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Friday, January 20, 2012

Selling Stamps on the Web: Where do you go?

In these "modern" times of the Internet, it's not unusual for stamp collectors to turn into "part time stamp dealers."

I've been one, myself, for over 15 years. I didn't start selling because I "wanted to be a stamp dealer," nor because I was trying to make a living. Like many collectors, I simply wanted to pass on some of my duplicate material... and hopefully get enough money in the process that I could buy more stamps... and keep the cycle of building my collection going, without having to spend too many of my hard-earned dollars from my "day job." My primary objective was always to try to make the expansion of my collections "self-funding."

Of course, as collectors we have lots of options.

Different web sites make different "claims," as to why we should use them-- why precisely their site will be the best thing for us. Sometimes, the options can leave us more confused than enlightened. I have tried-- and, in many cases, continue to use-- a number of online venues, with varying degrees of success.

Like many things in life, I have found that the most appropriate answer to "where should I sell my stamps?" typically tends to be "it depends."

Some sites are "fixed price," like the American Philatelic Society's online "StampStore," or independent site Stamps2Go.

Other sites are "auction format," most notably e-commerce giant eBay, whose humble beginnings were akin to an online garage sale. Since then, dozens of "alternative" sites have cropped up and attempted to present themselves as viable marketplaces.

These days, many sales venues are "hybrids," that is, sellers can choose a combination of fixed price (or "buy it now") and auction formats. On some sites, you can even have your own "online storefront."

But there are additional choices we have to make: Do we choose a "general" sales venue (like eBay or eBid) with a strong presence in the "stamps" category? Or do we choose a "collectibles" sales venue (like Delcampe or BidStart), where the audience is more focused? Or do we choose a "stamps only" venue (like Stamps2Go or StampoRama)?

Another factor that plays into our decision is the fees we have to pay to the selling site. Often, what site we choose, and what fees we're willing to pay, will be dependent on the average price per stamp (or lot of stamps) we're planning to offer for sale. If you have a bunch of 50-cent items you want to sell, it obviously doesn't make much sense to list on a site that charges a minimum fee-per-lot of 25 cents. But that same site might work really well if your average item is worth $10.00.

There are also a lot of web sites to offer "reviews" of places people can sell their items-- stamps, or otherwise. Sadly, the majority do not offer very objective opinions, as they tend to "fund themselves" through a network of "referral links." And who's going to honestly write "this site sucks" if part of their income comes from referring people to that site?

Anyway, this post is a bit of a pre-amble to my intentions to-- during 2012-- write about each of the seller  venues I use to sell stamps. The good, the bad and the ugly... from someone who (a) actually sells (or has sold) on those sites, (b) isn't being paid for his opinions, and (c) specializes in stamps, not all sorts of other merchandise. Not going to set any "schedule" for this-- I'll just get to it, as I can.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Stamp Auctions, Nations, and "Image."

Today I'm going to pass up writing "about stamps" and instead embark on a little self-indulgent editorializing... although this definitely will relate to stamps and stamp collecting.

Yesterday I received a small printed "prospectus" in the mail from a large European stamp auction house. As a 40-some year collector, I've seen a few of these. I've also seen the way sellers of stamps present themselves... and what sort of "image" stamp collecting has, in different parts of the world.

As I read through this colorful brochure, I came to really have a moment of insight as to just how different things were-- and are-- for stamp collectors in parts of Europe, as compared to in the US. I don't know a lot about Asia and Australia, but I get the impression their stamp communities are doing fairly well.

I grew up in Europe; in Denmark, to be precise. Collecting stamps was pretty common. Nobody gave you a second glance if you told them you were a stamp collector. Odds were pretty good that when you talked to your neighbor, he or she probably was a stamp collector, too. Young people collected stamps, old people collected stamps, people somewhere-in-the-middle collected stamps. In the days before the Internet, you went to stamp stores... I had a list of about 20-25 of them around Copenhagen, that I'd go to. Some were good for supplies and stock books, some were good for kiloware, some were good for having "specials" on better stamps, now and then. Occasionally, I'd connect with my older cousin (also a stamp collector) and we'd go to a stamp show, or a stamp auction. I went to "stamp club" most weeks-- as I recall, Thursday afternoons were for "juniors." There was a stamp club in most suburbs.

I arrived in the US of A in 1981... to go to college at the University of Texas, in Austin. Naturally, I expected to find stamp collectors, stamp clubs and stamp stores, just like where I'd come from.

It was just part of the culture shock I experienced that there was no such thing. In a metro area of some 700,000, there was one small stamp club... which seemed to be (at least to my college eyes) made up of exclusively old men. It met once a month. My search for stamp dealers revealed just a couple... and one of them was "by appointment only."

