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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Memories: Finding Direction for my Collections

My father started me on stamp collecting, when I was maybe six years old and we were living in Denmark, where I was born and grew up. His original "purpose" in doing so was to teach me geography and world culture, through the images on stamps.

France Scott 1174, from 1967
For 3-4 years, my stamp collecting was strongly "guided" by my dad-- who pretty much told me "what" and "how" to collect. His interests were France, tropical islands and art... and that was reflected in the way he firmly guided me towards French stamps (and France was issuing quite a few large sized "art on stamps" at the time), as well as French dependencies like French Polynesia.

Of course, the only sources of these stamps were the incoming office mail at my dad's office, and going to a stamp dealer.

Meanwhile, lots of stamps from Denmark-- and neighboring Sweden-- poured in on envelopes in the daily mail. Naturally, I'd clip those and also get the ones that came from my dad's office.

However, my dad didn't really encourage me to collect Danish (or Swedish) stamps. In his opinion, they were "dull" and "ugly" and not worthy of collecting. At the same time, he was also dead set against my desire to collect stamps from Poland-- which I thought were very interesting and had lots of colorful pictures of animals and art.

"Nonsense!" said my dad, "those are 'gimmick stamps' created purely to take advantage of stamp collectors!" He was-- at least partially-- right, of course.

At the tender age of ten, I had amassed a pretty large hoard of Danish and Swedish stamps-- and most of my junior philatelist friends collected Denmark and Sweden. I was the only one who "collected" French art stamps, to be sure.

To this day, I remember the specific Danish stamp that led to my officially becoming a "Denmark collector" and to my father ending most of his interest in my stamp collecting endeavors.

Denmark AFA 485, from 1969
I was clipping the stamps from a stack of envelopes my dad had brought home from the office, when he passed and commented "I don't know why you even bother with that ugly junk. You can't even tell what it is!"

He was referring the to pictured 80 øre stamp from Denmark, issued in 1969. It was very common, at the time, as postage for oversized envelopes.

I don't remember the details of the rest of the conversation, just that I ended up telling my dad that I was "more interested in Danish stamps" than in "his" French ones. And with those words, I officially became a collector of Danish stamps-- even though I had already been "saving them" for four years.

Many years later, I came to understand that my dad's views on stamp collection-- and specifically on the issue of "French vs. Danish stamps" had little to do with stamp collecting, and a lot to do with the fact that he loved "all things French," while finding his native Danish culture small, narrow-minded and insular.

I still have my original collection of French stamps, started with my dad in a red "Abria" album. From time to time I pull out the album, and invariably find my way to the pages with the stamps issued between 1963 and 1970-- the period I have the strongest memory of. Now and then I do come across a French stamp I don't have in the collection (I stopped getting new pages in 1980) and add it to the appropriate space for it.

My Denmark collection, on the other hand, is large and varied and specialized and thriving... and has actually grown into a number of specialized "sub collections." Even though I haven't actually lived in Denmark since 1981, I never lost interest in collecting Danish stamps.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

US Stamps from a European Estate

Taking a bit of a sidetrack, today.

Note: Today's entry is about some classic US stamps I am selling on eBay. If you just want to skip the personal story behind them and go look, here's the link: Click here for Classic US Stamps eBay auctions (Opens a new browser tab)

My 93-year old stepfather passed away recently-- outliving my mom by about a year. They were retired and lived on a golf course community in the south of Spain. Most of their "stuff" was recently shipped to me, here in the US.

On occasion, my stepdad would "fiddle around" with a (rather messy) collection/accumulation of US stamps. In later years, his eyesight, steadiness of hand and mental clarity somewhat declined, so the "collection" eventually became more like "wads of pages with stamps on them." There were also some cigar boxes with stamps, envelopes with stamps, and some ancient salvaged stock books.

Not "rare," but nice quality!
I don't expect that I'll find any great RARITIES here, but there are certainly lots of "mid value" stamps-- from $1.00 to $25.00 in Scott (a few higher-- maybe to $150.00 CV)-- and some are actually in pretty nice (and even superb) condition. There are also thousands of cheapies, and thousands of damaged-- those will just be tossed into the "sorted" box.

I don't collect US, and I know nothing about US stamps (beyond what I can learn from opening a Scott catalogue)... and I have no "attachment" to this collection. I also know my stepdad was very "thrifty," and would NOT have wanted me to just hand the whole mess off to "some dealer" and get $50.00 for my effort.

