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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Never Hinged?"

Sometimes, I find stamp collectors to be curious and confusing creatures.

Take the term "Never Hinged." Now, I can perfectly well understand the importance of "never hinged" if you are a collector of mint stamps. On older issues (especially!) the "never hinged" part can make a huge difference in the value of the stamp.

This stamp has at least 3 old hinge remnants... but will soaking
it REALLY make it "Never Hinged?"
However, over the past couple of years I've noticed a growing trend for sellers of stamps (on eBay, BidStart, Stamps2Go, the APS Stampstore and more) to use the expression "never hinged" when describing used stamps.

I'm sorry.... WHAT???

As a concept-- and from a logical perspective, the idea of a "used, never hinged" stamp makes absolutely no sense to me. For starters, "never hinged" is a GUM condition, not a STAMP condition. Aside from that, it makes no sense. If I have a used stamp with hinges on the back, I can simply soak them off, and suddenly my stamp becomes "never hinged." Basically... there is no way to tell whether or not a used stamp is "never hinged" or not. Maybe I'm cynical... but even if "it mattered," I doubt never hinged could exist for used stamps, on "the honors system."

Of course, "reading between the lines," I can (sort of) understand how the idea came about. European collectors (especially) tend to be concerned about the back of (especially) older/classic stamps... where a thick layer of multiple hinges may be hiding small thins or tears, or even writing. A messy back with lots of adhesions can hide a million sins... I know this well, from my years of buying stamps online, where you don't always get a chance to look at the back of stamps.

But from a semantics perspective, what we're really talking about here is a "clean back," rather than a "never hinged" back. Then again, maybe I am simply being too picky.

In the meantime, I can't help but having a chuckle, every time I see "never hinged" in the description of a used stamp.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Selling Stamps Online: It's NOT Rocket Science!

Recently, I "celebrated" my 15th year of using eBay as a marketplace-- both to find new items for my stamp collections, as well as a venue to sell duplicate stamps.

I think it's pretty safe to say that online marketplaces like eBay, Delcampe, BidStart, Stamps2Go and others have changed the face of how stamp collectors trade and build collections.

Even after all this time, it amazes me how little common sense many sellers use, when it comes to presenting their "wares" to the world. And then they become all surprised and affronted when they end up with mediocre-- or no-- results.

A clear scan showing details of stamp. Click for larger size.
Selling on line is really not "rocket science!"

Fundamentally, the first thing you need to do is think of selling your stamps (and attracting buyers, and a fair price) a bit like you would think of a job interview. Would you go to a job interview wearing your dirty sweats you just mowed the lawn in, with your hair looking like you just rolled out of bed and hadn't shaved in three days? No? That's just a case of "presenting yourself well" in order to make a "sale" (i.e. "get the job")-- so why wouldn't you take the same care when it comes to selling your stamps?

Let's start with the image. That's probably THE single most important part of an online stamp listing... many collectors buy stamps purely "by appearance." Since I can't go to your house (or your stamp store, if you have one) and look at and "touch" the stamp, I expect you to give me the "next best thing."

Have a large clear scan/photo for people to look at, preferably on a black background, which offers maximum contrast to show the condition of the stamp's perfs. Crop the image to have small borders. There's nothing more annoying than a small out-of-focus image on a non-contrasting background, with lots of "blank space" around the stamp.

And don't even get me started on listing stamps for sale with NO image! Fortunately, most sites don't permit listings without images anymore. I don't want to hear the "it's too time consuming, and you can send it back if you don't like it" excuse... my reply to that is "it's too time consuming for ME to get a stamp I don't like, contact you because I want to send it back, find supplies to mail it and wait for a credit to my account AND I'm out the cost of mailing."

Lastly, a word about listing stamps for sale with the message "email me if you want a scan."

That word is "no."

How NOT to do images: The sort of images I often see in sales
listings online. And this is not even the worst of it! 
I am not going to take the time to email you for 47 scans of stamps I might be interested in-- it's a hassle. If you're willing to scan "after the fact," just save us BOTH some time and effort and scan "before the fact" and create a proper listing, to begin with. Similar story with the phrase "email me if you want a bigger scan," when your original listing has a little tiny scan. If you already know how to make a bigger scan, just use it!

And yes, I know some of you are "secretly" thinking "yes, but that's how I harvest names for my mailing list."

I'll say "Caveat Venditor" (seller beware), because I personally believe that strategy is more effective as a way to irritate potential buyers.

Creating a good image is NOT rocket science!

The next part of "decent presentation" involves examining the back of the stamp-- this applies particularly to used stamps. If the stamp has 47 layers of old hinges, a bit of the original envelope and some old album page adhesions still on the back, clean it up! It takes only a couple of minutes in lukewarm water to get rid of that stuff, and removing all that old garbage takes the guesswork out of whether the stamp has thins, tears or other problems, as well as enabling you to correctly identify potential watermarks. And who knows... you might discover you have a more valuable stamp than you thought!

