the theft that crashed an empire

Colourful character Paul Singer decided to make his fortune in Ireland after his business slumped in UK, writes Liam Collins

Dr Paul Singer pictured in 1960
Dr Paul Singer pictured in 1960
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Entering Jammet's restaurant, Dr Paul Singer found that the chair provided was uncomfortable for his 25-stone girth, so he borrowed the piano stool and settled down to dinner after a hard day arguing in the High Court in Dublin.

"He was a formidable character, despite a ready smile and a facial tic that was so tantalising, one had to turn away after observing it for a few seconds," observed one of his guests that evening. "As an appetiser, he consumed almost a pound of raw steak, covered with raw eggs, after which he went on to a complete roasted duck, washing down each course with several bottles of wine."

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That was what he considered a civilised night out - we'll come to his uncouth antics later.

Dr Singer, was born on July 31, 1911 in Bratislava - a city in what was then the Habsburg Empire. He studied in Vienna before obtaining a doctorate in Political and Social Science in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1946, while living in London, he married Irma Wolf, and the couple had two children.

When his father's firm collapsed in October 1953, he was adjudged a bankrupt and left London, travelling by mailboat to Dun Laoghaire, where, on a crisp morning in February 1954, he walked up the stone steps of Shanahan's auction rooms at No 38 Corrig Avenue.

There was an auction taking place, and the mysterious, rotund figure sporting a goatee beard bid for a piece of antique furniture.

The auctioneer, Jerome Shanahan, who ran the business with the help of his barrister son Desmond, was immediately taken by the stranger.

"Don't bother taking a deposit from that man, I like the look of him," he said, in what would turn out to be an error of judgment.

This much I know from a well-thumbed paperback from the Anvil Press, titled Doctor of Millions, written by Seamus Brady, and published in 1965. It was given to me by Ulick O'Connor, who as a young barrister, played a part in the events that followed, and of whom I think kindly at this time of the year.

The collaboration between Dr Singer and the Shanahans would lead to the formation of Shanahan Stamp Auctions and one of the most remarkable "bubble" stories in Irish business - until a merry band of developers and bankers came along in the early years of the current century.

Singer started a philatelic magazine, called Green Isle Philately, sending it to every stamp collector in the world and becoming the largest customer of Oifig an Poist. At the back of each catalogue was an advertisement for Shanahan's Stamp Auctions - and these became so popular that he had to scour the world for new stamps to sell - while at the same time drawing in "investors" who took shares in the stamps he was about to auction.

"He sent agents to all parts of Ireland, who were paid a liberal commission for all the money they obtained," explained Herman Herst in his book, Stories to Collect Stamps By.

"As earlier investors were paid a tremendous profit on their investment (at the expense of later investors) more and more money came in. The stamps were sold, usually to another group of investors, of course at a profit. This went on, ad infinitum, the same stamps building up and building up in price."

By now Dr Singer had moved into a mansion on Westminster Road, Foxrock, Co Dublin, set in 16 acres, which had been the home of the ukulele maestro George Formby. Singer renamed it Cairn Hall, for added status.

It was furnished with antiques, and his splendidly attired butler Daro served him and his guests with caviar and copious amounts of Black Velvet - champagne laced with Guinness - a drink he particularly favoured.

On the night of Saturday May 9, 1959, he threw a lavish party to celebrate the fifth birthday of Shanahan Stamps. Organised by Seymour Leslie, a brother of the Monaghan peer, Sir Shane; nobility, pillars of business and politics and the usual hangers-on dined on plates of lobster, salmon and other delicacies, washed down by a tidal wave of champagne as orchestras and ensembles played in different rooms of his Foxrock mansion.

"Singer that evening disgraced himself," writes Seamus Brady. "He was drunk on champagne, shouting and making speeches. He pulled open the neck of one girl's dress and poured a bottle of stout over her breast. He went from group to group, mauling and fondling women… He drank champagne from a slipper which he wrenched from a woman's foot. He got up on the band stage and made a fighting speech."

The reason for the fighting talk was that earlier that day £350,000 worth of uninsured stamps had been stolen from Shanahans and the empire, or Ponzi scheme, he had built in those five years was tottering on the brink of collapse. In the days that followed, investors gathered outside the auction rooms in Dun Laoghaire demanding their money.

"Nobody at that gay and uninhibited party could have even guessed that within a few weeks the Singer stamp concern would be in the hands of a liquidator, 9,000 investors would shortly be clamouring for their missing money and Singer, his wife, and Jerome and Desmond Shanahan would be in jail," wrote Brady.

Apart from the investors, who were basically speculating, the real losers were Desmond Shanahan and his wife Diana. In his book, stamp dealer Herman Herst revealed a conversation he had with them one night over cocktails in the Shelbourne Hotel.

"Can't you see that you are being used?" I asked.

His wife, Diana, answered: "Sometimes I feel that we are, but Dr Singer assures us that it will all come out all right in the end."

"But what if it doesn't?" I asked. "After all, both of you are officials in the company."

Diana answered again. "There are certain things in life that can never be taken away from one. When we met Dr Singer, we had nothing, and there was little chance that we would ever have anything. Now we have a car. We have a new house. I couldn't be here if my baby did not have a nanny. I believe in Dr Singer, but even if he is wrong, we will only be where we would have been had we not met him."

It didn't quite turn out that way.

Desmond Shanahan, believing himself to be innocent, helped the Garda with long interviews and statements for which he was thanked with a 15-month prison sentence.

After serving 11 months, he was released and moved with his family to Surrey, England, where he got a job earning £12 a week as a storeman on a building site, although he later practised as a barrister in England.

Ulick O'Connor, who acted as counsel for Diana Shanahan, believed she was particularly badly treated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and was pursued through the courts for over two years before the charges against her and Irma Singer were dropped.

Singer, defending himself, stood trial in Green Street Courthouse and on November, 21, 1960, was convicted by a jury of fraudulently taking £796,514 from investors in Shanahan Stamps. He was sentenced to two consecutive seven-year terms in prison. He successfully appealed the decision, proving that the foreman of the jury was an investor in Shanahan Stamps and the conviction was unsafe and a re-trial was ordered.

Herman Herst was among a number of world-renowned stamp experts called to Dublin as a witness in the retrial, by which time Singer had assembled a formidable legal team. The case was heard shortly before Christmas 1962.

"I asked the lawyer how certain I was to receive the fee. 'Why you are as certain to receive your fee, as we are to receive ours'," he wrote. "At the time, the reply served to reassure, but the irony of it did not become evident for some time.

"Not only was my fee never paid, but I subsequently learned that up to a year or more after the trial ended, the attorneys had not received theirs either."

After two years and eight months in jail and 262 days in court, Mr Justice Walsh withdrew the charges against the colourful 'Doctor of Millions'. That night Dr Paul Singer took the mailboat back to Holyhead and never set foot on Irish soil again, despite lengthy protestations that he would clear his name and repay his investors.

Because Shanahan Stamps did have some valuable stamps in its position at the time of the collapse, the liquidation went on until 1972, although Singer never co-operated with the liquidation.

In the years that followed, there were tales of him in Canada; he was seen in Las Palmas, Spain; and a TD claimed he had a long conversation with Singer when they met accidentally in Marbella, Spain.

As to Desmond Shanahan, he was later pardoned by the Irish Government. Some years ago, his son wrote to the newspapers saying, that despite the pardon, Desmond Shanahan had never been restored to the rolls of the Irish Bar.

Sunday Independent

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