Monthly Archives: January 2011

  1. Thousands of Stamp Dealers

    The largest determinant in rising stamp prices is not the number of collectors in the hobby but the number of stamp dealers. After all, very few collectors ever acquire more than one of an item whereas dealers typically stock as many stamps as they can afford. My unscientific estimate is that the average dealer customer of ours has philatelic material worth ten or twenty times what the average collector has and spends similarly far more on philately. So today's Merrill Lynch Bank of America report is good news for stamp prices long term http://mediaroom.bankofamerica.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=234503&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1521693&highlight= .According to this report 24% of affluent men (defined as having $250,000 of investments) plan to start some sort of business of their own when they retire. When you consider how many Baby Boomers will be retiring soon, this increasing number of people who become part time stamp sellers will soak up an enormous amount of philatelic inventory and bodes very

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  2. Clutter

    The stamp business used to have what economists call high barriers to entry. It took a lot of knowledge, a lot of capital and years of advertising and satisfying customers to build a good mailing list and a good stamp business. When the Internet became the preferred method of buying and selling in philately, there was considerable worry that old time stamp dealers would lose their competitive edge and that EBay and Stampwants would overnight make any seller a competitor of dealers who had spent decades building their sales networks.

    It has worked out somewhat differently. It is true that today anyone can be a seller with overnight access to the worldwide philatelic community. Twenty years ago only a few professionals had access to selling stamps to more than a few thousand customers but today every seller has access to millions of world wide collectors. But just as access has increased so has clutter. Today's stamp collector who goes to EBay will find over one and a half mi

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  3. Forever Stamps

    When you buy a Forever stamp, you buy a guarantee of a particular form of postal service at any period in the future . This proposal has received much criticism from people like Newt Gingrich who see it as a scheme to expand government and "is setting the stage for a future tax payer bailout of the Post Office"(Linns Jan 31 pg 16). I'm not so sure. Suppose Apfelbaum were to sell anytime Zeppelin certificates. Send us $1000 today and we'll send you a certificate that allows you to get a zeppelin set in a given quality grade at any time in the future. The advantages and disadvantages are numerous. From our point of view the situation sorts out as follows: We have the $1000 today- a decent chunk of money. It goes against current operating expenses and into current profit. Against that certainty, we have the risk that prices of zeppelins will go much higher even relative to inflation and we will have to redeem a certificate in ten years for a price that is in excess of the current value of

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  4. Postal Seigiorage

    Seigniorage is the profit that governments make on securities that they issue, on which they don't pay interest, and that are retained unused by the public. Cash in mattresses represents a form of seigniorage and, more than anything else, old face value postage stamps held by collectors do as well. The money that collectors have tied up in mint stamps represents an interest free loan to our post office. And because most mint stamps held by collectors will never be used, the profit to the post office is the value of those stamps held by collectors (Private companies issue gift cards and they are required by accounting rules to bring the unused portion of these cards into income-this is a sort of private seigniorage).

     For many years philatelic commentators have speculated that seigniorage was the reason that our Post Office pushed philately so hard and the reason that so many new issues had esoteric themes ( designed to entice noncollectors into buying them and putting t

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  5. Mint vs Used


    The pricing ratios between mint stamps and used stamps for most nineteenth century issues are out of kilter and should change in the years ahead. Take the case of Great Britain stamps. On average, the catalog value in Scott for any stamp between 1860-1900 is about six times higher mint than used. But mint stamps are far scarcer than that and when you add the additional quality factor of gum this ratio seems extremely low. Similar ratios exist for most other countries with the stamps of the United States being a notable exception. Ratios between the popularity of mint to used have changed over time and are likely to do so again in the future. Such ratios for mo
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  6. State Of The Hobby

    The future of stamp collecting will be influenced by two great positives and one serious negative. The negative is as follows: Stamps (and postal communication in general) are increasingly irrelevant to our world. Letters with stamps on them are getting rarer. Electronic communication gains a larger market share each year. It is likely that even ten years from now most people will print postal labels from their computers to pay postage on the few remaining first class letters that are sent. New Issue stamps will become a fringe market issued solely for philatelists like Franklin Mint collector's plates. Electronic games and the ubiquity of entertainment on demand has made stamp collecting (and most intellectual hobbies) seem quaint and old fashioned.

     Against this are two great positives. First, the baby boomers are reaching their peak collecting years and will increasingly turn to the hobby of their youth as their tennis elbow and achy knees limit their physical activi

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  7. Some Characteristics of a Successful Hobby

    Hobbies are successful when they allow a diverse group of participants to engage in an activity where they can find enjoyment. Over the last 150 years, philately has been one of the world's most successful hobbies, having millions of devotees. To be successful a hobby has to offer many things. It must have differing levels of appreciation- novices must find it immediately appealing on a visceral (or in the case of philately, visual) level and it must offer increasing pleasures and rewards to participants as they become more involved. If the hobby never gets more serious or involved more intelligent people soon tire of it. Philately is wonderful on this count. From the preliterate child sorting stamps by design to the postal historian's archival wanderings, our hobby has interest to people of all academic and intellectual  levels.

