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Friday, December 28, 2012

"You Should Write A Book," and other fantasies...

I am not a big fan of so-called "New Year's Resolutions." Never really have been. I think making such "promises" to yourself is more likely to result in failure-- after which you feel bad about yourself-- than success. "I'm going to get in shape and lose 30 pounds" may sound good, but most of the time we make these potentially life-changing "promises" in the heat of the moment and with very little planning... and by the third snowy day of February we feel pretty much "done" with putting on winter gear to go for "a brisk walk" at 6:30 in the morning. Not saying it can't be done, just that more people fail than succeed.

Over the years, I've had a number of people write to me (or tell me) that I "should write a book." The words usually come as a result of someone reading one of my blogs or articles online.

"Writing a book" is far from the same thing as writing articles. Besides, I have no idea what I would write a book about. Typically, the implication is that philately needs "introductory" books about stamp collecting for entice newcomers to join the hobby... written as "light" fare, rather than heavy and dull "how to" volumes put together by 50-year veterans who have long since forgotten the joy of sorting through a packet of random inexpensive stamps.

I am not even convinced that stamp collectors (new or old) buy "books" about stamps. I know we buy lots of "catalogues" and I know we buy "reference books..." but just plain "books?" For now, I think I'll stick to writing articles...

The reason I bring the subject up, however, is that I have felt "tempted"-- for several years-- to turn "writing a book" into a New Year's resolution, based on other people's recommendations. Whereas it may sound like a "reasonable" proposition, it's one of those ideas that's doomed to end up in the Graveyard of Failed Projects.

Anyway, rather than focus on actual New Year's Resolutions, I do tend to make a list of "things I'd like to do" during the year ahead. Whereas it really is just a matter of different wording, it feels more "welcoming," and less restrictive and demanding to have a "things I'd like to do" list.

Near the top of the list, I'd like to finish "cataloguing" my collections. It's something I believe all half-way serious stamp collectors should do. I'm not talking about listing every single stamp I own, just about writing a rough summary of what each collection is, what the "highlight better items" are in that collection, what the collection's approximate market value is, along with a couple of places or three where it could best be sold, in the event of my death. As we grow older, it's only fair to those who'll have to be in charge of "our stuff" after we die... and the stream of stories of "I inherited a stamp collection and have NO idea what to do" seems almost endless. I believe many experienced collectors avoid doing this simply because the task seems "overwhelming." But it's only overwhelming because we fall into believing that we have to include a level of detail that's totally unnecessary.

I'd like to move my Denmark specialized collection from stamp albums to stock books. A few months back, I wrote about reasons for choosing Albums or Stock Books for Collections... and I've just reached a point where keeping this collection in actual albums involves so much "page moving" work that I am actually avoiding keeping it up-to-date. I expect the whole project will take several years... but I need to get started on it. It will also give be a nice opportunity to "catalogue" the collection as I go.

I'd like to dispose of the material the "logical" (rather than "emotionally attached") part of me knows I will never get around to sorting or "doing something with." Even though I probably have 30+ years of life left in me, I know I am never going to "get around to" sifting through 100s of old album pages with older France to create a specialized collection of the classics. I know I am never going to "get around to" forming a Swiss cancel collection. I know I am never going to "get around to" sorting 10,000s of GB "Wildings," for a specialized collection... I can barely keep up with the "Machins," as is. Bottom line: I can barely keep up with the collections I am most interested in and deeply committed to... so I have no business harboring fantasies about new collections to be started at some future time when "I have more time."

Maybe that last one sounds a bit harsh, but my goal is to enjoy stamp collecting... and when I face too many "need to get done's" on my plate, it starts feeling too much like "work" and not enough like "fun."

And that is probably more than enough, for now.

Of course, I would also like to continue writing about stamp-related things, since I really do enjoy writing. However, I am going to leave the "you should write a book" bit somewhere in the background, unless inspiration suddenly strikes me, one day... at which time I will probably remind myself that my time would be better spent working on one of my existing projects.

What would YOU like to do (stamps wise) during 2013?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Modern Varieties in Danish Stamp Collecting

Just a few decades ago, specialist stamp collectors looking for plate flaws and minor varieties tended to spend hours poring over loose stamps, using magnifying glasses and even microscopes. Of course, there was a definite limit to "how much you could handle" before stiff necks and severe eye strain set in.

Denmark Scott 668/AFA 702 variety:
Part of the vertical line in wall is missing
In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the number of "varieties" reported, even on relatively modern stamps. This may sound a bit "backwards," given how technology and printing methods have improved, in this digital age-- stamps would be expected to have fewer faults.

So what gives?

I believe the invention of high quality photo scanners has made a huge difference in how we look for varieties. Let's face it-- I can now make a scan of a stock sheet of stamps and "examine" them (without eye strain!) on a scale previously unthinkable, as a single small stamp can be shown as an image that fills my entire computer monitor. Unlike using a microscope (which allows only one stamp at a time to be viewed), scans allow for lots of flexibility. Images can be cut and pasted, contrast enhanced for improved visibility and laid up next to each other for comparison-- something we couldn't even have considered, just 30 years ago.

For many years, I have kept a collection of specialized Danish stamps, with a focus on postmarks and plate flaws. Previously, I "ended" my collection with the year 1930, when Denmark switched from letterpress printed stamps to engraved stamps. I had two motivations for doing so:

One, plate flaws seemed to me to be something that was mostly "documented a long time ago," and I relied on traditional philatelic literature for Denmark (such as the AFA specialized and SAVA varieties stamp catalogues) to tell me what was a variety, and on which stamps I might be able to find it. Which was a result of....

Denmark Scott 561/AFA 578 with variety:
Missing frame line below "NISK"
Two, the thought of "finding your own plate flaws" was relatively unthinkable-- I had neither the patience, nor the eyesight, to pore over 100s of the same stamp, in order to find some minor variety. Until... my first high quality photo scanner made it possible to do so, more conveniently... and photo processing software made it much easier to compare stamps, side-by-side.

These days, I am back to looking at newer Danish stamps, with an eye towards finding plate flaws-- recorded, or not yet recorded. I have basically "expanded" my collection by 50 years, now including varieties on stamps issued up until 1980. The neat thing about this is that it opens the door for many new stamps I can add to my collection... yet at a low price (most stamps from this period are fairly common) I can afford.

Collectors of "Denmark, Specialized" also have a marvelous online research tool... in the form of the Danish online variety catalogue. Started in   the catalogue/website is created through the efforts of a volunteer "study circle" of more than 250 collectors who each contribute their finds (all with detailed images) to the catalogue database... which currently has almost 12,500 items listed. You can find the Denmark Specialized Catalogue and Study Circle here, and even though it is entirely in Danish, it is relatively simple to use, thanks to exceptionally nice graphics... and you can always use an online translator to get a sense of the text.

So, if you have a collection and have reached that "critical point" where filling the next empty space in your album will cost a lot of money-- consider starting a specialized collection of Danish stamps... the possibilities are almost endless!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Stamp Collecting-- is it "Cluttered and Cheap?"

My wife was in the city, giving a workshop-- so I tagged along to go visit some stamp dealers while she was "in session." It is something I enjoy doing, from time to time... sometimes I miss the days when street level stamp shops were more commonplace. These days, stamp stores are few and far between, and many of them are actually general "hobby" shops where you can find everything from sports cards to comics and electric trains... in addition to stamps.

Maybe I'm being overly picky here, but I got to considering whether stamps and stamp collecting are "represented" by dingy, dark, cramped and cluttered stores that make you wonder how many old insects and rat droppings you are going to find, if you buy a box of stamps.

