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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.