    A successful hobby mustn't be too expensive or too cheap. No one can collect Old Master paintings because the cost is at least tens of t

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  8. Fundamantals of Philately

    There are only a few indispensable philatelic books and at the top of every one's short list is "Fundamentals of Philately" written by the stamp collecting brothers L.N (Leon Norman) Williams and M(Maurice) Williams. The book was first serialized and then was published twice by the American Philatelic Society (1971 & 1990). It is 880 pages and is really a graduate level course on all the things a stamp collector needs to know about stamp design, stamp paper and printing. Having little to say about any particular stamp, the book is about the canvas and the paint that makes our hobby rather than the artistic designs that we actually collect. The first eighty pages are about paper, how it is made and the many different types that have been used in stamp printing. Learning this, a collector has new insights into faults and how to determine them. The section on printing is several hundred pages of fascinating information, evaluating the different major printing methods and the impact ea

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  9. Snooki on Stamps?

    The United States Postal Service has always had a rule that stamps can only picture persons who have been deceased for longer than ten years, unless they are a deceased President who can be commemorated upon death. This rule grew up informally throughout the nineteenth century and was probably related to the American republican (small r) tradition of non deification of political personalities. But it has left us in a situation where our commemoratives largely picture people who have little relevance to young people today. And we are the only nation that does this. When England won the world cup in soccer in the 1960s a commemorative was issued that old time non collectors still talk about. Here's the plan. Repeal the ten year rule-except in the case of non Presidential politicians and political events (which good taste would suggest should rarely be commemorated). And begin to entice young people into stamp collecting with annual baseball World Series souvenir sheets and Superbowl com

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  10. Penny Black


    The first stamp ever issued continues to be one of the most interesting. Over 68 million Penny Blacks were issued and a higher percentage of these survived than with later stamps as most of them were used on folded letters (where the letter portion is written and then folded under so that the paper forms its own envelope). Penny Blacks are not scarce but they have always been popular and they continue to fascinate. They were printed on twelve plates and each stamp on each plate was given a different check letter number so that after removal from the sheet postal officials could tell where on the sheet the stamp came from. The stamps were printed in sheets of 240 stamps (twelve rows by
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  11. Baby Boomers and Philately

    It has long been predicted that the maturing of the Baby Boom generation would usher in an era of great philatelic popularity. Citing philatelic and demographic trends, the theory was based on the fact that serious collectors fit a certain profile (men 55-75) and that the maturing of the Baby Boom generation meant that there would be a huge increase of people meeting these criteria. Men (and nearly all serious collectors are male) who collected stamps as children and then reconnect with their early hobby in the later years of their life have always been the mainspring of serious philately. This group has always made up the majority of the membership of the American Philatelic Society and the subscriber base of Linns and other philatelic magazines. These are people with the free time and the disposable income to indulge a serious hobby and the prediction was that our hobby would grow when the maturing Baby Boomers came of age.

     1957 was the the Baby Boom year with the gr

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  12. Stamp Insurance

    Most philatelists don't have stamp insurance. They hope that their collections won't be stolen and that their homes will never be affected by fire or flood. And in most cases they are correct. The rate of home burglaries is low and even if your home is robbed, unless you are a known collector, and the goal of the robbery is to steal your collection, it is unlikely that the burglars will take your stamps. Stamp collections are heavy and typically have a low weight to value ratio compared with jewelry and electronics. They are hard to fence and even if a thief finds a buyer the price is likely to be very low relative to the collection's real value. Better stamps are likely to have been scanned leaving an electronic trail that makes stamp thieves more likely to be caught than at any time in history. This is all reflected in the extremely low rates for philatelic insurance. So even though you probably don't need stamp insurance, you probably should have it. The rates are in the $20-$30 per

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  13. Congo Free State


    One of the less remembered atrocities of the 20th Century was the Belgian rape of the Congo. King Leopold acquired control of the Congo in 1885 and soon set up a trading system that effectively enslaved the entire population of the country. The export of rubber and ivory was the only thing that mattered to the Belgians and their treatment of the native populations was so harsh as to be counterproductive to even their brutal goals. Villages and families were broken up in ever increasing demands for slave labor, and torture and murder were the rule when impossible quotas weren't met. In a bazaar perversion worthy of hell, when slaves were ordered killed by the thousands when their quota
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  14. Forever