Now, let's get to the actual description. You don't have to write anything "fancy" but at least make an effort to come up with a semblance of the correct identity of the stamp. That would involve (at a minimum) doing the following:

Perforation gauge. You need one. This one was
actually FREE, printed in my AFA catalogue.
Don't assume that the first picture you see in the catalogue (Scott, or otherwise) is "your stamp." Especially true when you're selling older stamps, where multiple variations (perfs and watermarks and shades) of the same design typically exist. Especially learn to pay attention to the little "notes" at the end of a listing of a set of stamps that might read something like "Also see no. 234-241, 301-311." That's a not-so-subtle hint that maybe you should see those numbers and make sure you have the right listing. Assume nothing, especially if you are trying to sell stamps from a country you are not that familiar with.

Speaking of perfs and watermarks-- If you don't have a perf gauge, GET one! And whether you do, or need to buy one-- learn how to use it, and then use it! As a buyer, it will do nothing but irritate me when I get the "perf 13" stamp (worth $0.80) when your listing identified it as the "perf 14" version (worth $50.00)... and usually because you didn't even check what perfs the stamp had.

The same goes for watermarks... if you don't have a watermark tray and fluid, GET them! And whether you do, or need to buy them-- learn how to use them, and then use them! There are often huge differences in values between different watermarks on stamps that look very similar. Just earlier today, I identified a stamp by its watermark... the "cheap" version listing for $0.25 in the Scott catalogue, the "expensive" version listing for $200.00. Needless to say, I was very happy to find a VF $200 stamp!

Now, I recognize that there are some people who are simply going to say "too much work" and "I can't be bothered." I will try to be open-minded and understanding of that approach... but I will issue the caveat that if YOU "can't be bothered" with your sales listings-- and it does show, in very obvious ways-- don't count on potential buyers to "be bothered" with your listings. Choices have consequences!

Last-- but certainly not least-- let's talk about "truthfulness of condition."

This can be a slippery slope, because most stamp transactions are essentially a "dance" between a seller who wants a stamp to be "better than it is" and a buyer who sees it as "worse than it is." A sale happens when these two perceptions have enough overlap that the buyer takes action.

Watermark fluid and tray. A small investment that might
help you get a LOT more for your stamps!
Personally, I have always believed in the "full disclosure" approach. On the balance, I have gotten happier buyers AND better sales as a result of saying "Looks super nice, but unfortunately has a tiny thin" as opposed to saying "XF stamp, no faults" and then hoping it will "skate by" someone who doesn't bother to take a closer look. By trying the latter approach, not only do you set yourself up for a lot of returns, you soon enough build a reputation for having "dodgy" material, and buyers will actively avoid you. And that can even apply on a "large" scale, with major "name" dealers. There are a couple of "famous" stamp auction houses I actively avoid because of the way they "gloss over" faulty material. Maybe the $3000.00 a year I might spend with them is "no big deal" but multiply that by a few hundred collectors... and you're turning away a LOT of money!

Now, some may read this and think "yes, but I'm not that serious about selling stamps online." Be that as it may, you're "serious" enough that you're trying to sell stamps online. Which means you're a "serious" enough collector that you care about getting money for your stamps, rather than just "giving them away to kids" or putting them in your next garage sale. That being the case, shouldn't you be "serious" enough to give your stamps the best possible shot at selling for a decent price?

Buying and selling stamps online can be a lot of fun... and also quite rewarding, if you take the time to do things "properly," which really doesn't take a lot more time or effort than doing a slipshod job!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

At auction: Classic Sweden and Town Cancels (Ortstämplar)

Many years ago, I developed an interest in classic stamps from Sweden. I was particularly attracted by the neat looking cancels that seemed to fit so perfectly on the stamp.

What follows is a bit of a "back story" about the stamps I have for auction on eBay this week. If you want to skip the story and just look at the stamps, follow this link to my auctions. The stamps shown on this page are actual items up for auction this week, bidding open till Sunday, September 8th.

I actually developed this interest in my 20's, more or less by "accident." I had reached a point in my collecting "career" where my student budget no longer was enough to acquire the stamp for the "next empty space" in my album ($20.00 for one stamp was a lot, for me, at that time), so I was gradually learning to specialize... which allowed me to collect "different" examples of the same-- but less expensive-- stamps.

A nice cancel from FLODAFORS. Somewhat scarce, this is no
longer an independent postal place.
I used to go back to Denmark (as a student in the US) during the summers to work... and one day during my "off" time, I found myself wandering the streets of a part of Copenhagen that-- back then-- had quite a few brick-and-mortar stamp stores still open.

I found myself in one (quite short-lived) shop where the owner took in people's collections and "box lots" on consignment. It was a tremendous mess of stacks of albums and moving boxes and index card boxes and more. A veritable treasure trove, for a stamp collector!

In the course of checking all these boxes and albums, I came across a shoe box filled with ancient yellowing glassines filled with old-to-classic Swedish stamps. Clearly, someone had started an accumulation with the intent of "doing something" with the stamps, at some point... which evidently never arrived, since the box was now for sale. Most of the glassines were filled heavily duplicated "common" stamps from the "ringtyp" era forward to the 1940's. What I also noticed was that there were a number of glassines noted "bedre stempler" (Danish for "better cancels") and that piqued my interest-- I'd already started collecting Danish numeral cancels and "star" cancels, as a specialty.

Cancels just seemed interesting to me, perhaps because of the way they "told a story" about a stamp-- when and where someone used it to mail something. And I liked the idea that the stamp had been used to serve it's "natural purpose."