Thus, I have decided that what I'm going to do is take "the best" of what I find, and put it out on eBay. I can make high quality scans, hopefully to somewhat compensate for my lack of knowledge about this material. I'll identify the stamps to the best of my ability, which may not be good. Issues such as the "Washington-Franklins" and some of the classics with all their printings and papers and grills completely baffle me.

What I am also going to do is turn everything into "penny auctions." That is, every lot-- regardless of quality or catalogue value-- will open on eBay at ONE CENT, and the market can decide what the stamps are worth. Risky? Maybe... but my experience has been that the stamp market is pretty "intelligent," and good quality material will achieve a fair price. It's the junk nobody bids on. And I'm only going to bother with the better quality material-- the junk I may sell "by the pound," at the end.

So, there are thousands of worthwhile stamps in the two boxes now in my office. So, I expect this little "project" may take me a few years. My plan is to "chunk" the stamps into groups of 100+ individual listings, so people can benefit from cheaper postage costs-- since some of these probably wll sell for a buck or less.

There are also some superb cancels!
My first set, which I have sent to eBay this afternoon, has 148 lots, mostly older used US. Lots of those "in-between" stamps that are too expensive to be in packets, but too cheap for MOST sellers to bother with.

Click here to go have a look at these listings now (Opens a new browser tab)

What might add some "interest" as well is that my stepdad was British and lived in Europe, and was NOT a "specialist." Much of this material has not been in the hands of US collectors for half a century or more.

Anyway, if you happen to be stopping by this page... and US stamps are "your thing," bookmark/subscribe or make a point to come back, from time to time... I'll announce as new listings of these US stamps go up for grabs. By the way, I am not using my normal stamp selling account on eBay-- I usually sell Scandinavian stamps, and I don't want to confuse my "regulars." I'm using my "private" eBay ID, instead.

It'll be a nice "diversion" from my daily routine... and not to worry, this does NOT mean I'm suddenly abandoning writing about Scandinavian Philately!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The "Relative" Popularity of Stamp Collecting

I was born and raised in Denmark, and lived around Europe till I was 20 years old. Since I started collecting stamps when I was six years old, I can safely say that my original impressions of philately were shaped in Europe, and mainly in Denmark.

I have lived in the US since 1981 (I originally came here to go to University), and it has never taken a degree in rocket science for me to understand that stamp collecting in the US is just not as popular as it is in Northern Europe.

The American Philatelic Society (APS), of which I have been a member since 1984, has a group and discussion page on business networking site LinkedIn. Recently, there has been a fairly active discussion about stamps clubs and membership in stamp clubs.

Since we now have the Internet, access to "facts and figures" is much more convenient than in days of old, where writing letters and journeys to the library were required. So I decided to do a quick comparison study of the (apparent) popularity stamp of collecting in the US vs. stamp collecting in Denmark, just using "public" information.

Denmark is a small country, with a population of about 5,544,000 people. The primary organization for stamp collectors in Denmark is Dansk Filatelist Forbund, which currently has in excess of 6,000 members and 112 affiliated local and specialist stamp clubs.

The US is a large country, with a population of about 307,000,000 people. The primary organization for stamp collectors in the US is the American Philatelic Society (APS), which currently has right around 35,000 members, and somewhat in excess of 500 affiliated local and specialist stamp clubs.

If I "do the math" on this, the population of the US is 55.4 times greater than the population of Denmark. Applying that multiple to to the "known" stamp collector data from Denmark, we end up the "fact" that in order for philately's apparent popularity to be the same between the two countries, the APS would need to have 332,400 members and about 6200 local and specialist clubs.

Loosely speaking-- at least on paper-- stamp collecting appears to be ten times more popular in Denmark, than in the US.

But is this "The Truth?" What other factors could play into these numbers? Are Danish stamp collectors merely "more organized?" More likely to join clubs? Hard to say...

One possibility is that the US is-- geographically speaking-- a huge country. The population density of the US is about one-quarter that of Denmark. Access to, and distribution of, information, news and announcements-- regardless of the advent of the Internet-- tends to go down, as population density goes down. People who are widely scattered tend to communicate less-- regardless of what the topic might be. As a result, I believe there are far more "solo" (as in, non-club, non-society, collect in isolation) stamp collectors in the US, than in Denmark.

That's just a theory, though.

One of my great interests in life is "building communities," virtual, or real. The "fellowship of stamp collectors" is a community-- and I am very interested in what we (existing stamp collectors) might to do help our greater community of philatelists not only maintain in the 21st century, but even grow and thrive... in an era where "sending snail mail letters" is rapidly declining.

I look forward exploring the issue of how to help build the stamp collecting "community" in future articles on this blog. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

How Rare is "Rare," in Stamp Collecting?

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let us change our perspective, a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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