So yesterday, I am looking at this brochure from the European auction house... it is now 30 years later. They do business from a large modern building. The "staff photo" reveals not a group of "old men," but a mostly middle-aged crew, about 60% men, 40% women. They certainly didn't appear "old and stuffy."

It made me realize how different the "image" of stamp collecting is, where I grew up vs. where I live now. I never got the impression people in Europe found it either "strange" or "uncool" to collect stamps... which was the subtle feedback I got when I arrived in Texas. It was as if "stamp collecting was for people to nerdy to have friends, and retired (usually military) people." More than once, I heard the words "Stamp collecting? Isn't that for OLD people?"

The negative connotations make me feel sad. I suppose what really makes me feel sad is that we seem to pay more attention to whether or not we are "doing something cool," than whether we're-- basically-- enjoying ourselves.

As I pondered this, I also realized that my collection has been built 95% by stamps purchased outside the US. Not because I have anything against purchasing from US dealers and auctions-- quite the contrary-- but I simply can't find what I am looking for, with any regularity, at all.

It does make me wonder, however, how the so-called "Hobby of Kings" has managed to get such a less than perfect "image," here in the US...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Creating Albums for a Specialized Stamp Collection

For a while, I was considering writing a stereotypical "New Year's article," filled with a look back at 2011, and assorted resolutions and hopes for 2012. But the world is overflowing with those... to wit, I've already written this kind of article for three other blogs I keep.

So, I decided to do a bit of "show and tell," instead... about the primary stamp project I am working on, and will continue to work on, during 2012.

My original "Abria" France album from 1971
I've been a stamp collector since age six, and my stamps have been housed in an assortment of different places. I started with a large stockbook my father gave me. It had 12 pages, and the colorful cover was a photograph of stamps from all around the world. For a few years, all my stamps fit in it. But my collection kept growing, and when my dad realized I was going to stick with stamp collecting, he presented me with a pre-printed "Abria" album for Scandinavia for Christmas. I was maybe ten. The following year, I received a matching album for France-- which I still have.

This was 1971.

Needless to say, my collections have grown and morphed-- more or less continuously-- since then.

If you are a lifelong collector, perhaps it is just part of the journey that your interests become more and more specialized as you go along. For me, specialization was part choice, part necessity: I reached a point where "filling the next empty space" would cost me more money than I had available to spend on stamp collecting. So I went from "collecting one of each" to looking at "more than one" through plate flaws, printings and postmarks. This happened-- gradually-- in my mid-20s.

Of course, traditional pre-printed albums do not lend themselves to specialized collections. For a long time, I have kept my Denmark specialized in stockbooks. This served as an adequate-- but far from perfect-- solution, for many years. The upside of this approach is that it's easy to move stamps around, as you get new additions. But the main issue I have always had with this approach is that my "primary" examples of each stamp (and blocks and covers) have been in my pre-printed album, while my varieties and postmarks were separate in the stockbooks.

So, a few years ago, I decided I wanted to create my own albums for my Denmark collection.

One of the first new pages, allows for multiples, cancels and more
After looking at my options, I decided to use "Lighthouse" multi-ring binders and quadrilled blank pages. To show the stamps off as much as possible, everything would be mounted in black mounts.

As I said, that was a few years ago...

I soon realized that "layout" is not as easy as it looks. Strike that... I realized that organizing a highly specialized collection requires a lot of planning and foresight, in order to avoid ending up with a giant uncohesive mess.

So, whereas I've actually had the binders and pages for six years... I have mainly been "studying" how I have organized and moved the stamps in my stockbooks. The lesson here, is patience. I don't want to have to significant undo and change anything, once I get going.

I am keeping it very simple. For a while, I considered printing pages with my laser printer, but decided against it-- the almost infinite potential for expansion of a collection that includes minor varieties and cancels would make this an almost impossible task. Instead, I am just using the plain pages with the black mounts... and annotating everything in pencil-- thankfully I have fairly neat handwriting... well... printing. Why pencil? Well, if I do have to move a few items around, it allows me to erase and rewrite descriptions.

Individual captions done in pencil
This will be my primary stamp project for 2012... and beyond. As I assemble the collection, I will also be "putting my money where my mouth is," with respect to documenting the collection (See December 14th post), both for my own benefit... and for the benefit of anyone who might have to "deal with" the collection sometime in the future.

There is, of course, no "right" or "wrong" way to house a specialized stamp collection. My primary objective was to come up with something that works for me. Specifically, I wanted to end my previous problems of not being able to find specific items, because they could be located in an assortment of different books, boxes and albums.

Since I am not an "exhibitor," that was never part of my considerations, although I did want to come up with something fairly "presentable," for when I share with other collectors.

My advice to anyone who wants to create albums for their specialized collection is primarily to plan well. Spend some time looking at how you want to organize, then consider where you will (most likely) be adding more stamps... and where the collection is "finite." This will have a major impact on how you design your pages.

Happy New Year to everyone!