The box of old Swedish stamps was really more money than I could afford at the time, but I decided to go ahead and buy it, anyway.

A top quality cancel from BÖDA, no more than a tiny village on
the island of Öland. Quite scarce.
I spent many enjoyable evenings going through the thousands of stamps in that shoebox, picking out the particular "choice" examples with beautiful cancels. Although there were no great rarities in there, approximately the first 300 stamps in my "town cancels on classic Sweden" collection came from this box, and have formed the foundation for a collection I have been adding to for almost 30 years.

As the years have passed, I have narrowed my scope a little bit. In its original incarnation, my Swedish cancel collection included all issues up to the UPU sets of 1924. About 15 years ago, I cut that back to just the Arms ("Vapentyp") and Circle ("Ringtyp") type stamps. As of this writing, I have over 4000 stamps in the collection, sometimes with multiple examples from the same town, where different canceling devices may have been used, at different times.

"Hembygdsfilateli," Swedish-- literally-- for "home town (or area/region) philately," is a popular collecting area in Sweden. For many, it's considered "postal history" as much as "stamp" collecting. Although I do have a number of covers in my collection, I am primarily interested in loose stamps.

There are different ways to collect Swedish town cancels, but it's important to remember that there really isn't a "right" or "wrong" way. Some collectors are happy as long as the town name can be "clearly made out" while others will only collect stamps with "perfect" strikes.

Those stamps with perfect ("lyx") and near-perfect ("prakt") quality cancels often command huge premiums at auction, and from dealers who specialize in cancels.

A sampling of the actual stamps for auction this week.
Click this image to see a larger version.
The stamps in this week's eBay auctions represent some duplicates I have accumulated over the past few years... usually as a result of finding "a better example" of a particular cancel. Some-- from the "Oscar" period-- are also outside my collecting area.

All the stamps pictured in this entry are up for bids.

This week's auctions include a total of 135 lots. These are a nice mixture of many fine town cancels, and well as a few classic Swedish stamps with plate flaws and varieties, as well a a few chosen simply because they are in really nice condition.

All stamps have an opening bid of just US $0.99, and there are never any hidden reserves... and since there are some pretty valuable stamps included, the opportunity to find a few bargains definitely exists.

Bidding is open until Sunday, September 8th, till about 1:00pm US Pacific Time/4:00pm US Eastern Time or 22:00 Central European Time. I hope you'll find something of interest to add to your collection!

Click here to see the current auctions with Swedish stamps.

Thank you for your interest!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

At Auction: Cancels and Varieties from Denmark

I expect it happens to most "general" stamp collectors after a while, that they start to experience what I have come to think of as "creeping elegance."

What follows is a bit of a "back story" about the stamps I have for auction on eBay this week. If you want to skip the story and just look at the stamps, follow this link to my auctions.

What do I mean by "creeping elegance?"

Denmark 15/24 øre Provisional from 1904
 For me, it meant starting to add 2nd and 3rd copies of stamps in the margins of my album pages. Maybe there was a beautiful or unique cancel. Maybe I discovered that I had a major variety or plate flaw among my duplicates. Maybe it turned out that a particular stamp was printed in a number of different shades.

I believe this is how specialized collections get started.

After a while, I noticed that my pages were getting increasingly "messy" looking, and I was starting to mount stamps on the backs of pages as well. Not the greatest of ideas, even if the stamps are protected by stamp mounts... the stamps start rubbing against each other, and falling out when you move the pages in the album.

I suppose I have just never been "one of those people" to just collect "one of each," and then feel like I am done. In fact, this can be said about some of my other collections, as well... collections not at all related to stamps. The basic "rule" I follow goes something like "If I think it's interesting or pretty, it goes in my collection."

The stamp from above-- plate flaw "chop in top frame."
Even if I already have 42 others.

My Denmark collection remained fairly "general" for a number of years, until my limited budget was no longer able to support my adding new stamps. In other words, "the next blank space" was a little out of my price range.

But since I'd already built a large hoard of duplicates, I followed my older cousin's suggestion of starting to collect plate flaws and varieties. After all, finding varieties among stamps I already owned was basically a free way to add to my collection.

Cousin Ib even gave me my first copy of the Danish "AFA Specialkatalog" which opened up a whole new world for me... hundreds of listed varieties! And the treasure hunt was made even more interesting by the fact that some of these stamps were quite valuable.

Of course, varieties don't really fit in a standard album, so I gradually ended up migrating my Denmark collection to my own blank pages. That worked for a number of years... but then I decided it might be easier to use high quality stock books, because the stamps would be easier to move around. The project of moving my specialized collection-- with varieties, printings, plate flaws and cancels-- from albums to stack books is an ongoing project around here... that will probably take several more years to complete.

LUX quality cancel from the village of TAPS
As I mentioned at the beginning, "somewhere in there" I'd also saved some stamps with attractive and/or interesting cancels.

Cancel collecting is "A Really Big Deal" among collectors in neighboring Sweden, but it never struck me that Denmark collectors were all that interested. Sure, some people collected numeral cancels, some collected the "star" and "udslebne" cancels, while yet another group collected Danish stamps postmarked on the Faroe Islands. But it was still a highly specialized affair.

However, I liked the way really nice cancels looked on stamps... and I had never been particularly interested in mint stamps... so I decided (early on) to keep the nicest cancels I would find as part of my specialized collection.

