Monthly Archives: June 2011

  1. The Typical Collection

    Most of the business of professional stamp dealers consists of buying stamp collections from collectors when they have decided to give up their collecting due to age or illness or financial constraints. Then we break these larger collections down into their smaller components and offer the smaller units to our customers through our public auctions or Buy It Now Sales. In the course of an average month we would buy typically 75-100 different collections from different collectors most of whom are older men and most of whom had collected stamps for most of their lives. This is what the typical lifelong collection looks like: Fitting in three cartons the collection has ten to twenty albums and usually consists of a United States collection and one or two other countries, often British Commonwealth, Canada, Israel or sometimes UN. There are often several volumes of First Day Covers and many collections have a few volumes of some kind of Postal Commemorative society stuff that the collectors

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  2. Revenue Collecting

    United States collectors have long had a field day with revenue collecting. (Revenues are stamps issued to prove the payment of a tax or levy instead of for postal use). The US has issued thousands of different revenues and, ever since philately took hold in this country, revenue collecting had been incorporated into mainstream US collecting. This is not true of collectors in other countries. France has also issued thousands of revenue stamps and yet collectors of French revenues are few and even rarities in the field sell for comparatively little. Two countries, Mexico and Argentina, have issued tens of thousands of different revenues and these stamps are little saved and studied. The reasons that American collectors esteem their revenues while other country's collectors ignore theirs is that until twenty or thirty years ago, the US didn't issue enough stamps each year to satisfy the collecting desires of the average collector. After buying the new issues, most collectors still wanted

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  3. Irish Stamps


    I look for several factors when I recommend a collecting specialty to a collector. First is the intrinsic beauty of the stamps themselves. Does the country have high production values and are the stamps artistically compelling? Do the design types change over time to reflect new technologies in printing and new tastes in the graphic arts? Are the stamps faithful to the history and culture of the nation producing them and not derivative or imitative of stamps issued by other nations or influenced by the prospect of selling stamps to other cultures? The stamps of this specialty must be scarce enough to present a challenge to obtain but not so difficult as to m
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  4. Gays on Stamps


    Social change happens all the time and in no area of American life has change been greater than in the status of gays and lesbians. Only thirty years ago the idea of gay marriage was considered so ridiculous that pollsters didn't even ask the question. Today, New York has been added to the list of jurisdictions that permit gay marriage. Gallup tells us that a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage and as the polling breaks down significantly by age (with younger people approving by a wide margin) it is only a matter of time until gay marriage is allowed de jure in most states and de facto in all states. Gays have been well represented on US Postage
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  5. Relationships

    One of the nicest things about the stamp business is how you keep relationships with people over such a long period of time. Car dealers sell you once and then have years before you call again even if you choose to buy the same car. And sales relationships of that type are ephemeral and rarely meaningful. I have a customer whom I have spoken to several times a month for over thirty years. A few weeks ago he came to my office. A Chicagoan, he came to Philadelphia for the graduation of his grandson from the University of Pennsylvania. I had spoken to him on the phone hundreds of times but had only met him once- twenty five years before. The irony is this. He came to my office exactly twenty-five years after the day I had met him in Chicago for Ameripex in 1986. I know this because on the day I met him I flew home from Chicago to Philadelphia and the next day my daughter was born and he came to his grandsons graduation one day after Alexis's twenty-fifth birthday. But this is not at all u

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  6. U S Cut Squares

    Cut Squares and Entires (the Scott "U" numbers in the catalog) have always seemed to be less popular than they should be. They have several important specialty features going for them. They are scarce and they are attractive. They are complex. There are hundreds of major numbers and about 95% of them sell for under a few dollars. All in all one would think that US Cut Squares would have far more collectors than they do. The reasons for their relative unpopularity relate to two main factors. First, collectors world wide don't collect Cut Squares and this impacts on the popularity of US Cut Squares around the globe. US stamps are among the most popular specialties worldwide. Indeed, after British Colonials, more collectors in countries other than the US collect United States stamps than any other specialty. This amounts to thousands of serious US collectors in Britain, Germany and in other countries who collect US stamps but who have no interest in US Cut Squares because they have no tra

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  7. First Day Cover Collecting

    First Day Cover collecting in the United States began gradually. Until about 1920, no one made FDCs and the ones that we have were serendipitously prepared by ordinary postal users going to the post office and accidentally using a new issue on the day that it came out. Gimbel Brothers, the department store in Philadelphia, mailed their May 1901 monthly statements to customers with the newly issued 2c Pan American (#295) and for years you could find #295 FDCs with Gimbel corner cards (current catalog values $2500) in dealer 5c boxes in the Philadelphia area (I did). Beginning about 1920 Phillip Ward and Edward Worden began collecting, preparing and promoting First Day Covers and their activity extended interest back to older issues. Researchers established issue dates and where no FDCs were know, collectors began to collect EKUs (earliest known use). By 1960, a FDC collection was part of most serious US collections and most of the Baby Boomers grew up with FDCs.