Thinking back to my youth-- when stamp stores were plentiful-- it was a tiny minority that seemed well lit, well organized and clean. Is that what we want, as stamps collectors? Is that a true reflection of "Who We Are," as a group of people.

After we got home, I thought about how this often extends to our modern technological world. Most stamp (dealers') web sites are hardly the model of attractiveness and usability. In fact-- from talking to a few other collectors-- it often seems like a "cheap looking disorganized site" generates more interest than an attractive and well-organized one.

Brings to mind a stamp dealer friend who built himself a new web site, a few years ago. He went from just a bunch of text listings with different colored backgrounds to highlight things... to a very clean looking design that showed off all the stamps really well. He thought he's made a vast improvement in customer service... and was very surprised to learn that a significant number of his customers thought he'd "raised all his prices--" even though all his prices were perfectly unchanged.

Personally, I prefer a nice clean and organized shop or web site. And I especially appreciate a seller who "knows what he/she has" in stock. I don't care for the "I think I may have one of those, let me check my stocks and get back to you in a couple of weeks" school of trading.

How about you?

Friday, December 14, 2012

eCharta: A new Buying & Selling Marketplace for Stamp Collectors

It's no secret that everyone who starts something new generally believes they have "the greatest idea EVER!"

At the very least, they believe that "something needs to be changed," and have enough conviction to set things in motion.

Sadly, most such ideas fail to live up to expectations. It's something we see in all walks of life... from people convinced "they can sing" who then try out for American Idol... where they sound like a distressed seal sitting in an empty oil drum... to the people who start web sites as "alternatives to eBay."

In stamp collecting circles, it's also no secret that many people-- on both the buying AND selling side of the equation are frustrated with eBay. There are a number of reasons for this which I have written about previously, but won't get into here.

eCharta: an authentic alternative to eBay?
95% of new attempts at creating "a philatelic alternative to eBay" are ill-conceived efforts, typically started by a disgruntled former eBay seller who left the giant auction site to "register their disgust" against high fees. Subsequently, most such projects are started by this individual who gets his (or her) hands on some "canned" e-commerce & auction software and then sets up shop, almost exclusively based on the selling point "NO HIGH EBAY FEES HERE!!!"

Three months later, 17 people have signed up, 372 items have been listed for sale (350 of them belonging to the site owner) and none have been sold. Six months later, our "intrepid fee refugee" feels genuinely surprised (and possibly hurt) that people haven't arrived in droves to take advantage of "FREE LISTINGS!!!" Alas, there's a LOT more to running a successful e-commerce site than merely starting one and plastering the word "FREE" everywhere.

Today's post is about a new collector marketplace that genuinely could become a viable "alternative to eBay."

Started in the fall of 2012, eCharta is a marketplace for paper collectibles, not just stamps. Whereas stamps are a major category, you can also find manuscripts, trading cards, postcards, maps and other things relating to collecting paper. UNlike most "eBay alt" attempts, eCharta has a lot of points going in its favor:

  • It's owned and operated by a team of collectors.
  • The site was built from the ground up by professional programmers.
  • It's visually appealing and showcases items for sale in an attractive manner.
  • Free to low fees for sellers.
  • Easy listing process when selling.
  • Auction OR fixed price.
  • Create your own "store" with your own custom categories.
  • Fast and responsive support-- the site operators actually WANT user suggestions.
  • A "mission statement" above and beyond "we're cheaper than eBay."
Even though the site has only been up and "officially" running to the general public since mid-November, there are already close to 5000 items listed for sale (1750+ of them stamps). Just for grins, I put a few items out for sale... and much to my surprise, some of them have already sold. That's almost unheard of, on new sites like this. The link (above) takes you to my "shop" on the site, which will also give you an impression of site appearance, if your "thing" is stamps!

I'm not one to freely (or frequently) recommend web sites and online marketplaces... in fact, I choose to not recommend most places, but his time I'm making an exception to suggest that you should go check this out, sign up and become part of this growing community.

Many in the philatelic world claim they wish there were "real alternatives" to eBay... yet they expect "other people" to make the changes happen, before they'll participate. But that's not how change happens. Change happens because because people get involved in making change happen. I like the people who started this site, I like their concept, and I like the way they've executed it. 

Be PART of a movement to create a genuine eBay alternative!

(and no, nobody paid me to write this... nor do I get anything if you register on the site... this is based 100% on my own experience over the past three weeks. )

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Albums or Stock Books for your Stamp Collection?

I have been sorting stamps, recently.

I always presumed that pretty much all stamp collectors spent a large part of their hobby time engaged in sorting stamps and figuring out which ones to place where and in what album or book, and so forth. It wasn't until fairly recently that someone pointed out to me that many a philatelist doesn't "sort" stamps because they only acquire new material "one stamp at a time, exactly the one they need."

I have personally never collected "like that," so it served as a reminder that there are probably as many ways to collect stamps as there are stamp collectors-- and none of these ways are more "right" or "wrong" than any others.

But I digress.

A page from my Denmark specialized collection-- while there is still room!
The way I have always collected stamps-- and gotten the greatest enjoyment from the hobby, I might add-- is through the "treasure hunt method." I buy boxes and bags of random stamps, accumulations, box lots, kiloware, old collections, wads of album pages, duplicate books, even entire estates... and sort through everything in search of the items I want to add to my collections.

Later, I'll trade or sell off the stamps I don't want... but that's a whole different story, for a different day.

For about the 20th time in my stamp collecting history (which now spans some 45 years), I have been contemplating the question of "Albums vs. Stock Books."

As a specialist collector-- of postmarks, varieties, printings and so forth-- I am increasingly abandoning albums as the way to keep my collections. Albums worked fine for me when I was just collecting "one of each number" of the stamps issued by the country I was focusing on. After all, collecting "France" generally means collecting one of each stamp-- which is a very "finite" goal. There are only "X number" of spaces to fill in the album... and that doesn't really change, except by adding new pages for new issues, at the back end of the album.

The issue with this very "fixed" nature of traditional stamp albums arises when you start specializing-- and the number of stamps you might need to display in an "organized" fashion, in one area (or time period) of your album, isn't pre-determined. Sometimes you may need space for 73 stamps, sometimes for four. In this case, I am talking about the kind of album where you do your own layout on blank pages.

The problem I have repeatedly run into is creating a nice layout for a given page... and then having to repeatedly "insert" new finds where they logically/chronologically "belong," till I reach the point where the album page is either completely full... or looks like a haphazard pile of junk. Worse yet, I end up starting a new album page-- and for years I'll be looking at a page with ONE stamp on it.

A page from my France collection in a pre-printed album-- with stamps outside the spaces
Of course, I have the option of removing stamps from the overfilled page to the new page. On immediate glance, easy enough-- but since I put stamps in my albums with black Showgard style mounts, it actually becomes a pain in the rear. What's more, I'm left having to deal with all my pencil notations next to each stamp-- which I put there for identification purposes. Not to mention the fact that the whole process is extremely time consuming.

Hence, I have been gradually switching to stock books with black pages and clear strips, simply because the whole "moving stamps around" is SO much easier than dealing with an album. And the stamps still look really nice, in the book-- at least to my eye. And since I am not an exhibitor, I don't feel compelled to stick with an exhibition type format.

Stockbooks are definitely the way to go, for me, especially for the specialized collections.

My first major "moving project" involved getting my specialized collection of the Swedish "ringtyp" issue from album pages to stock books. It took a lot of time and effort, but was well worthwhile doing. As most of the varieties and plate flaws on this early issue are not well documented, I really had relatively little idea of the size and scope the collection might grow to. With stock books, I can easily move things around, as new material might demand it.