Of course the nice thing about a cancel collection is that you can add almost endless variety to your collection without "breaking the bank." At least most of the time. Almost perfectly centered cancels like the one from TAPS (a tiny village in southern Jylland) pictured here often command rather "stout" prices.

I suppose people approach stamp collecting from different perspectives. My collections-- and my personal enjoyment as a stamp collector-- revolves around "building the collection." The idea of having something one could call "a complete collection" doesn't really enter into my thoughts. "Completion" is not a very interesting concept for me, "building" is.

Combining BOTH: A plate flaw ("pointed eyebrow") and a
really nice cancel on the same stamp!
On more than one occasion I have been asked "But how will you know when you're DONE?"

My answer to that is that I don't really plan to BE "done." This baffles some collectors... while others nod knowingly. Which just goes to show you that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to collect stamps.

As a variety and cancel collector, I am not particular about how I add to my collection. I have never really been attached to the idea that I have to "wait" till the exact stamps I need shows up for sale, before adding it to my collection.

In fact, my favorite way to go is to buy large box lots and duplicate stocks and slowly sift through them, looking for "treasure." Often there are some really good "finds" to be made, especially with lots from here in the USA, where the stamps have generally not seen the eyes of a Danish specialist for decades... if ever. At the end of the sorting process, I sell off the material I decided not to keep... and sometimes that means I have bought thousands of stamps just to add a few dozen to my collection.

This week, I am auctioning off some of my older Danish duplicate stamps, with a focus on plate flaws and really nice cancels, including the items pictured here All in all, there are 40 lots of both individual stamps as well as a few sets... with values running to about US $100.00. As always, all items have an opening bid of ONE CENT and there are no reserves-- so the possibility of picking up a few bargains definitely exists.

Bidding is open until Sunday, August 11th, till about 2:00pm US Pacific Time/5:00pm US Eastern Time or 23:00 Central European Time. I hope you'll find something of interest to add to your collection!

Click here to see the current auctions with Danish stamps.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Selling on eBay: Some People Just Make Life Difficult!

Earlier this year, I had my 15th anniversary of being a member of eBay-- mostly buying and selling stamps.

Although the "greater Internet" reports their experiences with eBay to be very much a "mixed bag," I have to confess that at least 98% of my interactions on that site have been positive. I have added many great stamps to my collections I would never have had access to, were it not for eBay... and I have been able to sell off excess duplicates with ease and speed that's just not possible through other venues.

This morning I was clearing out some old image files on my computer... and came across a folder documenting one of the more bizarre (and not so good) experiences I had on eBay, as a seller.

I remember I was selling some Norwegian duplicate stamps from a collection I had bought. There was basically nothing "special" there, but quite a few stamps I expected would fetch about US $2-15 if listed for auction-- better than nothing, and I'd always rather free up the money to buy new stuff than have it sit on my shelf.

So I listed these 40-odd stamps from Norway, including a fairly unspectacular copy of the 2sk blue "Posthorn" from 1872. I was fairly pleased with it, however, because it had a "genuine" postmark, making its catalogue value in Facit 600:- Swedish Kr. or about US $90.00. The vast majority of these were canceled "late," after Norway switched from "skilling" to "kroner & øre," and the stamps canceled like that are worth far less.

Anyway, within a few days of listing, bidding on the stamp started "taking off."

Now, I write very clear descriptions on eBay, and always identify and cross reference my listings with the Scandinavian catalogue numbers (in this case, both Facit and NK), as well as the Scott number.

By the time the auction ended, the bidding had reached more than US $400.00-- a completely absurd price for such a stamp. Of course, it takes TWO people to create a high price on eBay... and I just figured there were a couple of specialists duking it out over some important plate flaw I know nothing about.

So I send the stamp to its new owner and presume all is well.

Ten days later, I suddenly notice I've gotten a negative feedback calling me a "fraud" and a "cheater" and he's going to get me "thrown off eBay" for misrepresenting material and "lying" in my descriptions. As it turns out, this person was VERY ANGRY because the stamp had turned out not to be the extremely rare "Prussian Blue" shade, worth 40,000:- Swedish Kr (over US $6,000).

OK, let's back up here. There was NO mention of this ever being a "rare variety." Not even a hint. Not even the vaguest suggestion of the possibility. And now this person takes it upon himself to blame ME for the stamp not being what he wanted it to be, rather than what I said it was... and wants to get my eBay account terminated for his error?

The thing that was baffling to me, of course, was that there had to be two bidders to get the price so high. Both of them had to "see" something to get the competition to heat up. It seemed the most likely explanation was that one collector "saw" a rare variety, and the other was a "copy cat" who didn't really know but figured the other bidder "knew something" and decided to blindly follow.

Stranger still, aside from the angry email and the negative feedback left, there was no further communication. I offered a return for a refund, but I never heard back.

Certainly one of the "stranger" eBay experiences I have had.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Classic US Stamps on eBay

Occasionally, I will take a sidetrack from what I normally write about, here.

At the beginning of 2012, I first wrote about my stepdad's stamps (which I'd inherited) and about my efforts to slowly sell them off through eBay and other venues. You can see the original post here, if you're interested. You can also skip this story and go directly to looking at the stamps.