    It appears that the United States post office will be issuing "forever" first class postage stamps exclusively beginning this spring. The forever concept is simple- buy a stamp now and it will always entitle you to one first class postage rate. Essentially it is a small scale savings certificate. With postage rates rising at roughly twice the rate of inflation over the past thirty years, a forever stamp locks in at today's prices a service whose price keeps going up. Suppose supermarkets issued forever certificates. People would line up to purchase at today's prices a market basket of goods at any time down the road. The rationale behind the post office's plan probably relates to two things. First, there is a desire to see more stamps in philatelic hands-revenue without service is the holy grail of any business. If postal patrons know that their "investment" in modern post office stamps is inflation proof they will be much more likely to commit large sums to modern postage than if the

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  15. Slavery and Philately


    One hundred and fifty years is only a tiny time frame in the history of mankind and yet it is only within the last 150 years that the ownership of human beings has been outlawed in the United States. And rather than repugnance over the moral outrage of slavery being the cause of its abolition, it took a Civil War and the deaths of nearly 600,000 Americans to end it (this was in a nation with a population of a little over 30 million-mortality at this rate would have produced over six million American casualties if the war was fought today). In the civilized English speaking world (with the exception of the United States) slavery was outlawed before stamps were issued. One of
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  16. Philatelic Vacations 1930

    John Nicklin was one of the most prominent philatelists of his time. He edited the American Airmail catalog, was an editor of the Scott catalog and was president of the Society of Philatelic Americans a group that rivaled the American Philatelic Society in influence but was badly mismanaged in the 1970s and is now out of business. His biography shows us how much we have changed as a hobby and a culture in the last eighty years.

    Nicklin was an active philatelic writer in the 1930s. He tells us that his favorite way of spending his vacation was as follows: He would research the older banks and bankrupt trading houses in a geographic area and then use library phonebooks to find possible relatives of the people who ran these companies. He would spend his holiday motoring around, stopping at these people's homes and asking if they had any old correspondence or knew where any was. In one instance, that he himself relates, a family found him rooting through the storage boxes of th

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  17. Snow Days

    The weather forecast in Philadelphia is for over 6" of snow beginning tonight and lasting through tomorrow morning. My first philatelic memory is suffused with snow. I was in the third grade and had just received my first stamp album from Santa for Christmas. It was a Harris Statesman Deluxe album and it came with a packet of a thousand different worldwide stamps, a pair of tongs, and a pack of Dennison hinges. For Christmas that year I had also gotten a small rocket launcher set so the stamp collection got opened and then laid on a shelf. We had a rule in our house when I was little that we weren't allowed out sledding on snow days until our streets had been plowed, so after I listened to the radio announcement that our school was closed, I had several hours until I could go out sledding. I took down my stamps, opened the packet of the thousand different and began to look at them. I was eight years old. TV, what there was of it, was black and white. So were newspapers, except for the

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  18. On Civilty

    In the 1940's and 1950's the terror of the philatelic world was Elliot Perry. Perry was a knowledgeable philatelist but a personal horror. Every philatelic dispute was to him a holy crusade. A suggestion that his opinion wasn't formed on Olympus enraged him to the point that he never forgave the miscreant who doubted him. He had a dispute with Harry Konwiser, another prominent philatelist, that may have started over a Confederate cover, but as was clear in their telling of it, neither retained much sense over what the dispute was originally about. The conflagration lasted decades and was public and acrimonious in the extreme. Perry made himself unassailable, not so much because he was so knowledgeable, but because he made the public price of disagreeing with him so very high. Eventually Perry passed on and is little remembered anymore.

     But the incivility and hostility that he brought to our hobby intimidated a generation of writers and considerably set back p

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  19. Philatelic Opinions vs Guarantees

    There are many types of guarantees in philately and there are many types of opinions. It is important that collectors distinguish between the two and understand what protections each provides. The major expertization services-the APS, the Philatelic Foundation, Professional Stamp Expertizing service, Sergio Sismondo-indeed all of them, offer an opinion, based on current knowledge, of the genuineness and quality of the philatelic item presented to them. This is reassuring to collectors and of value as there are many stamps where the forgeries outnumber the genuine and hidden faults exist on many stamps. But it is important to note that despite the expense involved in having stamps expertized (which is often 5% of the catalog value-with a $25 minimum- and since many stamps are bought at 25% of catalog this can work out to as much as you paid for the stamp itself), it's important to realize that what you are paying for when you expertize a stamp is an opinion only. Traditional certificati

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  20. A Theory on Collecting

    The collecting impulse relates to retentiveness and the desire to hold onto things and order them rather than throw them away. Like a genetic disposition towards height, this shows up both as an individual predilection and as a general trait in homogeneous populations. I'd like to make a bold natural selection interpretation (remember I have just been to the Galapagos Islands) of why some cultures have larger stamp collecting instincts than others. Across the world, philately seems to have a direct relationship to latitude. The closer to the poles, the more likely a culture is to have embraced philately. This has often been explained as a factor of economics as Northern European countries have traditionally been among the world's wealthiest. But many national groups closer to the equator have enjoyed economic success in the last fifty years and they don't seem to be embracing collecting hobbies. I think colder climates, with their long winters, have produced a psychological instinct to

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