Monthly Archives: September 2011

  1. Grading Evolution

    Our hobby is just 170 years old, a mere babe by the standards of hobbies such as numismatics. But already the grading standards and the quality grades that collectors desire has undergone a profound metamorphosis, one which current generations of collectors have been spared. For the first collectors, any copy of a stamp from perfect to severely damaged would do and the earliest stamp price lists never mention quality because it didn't matter. One sees an entire genre of philatelic articles beginning about 1870 on soaking and how that is the preferred way of removing stamps from envelopes. This was the quality conscious successor to the earliest removal method of just scraping stamps off envelopes with a knife, which produced the grossly disfigured stamps that later generations just tossed. The "Good, Fair, Poor" paradigm of earliest grading gradually inflated to the "Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine" triumvirate that we have today. Perhaps the most signific

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  2. Post Office Goes Live Cont.

    The best part of the news that the United States Post Office is going to be issuing stamps honoring living persons is the effect it should have on our hobby. This has two aspects. First, and less obviously, it shows that even with the technological advances that have made  postage stamps less important, the Post Office remains committed to popularizing philately and encouraging people to collect. There was doubt about this-surely given the huge deficits of the Post Office it was very possible that the mere millions that philately makes for them could get lost in the accounting scramble of a reorganization and we would find ourselves in a relatively stampless world. This could still happen but it now seems less likely. Further, many were afraid that part of any future postal reorganization would be the demonetization of older postage that is held in philatelic hands. This would have a severe effect on the stamp market and would drive many out of the hobby. Appar

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  3. Post Office Goes Live

    For all of its history the Post Office has had a tradition (then a rule) that prohibited living persons (and the recent dead) from being pictured on postage stamps. The rule required a ten year grace period after death before being on a stamp except in the case of deceased Presidents, who were eligible immediately upon death. This rule was originally a policy that grew out of tradition. The first United States postage stamps pictured the first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin, and the second postage stamp pictured our first President, George Washington. New issues of stamps were unusual during the Nineteenth Century and the tradition of  picturing only deceased people on our stamps was easy to establish and maintain. Lincoln was the most recently departed to grace a stamp when he appeared on the 1869 issue, only four years after his assasination. The tradition of only portraying the deceased was finally codefied in the 1930s after the Arbor Day issue. The Arbor

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  4. Cancellations

    One of the earliest objections to Rowland Hill's idea for a gummed label that indicated prepayment of postage was the fear that such a label could be soaked off and reused. A postage stamp is one of the simplest examples of a bearer certificate-anyone who possesses it can use it to mail a letter and the fear of reuse was very real. Postage of a British penny in 1840, when wages of a pound a week would support a family of four with ease, was the equivalent of perhaps $5 today so such fear had a real basis in fact. The first stamps were cancelled with Maltese cross cancellations which provided a sometimes disfiguring obliteration and the town from which the letter was posted placed its date and town stamp that was used in the stampless cover period on the same letter next to the stamp. This procedure was followed in the United States when we began to issue stamps except that the type of cancellation that was used was left to the individual postmasters. That is why throughout the Nineteen

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  5. Mounting

    Mounting stamps in albums has had four major phases in the 170 years that philately has been a hobby.  In the very beginning, collectors were just saving stamps as a whimsical endeavor.There was no science to collecting and the earliest stamp savers would lick the glue on their mint stamps and place them in their albums (This is why today so many of the earliest issue stamps that exist unused don't have any gum). The first generation of collectors never thought that anyone would want their stamps after them and so no effort was made to mount philatelic items in a way that made them tradeable.

    The second generation of collectors learned from this and saw that many specimens that they wanted for their collections had been damaged from faulty mounting. This second generation tried to mount their stamps so that they could be removed from their collections and traded or sold. The first mounts of this type were paper hinges,

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  6. Packets

    In 1960 when a young person started stamp collecting the situation played out like this. A parent took you to a stamp shop or the Minkus concession at a Gimbels or other large department store. You looked at several world wide albums and usually settled on a Harris Statesman Deluxe (or maybe a Citation) which had spaces for 30,000 different stamps and cost a bit less than $5. You bought a pair of stamp tongs that were heavy and nearly took two hands to use,  a thousand Dennison stamp hinges and a world wide packet of probably 5000 different stamps. All told you spent ten or twelve bucks-a decent birthday or Christmas present but a bit less than the Pee Wee Reece model baseball glove which competed with it as as gift (for$19.95). It was the packet of 5000 different stamps that made collecting work in those days and it is the packet that is missing in today's lure of philately for newcomers. The H E Harris company (and others) put these packets together from vast quan

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  7. A Remarkable Coincidence

    Stamp Dealers travel quite a bit for business and as a young man I did my share. One evening some thirty years ago I was visiting some clients in upstate Pennsylvania to purchase their stamps. It was getting late and as usual I was getting lost. I decided to look for a hotel and the closest one was a tiny inn in the most north east part of the state- The Inn at Starlight Lake. The Inn was a popular summer and weekend vacation spot for New York City people but during the week in the fall it was quite empty.The rooms were tiny and the Inn was built around the concept that you sat around the fireplace in the evening and met the guests and your hosts. There were no guests other than me and soon my hosts knew that I was a stamp dealer and they said that their next door neighbor was an avid collector (which I thought meant plate blocks and First Day Covers).