US Scott 185 in top condition
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I have a couple of moving boxes with untold thousands of mostly older US stamps, generally in stock books, on random album pages and in glassines and regular envelopes.

I don't collect US, and never have had much interest. That also means I really don't really know anything much about US stamps... aside from what a somewhat advanced collector of areas can glean from looking in a Scott catalogue. Some stamps-- like the "bank notes" and "Washington-Franklins" are somewhat of a mystery to me... and I am really not prepared to spend days and weeks learning the finer nuances of these.

My stepdad did get a lot of enjoyment from his stamps... and even though he never really formed an actual "collection," his accumulating habits kept him busy in latter years.

For me, the "easy way out" would have been to hand all this off to an auctioneer or dealer (and I thought about it) and just take whatever offer I'd get. Based on my life-long experience with collecting and trading stamps, I expect I'd have been offered about $200-300 for it all, since this is very much what you might call a "job lot."

Maybe I'm just sentimental, or maybe I am following in the footsteps of my stepfather's tendency to be very "thrifty," so I decided to take on the "leg work" myself. Of course, it will take me several years to do all this... but that's OK.

Scott 394, 3c Washington coil, perf 8.5 A difficult stamp to find
in ANY condition, and this is quite a nice copy. CV $67.50.
I'm not going to go to a huge amount of trouble here-- just trying to skim off and offer the best to collectors. I expect there are no great rarities here, but there are certainly lots of "mid value" stamps-- from $1.00 to $50.00 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.

In my original post about these stamps I wrote that I would 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.

I'm not doing this with the purpose of "making money," as such... although I do have some secret ambitions to put all the proceeds into my grandson's college fund (he's three).

Anyway, this week I am offering up my second group from this old hoard (the first went up for sale in March of 2012), consisting of 81 lots with mostly USED older US. As I said earlier, starting price is ONE CENT for all lots, regardless of value.

Also-- if you're a fan of US stamps-- it might interest you to know that all these stamps were collected in Europe, and most have not been seen by any US specialists for maybe 50+ years. I really have NO idea what might lurk...

... and last, but not least, I am not using my usual "Scandinavian Stamp Specialist" seller ID, but my private account I use mostly to buy and sell non-stamp stuff from our attic. Anyway, hope you'll have a look!

The auctions end on Sunday night, July 21st, 2013. Here's the link to an overview of all lots.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Uneasy Relationship of Stamp Collecting and the Internet

Over the past few years, I have been writing quite a bit about stamp collecting and its future... outside the confines of this blog.

Whereas there is little doubt that the Internet has changed the nature of stamps collecting, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the online environment has helped save-- and continues to help save-- our hobby.

That said, I also see an interesting duality that has developed... a sort of rift between the "tech" and the "non-tech" stamp collectors of the world.

What do I mean by that?

Whereas there are many philatelists who have embraced the Internet as part of their collecting experience-- and actively use online stamp marketplaces and social media information to help build their collections-- there are also many who are still stuck in a "we don't NEED that" mindset.

Whereas I can appreciate we tend to adhere to the ways we are accustomed to, I can't help but think that stamp collectors who are not using (or "don't need") the Internet are going to end up going the way of typesetters and horse drawn carriages. Maybe that's just a "fact of life" but it makes me sad because these collectors have a wealth of knowledge to share with future generations of collectors.

The easy "argument" is that these collectors are primarily in their senior years, making them more resistant to embrace modern trends. In fact, I used to think that, myself... but on deeper examination, many of these folks who reject technology for stamp collecting are quite actively involved in online genealogy research and communities while using Flickr to share photos with their grandkids. So it's really not a "computer issue." Or an "age issue."

I have a twitter account... and a Facebook page... and a number of other online "presences." I belong to several online stamp collecting forums and communities. This morning, I was checking twitter and was once again just amazed by the low number of tweets relating to anything philatelic. The American Philatelic Society (APS) has 30,000+ members, but only 383 twitter followers. That's about one percent of the membership. What's silly about that is that I-- as an individual stamp collector-- have more twitter followers than the APS.

Maybe it's just "the nature of the beast." Stamp collectors tend to be solitary practitioners. They will often "join" things, but be non-participants. And maybe that is really the greatest challenge facing the stamp collecting hobby.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Writing... about stamps

I am a writer, for a significant part of my "day job."

A nice mallard duck topical from Iceland
No, I don't write about stamps for a living. That said, I do feel quite passionate about letting the world know that our hobby is still alive and well. With the advent of the Internet and email, there are many out there who might think "Stamp collecting? Does anyone still DO that?"

Although I have written a few articles for the philatelic press (and entries from these pages sometimes appear in print format), most of my philatelic writings are geared towards a NON-stamp collecting audience... or perhaps the person who collected in childhood, but forgot all about stamps when "the opposite sex" became interesting.

It is my hope that these occasional articles-- which my editors in other fields occasionally indulge me by printing-- will help a few newcomers find their way to stamp collecting.

My latest effort is entitled "Did the Internet Kill Stamp Collecting? Not a Chance!" and is really written for a general audience. But I'd like to invite you to go have a look... and if you like it, do please share it to your Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest or other social media... be part of keeping stamp collecting strong and active!

