Chapter 2: The State of Stamp Collecting Today
How many people still buy stamps? The answer is over 60 million around the world. Stamp collecting is still going strong — over five million hobbyists are in the U.S.
According to the national postal service, more than 10 percent of Americans participate. During the stamp collecting boom era of the 1970s, over 1,000 American dealers bought and sold stamps, primarily to hobbyists. However, since then, the number of U.S. dealers has shrunk to less than half that.
Global Stamp Collecting
Stamp collecting has greater popularity in other parts of the world. Germany, Switzerland and Eastern European countries have significantly more stamp collectors than the United States. Asian interests are growing as well. The continent is home to about two-thirds of the world’s stamp collectors. In countries with rapidly expanding economies, such as China and India, stamp collecting is robust. One-third of the world’s collectors — 20 million — are in China.
This activity causes the prices of rare stamps to rise:
India: In this country, working professionals with money to spend have taken to collecting both pre- and post-colonial stamps. Stamps issued before India gained independence in 1947 are especially sought after. However, a stamp featuring Mahatma Gandhi, issued the same year he was assassinated — 1948 — brought $205,000 U.S. at a 2011 auction. It was the highest amount paid for any individual Indian stamp and may be the most for any modern stamp.
In India, modern-era stamps are prized because the government has been issuing fewer due to limited demand. Most collectors are adults. As in the U.S., relatively few 21st-century children start stamp collections.
China: One-third of the world’s $3 billion stamp collecting market happens in China. Tangible and valuable assets, including stamps, are being added to Chinese investment portfolios to protect against high taxes, inflation and depreciating currency. Both Chinese and global investors are interested in stamps that reflect the country’s culture.
For instance, stamps that mark China’s communist past are popular. Some feature a likeness of, or quotes from, leader Mao Zedong. A series of 40 stamps illustrate exercises that party members were expected to engage in.
The 1980 commemorative Red Monkey stamp is a hot commodity as well. In 2011, a sheet of the stamps earned more than $180,000 U.S. at auction. The Red Monkey was the first appearance of a zodiac sign on a Chinese stamp, and the government issued five million of them.
South Korea: Worldwide interest in South Korea’s stamps grew as the country industrialized during the mid-20th century. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many South Korean youth were avid stamp collectors.
During the 21st century, interest in postage stamps has been replaced by the emphasis on digital communication. The country’s stamps are still popular internationally, and South Korea’s government has taken an active interest in renewing the popularity of the hobby among the country’s students.
Historically, there has been a positive correlation between a nation’s expanding economy and stamp collection activity. Certain parts of the world may soon see larger markets for their stamps, such as:
Africa: Stamps from South Africa’s colonial period are already valuable around the world. Interest in other African countries with stable and growing economies, such as Kenya and Nigeria, will likely increase as well.
Latin America: Citizens of Brazil and Mexico, in particular, show signs of enhanced interest in stamp collecting. For instance, a stamp museum in Oaxaca, Mexico, has become popular, even with international visitors.
Stamp Collecting as a Hobby
In the past, a number of features drew hobbyists to stamp collecting. It was a way of reaching other countries at a time when international travel wasn’t easy. People connected to the history and culture of other nations through their stamps. Some collectors were simply interested in the illustrations, viewing stamps as tiny works of art.
Some of those same interests attract today’s stamp collectors. Other reasons for collecting today include:
Academics: A stamp collector may have a general love of history, travel or geography.
Interest in the cultures of other countries: Stamps offer insight because governments illustrate their stamps with nationally important people, concepts, symbols and events.
Generational ties: Older relatives introduce younger generations to the hobby, creating time well-spent together and fond memories. Each generation carries on the tradition.
Interest in a particular country: Some collectors will only acquire stamps from a single nation.
Aesthetics: For many, stamps are artwork.
Investment: Stamps categorize in the class of “collectibles,” such as coins. Some people hope to earn back the money they spend, plus more. They are interested in determining which stamps are most valuable and which countries have the most valuable selection of stamps. Other hobbyists collect for the pleasure of it and don’t count on returns. However, they always have their eyes open for a lucky — and valuable — find.
In the United States, most collectors started when they were children. The most common reason for individuals to begin is the influence of family members. Other sources of encouragement and information include peers, dealers, adult friends and books. Scouting, websites, stamp shows and clubs inspire a smaller percentage of people to participate.