The Hobby Takes Hold

Major car companies in Detroit have long had an adage that their sales are only as good as their dealerships. The theory is that many people choose their car based on the quality of the dealer that they go to— his displays, prices, service, and willingness to accommodate. Philately was well served by its early dealers, especially three: Jean-Baptiste Moens in Belgium; Edward Stanley Gibbons in England, whose firm still operates today as one of the world’s largest stamp companies; and J. Walter Scott in the United States, whose firm, after being sold and resold numerous times, still survives and publishes theScott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue.


Moens began selling stamps actively from his bookshop in Brussels in 1848. At this time and until about 1870, nearly all of the collectors in the world collected used (cancelled) stamps. But Moens had correspondents throughout the world through whom he obtained new stamps as they were issued in mint (uncancelled) condition. Mint stamps were not the fashion in collecting, and Moens in the 1850s and 1860s virtually forced them on his better clients. Those who trusted him did very well, for within thirty years the collecting of mint stamps became popular. Many collectors who had resented Moens’s pushiness realized profits 200 to 300 times their original cost. Moens was also a prolific publisher, turning out books, pamphlets, and catalogues with speedy regularity. This interest ranged from Afghanistan to western Australia, and it can truly be said that although he profited from stamps, he loved them equally as much as he did his profits.


Not exactly the same can be said of J. Walter Scott. Though unflagging in his energy, he often thought more of the profit to be made than he did of the means to achieve it. Born in England, by 1865 he was in California during a Gold Rush. Scott’s favorite philatelic trick was to buy up the old printing plates of local United States issues. Before 1861, private companies were permitted to compete with the United States Post Office, similar to the way the United Parcel Service competes with it today, except for the fact that the pre-1861 companies were allowed to carry first-class mail as well as packages. The local carrying companies were legislated out of business in 1861, though some lingered on while in litigation. Scott would offer these defunct companies money for their old printing plates, which was certainly found money as far as the companies were concerned, since they weren’t going to print the stamps anymore. Scott would reprint the stamps and sell them, not offering them as originals, but as often as not, omitting to tell the buyer of their true status. Because they were printed on the same plates, experts rely on color (it was impossible for Scott to match the shade of the ink exactly) and paper to determine originals.


In Scott’s defense, what he was doing was common practice among many early stamp dealers. Ethical standards in philately in general were quite low, so much so that the president of one of the largest collector’s societies bragged in a signed article about how he drove around the country buying old letters from unknowing farmers at a fraction of their true value. Most of the stamp forgeries were produced during the period from 1860 to 1910, a time when the ethics of American business in general left much to be desired. Fortunately, for collectors, most forgeries are not at all convincing and can be detected by an expert knowledgeable in the field. But in this early time, fakes were rampant and were often sold as such. Most collectors then did not look at their hobby as an investment and did not hold the pure standard for philately that we do today. A collector was perfectly willing to spend 5 cents to buy a reproduction of an original that would cost $10, a price he was not able to afford. He was not fooled; neither are we. The Scott company began to be managed by an unblemished string of owners about 1900, and that tradition continues today.

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