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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Occasional Finds on eBay: A Superb Swedish cancel

As most stamp collectors know, eBay is a giant mish-mash of stuff... from absolute rubbish to incredibly overpriced classics.

That said, you do occasionally come across a "gold nugget" or two. Earlier today, I came across a little "gem" that is perfectly representative of what Swedish town cancel collectors strive to find for their collections.

I know it's certainly the kind of stamp I like to add to my own cancel collection, but you rarely find one like this: It is not only a well-centered stamp without faults (Sweden no. 36, 30 öre ringtyp perf 13), it has a perfectly struck upright cancel.

Although not enormously rare, RÖK is a smaller place and by no means common.

I have seen these types of cancels-- in this quality-- sell at major auction houses in Europe for 100 € or more, so it is interesting to see one like this show up on eBay.

No, it's not mine... the seller is actually in Sweden, and the stamp is open for bids till Sunday, August 31st. This particular seller actually has several nice Swedish cancels up for sale at the moment. Here's a link, if you'd like to go have a look!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Danish Bicolour Stamps-- a Look at Cancels

Recently, I have been continuing to sort through a very large accumulation of the Danish "Bicolour" stamps, generally issued between 1870 and 1903.

I have long been a keen collector of postmarks and cancels, and these were really first way I started expanding my Denmark collection, back in the early 1980's. I would come across a particularly nice cancel, and add it in the margins of my album, even if I already "had" that stamp.

Most of the "early" versions-- skilling issues and the first printings of the øre issues-- of Bicoloured stamps were found with numeral cancels. Although some were "uncommon," it was not all that difficult to form a collection of many post offices (in general, there was one number assigned per place), if you have a large enough batch of stamps to look through.

Generally, all I could afford in the early collecting days were 4 øre and 8 øre stamps, so those were my initial "targets," to find numeral cancels.

Of course, there is a huge difference between finding merely a "readable" and a "lux" quality example. I soon learned that "luxury" quality cancels-- even on common stamps-- can sometimes sell at huge premiums. Reminds me of one of my father's sayings, from when I was a little kid: "Top quality is never out of style." He was certainly right about that.

In the process of looking for nice numeral cancels, I started noticing some of the other post marks on these issues. My concurrent interest in Swedish town cancels ("ortstämplar") soon enough spread to Denmark.

Early Danish town cancels "fit nicely" on a stamp, just like their Swedish counterparts-- and I soon enough started adding particularly nice examples to my collection.

It only made sense to me, as numeral cancels started to become discontinued, I wanted to add the postal markings from "later printings" to my collection, as part of the ongoing specialization.

A number of different styles were used, which made for almost infinite possibilties! Different diameters, different lettering styles... and now that cancels were no longer limited to "just a number," there were also individual post offices that could be distinguished within one city.

In addition, there were also railway (RPO) cancels.

For a while, "collecting cancels" became my "major obsession" with my Denmark collection-- in part due to the fact that I had reached a point where "filling the next empty space" was getting to be a rather expensive proposition. I think it's a point many collectors reach, as their collections approach "completeness," and it often acts as a catalyst to push someone into specialization of one form or another.

For me, the $200 (or equivalent) I would need to buy the next "main number" could instead allow me to buy thousands of inexpensive stamps in duplicate lots and accumulations, which I could then sift through in search of postmarks (and later plate flaws).

As the "evolution" of the Bicoloured issue moved along to the 1895 and beyond "coarse perforated" issues, the most commonly used cancels changed again to the "brotype" type cancel... which remained in use (in one variation or another) for a century.

These were the most difficult to find in "lux" condition (meaning a full upright, well-centered and clear strike of the cancel)-- seemed like postal employees had become less concerned with applying cancels "fully" to stamps... as long as the stamp received "some" cancel ink, it was evidently considered "good enough."

Hence, my nice cancels on coarse perforated Bicolours remain limited, even after some 30+ years of looking for them.

Last-- but certainly not least-- many variations of Denmark's possibly most "famous" cancel type were used on the Bicoloured issues: These are the "star" cancels, or "stjernestempler," as they are known in Denmark.

These were mostly used at rural "postal collection places," and were essentially a "temporary" postal marking applied before picked up mail was taken to the main post office. Star cancels are highly collectible, and a specialty, in their own right. Which presents one of the dilemmas often facing cancel collectors: Do you collect a particular type of cancel and try to find all stamps on which this type was used? Or do you collect a particular stamp issue, and only care about cancels on that issue?

Fortunately, there is no "right" or wrong way to collect stamps-- and I often find myself doing "some of each."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Free Stamps and a Digital Age take on Old-Fashioned Stamp Swapping

Back when I was a "junior" stamp collector, one of the most common ways to build a stamp collection was to "swap stamps" with your friends.