You can find other articles I've written about stamps by following the "Stamp Articles" tab in the green bar, at the top of the page.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Re-thinking eBay-- version 23.71a

It seems the never-ending gyrations of eBay and their policies for sellers take a new twist every month.

In a post back in February, I was lamenting my ongoing woes in dealing with the giant online auction site-- and alluded to pretty much "putting eBay on hold" till certain things sorted themselves out (see "The Ups and Downs of Dealing with eBay" for more). In the subsequent three months, more new developments.

Whether this is the result of a mass exodus of sellers or someone actually listening to the complaints received, it seems that eBay has now changed their tune... at least somewhat. Not too long ago, I received an announcement that-- as an eBay "Store" holder-- a number of my listings every month would now be free. Well, free to list... I'd still have to pay the back end final value fee.

It was slightly odd to receive this announcement, given the fact that most stamp sellers are always complaining about the fees on eBay.

Now that my previous hassles with "selling limits" have also been resolved (an old "black mark" basically expired), it seems that I can go back to listing my duplicates and get up to 500 free listings a month, with my store subscription. And no matter how I do the math, it really does come out to cost less (in fees) than I used to pay.

Now, I can't editorialize on whether the folks in eBay management suddenly woke up one morning and "saw the light," or this is just some ploy to "retain customers" ahead of yet another rules change designed to "milk it for all it's worth." Seems like predicting where eBay is going next is a bit like trying to predict the weather.

Meanwhile-- in only somewhat related news-- I am in the middle of re-scanning a bunch of my stamps. As part of recent policy changes, all images uploaded to eBay must be at least 500 pixels on the longest side. Seems like this is a requirement that will catch a lot of stamp sellers-- 500px is pretty large, for an item as small as a stamp. It's actually a bit of a "sneaky" change, because an original announcement about image formats-- from about a year ago-- required 400px images... with which I was in compliance. Either way, if you want to list on eBay, your photos have to be big enough.

Feels like a bunch of "busy work," but what can you do?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Pursuit of Quality Stamps

When I was a little kid, my dad started me on stamp collecting. His advice to me was simple, and largely based on his own life-long experience as an art and antiques collector:

1. Collect what you like, and what appeals to you; don't chase "popular trends." YOU have to like what you're doing, not other people.
2. Always buy the very best you can afford; market tastes change, but quality never goes out of style.

When I was six, these perhaps didn't seem very important. The excitement of collecting stamps revolved around "collecting one each of the whole world."

However, my dad "stuck to his guns," in a gentle sort of way... teaching me about the inherent beauty of "high quality," and made "finding the very best" part of the fun of stamp collecting, even as early as when I was a teenager. By the time I was 12-13, I no longer had any interest in adding stamps with faults to my collection... unless they were high value classics I couldn't afford in any other condition. Even so, I was always on the lookout for "something better" to fill a space occupied by a ratty looking stamp.

40 years later, I am going about stamp collecting pretty much the same way, always focusing on finding "quality stamps" not just "stamps" for my various collections.

My dad knew what he was talking about. There's a lot of talk these days about the "decline" of the stamp market and our "dying" hobby, and how there are no new generations entering philately, and how many 16-year olds have never actually used a stamp on a letter... and so on. As I look around-- at large auction houses, or individual seller sites like eBay or BidStart or even the APS Sales Division, there's a huge volume of material for sale... suggesting there are many more sellers than buyers in the market.

And yet?

Superior quality stamps-- old and newer alike-- are extremely difficult to find, and often command "stupid" prices, when they do show up for sale.

My dad's underlying philosophy behind "buying quality" was simple: scarcity. No matter what, there will never be more "top quality" copies of any given stamp no longer for sale at the post office. A top quality stamp has only two "paths" to follow. It is either handled well, and remains "a top quality stamp," OR some collector carelessly handles it to cause a tiny hinge thin, or a torn perf, or drops it on the floor and creases it while picking it up. And so, it no longer is part of the "top quality" pool of available copies. A "junky" stamp will always be a junky stamp. It has no way to become a "top quality" stamp. And because top quality stamps can become junky stamps due to mishandling and accidents... the available pool of "junky" stamps is not static... it can actually grow, over time.

Of course, I don't actually collect "quality" stamps for their worth-- that's just a "coincidental incentive bonus." I collect quality stamps because the aesthetic beauty of something perfect or almost perfect appeals to me... and because I enjoy the "treasure hunt" challenge that goes with finding "the best stamp" rather than just "a stamp." This especially holds true for newer issues that are common and can be found by the thousands... yet finding a superb copy can be quite challenging.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. My dad originally wanted me to (or at least "hoped that I would") collect mint NH stamps because they were "pristine." It didn't really appeal to me, though. The number of ways we can mess up gum seemed "risky" to me-- all that worry about toning, foxing, wrinkling, fingerprints, moisture? No thanks! I also didn't like the fact that gum was one of the most forged/faked things on stamps... and it bugged me to have to pay so much attention to what was going on on the back side of the stamp FACING the album page, not the side you were looking at. But-- above all-- I liked the idea of having stamps that "told a story."

Mint stamps don't really have much of a "story." The story of a mint stamp (at least to me) goes something like "I was printed in Belgium in 1903. Here I am. The end." Not enough "meat" on those bones, for my liking.