     Soon the neighbor and I were sitting and talking. In those days, I collected N

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  8. The State of the State Market-Autumn 2011

    As we start the fall ,the stamp market is really pretty good. The economic difficulties of the last five years now have faded from affecting philately too seriously. Prices of more ordinary material is weaker but overall nice properties still find ready buyers. And most importantly, the long made predictions that aging baby boomers would lead our hobby to a new wave of health and popularity seems to be happening. We are seeing more new bidders and buyers in our sales that we have in years. The conventional wisdom is that philately crested as a hobby about 1970. That year Linns had over 125,000 subscribers and the APS had over 60,000 members. Those numbers have declined over the years but in the Internet age collectors can engage in stamp collecting at levels below the radar that were never possible before. My own sense of the stamp market going forward over the next several years is one of optimism. Liquidity and popularity should mark our hobby and, as the Internet age induc

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  9. The Danger of Estate Sales

    Many collectors spend a great deal of money on their hobby and don't have a great deal to show for It. Your money is yours to do with as you please (after all this is America) but most people take some satisfaction in getting their money's worth when they buy something and, if not always getting the best of all possible deals, at least getting product commensurate with what they have spent. If you wish to do that stay away from estate sales. Many of the worse collections and stocks that I have ever seen have been put together at estate sales where collectors sometimes get good deals but more often compete with other relatively unknowlegeable collectors for overvalued overgraded stamps. There are three reasons for this. First, as mentioned there is often no adult in the room and ignorant sellers selling to unsophisticated  buyers is always dangerous. Forgeries are common and quality is often exaggerated . Second there is no warranty. The seller is not there tomorrow

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  10. Advertising

    Worldwide postal services have tried numerous experiments over the years at increasing revenues. Most common has been the experiment of advertising with postage stamps. This experiment was first made almost coincidentally with the issuance of the first postage stamp. The Mulready envelope was issued together with the Penny Black as the world's first piece of postal stationery and private companies quickly began advertising on part of the writing page of the stationery. These letter sheets were then sold at discounts from the postage value to people willing to have such advertising with their mail. In the late nineteenth century, New Zealand experimented with placing printed ads on the backs of postage sta
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  11. Telephone and Telegraph Stamps

    There are four broad categories of  bearer labels that have been issued to indicate prepayment for a service or tax. They are postage stamps, revenue stamps, telegraph stamps and telephone stamps. Worldwide  issues of these stamps vary but overall the number of postage stamps greatly exceeds the number of  revenues, telephone and telegraph stamps. Indeed since 1940 there have been virtually no telegraphs and telephone stamps issued and the number of newer revenue issues has greatly declined. The reasons are technological-there are no telegraph systems any more hence no need for tax stamps on this nonexistent service. Telephones are in everyone's home and the federal excise tax is paid as a
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  12. Minutia

    Years ago I taught an evening class in philately at Temple University. The class was made up mainly of well educated people who were either getting back into collecting or who were, never having been stamp collectors, thinking of trying our hobby on for size. At one point after a few weeks the topic of plating was introduced. Most engraved Nineteenth Century stamps were engraved from a single die that was entered into a large plate usually 100 times to make plates of 100. In the earliest period of stamp issuing, such entering of the die to the plate was done by hand, rocking the hardened steel die into the softer unhardened steel or copper plates. The steel of the plate was still pretty hard and considerable effort and rocking back and forth was necessary to make the die impression in the plate. Different entries show different degrees of design strengthening at different places as they were rocked in inconsistently and it is from such tiny differences that philatelists

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  13. Tao of Philately

    We live in a time different in many ways from all the times of the past. Perhaps the most significant difference is the ability for so many people today to have nearly instant gratification of most of their wants. Bored ? Turn on the TV or pop in a video game or check out the tweets of anyone you wished you knew. Hungry? We know what the alarming obesity rate tells us about how easy it is to gratify that desire. Our malls are filled with the treasures of the world and most things cost less for the upper middle class in real monetary terms than they have ever cost before. It is easy to see why philately has not attracted the quantity of youth that it had in the past and why our hobby has had slower growth rates in the last twenty years. It is a hobby of a maturer mind-one that understands that the richest pleasures in life are those that are worked for and that patience and effort are required not only until you find that rare item missing from your collection but for most of the l

