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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Stamps, Valuations, Knowledge and "Fairness"

As stamp collectors, we tend to think of the primary "commodity" we spend our time with as "stamps" and things that relate to stamps.

We buy stamps; we swap stamps, and sometimes we sell stamps. At the foundation of our ability to make these trades-- with each other, and with dealers-- lies our core belief that any given stamp has a certain relative value.

After 45-odd years of involvement in philately, I increasingly have come to realize that much the foundation for trade-ability is-- as often as not-- knowledge, rather than "stamps."

20ΓΈ blackish blue. Value $20+ rather than 75c
For many of us, new stamps are added to our collections as part of a process of "treasure hunting;" that is, we go looking for (or at least are open to finding) the unexpected to fill gaps in our collections. And everybody loves a bargain!

From time to time, I attend stamp shows and bourses. Several times a month I will spend a few hours perusing eBay or one of the other online sales venues for stamps. Sometimes I visit dealers in the area; sometimes I buy lots from brick-and-mortar auctions; sometimes I am poring over a box of circuit books from the American Philatelic Society.

As often as not, new "treasures" come to me not simply because "there's a gap in my collection," but because I "found something" among the stamps offered for sale; something unexpected; something of value. For me, it is usually a rare postmark or a shade/printing of a classic stamp, or a variety/plate flaw of some kind. Whatever it may be, it tends to have a "value" that by far exceeds the marked sales price.

The "making a find" part came into play purely because I recognized something the seller did not. In other words, I was in the knowledge business.

This, in turn, invites consideration of the question of whether or not that makes me rather "mercenary" and whether or not it is "fair" to the seller that I am going to buy an item marked at $2.00, when I know it's worth $200.00. Let's pause and examine some different ways of looking at what might be considered "fair."

For one, the seller marked the item at $2.00, in the belief it was a "fair price," given his knowledge of the situation.

The HILLE postmark adds $500.00+ in value
For maybe 99% of his or her potential buyers, that stamp is "worth" $2.00... because they see the stamp as exactly what the dealer thinks he's selling.

My "other 1%" knowledge was not "free." Behind my ability to pick out a $200.00 variety lies not only 25 years of study, but probably a $1000+ investment in specialized literature.

What's more, if I were to turn around and "profit" by selling the stamp rather than keeping it it in my collection, unlike the original seller, I also have spent 25 years building the connections within the hobby the results in my being able to contact a collector who will pay me $200.00. The original seller doesn't have those connections.

So where does the notion of "fairness" lie, in these situations?

Just like a stamp has a "catalogue value," expertise has a "value." And expert knowledge typically "costs extra," regardless of your field. Your country doctor might-- or might not-- be able to heal some esoteric illness you have. A specialist-- for five times the price-- heals it in short order-- because he or she "invested" years and money in becoming a specialist. Is it "unfair" to your country doctor that he only gets $150.00 for an office visit, when the specialist gets to charge $800.00?

Is if "fair" to YOU, that you have to pay more? You could argue that it's not-- because you are "short the money"-- but in the end we all tend to get what we pay for.

My point here being that while our finding "a $200.00 stamp for $2.00" may look opportunistic and like we're getting "something for nothing," we typically have paid "a price of admission" (learning, time, experience, reference books) in order to get to a place where the transaction was even possible. Rather than viewing the situation as "unfairly taking advantage" of the seller, we can view it as "our fair reward for years of study."

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