Robson Lowe

There were two great waves of philatelic giants—the founders and the consolidators. The founders were the Big Five present at the creation of our hobby. Philatelists such as J. Walter Scott, Stanley Gibbons, Moens in Belgium, John Luff, and Heinrich Kohler—these five philatelists created, shortly after 1850, the catalogs and the albums that essentially defined the hobby of stamp collecting and made it into the academic collecting hobby that it is today. Without our catalogs and literature, philately is little different from any other collecting hobby, and it was the Founding Five who created the literature and the structures that we still use today and that makes philately different from button collecting.

The consolidators were a group of stamp dealers, active from the early 1920s through about 1975, who, working within the structures inherited from the founders, furthered the boundaries and interests of the hobby. Collector-dealers like Robson Lowe in England,  and Robert Siegel, Herman Herst, Jr., Stanley Asbrook and Earl P. L. Apfelbaum in the United States added to the way that collectors enjoy and experience their stamp collecting today.

Born in 1902, Robson Lowe not only collected stamps all of his life but it could well be said of him that stamps were his life. He grew up in Great Britain, and by the time he was in his early twenties he had created a stamp business that bore his name and which continued for seventy years. Lowe’s great contribution to the hobby was in his writing and consolidating of philatelic information. One of the problems that stamp collecting has and has always had is a lack of comprehensive bibliographies and indexes of previous generations’ philatelic writing. Newer collectors have great difficulty accessing the literature of previous generations, and so philatelic writing often has much of the quality of constantly seeing the wheel rediscovered, as today’s writers’ reported their findings only duplicate what was published a couple of generations before. Lowe began his Encyclopedia of the British Empire where he wrote and edited detailed catalogs on a country by country basis for most of the different countries and stamp issuing entities of the British Empire. The Encyclopedia has a strong collecting skew—some philatelic writing is more historic—who printed what and  when—but Lowe’s Encyclopedia was fiercely philatelic—concerned only with stamps, stamp varieties, and how these stamps were used.

Lowe too was very responsible for the emphasis on cover collecting, which is probably the single biggest difference between stamp collectors of the first century and those of the second. The earliest collectors couldn’t soak their stamps off cover fast enough, and they nearly always soaked the gum off mint stamps. For Lowe and later generations, how the stamp was used—what they called “postal history”—became very important. Lowe also had a great interest in Revenue stamps and Revenues used as postage (called postal fiscals), and he elevated these into prominent collectibles. By the time Robson Lowe slowed down in the late 1980s (he never retired and died in 1997 at the age of 92), he had helped to preside over great changes in how people collect stamps.

Like with many giants in their field, stories and anecdotes about how they worked and their passion were very common when I was young in this business. I met and spent a day with Robbie (as his peers called him—he was always Mr. Lowe to me) in June of 1976 when he came to Philadelphia before the Interphil international stamp exhibition. I had always heard a story about an English collector who misremembered that it was Christmas day when he called the office of Robson Lowe to place an order, only to have Robby (a 1940s version of a workaholic—going into his office on Christmas) answer the phone and take the order. When I asked Mr. Lowe if this story, which had been retold many times before it got to me, was true, he smiled and said yes and that the order was for several pounds. He added with a twinkle that the collector was more surprised that Robby dropped the order off at the collector’s house on his way home than that he was there to take the order at all.

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