A used stamp with a legible postmark tells a better story, like "I was printed in Denmark in 1880. Somebody bought me, but didn't put me on a letter to be mailed from the town of Hillerød until 1898. Most likely I was on a letter next to another stamp, because the postage rate had changed from 8 øre to 10 øre between the time I was printed and the time I was used." To me, that's just more interesting. Romantic foolishness? Whatever...

Getting back to "beauty being in the eye of the beholder," beautiful postmarks are a major reason why I collect used stamps. Not only do I like the "story" aspect, and the challenge of finding that "perfect strike," but I like the additional fact that it keeps the hobby affordable for me... because I can collect a whole group of different socked-on-the-nose postmarks on the same inexpensive stamp, and still have them be "different," for the purposes of my collections. Postmarks can add almost infinite variety and possibilities to a stamp collection.

Sometimes I get the impression that quite a few collectors "lose interest" when they reach the point where filling "the next blank space" becomes incrementally more costly. Suddenly you find yourself with just 17 empty spaces in the album, facing the fact that the next space will cost you at least $100.00 to fill. It was a point I reached with my Denmark collection when I was about 16-17... and there was no way for me to continue the collection, on a schoolboy's budget... so I branched out.

But we all have different motivations for collecting stamps. It seems to me that the driving motivation of those who simply "collect one of each" is to have a "complete" collection. For me, the driving motivation behind stamp collecting is.... the actual collecting; the finding; the treasure hunt. In a sense, it parallels the popular saying that "life is not about the destination, it's about the journey." Having a "complete" collection just... just sounds too much like a "destination" or "goal," rather than an ongoing pursuit or hobby. I'm not looking for a point where I am "done" with my collection... I have no plans to reach "done."

That said, there is-- of course-- no "right" or "wrong" way to collect stamps.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Dealing with eBay

I have "been away" from stamp collecting for a few weeks. A few months, actually. Life-- as John Lennon once said-- is "what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Truth be known, my wife and I have several business ventures that have been demanding a lot of our attention since the new year-- and since I am not retired, my philatelic endeavors have been pushed into the background as "less important."

That hasn't actually been so hard to do, as I am a little disgruntled with eBay, these days. I suppose "being disgruntled with eBay" isn't new to many stamp collectors who deal with the online auction giant on a regular basis... although most of the complaints I see seem related to "high fees." Mine are not.

So, I'll share a "story" and see what you think... please DO leave a comment, when you're finished reading!

I have been a regular stamp seller on eBay since 1998. I'm not really a "pro" or a "dealer;" more like a "busy hobbyist." Over the years, I've watched the site morph from something akin to a giant online garage sale and collectors' mart to something more like a giant e-commerce platform for large companies and professional full-time sellers. UNlike many, I have no particular issue with eBay's focus on being a GIANT marketplace... it's a publicly traded corporation; they are "in it" to make money, not to make stamp traders happy.

However, I discovered this year the extent to which some of their policies simply don't make sense. I don't mean that as an expression of "my opinion," I mean that as "does not LOGICALLY make sense."

Back in the middle of 2012, I got an "alert" from eBay to let me know that my account performance as a seller was now "Below Standard," with the further message that I needed to "improve my performance" to bring said standards up to required levels.

I found this a little puzzling given that I have 100% positive feedback, going back several years. Once I got past the initial surprise, I decided I needed to understand this better... I called eBay and asked for them to explain exactly what was going on. I eventually spoke to "Steve" in Mumbai (sidebar note: I have NO issue whatsoever with talking to tech support in India. I DO have an issue with someone obviously named Ranjit or Arjay pretending his name is "Steve"... how stupid do they think I am???) who explained it a little better, but was otherwise deaf to my appeals that this didn't "make sense" given my 100% positive feedback and 15-year clear selling record.

So I did a little poking around in my account, checking my feedback, looking at old performance records to show me how I could suddenly have TEN "low ratings" against me but no negative feedback. As it turned out-- after a little detective work and process of elimination-- the ten "strikes against me" were low grades for "shipping cost." So I suddenly had about 5% "low scores" in ONE category... beyond the 2% permitted by eBay guidelines.

This is where it starts getting a little weird.

The "10 strikes" were all from ONE buyer who bought 10 items and left me 10 positive feedbacks for his purchases. His comments were even positive: "Nice stamp, promptly shipped, BETTER than described-- recommended seller." But yet... 10 low ratings for shipping costs.

Now, as anyone using eBay knows, when you make a multiple-item purchase or sale, and leave feedback for 10 items from the same seller at once, it only "counts" as ONE feedback point. Yet-- evidently-- if someone leaves you 10 low "detailed seller ratings" as part of the process, they all count against you. Basically... PLUS ONE point for doing things right, MINUS TEN points against for my shipping costs.

This gave me some serious pause for thought.

I'll add here-- just for the record-- that my eBay stamp shipping charges are 75 cents for the first stamp and 10 cents for each additional stamp in the same transaction. The buyer had paid $1.65 in postage on an envelope that cost me (at the time) $0.85 to mail-- and was evidently very angry about this-- even though my shipping charges were clearly spelled out, both within the listing AND in the "shipping information" area. The overall transaction was over $120.00, so this was not a person trying to "nickel and dime" me on cheap material. And, he left me positive feedback!