A page from my Swedish "ringtyp" collection, now housed in stockbooks
Do I still use albums? Absolutely! Most of my more "general" collections are still in albums, even though I expect some of them will move to stock books, over the years. In the future, a likely candidate seems to be my France collection (housed in a pre-printed album I've had since my teen years), which is suffering from "creeping elegance" as I have been adding SON cancels on the older issues, as well as precancels (quite common on French stamps) and a few blocks of four, as they show up.

More currently, I am considering moving my Denmark specialized from self-made album pages to stockbooks. I feel a little hesitant, because I have literally thousands of hours "invested" in creating those albums-- not to mention the many $$$'s I spent on supplies. However, some of the pages have gotten very "untidy" looking-- while others (recently added) are sadly sparse.

Maybe it's just part of the "journey" for long-time stamp collectors that we're always "tweaking" the way we keep our collections organized. And maybe that's part of what keeps us interested in our collections-- even after all these years-- the fact that there is always "something that needs to be done."

How do YOU keep your stamp collections? Are you happy with the way it's working? Do you often reorganize your collection to fit in new material?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Variety Focus: Denmark's 4RBS classic with "Pemberton Double Strikes"

Although widely considered to be "number 2" in many parts of the world, Denmark's 4RBS brown has always been regarded as "Denmark's first stamp" by collectors in Denmark. It was issued to cover prepayment of the ordinary letter rate within Denmark.

Denmark 4 RBS Brown with "Pemberton Double Strikes"
In the Danish AFA catalogue, the 4RBS is listed as no. 1, and was issued on April 1, 1852, a month before the 2 RBS blue-- which is recognized as no. 2 in Denmark, but no. 1 in some parts of the world. It's a bit confusing-- but I personally believe the Danish approach is the most appropriate one, since these two stamps were definitely not issued as "a set," so treating them as if they "belong together" is incorrect.

The 4 RBS stamp is widely collected by specialists, and offers up a wealth of printings, colors and plate flaws. Even though it is a "number one" stamp from the 1850's, it remains reasonably affordable, with a catalogue value in the range of US$40.00 and up depending on the printing and color.

Over 15 million copies were originally printed-- across different printings-- so quite a few are still around. Collectible quality copies (maybe with 3 margins, or some tiny flaw) can generally be had for about US$10.00, although premium quality 4-margin copies sell for considerably more.

Detail of left and right frame lines
One of the major varieties on this stamp is known as the "Pemberton Double Strike" stamp, named after the philatelist who first identified it, many years ago.

The stamp is found only on plate I, position 19, and has a very visible splitting of the frame line at right, as well as a double frame line at left, and lots of "double strikes" in the wreath at bottom right.

This is not a Scott listed variety, although other large catalogues list it. The Danish AFA Specialized catalogue lists it, and most serious collectors in Denmark are familiar with it. The current catalogue value in the Danish AFA Specialized catalogue is 3000,- Danish kr. (about US $520.00).

The photo at left shows the double frame line at left (over the word "KONGELIGT") as well as the thickening/doubling of the right frame line, starting at the upper right corner.

Although this is a fairly scarce variety, copies can be found almost anywhere-- my own example came from an APS Sales Division circuit book-- which goes to show that it's always a good idea to take a closer look at stamps-- even those that are quite familiar to you!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Writing... for non-stamp collectors

Regular readers of these pages will know that I am not only passionate about philately... I am also passionate about "spreading the word" about stamp collection to people not currently involved with the hobby. I strongly believe that one of the ways we'll keep the stamp collecting hobby going for many years to come is to reach out to those who don't currently collect... simply relying on "former" collectors and parents passing collections to their children is not enough.

Part of what I do for a living is write-- although I haven't written much about stamps, aside from this blog. Recently, I've gotten more interested in the idea of writing "general" stamp articles in an attempt to reach the NON-philatelic press.

The first (hopefully of many!) article was recently finished and has now been posted to a web site I sometimes use to "test publish" new articles. It's a "sand box" of sorts, where I can post articles, invite people to go read them, then fine tune them and get feedback, while having them out there in "public view." If the response is positive-- after revisions have been done-- maybe the article will be "publication worthy."

As of this writing, a couple of editors I work with (on material that has NOTHING to do with stamps) have expressed some preliminary interest.

This first article in somewhat broad strokes covers how stamps came about, followed by a little bit of the history and evolution of stamp collecting, from the 1850's to the present day. It's fairly "light and fluffy," but there's only so much you can say in an "article length" piece. Of course, this is not written for the existing stamp collector, but for the casual reader marginally familiar with the idea that "people collect stamps," or possibly someone who collected stamps as a child and might feel inspired to pull out their old collection from the back of the closet.

Stamp Collecting: The Rise & Fall... and Rebirth of the World's Greatest Hobby

Naturally, any comments and feedback on the article are invited and welcomed. This is just ONE approach-- my hope is to write a whole group of "introductory" articles about different aspects of (introductory) philately-- and with a bit of luck get one or two published in non-philatelic magazines.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Mysteries in Stamp Buying

Like most stamp collectors these days, I get many of the new stamps for my collection from an assortment of online sources. After almost 20 years of using the web as a resource, there are things that continue to mystify and confound me.

Top of my list of mysteries is sellers who try to sell stamps without a photo. Just how is that supposed to work? If I can't see the stamp-- especially if it's a stamp you're expecting me to pay more than US $5.00-- why would I want to buy it?

I hear millions of rationalization about how much time it takes to scan things, followed by other rationalizations that I "can return anything I don't like." Whereas that is fair enough, it still misses the point for me. I don't want to deal with the hassle and time wasting of returning things.

VF? Perhaps, but these are NOT "the same" stamp.
Of course, I collect postally used stamps. And (I believe) the faulty assumption that underlies for sale listings without images is that collectors "don't care" what the stamp looks like.


Not only do I want to see what the postmark looks like before I buy, I want to be able to see your "definition" of what Very Fine might be.

Indeed, the photo at right may show two copies of "the same" VF stamp from Denmark-- but they are definitely NOT "the same," are they? Not only is the postmark quality vastly different, the stamps are different colors, meaning they came from different printings of the stamp. Without a photo, how would I know what I was buying?

Fortunately, I do have a choice, in terms of who I buy from-- and I buy from those who have scans of their stamps. Delcampe has been an excellent site for buying for me, because pretty much everything is photographed. BidStart is a good source, as well, as can be eBay, although with the latter one must be careful as many stamps are offered by non-collectors who are not aware of the importance of a good quality photo. Finally, there is private dealers Poppe Stamps-- who, as a seller, is an illustration of how it IS possible to have all your stamps scanned, regardless of price-- they have over 1.5 million items to look at!

Another mystery in my buying experience is the ambiguity of "condition."

No faults? No way! Toned perfs, round corner, corner crease...
I can appreciate that-- at least in the USA-- terms like "Very Fine" and "Fine" ultimately are only referring to centering. Thus, the Danish stamp pictured at left is-- technically speaking-- "VF."

But that's not really the "mystery." The mystery is how well-respected major dealers can list such a stamp with a picture and the description "nice stamp, no faults" when you can clearly tell from the scan that there are  toned perfs on at least three sides and a rounded corner and a corner crease at upper left. On what planet is that a stamp with "no faults?"

Is the seller just hoping to "get lucky" that someone will actually pay 50% of catalogue value for a damaged stamp... or is this genuine ignorance of what makes up stamp condition?

A "smaller" mystery is the strange sellers of "random stamps." What do I mean by that? Well, these are the people-- often on smaller auction or fixed price sites-- who will offer little lots that might contain five stamps from a country, two of them mint, three of them used; three in good condition, two spacefillers; none of them even from the same set. Almost as if the seller went through a collection and randomly pulled out stamps and offered a lot of "stamps."

