Stamp Collecting: Alive and Well in the 21st Century

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To many individuals, stamp collecting might seem like an anachronistic hobby — an old-fashioned characteristic of old-timey Americana similar to soda shops and visits from the milkman. Is collecting stamps still a thing? The answer may surprise you.

While stamp collecting may not be as visible as it once was, what this reflects is more the fragmentation of our overall culture and the proliferation of other niche interests. In fact, like a lot of things in the age of the Internet, stamp collecting has found new audiences. Thanks to emerging overseas markets and the passionate interests of long-time philatelists at home, it could be argued that stamp collecting trends are more alive now than ever before.

Philatelic Roots

The origins of postage stamps — and stamp collecting — are tied to the rise of the middle class in the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution led to more economic and geographic mobility, communication became big business. Private couriers were replaced with more accessible public postal systems, necessitating new and simplified payment methods. Adhesive stamps were first issued in Britain in 1840, when the initial run of Penny Blacks was printed, entitling the sender to domestic delivery of any letter weighing up to a half ounce.

It didn't take long for stamp collecting to become a popular hobby, due in no small part to the well-known Victorian thirst for novelty. By 1860, stamps were being issued all over the world and stamp collecting had become a global obsession. National postal systems quickly recognized an opportunity for generating extra revenue and began issuing stamps specifically for the collector's market.

A Hobby Is Born

stamp-collecting-londonThe term philately — a portmanteau of the Greek words philos, meaning friend or aficionado, and atelia, meaning something that has been prepaid or exempted from tax — was coined by a prominent French collector named M. Georges Herpin in 1864. In addition to being a clear improvement over “franking,” as the hobby was called in contemporary British stamp collecting circles, the term quickly gained favor with collectors across Europe.

In 1869, the world’s first official philatelic club was founded in London. In 1906, the group was granted a royal charter and was legally permitted to change its name to the Royal Philatelic Society, which is still in existence today. Other prominent early stamp collecting societies included the Collectors' Club of New York, founded in 1896, the American Stamp Dealers Association, founded in 1914, and the British Philatelic Association with roots that date back to 1925.

The increased interest in stamp collecting also led to a large industry supporting both serious and hobbyist collectors alike. The first Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue was printed in November 1865. The American Scott catalogue came out three years later and introduced the famous Scott Numbering System, which to this date is still used to identify stamps.

Stamp Collecting During the War Years

World War II not only fundamentally changed the global geopolitical landscape, but it also saw stamp collecting go through a similar upheaval. Years of conflict saw the production of a wide range of unique stamps that stand today both as an object of fascination to collectors and a record of history being made. Witness the increasingly propagandistic designs of Nazi-era stamps as the war continued, and the later issuing of special U.S., British and French stamps for use in the occupied zones of Germany following the Axis powers’ defeat.

There's also apocryphal evidence to suggest that, in the build-up to the war, many people forced to flee Germany and its occupied territories chose to carry stamps rather than hard currency. At the time, collections of valuable stamps were lighter, easier to conceal and retained their value more reliably than foreign dollars. Wartime stamp collecting in any era is particularly interesting because it speaks to the ability of the hobby to both adapt to and comment on current events as they happen — something that will become more evident when we look at where stamp collecting is today.

 

The Stamp Boom of the 1950s and Beyond

In a way, it's almost inevitable that stamp collecting experienced its greatest popularity in America’s postwar years. Relative peace and prosperity made the hobby accessible, and a renewed sense of national pride instilled a kind of patriotic significance. Though postmodern authors would later see darkness and conspiracy in the hobby's more insular aspects, at the time stamp collecting was considered a reflection of everything that was right with America.

Stamp collecting reached its peak in the U.S. in the 1970s, when over 1,000 prominent dealers were active in the country. At the time, these dealers primarily served the hobbyist market — also known as "album fillers" — where the predominant stamp collecting trend involved amassing complete country collections. The emphasis was not so much on stocking rare or mint stamps that would command a high value on their own, but rather to help others round out their collections with the best quality issues possible.

Stamp Collecting as an Investment

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Conversely, one of the greatest changes in stamp collecting over the past sixty years has been the skyrocketing values some of the rarest stamps have been commanding at auction. In 2013, a British Guyana One Cent Black-on-Magenta set the record for most expensive stamp ever sold, going for over $9.5 million to an anonymous buyer.

Indeed, the desire for rare and collectible stamps has increased worldwide. At the same time, however, values for complete collections are dropping. The market has shifted from the hobbyist to the serious collector who is more willing to invest in unique one-offs than comprehensive sets.

Stamp Collecting as an Investment

 

Conversely, one of the greatest changes in stamp collecting over the past sixty years has been the skyrocketing values some of the rarest stamps have been commanding at auction. In 2013, a British Guyana One Cent Black-on-Magenta set the record for most expensive stamp ever sold, going for over $9.5 million to an anonymous buyer.

Indeed, the desire for rare and collectible stamps has increased worldwide. At the same time, however, values for complete collections are dropping. The market has shifted from the hobbyist to the serious collector who is more willing to invest in unique one-offs than comprehensive sets.

Who Collects Stamps?

Perhaps because of the way it combines politics, geography and history, Queen Elizabeth II, King Farouk of Egypt and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been actively involved in stamp collecting. Other notable names who have been active in the hobby include Amelia Earhart, Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon.

