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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

How Rare is "Rare," in Stamp Collecting?

I was surfing mega auction site eBay, a couple of days ago.

In spite of the fact that the format of eBay-- and the quality of material offered-- has changed (and not for the better) over the years, I still like to go on occasional "treasure hunts," there... looking for the unusual and esoteric for my collections. It saddens me a bit that the site has moved more and more away from being a genuine auction marketplace to being more like a giant retail store. An often severely overpriced retail store, at that.

But I digress.

It seems that eBay stamp sellers-- of all colors and stripes-- are extremely generous with their use of the word "rare." I am always amazed at the number of listings that include phrases such as "Look! Rare old stamp!" to characterize something that's quite ordinary.

It got me to thinking about what "rare" really means, for us stamp collectors. And I was reminded that "rarity" is a very subjective concept.

No doubt, we can all agree that unique stamps like Sweden's 3sk Bco yellow and the USA 1c "Z-grill" qualify for the designation "ultra rare." A US "Inverted Jenny"-- of which only one sheet is known to exist-- can also safely be called "rare." But most stamp collectors don't spend much time in such lofty domains-- we are typically looking at a whole different type of material... but does that make it "common?" Or, more relevantly, can some of this still be considered "rare?"

Let's take a stamp like this one: This is the 1kr King Oscar II high value from Sweden, issued in 1900 (Facit no. 60/Scott no. 65). As shown here, this may qualify as "old," but certainly not rare. This one is in its typically found condition, somewhat off-center with a typical somewhat messy cancel, probably from a parcel card. A pretty normal stamp, which can be had in most dealers' stocks for about $1.00, or less. And it's available, in most dealers' stocks. Rare? Hardly. I probably have 20 of them, here in my duplicate stockbooks.

However, if we compare this stamp to the 10 öre value from the same set, I suppose we could arrive at the conclusion that it is relatively rare. 3.8 million copies of the 1kr stamp were printed, while 1127 million copies of the 10 öre red were printed. So there are 295 copies of the 10 öre, for every copy of the 1kr stamp.

But in an "absolute" sense, it's still not a rare stamp. For the average collector, there's little or no "searching" involved in finding one. Pretty much any dealer who sells Sweden will have it. Or you can visit a stamp selling web site like Delcampe or Stamps2Go, and there will be a dozen presentable copies for sale, at any given time.

So let us change our perspective, a little.

Let's say that we only want "really nice" stamps in our collection, and so the first stamp shown here would be of no interest to us. We want to get our hands on a "premium quality" copy, like this one at right:

This is a well-centered example with a light cancel, fresh colors, full even perfs and a clean back. Given that this 1kr stamp was the top value in the set, and most were used on parcels (or parcel cards), it does take a little work to find a copy that isn't creased, and isn't heavily or messily canceled.

If you were to look through a random batch of 100 of these stamps, you might find two or three in this condition.

Now, we're still talking about the same "not rare" stamp, but has it become rare, because of our premium condition requirements? Well, certainly less common. We now have to "work a little" to fill that particular space in our stamp album.

Most stamp collectors are familiar with the terminology that describes stamp condition: "Average," "Fine," "F-VF," "Very Fine," "Extremely Fine" and so forth. There seems to be a parallel set of terms to describe rarity, although it's far less standardized: "Common," "Uncommon," "Scarce," "Rare," "Extremely Rare." However, stamp rarity seems to be misrepresented (or overstated) far more often than condition.

Now, let's get back to our 1kr Oscar II stamp.

Let's say we want the stamp to have an upright, readable, almost perfect town cancel, like this example here:

Given that most of these stamps were used on parcels and parcel cards, and these were seldom "neatly" cancelled like letters might be, things get a lot trickier. To get a copy like this, the stamp would first have to be one of the limited number that was used on a registered or "money" letter, requiring a high value stamp... in order to get a neat hand cancel. Perhaps 1-in-50 of these stamps were used for that purpose. But not all of those got a perfect cancel. Cancels of this quality are very difficult to find, on the 1kr Oscar. Perhaps 1-in-100 (of the 1-in-50) would actually get a "lyx" quality cancel like this.

As a collector of early Swedish town cancels, I know how difficult it is to find a 1kr Oscar with a cancel like this-- even if the stamp itself isn't perfectly centered.

Remember, we still have the same "not rare" stamp, but has it now "become" rare? Certainly something close to it. In Sweden, cancel collecting is a very popular area of specialization, and if this stamp showed up in a stamp auction, it's a good bet the bidding would ramp up to $50-75-- for a stamp with a catalogue value of $2.25.

This brings up another facet of assessing "rarity," namely the interaction between "absolute" rarity and the "desirability" of a stamp.

Back when I collected British Commonwealth, I had a copy of British East Africa no. 2. This was an overprinted GB stamp, and only something on the order of 2880 copies were created. You'd think this would be an extremely valuable stamp (given that quite a few were used up on mail and discarded), but I only paid $90 for it. Why? Whereas the stamp was definitely "rare" in an absolute sense, only a handful of collectors are interested in that area, so the number of collectible copies of the stamp vs. the low number of collectors wanting/needing it keeps the price low.

In the case of our 1kr Oscar stamp, the superb cancel certainly makes the stamp "scarce," in its own right. However, with potentially hundreds of Swedish collectors eager to own such a stamp, the demand for the available examples in this quality grade this means that it now "appears rare." And the stamp pictured above is far from "perfect:" It's a little off-center, the cancel leans 5 degrees to the left and impression is not 100% "sharp." If all these factors were present, the value placed on the stamp might go into the $100s.

So, to summarize the "meaning" of rarity in the world of philately, the most accurate answer seems to be "it depends." The best thing a collector can do is to become educated about the stamps from their areas of interest... and then take seller claims of "rarity" with a large grain of salt!


مسلم من أهل مصر said...

Well presented idea

yes, I agree that the price does depend - mainly - on Demand.

and the word "rare" is over used in Ebay ... that it means for me .. "beware"

Matthew Healey said...

Excellent summary. In philately, demand is perhaps more important than supply. For example, the famous U.S. stamp with the inverted airplane (Scott C3a) exists in 100 examples and typically sells for $150,000+ while a beautiful inverted-center error from Argentina issued in the same era, perhaps in only 50 examples, can sell for under $1,000.