Who BUYS stamps like that? It may be convenient for you-- as a seller-- but it's a meaningless offer to 95% of the collectors looking at what you have for sale.

A somewhat related mystery is "complete sets."

I realize it's kind of nifty to finish out a set in your collection. But notice something about that last sentence? The words "finish out." I don't think I've ever bought a "complete set" of stamps except when it was a new issue from the post office.

The reality of most collections is that collectors typically already have six spaces in a set of ten filled-- perhaps from packets, or trading or sales circuits. "Complete sets" are a hard sell...

... and if you think about it, have you ever noticed how most of the major catalogues actually list "complete sets" at a discount from the price of the individual stamps, added together? A lot of people will argue that the higher price for singles is a "service charge" for breaking the set... but I just don't believe that to be true. I believe the TRUTH is that sets are priced lower because there's less demand for them.

Thankfully, we have choices, when it comes to buying online... and many more choices than we used to have.

Still, when I think back on the earlier days of buying stamps for my collection, I never bought stamps I couldn't see-- except for "mystery box lots" from auctions. I never once responded to any of those endless "price lists" in Linn's Stamp News or other publications... that were just typed lists of catalogue numbers and prices. All my stamps came from shows, circuit books, stamp club or dealers-- where I could examine the stamps before buying.

Remember, you always have a CHOICE when buying stamps. And the hard-earned money you spend on your collection is like "voting" for the sellers who are doing a good job!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Classic Stamps from Denmark: Ending September 16th

The weather seems to have "broken," here in the US Pacific Northwest. About 10 days ago, we could feel the "warm stillness" of summer give way to the "cool breeziness" of autumn. We are also at the point where the days are getting notably shorter.

XF 7ø provisional with plate flaw in base stamp
For me, these changes also indicate that "stamp season" is about to begin!

As an outdoor enthusiast, I have always been a somewhat "seasonal" collector. This is probably a habit I formed in childhood, where we considered stamp collecting to be a "wintertime thing." Anyway, as the weather gets less pleasant and the days shorten, I usually move towards indoor activities... like working on my stamp collections.

Last week, I finally finished sorting a nice collection of Denmark, bought at auction in Sweden, this past winter (interesting reminder of how truly international our hobby is!). Whereas I found some interesting stamps for my own collection, there were also many really nice items left over-- and so, I decided it was a good time to put them into my first set of eBay stamp auctions of the new "season!"

Here's the direct link ▼:

Classic Denmark at auction: September 9th-16th, 2012

The current auctions include 64 lots very nice older Denmark, with catalogue values to US $300.00+.

A small selection of the current Danish stamps at auction
The large photo at left (click on the image for a larger version!) shows just a few of the items included in this sale. A few more are shown throughout this post.

Individual items include 24 different skilling period stamps, highlighted by an 1864 16sk Arms Type with a major variety and beautiful cancel; also including four different version of the 4 RBS brown, Denmark's first stamp. Then there are some nice "Bicolours," and better stamps like the 5kr Post Office and 1kr brown "Old" Airmail. There are also some nice plate flaws and varieties sprinkled in, along with some lower value stamps chosen simply because they are in super nice quality.

My "philosophy" for running eBay auctions is quite simple, and has been the same since I started on eBay in 1998:

All my auctions begin at US $0.99 and no reserve, regardless of value. If I was looking to"auction" stamps at "retail" prices, I'd just have a retail store. In the current auction series, many stamps have values at-- or above-- US $100.00.

20 øre Arms type with small corner numerals
All lots have large clear scans, allowing collectors-- and especially specialists-- to see exactly what they are bidding on.

All lots have full descriptions. In my world, "see scan" has never constituted a "description." So I actually examine every stamp and write what I see. And I am not afraid to write about faults. I want bidders to actually GET what they think they are bidding on.

Auctions all end at a "sensible" time, both for bidders in Europe, as well as in the US. In addition, I list items to end one minute apart, so those who still enjoy "live last-minute bidding" can participate in many individual auctions. I actively reject eBay's efforts to turn their site into a "shop" venue, rather than an "auction" venue... auction bidding is FUN, if you ask me!

Combined shipping at a reduced rate is always available. Because I prefer to list a substantial number of stamps from the same area, at the same time, combined shipping actually makes sense. I find it so ironic when sellers offer "combined shipping" and then list 100 stamps from 63 different countries... of which I only collect two. Honestly... what's the point?

If it turns out you don't like the stamp or I missed a fault in the description, you can always send it back for a refund. I'm basically in the "happy collectors" business.

So, please take a few moments to go have a look! You never know, I may have something that exactly fits an empty spot in your album... and you may be able to pick up something at a bargain price, as well. I have a number of dealers who always check out my auctions because the possibility exists that you could get a $100 stamp for $3. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen!

Keep in mind: Auctions end Sunday, September 16th at 22:00 Central European (Denmark) time; at 4:00pm US Eastern; 1:00pm US Pacific time.

Thank you for your interest, and good luck with your bids!

As always, I appreciate you helping spread the word about these, using the twitter, Facebook and Google+ buttons, below!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Denmark 40 øre Stamp: Sometimes a Little Means a Lot!

I add stamps to my collections from many different venues-- ranging from exchanges to stamp shows to large international philatelic auctions.

Recently, I purchased some stamps from the APS StampStore... and got a nice little (unexpected) "bonus," in the process. It reminded me how-- as a specialist collector-- it's often something quite small that makes a big difference.

Denmark AFA 105 & 105a; Scott 116 & 117
In 1918, Denmark issued a number of definitive stamps in the long-running series featuring King Christian X facing to the right. The 40 øre value was actually issued in two distinct versions: The lilac and black (at left) is generally regarded as the "main" stamp, while the distinctly different blue-lilac and black is regarded by most as a "color variety." The US-based Scott catalogue assigns separate numbers, while most others list the first stamp with its own number and the blue-lilac with an "a" designation. The blue-lilac is somewhat harder to find.

I am always looking for "really nice" copies of Danish stamps-- my collections are centered around having "excellent quality" stamps in all my album spaces. That's not everyone's strategy, of course, but it happens to be my personal preference.

So when I found a lot with 4 different Christian X stamps, I was quite happy to purchase the lot of four, in order to get the really nice example of the 40 øre blue-lilac, pictured at right. Very well centered, with a fairly "crisp" cancel and good perfs, it is the kind of quality I look for. Although there are a couple of tiny cancel smudges, it will do nicely till I find a better example.

In Denmark-- and beyond-- the "bi-coloured" King Christian X definitives have become a very popular specialist area. For the most part, the stamps are reasonably valued (the exception being the 27 øre and 10kr stamps) and fairly readily available.

The issue also offers the specialist a great many plate flaws to look for. Part of what makes this series interesting is the two-color printing process: The outer frame was printed during one pass through the presses; the center on a second pass. Since the same center (portrait) plates were used for different values (different frames), it's possible to find the same portrait plate flaws on different stamps. Naturally, the different value frame plates all developed distinct plate flaws of their own. And because it's a two-step printing process, you can also find some notable colour-shifts.

I was about to put the stamp into my album when I noticed something slightly "odd."

Take a look at the bottom right corner. It is slightly rounded, and there seems to be a small "line" across it. Listed as AFA number 105av, this is one of the recognized "major" plate flaws on this stamp.

Although it's no great rarity-- the error occurs on four stamps in each sheet of 100-- it still meant that my $5.00 stamp was now a listed AFA variety with a catalogue value of 400,- Danish kroner-- about US $70.00!

For me, a large part of the appeal of being a "specialist" lies in the fun of the "treasure hunt" and finding the unexpected. I also like the fact that it allows me to "continue collecting" now that I have reached a point where I am only missing a very few and very expensive stamps in terms of "main catalogue numbers." Increasing the size of my collection simply through my (limited!) ability to spend thousands of dollars on the next stamp doesn't hold much appeal.