     But col

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  8. Famous Predictions

    Throughout philatelic history, writers have been predicting the next great philatelic area-the next specialty that will take off in price. Predictions are usually founded on one of two criteria that predict the supposed increase in the popularity that the stamps will undergo. Either the economy of the country will take off creating a pool of desperate collectors eager to buy the older issues that you should have put away(if only you had listened to the prognosticator). Or there is some intrinsic not fully understood rarity factor that collectors will ultimately discover and make them eager to buy stamps that you (had you listened to the prognosticator) should have put away in quantity. The problem with predictions is that they tend to be very accurate in hindsight and and we tend to forget all the ones that haven't panned out. For the last fifty years Brazil was always going to be the next best country. The economy was going to boom and 120 million Brazilian collectors would enter the

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  9. Investing and Speculation

    Since at least 1900, people have touted stamps as an investment. The first United States stamp to be speculated in was the 5c 1847 (Scott #1) which was the subject of a market push in the early 1900s. A group of speculators figured that they could push up the price of this stamp and began by offering to buy all that they could for $1 each. They soon ran out of money and prices fell back to the 70c or so level that had prevailed for the previous decade. Still by today's standards these prices seem very cheap, and with a nice US #1 selling today for about $180, even with inflation those speculators would have made out pretty well indeed. All philatelic investments are really a speculation, even the most tried and true of philatelic specialties. In the end all philatelic material will either go up or down depending on the long term health of our hobby and the number of people who collect stamps. No matter what you buy, no matter whose collection it was in before you and no matter how blue

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  10. Cert Ainty

    One of the major problems in philately relates to how experts charge for the work that they do. Many types of rare stamps are bought with increased confidence when a third party expert has passed on them. In the area of United States stamps this includes rarer grills and coils and shades. The problem for sellers is that experts have traditionally charged based on catalog value not on sales value. Fees for the Philatelic Foundation and the Professional Stamp Expertizers are 5% of the catalog value (with a cap usually of $250). Here's the problem-many higher value stamps are defective and sell for 10% or so of catalog so to get a certificate for a high value defective stamp (and most higher value stamps are defective) means that half the sales price will be consumed in expertizer fees. Enter Bill Weiss. Bill is a lifelong stamp professional who retired from his well thought of stamp auction business several years ago. He only expertizes now and issues a certificate for a flat fee of $25.

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  11. Classic Japan


    Among the most interesting issues in philately are the classic first issues of Japan called the Dragons. Japan was a closed society for about three hundred years before 1854. Japanese leaders had made the decision that they wanted no contact with outsiders (as they saw what foreigners were doing to China) and the penalty for attempting to enter Japan could be death. Admiral Perry forcibly "opened " Japan (primarily to obtain a new trading partner for American goods) and Japanese leaders soon realized that their feudal social structure needed rapid modernization if the the Japanese were to compete in the modern world. Feudalism ended with the Meiji Restoratio
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  12. Are Photos Enough?

    EBay has a policy that allows sellers to list stamps for sale without posting a textual description of the stamps that are being sold. This is apparently a rephrasing of the dictum that "a picture is worth a thousand words" to "a picture is better than words". This might work for showing pictures of your new grandchild, but it really doesn't work for philately. When a seller is offering a collection or a group of stamps, it is possible that a scan or a series of scans might do justice in giving buyers a fair idea what is in the lot that is being offered. This is because for larger lots and collections quality doesn't play as critical a role as it does in the value of individual stamps. Usually with collections of thousands of stamps the quality of the whole reverts to the average with some perfect stamps and some defective stamps, but the average quality of any two collections is much more alike than the quality of any two individual stamps. But allowing individual stamps to be sold wi

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  13. An APS Idea

    The American Philatelic Society has fallen on hard times. Membership has plunged to 33,000, not far from the number where huge service cuts will have to take place. Finally, acquisition and retention of members has become a priority and a committee under former Vice President Steven Rod is exploring ways to increase membership. The main reasons for the APS decline need retelling if only to underscore how difficult a turn around will be. Most people belong to organizations because of the benefits that membership confers. Thirty years ago, APS membership got you the best stamp magazine in the hobby. It got you access to the stamp circuits where you could shop for the stamps that you wanted in the comfort of your own home. The society sponsored the best stamp shows in the country. Members had access to specially priced and easy to get insurance. Members had instant credit with stamp dealers. Quite a list. And for the $15 that membership cost, quite a bargain. Today, APS membership is not