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  14. French Sudan

    The French Sudan was a nation state that primarily existed on maps in the Foreign Office in Paris. It existed at two separate time periods, from 1890-1899 and 1920-1960. During the first period French Sudan met Voltaire's famous bon mot for the Holy Roman Empire (that it wasn't holy, wasn't Roman, and it wasn't an empire). French Sudan wasn't Sudan and was only nominally French as it was hundreds of miles geographically removed from British Sudan and at least during it's first incarnation it operated as little more than an administrative district. Sections were cleved off from time to time to create other French Colonies or to add to the territory of existing French African states. French Sudanese stamps are
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  15. Room At The Top

    One of the difficulties that philately has at the top levels is a lack of material. For most collectors this presents no problem. US collectors, for instance, mostly buy the same stamps to a several hundred dollars (or sometimes several thousand dollars)  price point per stamp. When it gets more costly than that they begin to collect a different area or put collecting on the shelf. For those collectors, stamps that they need are usually available, especially in the Internet period when pretty much every dealer stock is always available to pretty much every collector.

    But there are areas of philately where it is not money that limits the interest of collectors but the fact that that there is so little material, and that material is tied up long term in collections, thus unavailable for newer collectors. This point is well illustrated by the philatelic specialty of Pennsylvania stampless covers. The great collection of this area was sold at auction in

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  16. Promises

    Governmental promises have a value that can be sometimes be measured. The United States Postal Service has had an implied promise to the American citizenry-that it would be there day after day, year after year delivering mail and packages to every address in the country. It was this implied promise of government, never questioned until very recently, that underpins the high percentage of postage value that older US postage has always sold for. The traditional percentage of "face value" that older postage has sold for has been in the range of 85% a level that is far in excess of what the older postage of most major countries has sold for (Canadian postage has usually sold for just above half). US postage began to come down in price at the start of the Great Recession and has now fallen to the 60-65% range. This no longer denotes general economic weakness but more of a lack of confidence in the solvency of the USPS and a concern over the immutability of the promise that stamps

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  17. Expertizing by Committee

    Originally, all philatelic expertization was done by individuals who expertized stamps and covers in their own name usually as part of the professional service of selling them. The most famous three European experts of the nineteenth century- Gebruder Senf(the Senf brothers) and Kohler in Germany and Thier in France were all merchant experts who signed the stamps that they sold and guaranteed the genuineness of their sale material. The American expert dealer Warren H Colson (who signed stamps W.H.C.) and Eugene Klein of Philadelphia provided much the same services in this country in the 1890-1930 period (Klein was the American dealer who was one of the big buyers at the famous Ferrari auctions in Paris in the early 1920s). In those days a dealer guaranteeing the genuineness of the stamps he sold forever was considered the norm and most collectors were far happier having a Klein guarantee than an APS certificate. A Klein guarantee actually meant something. If the stamp wa

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  18. Postal Promises

    American stamp collectors have been the beneficiaries of one of the longest running non contractual government promises in  history and one that few governments world wide have extended to their own citizens. With one exception, the United States has never demonetized our postage stamps, meaning that every United States postage stamp issued since 1861 is still valid for postage (stamps issued before 1861 were demonetized at the start of the Civil war to prevent secessionists from negotiating postage from southern post offices). This is an implied contract. The United States has never implicitly stated that it would never demonetize older stamps and presumably retains the right to do so just as our government has the right to alter any non contractual benefit such as social security or medicare (the issue with the new "forever" stamps is more murky as marketing them as "forever" seems to imply an obligation). For very old truly collector stamps, this policy

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  19. Post Office Paranoia

    As news of the fiscal shortfall of the United Sates Post Office makes it way through the general circulation press, collectors have become nervous over what the financial problems mean for them. If the Post Office were a private company, the solution to its problems would be fairly simple. Its pension liabilities alone would force it into bankruptcy where it would restructure these obligations, fine tune its business model and emerge from bankrupt strongly able to compete. But the USPS is a government agency, subject to governance by Congress, and so there are competing forces at work with regard to the USPS's future. The Post Office is required to deliver mail to every address in America. This is very expensive and is something that not for profit business would ever attempt and which a bankraupcy referee would end on day one. But Congressional constituencies and the over representation of rural districts in Congress (and the vital importance of postal service to t

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  20. Sarawak and the White Rajah


    In the nineteenth century Malaysia was like India, an amalgam of independent states nominally aligned under a central government. One of the most interesting of these states was Sarawak. This was a country carved out of Borneo for Sir James Brooke, a British adventurer who helped the Sultan of Brunei against an insurrection. This was only 150 years ago but so different from now as to almost seem science fiction rather than history. Brooke lived in a part of the world and a time in which force was the only power. He had a war ship (which he bought with an enormous inheritance he had received in his late twenties) and his country of Sarawak was ceded to him because of the help he gave the Brunei sult
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