Hence, I started to specialize.

All you really need is a keen eye and the knowledge (which I get from a number of different articles and specialist literature) to know what to look for. And sometimes you may even find "something new" from simply looking carefully at what seems like a very "normal" stamp!

Thursday, September 06, 2012

And now for something completely different... FREE stamps!

When you're a long-time stamp collector, it's almost inevitable that there occasionally are stamps "left over." Some are valuable and can be sold on places like eBay; some have little worth or are defective... personally, I prefer to give those to artists who create interesting scrapbook art or stationery people can enjoy; that way awareness of "old stamps" is spread beyond the existing stamp collector community.

One of my current free listings: US Scott 185
Catalogue value $17.50 (click on image)
Finally, there are some some stamps that are just "somewhere in the middle." Maybe they are in sound condition and list for a couple of dollars in catalogue value, or perhaps they have a catalogue value of $7 but a minor defect or uninteresting cancel. What to do, with these stamps?

For over ten years, I've just been putting them aside in glassines marked "better," saving them for some day where I might have a suitable answer.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a then new website called "Listia" and said "this is pretty cool." Now, I'm not the kind of person who finds something "new" and immediately starts to tell everyone who's willing to listen that it's "the greatest thing EVER," until I've actually determined that it really IS something worthwhile that other people will enjoy. Hence, I learned about this web site two years ago, but I have chosen not to write about it till now... I just have an "issue" about not recommending things that are ill-conceived and turn out to be a waste of time.

So what exactly IS this "Listia?" Well, it's an auction site somewhat in the style of eBay, except it's about giving away things for FREE. Yes, I said "free," and that includes free stamps.

Now, most of us have been taught that there is "no such thing as a free lunch," and when something is supposedly free, there's usually "a catch."

In this case-- and this is based on having actually used the site for a while, not just "promises in a site description"-- the "catches" are fairly minor. For one (which is pretty unavoidable if you're using the Internet!) you have to register and create an account. Second, where as this genuinely IS a site about "free stuff," it basically operates as an "Exchange and Barter" venue, in the sense that you participate in auctions using the site's "currency," or "credits."

Another free stamp: Scott US E6 used, CV $10.00 (click on image)
Aside from the initial credits you earn simply for signing up, you get more credits by offering things in auctions and having others bid on your free item with their credits.

Here's how it might work: You register on the site. Maybe you list 10 different stamps you wouldn't mind parting with-- exchanging, basically. There are NO fees to do so. Site users can then "bid" on your stamps with "credits."  After a week, your auctions end, and perhaps you have earned 5000 credits (just an example). Then you can turn around and use your credits to bid on stamps you want.

To my way of thinking, this is much better than exchanging stamps 1-on-1 where you are dependent on the other person actually having the material you want... instead, you can just save up your credits and use them to bid for any number of other people's stamps that might interest you.

For those who don't have the patience to list items, you can buy credits to use to place your bids-- but it's totally not necessary, in order to use the site. It can be honestly said that the site can be used completely FREE-- no cash or money needed to be an active participant.

Some might ask why the bother with a "credit" system. The credit system is necessary in order to maintain an active community and a ongoing stream of these listings for free items. After all, if everything was just free-- with NO requirements or strings attached-- a bunch of people would descend on the site like vultures and make a full-time habit of just grabbing everything and returning nothing to the site. Which would also mean that the site would have long since gone away, as the supply of free stuff would dry up thanks to greedy "freebie seekers."

Another free stamp: US Scott 399 used, CV $10.00 (click on image)
Now, I should add that this is not specifically a "stamp" site, nor even a "collectibles" site. Like an eBay, it's pretty much an "everything" site. For example, I have listed old stamps, coins and bank notes which has earned me "credits" I am planning to use to "buy" DVD movies. You can also find clothing, home furnishings, electronics and more.

The reason I am writing about this today is that I am hoping to be part of a move to make the "stamps" category a larger and more vibrant part of the Listia community... Why? Because it really does offer the potential to develop into a viable online "stamp exchange" forum. I have been watching Listia for a couple of years, and feel confident that it is not a "flash in the pan" that's going to go away as quickly as it came. In other words, it's "established" enough to be something I feel comfortable talking about.

There are a number of reasons I am recommending this site to the stamp collector community.

For one, it's free. And we all like free. In these days of rising seller fees on many sites, there are fewer and fewer options for collectors to trade their low-to-medium value stamps without having to hand over the majority of the value to someone else in fees.

Second, a free site takes us "back to basics." Many people got involved in "swapping stamps" because it was a FUN way to add to a collection. This site offers a nice platform for an online stamp "swap meet."

Third, it's free, part 2. As collectors, we seem to have increasingly moved towards a "money based" system for building our collections. More and more collectors just BUY stamps, rather than belonging to a shrinking number of stamp clubs and trading. What if we had a place to trade, that was based on popularity, demand and supply... rather than "dollars and cents?"

A free US Stamp: Scott no. 234, CV $9.50 (click on image)
Fourth... it's FUN! It's still possible to experience the thrill of the hunt and finding something you really need for your collection... and it's still possible to experience the thrill (as the person having something up for auction) of a bunch of people getting into "heated competition" to get a stamp they really want... and yet no money changes hands!

Fifth, it's a good venue for those who don't have a lot of money-- because you can still trade online, but it doesn't have to involve money.

With that said, I'd like to invite readers of this blog to go to the Listia site and become members. It doesn't cost anything. List a few stamps you wouldn't mind parting with and see what happens. That also doesn't cost anything-- and stamps are very popular with existing members. Become part of the community, and help build the stamps area as a trading community for stamp collectors around the world! You can visit my profile page and check out that I really have been a member for several years. Have a look at my current listings for stamps, which really and truly are free... just sign up and bid. A number of current items are pictured throughout this blog post.

Bottom line: I'm just suggesting this as part of an effort to put the fun back in stamp collecting. The only thing I stand to "gain" getting more people involved in something that could become a potentially neat stamp trading site. Give it a go!

Last word: I know there are a few skeptics out there who are thinking: "How can the site even exist if it doesn't make money?" Good question. As I said, they DO sell "credits," the internal "currency" of the web community. They also bank on the difference between the "open market rate" of credits as items trade between "buyers" and "sellers" vs. the somewhat higher cash rate for credits charged for items offered the Listia "Rewards Store."

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Up for Auction: Classic Sweden with Varieties and Better Cancels

It's stamp auction time again, and this week the focus is on older Swedish stamps, including varieties and better town cancels.

Scarce shade of 6ö grey
The Swedish "ringtyp" (or "circle type") stamps of 1872-1891 happen to be one of my areas of specialization-- I collect both plate flaws as well as nicer town cancels on these classic issues. This week I am letting go of a number of duplicates.

All items listed start bidding at just 99 cents, and there is NO reserve... regardless of the stamp's value. Some of these items are quite good, including such stamps as this genuine deep blue-gray 6 öre perf. 14-- the scarcest of the grey shades of this stamp, with a catalogue value of 1000:- Swedish kr. in the Facit catalogue. There are also some nice stamps from the "Arms" (Vapentyp) series.

There are at least a dozen listings featuring plate flaws on these classic stamps-- making this a nice group for the specialist.

This auction series also includes some nice town cancels from Sweden-- currently one of the most popular specialties within Swedish philately.

Bidding remains open till Sunday afternoon, August 12th, so I hope you'll go take a look. Since everything is listed with a low starting bid, there's always a good chance to find some bargains!

A nice WADSTENA cancel
Thanks for your interest!

