Best Times For Philately

Image result for keep calm and philatelyOur hobby is over 160 years old, and for most of that time philatelists have been complaining about three things that have made their hobby problematic: access to material that they need, prices, and fear of adding altered or counterfeit material to their collections. In philately today, the good news is that these long time concerns have been largely ameliorated thanks to the internet and the collecting market as it exists today.
The first and most significant problem that collectors of previous generations complained about was the difficulty of finding material for their collections, especially if they collected outside the main stream. Years ago, there was a collector who specialized in covers and stamps relating to gold mining. He spent his life in the search—going to more than forty stamp shows per year. He felt fortunate that he had a job where he traveled all of the time so he could visit dealer shops around the world. He told me that in a year of searching he was lucky if he could find twenty items for his collection. It wasn’t price—money didn’t matter much to him. It was just a time issue—he couldn’t pore through enough cover boxes at enough dealer booths and shops in the time he could devote to his hobby (and he spent far more time on his collection than most collectors do). He found twenty items per year. This morning on eBay alone there are 52 listings for gold mining covers—instantaneous access to more than twice the amount of material he spent hundreds of hours annually trying to obtain. There are tens of millions of stamp lots on the various internet stamp purchase and auction sites, and with the sophisticated search engines nearly every permutation of collecting is instantly available. Few collectors today realize what a massive change this is, one that has actually made the hobby less appealing to some collectors. The search now is just a few keystrokes, and it has eliminated some of the pride that earlier collectors felt in their acquisitions.
Prices, or rather high prices, were always a concern for earlier collectors. Dealer mark up used to be 50% or more. The cost of preparing for sale and stocking material—especially esoteric material—was high. Dealers never knew when, or if, they would sell much of their inventory. The internet has increased liquidity and driven prices down for two main reasons. There are now hundreds of nearly every stamp offered for sale nearly all the time. Collectors have unprecedented opportunity to examine quality and compare prices. Dealers must constantly prune their prices to be competitive in such a marketplace. Further, many collectors have entered the market of selling their collections themselves through online websites. Without any overhead, these collectors look at any price that they get that is greater than wholesale to be a bonus. Competing with sellers of this type has made traditional dealers lower their prices and mark up structure even more.
The last great bane of collectors has always been altered and counterfeit stamps. Never, in any philatelic era, has this been less of a concern than it is today. First of all, the enlarged high definition scans that accompany all better stamps when they are sold has made it very easy for experts to identify forgeries as they are offered so that they are removed from sale and destroyed. Because of this, year by year fewer and fewer counterfeits are being offered. Most counterfeits are clumsy and when seen next to the genuine are easy to spot. Any collector today can create a digital philatelic reference collection in a short period of time that would have been the envy of the great experts of history. Counterfeits still exist, but they cause few problems. Altered stamps are less of a problem too. As the amount of philatelic material offered for sale has increased and prices have remained stable and declined over the last thirty years, the economic impetus to repair and regum is not there. Except for the very highest quality stamps, collectors have almost no worry today. And most collectors aren’t interested in the highest quality stamps finding it silly to pay multiples of catalog value when a perfectly credible Very Fine specimen can usually be had for about a third of catalog.
There are problems in philately, to be sure. We don’t attract enough new collectors, but then we never did. People are always carping about philatelic politics, but then they always did. And the great bogey man—that not enough kids collect—is still always there as it always had been (years ago when I walked through stamp shows, I was amazed that this was a hobby that seemed to consist largely of older men. At stamp shows now this still seems to be the case, the sole change being that I am now one of the older men). But in the most important ways—how much time and money collectors need to expend to make their hobby rewarding and how safe they are in their collecting—these are by far the best of philatelic times.
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