Today, current estimates of the number of stamp collectors worldwide range between 60 and 200 million. After speaking to the Guardian, Paul Dauwalder of Dauwalders of Salisbury said that “the average age of a collector is now 60-plus[…] But what is interesting is that every year we see a new crop of 60-somethings starting to collect.”

No matter what age they start, people collect stamps for various reasons. While hobbyist interest may be waning, the booming market for rare stamps has attracted serious investors from all corners of the world. The unique ability of stamp collecting to attract people of all classes, professions and walks of life is one of the reasons it has continued to be relevant to this day.

Current Trends

It's tough to make generalizations about the current state of a market that is subject to change on an ongoing basis. With that being said, dealers and collectors alike are noticing a few key trends that seem to be here for the indefinite future. First, stamp condition matters more now than ever before. Buyers demand mint issues, with prices falling off precipitously for used or average condition stamps. Truly rare stamps are becoming more difficult to find, and those that are on the market are fetching record prices. Specialized collections may have limited appeal but can attract considerable attention among collectors with an interest in that particular area.

Particularly hot markets at the moment include pre-1935 British Commonwealth colonies, French colonies, pre-1940 USA, post-independence India, and China and Hong Kong. On the other hand, collectors specializing in Israeli, Scandinavian, East German and European Union stamps would be wise to hold off on selling, if possible. The interest in these regions is currently at a historic low.

The Rise of the Asian Market

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Similar to the way that stamp collecting in the United States and Europe took off following the economic upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, we are now seeing a corresponding spike in philatelic interest in Asia. This is because countries such as China, India and South Korea enjoy great mobility and a rising leisure class. Asian collectors have been the primary motivators of the spike in rare stamp prices. They have also been responsible for a resurgence of interest in complete collections in their home countries.

Today, Asia is estimated to be home to two thirds of the world's stamp collectors, more than half of which are located in China. In 2012, the value of China's stamp index reached $6,911,100 — an increase of more than tenfold since 1989. This booming market has forced publishers to adapt in interesting ways. While the Gibbons company used to issue its China catalogue every five years, it now publishes one on a yearly basis, if not more frequently.

Cultural exchange is the inevitable result of a more global, more connected society. The rise in the Asian market is great for stamp collecting because it has infused life into a hobby that had been on the decline. It has also brought wider attention to some of the many attractive issues to come out of China, India and other Asian countries. China's most famous stamp, the 1980 Red Monkey, has been reaching record prices and for good reason — it’s a rare issue in a hot market that is both culturally significant and well-designed.

What's Next

Being able to predict the next big thing in stamp collecting would be a great asset to any collector. As much as dealers try to be experts in the field, the truth is that few of us could have anticipated the scope of the Asian boom — and very few of us will be able to predict the next big shakeup. Luckily, there has been a historical correlation between a strong economy and an increase in stamp collecting. As such, a forward-thinking collector would be wise to investigate either of the following markets:

  • Latin America— Given the region's long traditions of art and architecture, it's surprising that Latin American stamps don't enjoy the prestige of other parts of the world. This is expected to change, however, as countries such as Brazil and Mexico continue their economic transformation into global powerhouses and standards of living rise across the Global South. There are already signs of an emerging philatelic culture in the region. The colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico hosts a small but well-curated stamp museum that is drawing international visitors with thoughtful programming and a large selection of stamps from around the world.
  • Africa — We’re already seeing a rise in interest in stamps from South Africa, with rare collections from the country’s colonial period garnering increasingly high prices at international auctions. Could the rest of the continent be far behind? Certainly, Africa’s history has resulted in a wide range of potential areas of specialization, including dead country stamps, tax stamps and more. Since Kenya and Nigeria rank among the world’s fastest-growing economies, it also makes it likely that the African stamp market is poised to experience a significant uptick in the years to come.

Stamp Collecting in the Internet Age

The Internet has truly put the world at our fingertips, in both good ways and bad. For stamp collectors, one significant consequence has been that stamps themselves are quickly falling into obsolescence as email becomes the primary method of communication for most people. Is stamp collecting dead because of this? Of course not — the invention of photography hasn’t diminished the value of the works of the Old Masters, after all.

If anything, the Internet has made it easier for philatelists to connect with one another, share information and build more complete collections together. While there are plenty of online stamp marketplaces, reduce your risk by buying and selling through an established auction house, many of which host regular online sales.

Final Thoughts: Is Stamp Collecting a Dying Hobby?

It’s easy to get discouraged when we look at our high-tech society and wonder if stamp collecting is still popular. An interesting trend to emerge in recent years is a partial retreat from the digital world, and a reengagement with things that are handmade and artisanal — from slow food and small batch whiskey to handcrafted furniture. Clearly, there is space in our culture for philately and other activities that require care, precision and individualized curating.

From a global perspective, there’s no question that stamp collecting is alive and well. Only time will tell if the values of the artisanal movement will encourage younger people to learn more about philately here at home.

Where to Learn More

For anyone interested in learning more about how to begin collecting stamps, the value of a collection they’ve inherited or stamp collecting trends, the Internet is the best place to start.

Apfelbaum, Inc. is proud to be one of the oldest stamp dealers in the country. We have been helping philatelists buy and sell rare stamps since 1910. On our website, you’ll find various ways to start or augment a collection, including public auctions, buy-it-now sales and our online store. Our success over the years is a testament to both the enduring popularity of stamp collecting and the value we place on customer service. To learn more about how we can help you, browse our resources today.