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Is eBay Making Itself Obsolete for Stamp Sellers?

Yesterday, I got a notice from eBay, explaining that my "seller performance" wasn't up to snuff. As as result-- I learned-- a number of restrictions had been placed on my selling account. As a point of reference, I am a 14-year "veteran" of eBay, and have a 100% positive feedback rating.

Now, it's no secret that eBay often is the source of controversy among hobbyists (like me) and stamp dealers who sell stamps on the mega-auction site. In the course of the last 10-odd years, eBay has developed from a rather interesting "online collectibles mart and garage sale" to something akin to yet another colorless "Online Mega-mall."

That's just personal opinion, of course.

In spite of complaints and occasional collective whining, many stamp sellers have stuck it out with eBay, even though the fees are somewhat high and there are lots of "rules" that frequently make it difficult for stamp sellers to operate. But they still stick to it. I would count myself among those. Why? Because eBay works!

Here's the thing, you can go to an "eBay alt" site and pay "no fees" and end up selling three items a month (if you're lucky!) or you can sell on eBay and pay 30% overhead to sell 100 items a month. Simple math: You made $30 on the "alt" site but PAID NO FEES!!! (to be said with a combination of smugness and pride) or you made $700 on eBay paying $300 worth of fees... to me, that's a no-brainer. Being "offended by fees" is-- in essence-- just another variation of "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

Again, that's just personal opinion, albeit backed up with experience.

My background is in business management (among other things) and ecommerce. If you run any semblance of "a business," you go where you can make the money. And making money isn't about having things "FOR sale," it's about actually "SELLING" them. A lot of the people in what I dub the "No Fees Club" take a rather myopic view of selling expenses, somehow turning the avoidance of them into the single most important aspect of "success." Then they tend to point fingers at those who say "But I'm not actually SELLING anything!" (on some eBay alternative site) and actually blame the lack of sales on them for not lowering their prices since they are "not paying fees."

Ultimately, "lowering prices" is the single weakest marketing and business development strategy in the world. Let's face it-- if you lower your prices by 30% because you are no longer paying 30% overhead... but you only make 1/3 as many sales... you end up allowing yourself to be far WORSE off than you we're before. Get real!

But getting back to eBay's most recent changes, there's now a certain element of doom on the horizon, when it comes to being a stamp seller. And it's not that eBay is on some kind of vendetta against stamp sellers, it's just that we who trade stamps happen to have a product that doesn't fit eBay's new "general" policy.

This stamp can be purchased for $6.00 in my eBay shop.
75c shipping is fair, but would you pay an extra $3.00 to get it?
Here's how things have typically worked out for me, in my prior dealings on eBay: When I sell a random $8.00 stamp, it goes into a first class envelope and I have historically charged US $0.75 for shipping to buyers in the US, $1.95 to buyers elsewhere. That covers the cost of a 2-ounce (up to 60g) letter and supplies-- an envelope, a cardboard insert to protect the stamp(s), a glassine for each stamp. I'm not here to make money on shipping.

Problem number 1: In order to comply with eBay's new guidelines to be a "top rated seller," I must upload "tracking information" within 24 hours of shipment. Here's the problem: you can't have tracking information on a normal letter. In order to get that additional service, the package (containing my $8.00 stamp) would have to be shipped as a "first class parcel." So now the cost to mail is $1.95 for postage + $0.85 for trackable delivery, for a total of $2.80. What's more, I can no longer use a plain envelope to mail (cost $0.02), I have to use either a "photo mailer" or a padded envelope (cost $0.25 each, even in bulk). So... my effective cost to mail a stamp would go from slightly under $0.75 to $3.05, in order to follow the new guidelines.

Problem number 2: Stamp collectors... collect stamps. It would be possible for me to make shipping less expensive by using an online shipping service, through which the USPS offers reduced priced shipping and free (or very low cost) tracking. However, that would mean using a pre-printed and encoded paper label as postage, rather than stamps. Pretty boring, for a stamp collector-- especially given how many buyers write to me (with their payment) to say "please use current commemorative stamps on your mailing." Thus following the one avenue to savings would potentially hurt my reputation, as a seller.

Problem number 3: Even IF I were to follow eBay's guidelines to obtain "top rated seller status," I would promptly lose it. Why? Let's face it, stamp collectors are pretty "thrifty" folks. And in the "detailed seller ratings" on eBay, there's one "grade" you give sellers for "reasonable shipping costs?" If I am charging $3.05 to send an $8.00 stamp it would not be long before I'd get sufficient "low seller ratings" (because $3.05 IS expensive, to ship one stamp) to no longer be in line with "top seller" requirements... and then I'd be right back to square one.

Problem number 4: This one is particularly important! When you are not a "top rated seller," there are limitations placed on your seller account (as I just discovered), as to how many items you can list, how much you can sell (dollar wise) and how long it takes for funds from PayPal to be "released" to you. Ironically-- the delay of payment is actually being caused by the lack of tracking information-- the very requirement that's causing the "failure," in the first place. In other words, if I decide-- and even if my (and other stamps sellers') buyers agree-- that being a top rated seller is "not important" to me, I am also agreeing to the following "penalties" or "sanctions," if you will: (a) I no longer qualify for a 20% discount on my selling fees, (b) I will only be permitted to offer a fairly low number of stamps for sale, per month, (c) in case I thought to by-pass "b" by offering high value stamps, I am only permitted a limited dollar volume per month and (d) because my seller performance doesn't meet eBay's standards, I will no longer have immediate access to PayPal payments made to me. Now IF I were uploading aforementioned "tracking information" that delay would be only a few days... but since I am a stamp seller, and we've agreed that tracking information doesn't really "work" in this field, the PayPal delay will be three weeks!

I've been selling on eBay for a LONG time... and my buyers seem to
be fairly happy with the way I treat them.
I'll state, once more, that I have no individual beef with eBay, as a marketplace. But I do feel saddened by the fact that the "product" offered by stamp sellers is-- for lack of a better term-- "incompatible" with selling on the "new" eBay. As a long-time eBay fan with a good reputation as as seller, I feel like I am coming up against a "no-win" situation.

There are plenty of rumors in the stamp trade that eBay is "out to get us," prompting the question: "Is eBay trying to 'get rid of' stamp sellers?" Doubtful. Sound like "conspiracy theory" thinking, to me. As of this morning, there were approximately 2.37 MILLION listings across eBay's various stamps categories. If you're a publicly traded corporation who has to keep shareholders happy, would you be likely to "dump" one of the largest categories on the site? Probably not. It's more likely an issue of eBay management simply not understanding that not all products are sold the same way... and the people in the boardroom being so far removed from the "street level operations" that they don't see any logistical issues with a "one size fits all (sellers)" approach.

The challenge-- and problem-- facing stamp sellers is that there really is no "viable alternative" to eBay, if this somewhat hostile selling environment persists. Sure, dozens of people will read that last sentence and insist that they "do well" on any number of other sites. However, a closer examination of all these alternatives (simply done by looking at the percentage of "closed" listings that ended with a sale, and the number of listings "with bids" as a percentage of total listings) will reveal that "eBay alts" are LUCKY to have a sell-through rate between 5% at the top end (Delcampe and Stamps2Go) and down to less than 1% for most... compared to eBay's 30-40% sell-through rate. From a personal perspective, when I run stamp auctions on eBay, my sell-through rate has been in the range of 90-95%. Meanwhile my "alt site" efforts have mainly resulted in private messages asking things like "Will you take $2 for that stamp you've listed for $8?"

