The IRS Collection: How Tim Collins Built a Comic Resale Site With a Bounty Seized by the State | Westword

The IRS Collection: How Tim Collins Built a Comic Resale Site With a Bounty Seized by the State

Colorado's own comic-book pedigree was born from one of its biggest stories of state embezzlement.
Tim Collins, with his hoard in the background.
Tim Collins, with his hoard in the background. RTS Unlimited

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Tim Collins is an independent comics reseller as well as a collector, and he jumped into that particular hobby business with both feet. His resale website, RTS Unlimited, was kick-started after he bought a huge collection seized by the State of Colorado — something that’s come to be called the IRS Collection, even if that’s a misnomer. But more on that later. First: Every good comic book tale deserves an origin story.

Collins didn’t always collect comic books — his first love was a popular magazine from the mid-’70s, inspired by his love for old Godzilla movies. “I started with the Famous Monsters of Filmland,” he says. “Not only did I buy that off the rack at the 7-Eleven, but I got my mom to start driving me around to local magazine dealers for back issues. And wherever there were magazine dealers, they were also selling comic books.” This would have been in the late ’70s, he says, maybe 1979, when he was eleven years old.

Those years were also on the cusp of one of the most prolific times in comic books. Giant Size X-Men had hit drug-store spinner racks in 1975, introducing comics fans to a whole host of new mutants, including the then-brand-new sensation of Wolverine. “So like a lot of kids then, I got into X-Men,” Collins recalls. “Primarily a Marvel guy. Then in late junior high and early high school, I started speculating.”

That was in the early ’80s, and Collins is talking about speculating here like most collectors back then: buying an extra copy and keeping it pristine in an archival-quality bag and board. But he did more than that. “I remember picking up twenty copies of the Wolverine limited series [1982], all four issues, when it came out," Collins says, "and twenty copies of the whole Secret Wars series [1984].” Around that same time, he opened a dealer’s account with Diamond Distributors and began dealing comics to his friends in high school.

“Speculating was always hit-and-miss,” says Collins. “You get some winners and you get some that you still have years later because they haven’t moved at all.” But he was still passionate about it — as well as his own collection — so he began attending auctions at Mile High Comics. At that time, Mile High didn’t have its flagship warehouse on Jason Street, just satellite stores scattered throughout metro Denver.

“The Mile High on Broadway had the best selection by far,” he recalls. “That’s really where I started picking up stuff from the Silver Age [books from about 1956 to 1970] and even Golden Age [1938 to 1956]. I even bought some pedigreed comics from the Edgar Church collection.”

That was what made Mile High Comics what it was then and is now. A grouping of somewhere around 20,000 comic books, many of them in high-grade quality and stretching back to the form's Golden Age genesis, it included one of the finest copies of Action Comics #1, the first Superman, from 1938. The eponymous Edgar Church was a Denver artist who loved comic books and used them as references for his own illustrations; Mile High’s Chuck Rozanski (also known as Bettie Pages) found and bought the whole collection in 1977, which became the financial foundation for the Mile High comics empire.

The Mile High auctions were where Collins says he first encountered a “tall, blond-haired guy with glasses that was bidding on a lot of stuff.” That guy turned out to be Aran Stubbs, then an employee of the Colorado Department of Revenue (not the IRS, which is where the collection's erroneous label comes from). In a plot that seems straight out of Superman III and Office Space, Stubbs began to route the tax refunds of recently deceased Coloradans to himself. It must have seemed like the perfect crime: It was money that the Department of Revenue would never send out and money that would never be claimed.

And he used all that money — or most of it, anyway — to support his comic book habit. His goal, it’s said, was to own every Silver Age comic that was printed. He got impressively close: The original collection contained about three-quarters of all the Silver Age titles printed, plus about 25 percent of everything from the Golden Age.

And Stubbs might have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn’t gotten a little too casual with how he spent the ill-gotten money. When he started the scam, he always paid for his comic books in cash. After a while, he became overconfident and tried to pay big dealers in endorsed checks from the State of Colorado. One of those dealers, Detroit’s Harley Yee, checked with the Department of Revenue to ensure that the check was good — and the jig was up.

Stubbs was arrested in March 1992; he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and avoid jail time altogether by surrendering his collection of comics, which consisted of more than 400 long-boxes, approximately 60,000 comic books. Unlike the Church collection, the quality of the books was all over the map, and there was certainly no Action Comics #1. But there was a Detective Comics #38 (first Dick Grayson as Robin) and a Showcase #4 (first Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen), as well as a Fantastic Four and an Amazing Spiderman #1. The State of Colorado had no desire to get into the comics retailing business, and decided to sell the whole thing as a lot, by sealed bid.

Collins says he doesn't remember exactly how he heard about the availability of the IRS Collection, but he does recall going down to the Colorado Department of Revenue to view all the books in order to make a bid. It took up two full rooms to display. “I’d managed to convince my dad to co-sign on a loan if I was the bidder fortunate enough to take it all,” Collins says. “I bid very aggressively and won it. I remember my dad saying, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’

“I picked up the collection for about $200,000,” he continues. “Huge amount of money, especially for back then, and especially for me, a kid in my mid-twenties. I rented a truck, picked it up, talked to some media about the whole thing, and started figuring out what I was going to keep and what I was going to sell.”

Around 1993, Collins began to sell the comics full-time out of a warehouse in Lakewood under the business name RTS Unlimited, a name he still uses for his online store. “The top-dollar books went first, of course,” he says, but he kept selling at shows anywhere within a day’s drive from Denver, including the San Diego Comic Con.

These days, Collins is still selling at smaller shows, mostly in Colorado. “I couldn’t replenish my inventory,” he says, “and it became more like work after a while.” He says he still buys and sells, but not to the level of the IRS Collection. He estimates that he still has somewhere around 40,000 books from the original lot, but "most are mid- to low-grade, $1 to $3 books." Comics like 1970s Charltons and Dells, merchandise that isn't in demand and isn't really worth the time he'd spend on processing them for potential sale. 

“The business has changed so much,” Collins laments. “First with eBay, then later with CGC [a company that professionally grades a comic and then encases it in a plastic slab, which the book cannot be taken out of so as to preserve said grade]. I get why it’s important, and some people love it, but there’s nothing like handling a Marvel Mystery #1 or a Detective Comics #27, having that book in your hand. It's history.

“So I’m back to being more of a collector these days,” Collins continues, even though he’s still doing shows like Rocky Mountain Con and FAN EXPO Denver.

“I still collect crime and horror stuff. I just finished a run of old Centaur Publishing stuff from the late 1930s, like Bill Everett's Amazing Man. I’ll sometimes trade with people at shows and sell what I can when I can, and I’m sure I’ll be doing that for a long time to come," he says. "I don’t think collecting itself will ever die. It’s the thrill of the hunt. It’ll never fade.”

You can catch Tim Collins at many metro Denver comic book conventions, as well as at his RTS Unlimited website.
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