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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?