I don't expect eBay to suddenly "see the light" and institute lower fees for the benefit of stamp sellers, and that's not my point, in writing this article. It's not the fees I have a beef, it's the limitations placed on sellers. What I would hope for-- against the flow, no doubt-- is a chance to be able to conduct my business in peace, the way business in my "industry" normally is conducted. I accept that I may not be able to be a "top rated" seller, but I'd like the opportunity to not have "the system" automatically relegate me to "below standard," with the attendant limitations on my selling activities.

Bottom line: Individual sellers are NOT "Wal-Mart." Individual sellers are what add interest and uniqueness to a marketplace. And, ironically enough, eBay was BUILT on individual sellers... there would be no eBay, were it not for the thousands of individual sellers who sold their "stuff" and collectibles, back in the 1990's.

So is there a "win/win" solution in all this?

Perhaps. One option might be to force ALL eBay sellers to include a "weight" entry with all their listings. For stamps, sports cards and the like, that would be a fraction of an ounce. Subsequently, any parcels below a certain weight-- say 4 ounces-- could be made exempt from the tracking requirement, thus taking most stamp sellers "out of the loop" while still leaving the tracking requirement intact where it is "relevant," namely for larger packages. The beauty of this approach is that it doesn't try to "play favorites" with stamp sellers, it addresses a broader issue that items shipped in an ordinary first-class letter can't purchase tracking.

Another and perhaps more feasible solution-- given the existing eBay interface and the way pages are coded and linked to both PayPal and shipping services (UPS/USPS/FedEx, etc) is to simply add "First Class LETTER" as a shipping method, when items are listed. If you (as a seller) choose that as "how this item will ship" it will automatically "filter through the system" from the USPS site that the shipment in this particular sale can't be tracked... and if something was shipped "first class letter" there will be no place to enter "tracking information." Subsequently (to the benefit of sellers who sell "mixed goods") only "trackable" transactions would count towards a given seller's "top rated seller" status. So... if I sell 500 stamps and 50 stockbooks... I would still have to upload tracking info for the 50 stockbooks... but I wouldn't be penalized for NOT doing so, with the 500 stamps. The 500 stamps would be "non-counting transactions."

Another alternative would be to have "business" and "individual" class sellers on eBay, where an "individual" is subject to less stringent rules than a "business." They could be delineated by a number of transactions or dollar volume per year. That method would be somewhat harder to implement, however, and would make less "sense" in terms of WHY we use tracking information for packages.

Of course, that's not an easy "sell," as eBay has made itself a major stakeholder in the shipping business, by charging final value fees on shipping. But sometimes you have to look beyond the immediately obvious and consider the longer term benefits.

I hope you have learned something from reading this commentary, or-- at least-- it made you pause and think. If you are a stamp (or other) seller on eBay and you can see the inherent in eBay's new guidelines, please take a moment to tweet this article, or post it to your Facebook page, or google+ it, or post to your newsgroup, or stamp collecting forums. As you probably know, NOTHING happens unless there's awareness. And there can be no awareness, unless people spread the word. And remember, this also affects you if you're only a BUYER of stamps on eBay-- if the dealers leave, so do the stamps!

So spread the word!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summertime and Stamp Collecting

I realized, this morning, that it has been almost six weeks since I last posted here.

In a sense, it reminds me of my collecting "habits," both as a child, and as an adult-- when summer rolls around, I just don't get the stamps out very often.

Nor, or so it seems, do very many other people. A couple of days ago, I mailed an order for stamps that someone had placed in my eBay stamp store. It was the first time in almost three weeks that anyone had bought something. In the winter, there are usually orders almost every day; sometimes several per day.

It's the time of the year for beach combing!
Summers in western Washington state tend to be short, and sun is a commodity we rarely see during the winter months. As such, we tend to get out there and enjoy it, while we can. For the most part, my wife and I have been gardening and beach combing.

Right now, there's a pile of stamp albums on one of the work tables in my home office. They came from a European stamp auction, back in late May. Aside from a cursory glance when they first arrived, I have not found the time to do the thorough examination of them I like to do... to see if there are any varieties or rare cancels I want to add to my collection. And frankly? I have not felt the inclination, either-- just like I haven't felt the inclination to scan and list new stamps in the places where I sell my duplicates. I know that these albums will most likely sit untouched till sometime in late September, when the first good autumn rain and storm arrives... and the idea of "indoor activities" once again sounds appealing.

I have not been completely out of the "stamp loop," however. I have been evaluating various eBay "alternative" sites where I have listed stamps for sale over the past couple of years-- just to see if there were any buyers. In recent years, there has been much talk about a "mass exodus" of stamp sellers from eBay (due to increasing fees) and I was curious to see just how vaible the alternatives were. After all, what good is "low fees" if NOBODY ever looks at your stamps, or buys them? I plan to review each site in a series of articles, later this year. 

During our few dull days, I have been writing. As some readers may know, I am very dedicated to help the stamp collecting hobby survive and thrive. I am working on a series of stamp collecting articles, which will we placed in NON-philatelic places (publications and web sites), in the hope of drawing a few new collectors to the hobby.

Aside from that, I don't have any exciting stamp news to offer.

I hope everyone is having a nice summer!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Where to Buy Stamps: APS Stamp Circuit Books

Since I just wrote about the American Philatelic Society's StampStore, I thought I'd take a moment to cover one of the other stamp "buying venues" available to APS Members: One of the many ways I add to my collection is through "circuit books" from the APS. I find this can be a handy-- although sometimes expensive-- way to find new material.

What are APS circuit books? Well, once every few weeks I get a box of up to 10 books mounted with stamps for sale, from different APS Collector members. Because the APS is a large organization, I get to specify the particular areas I'd like to receive circuit books from. The name "circuit" derives from the fact that a batch of 10 books complete a "circuit" among 5-10 society members, before being returned to the central office.

The stamp selection I most recently received was a "General Scandinavia" circuit, and I thought I'd share what I found as it offers readers a sense of what might be expected. I'll also add a few notes about why I decided to keep the stamps I chose.

Book 1 contained 13 pages of Icelandic stamps and 3 pages with Denmark. I didn't find anything special in the Iceland area, but the three pages of Denmark had some surprisingly interesting items.

A very nice copy of one of the very early printings of the 12 øre Bicolour issue from Denmark. On closer inspection, the stamp looks like it might be from the very difficult 1st or 2nd printings, which can be very difficult to find in nice condition. Since these are valued in the Danish AFA Specialized catalogue at at least 400,- Danish kr. (US $68.00/54.00 Euro), the asking price of US $1.25 was quite a bargain.

A nice example of the 20 øre Wavy Lines type from 1912. The vast majority of the 13.7 million stamps issued are the normal "dark blue" colour. However, this was not the "regular" stamp, but the scarce "blackish blue" shade, only listed in Scandinavian catalogues.

It is difficult to make a scan that accurately shows just how dark the blue color is, on this, but to the trained eye of a long-time Denmark collector, the blackish-blue version stands out.

This particular stamp was also interesting to me because of the almost complete Copenhagen cancel.

The normal 20 øre blue has Scott value of US $0.80, but the blackish-blue is valued at 140,- Danish Kr. (US $23.50/18.50 Euro) in the AFA catalogue, so this was hard to pass up at just US $0.25.

Next in the book I found a presentable example of the 60 øre brown & blue bicolour Christian X stamp from 1919. Although listed as the "regular" stamp, I recognized this as the scarcer brown & ultramarine shade, and based on the color, I wondered if it might even be the rarer "dark" ultramarine.

The color of this particular stamp seems to cause trouble for many collectors. I see as many stamps with a "blue" center listed as "ultramarine," as I see "ultramarine" stamps listed as "blue." A stamp like this-- where there is a considerable value difference between the two shades-- is a good reminder to invest in a "color guide" which is available from a number of stamp supplies sellers. The Scott catalogue values the "brown & blue" version of this stamp at US $4.00, but even the least expensive "brown & ultra" version lists for 150,- Danish Kr. (US $25.50/20.00 Euro) in the AFA catalogue, so at US $1.50, a good buy.