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  14. Many Kinds of Collectors

    Stamp collecting provides a pretty big tent and there is room inside for all sorts of people. There are the avid moralists who look for repairs under every hinge. There are the rigid conformists who collect neatly (and only) in preprinted albums, and the messy iconoclasts who exhibit collections with titles such as "stamps I like". And philately has a spot in its tent for the intellectually driven (and pretentious). Many intelligent people have had hobbies and interests outside their main area of expertise that served as an additional outlet for their intelligence and creativity. The late great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote extensively on his love of baseball and used his considerable analytical skills to reach some pretty cool conclusions about that game. Vladimir Nabokov was such a passionate lepidopterist that a species of butterfly bears his name. And many of the most arcane postal history studies in our hobby come from people who are profound thinkers in other fie

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  15. Stamps as an Inflation Hedge

    The rise of the price of stamps during the most recent inflationary period (1975-1980) has given stamps a reputation as an inflation hedge that they do not deserve. First, from about 1950 to about 1975 stamp prices rose tremendously, 300% or more, and were a leader in investment returns for this period. But this period was a very low inflation period. The rise in stamp prices during this period was due more to three things- a rise from very low prices at the start of the period , an increase in popularity of philately, and the increased wealth of the west during the post WW II era. Further, the increase during this period was driven by the fall of the US dollar against the mark. Germany has always been the largest stamp collecting nation in the world. As Germany went from war induced impoverishment to affluence from 1945-1975 not only did demand for stamps increase but the value of the mark increased further advancing the value of stamps in dollar terms. Stamps really rose in the 1975-

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  16. The Debt Ceiling

    Let's assume the worst-the Democrats call the Republicans bluff and despite constant finger pointing the US government's ability to borrow additional money ends. What does this mean for philately? My considered judgement, after weeks of thought and study, is that its hard to say. Conventionally, you would think that any kind of panic, such as one caused by a US government default, would cause a run on non cash assets. But one of the remarkable aspects of the last five years has been the decoupling of stamp prices from the metals- a relationship that had existed for years. In the 1970's we had a real inflation run and gold and silver and stamps responded as alternative "stores of value". The last five years however have seen precious metals soar with little impact on stamp prices. This decoupling of stamps from precious metals as a store of value for the end of times has been perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the philatelic market of the recent past. A default on US obligations at a

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  17. Times Change


    Collectors of current material hate stamps and covers that are produced for a philatelic purpose. When Sven Hedin needed funding for a China expedition that he was planning, he convinced the Chinese government to issue stamps commemorating the planned trip. These stamps were sold to the public and the funds received were used to finance the trip. Collectors naturally balked and for decades the Sven Hedin set from China was eschewed by philatelists. The same is true of the long circa 1900 sets from various French and Portuguese colonies that were issued with little purpose but to obtain philatelic bucks. In the 1950s, collectors laughed at Inhambane and French In
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  18. Fancy Cancels

    United States Fancy Cancels are among the most easily faked of any philatelic specialty. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, the United States maintained thousands of post offices. Most postmasters were part timers, merchants who added a small postal counter and mail services to attract traffic to their general store. The United States Post Office required that stamps be cancelled but did not provide cancelling devices to the smaller post offices. Some postmasters ordered steel cancelling devices from manufacturers but most either pen cancelled their letters or made their own cancelling devices out of cork. The more artistic postmasters carved what we call fancy cancels-figures and shapes that can add a whimsical interest to United States stamp collecting. This is where the trouble begins. Every generation some bonehead gets the idea that fancy cancels are easy to make (they are-that's the point) and begins to manufacture his own for the collecting public. In the old days, students put

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  19. The Post Office's Financial Problems

    The United States Post Office is reporting huge losses and has run up against its debt limit. There is some question as to whether Congress will raise its funding and even if it does there is a good deal of uncertainty over the long term viability of the current Post Office model. The question isn't whether there will be postal service in the United States but rather what the impact the changes in postal financing will have on our hobby. Most significantly, the majority of postal services have lower cost competitors. For first class communication, email and faxes are cheaper and faster. For packages, UPS and Fedex are more convenient and price competitive. The major effect that the near bankruptcy of the Post Office could have on the stamp market will be on the value of older US postage. Postage exists in the philatelic markets in quantities that are far in excess of any conceivable philatelic demand. Postage is traded among stamp people at a percentage of its postage (or "face") value

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  20. Philatelic Fun



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