I called eBay customer service to ask if it could really be "right" that positive feedback counts only "per transaction" but negative detailed seller ratings count "per item." I spoke to someone who took lots of notes and did lots of typing (I could hear the keyboard) and then was put on hold-- then transferred to someone else, who took lots of notes and did lots of typing and put me on hold for five minutes-- then transferred me to a different department... where someone took the entire story once again, typed extensively (there must be a small BOOK about my call in their phone system!), commiserated, put me on hold, came back on, told me he'd forward me to a manager who "would be able to help me"... and then the call was dropped after eight more minutes on hold.

At this point I had been on the phone for 83 minutes and needed to go to an appointment, so I didn't call back, that day.

A couple of days later I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that I would have to spend the next couple of months listing a TON of stamps so I could get the several hundred positive "detailed seller ratings" needed to go from -4.5% to -2%. It may not look like much... but not all buyers click the stars when they leave feedback, so you actually have to have more transactions than the straight math suggests. I figured I needed about 400 positive transactions, just to be safe-- a lot of work, but NOT impossible. I'm just a hobbyist so it would be a fairly stout workload while also minding my day job.

But wait! Not so fast!

As I was about to embark on my marathon listing endeavor, I discovered something else. In the meantime, eBay had taken it upon itself to impose "selling limits" on my account. Suddenly... I could only list or sell "200 items per month." On top of that, I had already received a notice from PayPal that my account had been tagged as "high risk" due to my low seller rating, and that all incoming payments would be held for three weeks before being available to me, until further notice. Given that I already had more than half of the 200 item limit used up by existing listings, my hands were suddenly pretty tied...

I thought about this, for a bit-- feeling not so much angry as simply baffled by the way it made no sense. I was also grateful that I wasn't dependent on selling stamps for a living!

Part one, eBay wants me to improve my seller rating. Fine, I accept that.

Part two, HOW do I do that? By selling lots of stuff to HAPPY customers, so my average score improves.

Part three, now my account is "LIMITED," so I CAN'T actually DO what you want me to do???


And all this because ONE person got to give me TEN "bad marks" for ONE transaction.

The breakdown in logic that lies at the heart of this situation is not even about ME. I could deal with that. eBay says "YOU are a bad seller, so we punish YOU." But that's not effectively what's happening.

I see eBay-- as a publicly traded corporation with shareholders to keep happy, through PROFITS-- now having policies in place that means they are actually agreeing to reduce their revenues? Think about it-- if I am "encouraged" to list a ton of stamps in order to improve my performance, it means they will make a bunch more money from seller fees. Instead... they have policies that dictate that I can't actually DO what they "need" me to do, to comply with that policy!

Once more, I called eBay-- primarily to see if I could find some person, somewhere, who could actually see and comprehend the faulty logic in the policy. I went through another cycle of "explain-hold-transfer" to three different people... and wouldn't you know it? My call was somehow "dropped" during the 4th transfer/hold segment.

HOW do I remember all this, all these months later, you might be wondering? Well, I used to work in the IT industry-- and before that worked customer service at a retail store-- so I got quite used to documenting (with computer screen shots, even) customer and tech support phone calls down to the N'th degree, getting everyone's name, rank, serial number, department, time, extension number and what have you. I have a pretty much EXACT record of what's in eBay's phone recording and monitoring system. I don't DO "hearsay" and "he said/she said" unless I feel capable of potentially backing it up with hard documentation in a court of law.

But I'm digressing.

A couple more months passed. I worked within my selling limits as best I could, trying to improve my ratings-- which really made very little difference.

Then I got another "alert" from eBay, this time to let me know that my eBay Store Subscription would be canceled unless I brought my monthly sales levels up to the required levels to maintain the subscription. But WAIT! My account has selling limits, making that an impossibility. Bye-bye store...

A cynical part of me briefly considered the possibility that this was the way eBay was planning to make up for the lost revenue because I could no longer list and sell freely... instead of discounted store listings, I would now have to pay the full "rack rate" for everything listed.

The other thing that seemed illogical about the whole thing was the email from eBay stating that sellers with lower sales ratings would have their listings reduced in "rank" in searches. So basically... in a single paragraph:

You want me to improve my performance (fair enough!) which I can ONLY do through listing and selling MORE items, which you will NOT allow me to do, AND the lower volume of items I CAN list you plan to bury in search results somewhere in western Wyoming where nobody will find them... BUT it is "really important" that I improve my selling performance, because otherwise you will take away my store, which is my MEANS to do what you are asking me to do.

Did I miss any nuances, there?

Am I the only one for whom-- from a totally objective perspective-- this just doesn't MAKE SENSE... from a financial-- let alone ethical-- standpoint?

Needless to say, I have just not felt very "inspired" to deal with eBay on ANY level, including using it to buy new stamps for my collections. And certainly not to list anything new... seem the best strategy right now is just to let the "bad marks" quietly expire... they drop off my "counting score" once they are 12 months old, and then resume trading when that occurs. eBay has been one of those places I've relied on to find interesting collections to "cherry pick" for varieties... and then sell what I don't need. It'll be a while before I can do that, again...

If you've actually read through this entire saga and have arrived here, I'd love to hear your perspective on this. I'm really not in the business of "eBay bashing" (as many are), but I AM curious about this, and about whether it seems like I'm reacting unreasonably. So please leave a comment!