Book 2 contained used Norway. Sadly, most of the better stamps were faulty, so I was just not interested. Among the newer cheaper stamps, there were no S.O.N. postmarks, so book ended up being a zero.

Book 3 contained MNH Faroe Islands-- but since I don't collect mint, it was of no interest to me.

Book 4 contained mixed Scandinavia. This is actually my favorite kind of book, as they are typically mounted by general worldwide collectors, so there is less chance the stamps have been gone over by a specialist.

What I found in this book was some rather uninspiring Iceland, some not very interesting Denmark... except for a nice copy of Denmark's first stamp, the 4RBS brown. This was a 4-margin copy of the Ferslew (1st) printing with a light cancel. As I am doing a plating study of this stamp, I'm always on the lookout for 4-margin copies without heavy cancels blocking the design. Although the US $19.00 price tag was at the upper end of what I'd normally pay, this was a very nice and clean copy.

Some stamps in this book made me wonder, though-- and got me to thinking a bit about what constitutes a "collectible quality" stamp. The book contained a number of stamps that would have found their way into my waste bin, but I guess some people find this quality to be an acceptable space filler. Still, asking 20% of catalogue value for an extensively damaged stamp hardly seems realistic.

Book 5 contained Finland, including some better classics. Sadly, the one stamp that caught my eye-- one of the large perf classic issues with a nice ULEÅBORG straight line cancel-- wasn't as nice quality as I'd liked to see, so I passed on it.

Book 6 was a very nice book of Denmark, the kind I really like to get because I can find enough stamps to offset the $8.00+ shipping/insurance fees that go with getting a box of circuit books.

First up, another 4RBS brown from the Ferslew printing-- this one was a very exciting find!

The stamp has a very visible plate flaw at right, as well as a double frame line at left, and lots of "double strikes" in the wreath at bottom right. This identifies it as plate I, position 19, also known as the "Pemberton double strike" stamp, named after the first philatelist to identify it.

This is a well-known classic Danish variety, known by most collectors in Denmark. However, not a "Scott listed" item. I do not have this variety in my classic Denmark collection, so I was very pleased to find it.

Although not wide-margined example, it was in acceptable quality with a reasonable cancel and the areas with the plate varieties clearly visible. The current catalogue value in the Danish AFA Specialized catalogue is 3000,- Danish kr. (about US $510.00/405.00 Euro) so the price tag of $10.00 was hardly important. Definitely the "find of the month," for me.

Next up, a presentable and lightly canceled 2sk blue imperf in a particularly dark shade-- probably the one known to Danish collectors as "dark steel blue."

Although there was only one official printing of the 2 skilling blue, a wide range of shades exist, and some are scarcer than others. The darker shades are the least common.

What also caught my eye about this stamp was a distinct "dent" in the left frame, near the top corner. At US $20.00, a fair buy, for a 4-margin copy.

Finally, an unused copy of the 8sk green imperf from 1857 with HUGE margins. Even considering the faint rust spots, a very good buy at $30.00, in this condition; you can actually see part of the next stamp at both the top and bottom. I will probably be sending this one to Denmark to get a certificate (along with the "Pemberton" 4RBS brown)-- just to make sure there's not a cleaned cancel hiding somewhere, since the seller was offering it as "used." The stamp had no gum, but it looked good to my eye.

Since I am not really into unused stamps, odds are I will either trade this stamp for something I would rather have... or auction it on eBay, at some later date.

Book 7 contained Greenland, with a heavy emphasis on mint, which I do not collect. Another zero.

Book 8 was another book of Iceland, this one with quite a few high value items. At first I felt hopeful but sadly, the quality was a bit dodgy, and I passed on several appealing looking stamps that turned out to have minor flaws.

Book 9 was more "mixed Scandinavia," but the book was mostly of common newer low value stamps, and I didn't spot any interesting plate flaws or cancels.

Book 10 contained the only Swedish stamps in the group, but almost everything was either mint or modern booklets, neither of which hold much interest for me. No sale.

Overall, this was one of the better groups of circuit books I have had in recent years, and I am very pleased with the seven Danish stamps I picked out.

I have been buying stamps from APS circuit books for over 20 years (and have sometimes been a seller, as well) and have found many worthwhile stamps, over the years. As a stamp buying "venue," I do recommend it although you may experience times of frustration when you find absolutely nothing in a package of books and realize that you just spent $7.90 for trackable shipping and $1.50 for insurance. But then next time you may find as many goodies as I just did, and it suddenly becomes very worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where to Buy Stamps: APS StampStore

The American Philatelic Society (APS, for short) is the primary organization for stamp collectors in the USA, but has a large worldwide membership.

Denmark 4RBS brown, Thiele printing
One of the services for APS members is the online "Stamp Store" where collectors can browse and add to their collections from among thousands and thousands of stamps listed for sale by other stamp collectors. As of the last time I checked in, there were over a quarter million philatelic items for sale!

Although the underlying idea is "stamp collectors selling to other stamp collectors," the APS StampStore is different from sites like eBay, Delcampe or Stamps2Go. Aside from the fact that you have to be an APS member to buy stamps (anyone can browse), the APS acts as an active intermediary between buyers and sellers.

What this effectively means is that listings are standardized, all have photos, and "the handling of money" is all done by the APS, rather than the buying and selling individuals. This makes the StampStore a very attractive option for those collectors who are concerned about the trustworthiness of individual online sellers. In addition, it allows for a uniform "return policy" to exist, so you can get your money back, if a stamp you buy turns out to be faulty or "not as described."

What kind of material can you expect to find? Well, the range is pretty broad, with almost every stamp issuing entity in the world represented. The value of the items tend to start at around a couple of US dollars-- mostly because of the minimum fees per item the APS charges to sellers. On the upside, I have seen items priced in excess of $1000.

Denmark 4RBS blackish-brown, Thiele II printing
Are there any downsides to using the APS StampStore as a place to add to your collection? Some might argue that the required Society membership (currently US $48.00 per year) is a "downside," but I really don't share that point of view as I believe membership in an organization that promotes awareness of stamp collecting as a hobby is a positive investment, no matter what.

For me, the primary downsides (pretty minor) are that the scans/photos are not always of the best quality, stamps in sets are scanned "as received" so not all stamps are necessarily visible in the photo, and sellers are not always very meticulous in accurately pointing out "problems" in their descriptions. The system may also be more challenging to use for non-US based collectors, due to the reliance on the US Scott catalogue numbering system. For example, if you live in Germany and depend on Michel, it might take a little detective work to figure out the stamps you're looking at.

As is often true with multi-seller marketplaces, pricing is inconsistent, but that's not the fault of the sales venue. You can find some excellent bargains, and you can also find a number of items listed by "dreamers" who seem to think 75% of catalogue value is "realistic" for a seriously defective stamp.

Denmark 4RBS yellow-brown, Thiele III printing
Overall, I have had positive experiences using the APS StampStore to add to my collections. On the few occasions where I've had to return stamps, the refunds have been prompt. I've been a buyer (but not a seller) for almost 10 years, and have added many nice stamps to my albums. The selections from the Scandinavian countries are usually fairly good, and new material seems to trickle in every month, although not in great volumes. Since I only collect used stamps, I don't actually see every new listing on the site, so your results might be quite different from mine.

The photos in this article are some classic Danish stamps that arrived in the APS StampStore this month, and promptly found their way to my office! The site is well worth checking out, and I hope you also decide to become an APS member.