Of course, this was in the "brick and mortar" days of philately-- before there was "the Internet." Back then, my connection to other stamp collectors didn't come from blogs, or Facebook, or stamp forums-- it came from going to the local Stamp Club, and participating on "trade day."

The nature of "swapping stamps" has changed considerably over the years. Stamp clubs are still around, but not in the numbers they once were. These days, more people swap stamps through online groups than face-to-face.

For me-- as well as for many other collectors-- the appeal of swapping stamps was, and remains, that it didn't involve money. For many-- young and old alike-- that is still a large part of the appeal of exchanging.

The challenges of swapping stamps also remain the same, in our digital age. How do you swap? Stamp for stamp? 100-for-100? Catalogue value for catalogue value? One of my youthful frustrations was always that often there was one person who wanted the stamps I had to swap, and a different person had the stamps I wanted for my own collection. Arriving at an "even" exchange was often difficult.

Personally, I have always been a fan of "barter" economies... systems in which people can exchange goods and services (such as stamps) without money, but there is a common "trading unit" that (for example) allows a house painter to offer painting services to someone else who "pays" with fresh strawberries, which they in turn exchange for tools which are eventually exchanged for the fresh flowers the painter ends up taking home to his wife. Instead of just two people involved, a long chain of people complete the trade.

The benefit of barter systems-- as opposed to one-on-one exchanging-- is that you're no longer dependent on finding a "swapping partner" where you each have exactly what the other wants. You offer your items-- stamps, for us philatelists-- to the broader community, then you end up with "credits" and then you use the credits to "bid" on the stamps you want... potentially from several different people.

Over the past couple of years, I have been "experimenting" with an online barter marketplace called Listia. It has actually been around for quite a few years now (since 2009) and has become pretty stable and has a good user base. Over 10 million items have been traded. In many ways, it's like eBay USED to be (before it became over-commercialized), but there's no money... only trading credits. Like eBay, you "offer" and "get" items through a system of auctions you can "bid" on, with your credits.

I got involved because I thought about the idea of an online "barter marketplace" for stamps and stamp collectors. Of course, Listia has every kind of item under the sun... but there IS a "stamps" category that's seeing more and more activity.

Because I need another "pet project" about as much as I need another hole in my head... I took on a bit of the challenge of "spreading the word" about this site, as a potential "online swap meet" for stamp collectors. It's still in somewhat limited stages, but there are now several active stamp traders offering hundreds of stamps every month.

Of course, I've had to "put my money where my mouth is" and become someone who offers things for trade... which I have done. So far, so good. I've actually traded some of my unwanted stamps for both other stamps, as well as things that have nothing to do with stamps.

The stamps you see pictured on this page are actual stamps I have offered for trade. And as I write this, 100% of the stamps I've made available have changed hands to dozens of collectors around the world.

You can click on this link to see what I currently have available.

Just to clarify, these ARE basically "Free Stamps" in the sense that there is no money involved. Of course, you have to get some "credits" which you do by making some of your own duplicates available. Some people just buy site credits (with money) but that defeats the purpose of having an "exchange," to me.

You can get some starting credits for free if you use this signup link to get started. You see, I get to give away site credits to encourage people to sign up. There is no catch. You will NOT be asked for your credit card information. You will NOT be asked for money. You can even enroll with your existing Facebook account.

Of course, there's some old wisdom that says "There's a catch." And "there's no such thing as a free lunch." True... and part of the reason I didn't recommend this site a couple of years ago is that I wanted to see where the "catch" was. People were saying to me "Yes, but the site has to make money SOMEhow!"

Very true.

So after a couple of years of observation, here's the "catch" and the fundamentals of how the site "makes money."

Some people offer pretty good stuff for trade. Because it's popular, the bidding (with "credits") gets pretty competitive. Many people don't have the patience to wait until they've traded enough of their own stuff to afford some expensive item like an iPad or a $200 gift card. So they BUY credits from the site, with cash. The site also has a "Rewards Store" where they offer various things for traders to cash in their credits. Like a regular store, the site makes a profit from things they offer in the rewards store. So the "catch"-- in a nutshell-- is that they make some money from simple "human impatience."

Personally? I've never paid a single penny (of "real money") for anything on the site. But I'm patient.

If you're thinking you might be interested and would like to know when I have more free stamps available, you're also welcome to sign up to be notified when I list new items for trade... no telling what will show up! I have hundreds of thousands of stamps. To be notified, just fill out the form below, check your email for a confirmation request and you'll be "in the loop." Again, I'm not trying to SELL you anything, just sharing an opportunity to try a new and fun way to swap stamps.

Free Stamp Notification Service

Email Marketing You Can Trust

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Part 8 of a European Accumulation of Classic US Stamps

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I sometimes use these pages to talk about my late stepfather's extensive accumulation of classic and older US stamps. This summer, I am continuing to parcel out these stamps with another group of 100+ eBay auctions.

(If you want to go directly and look at the stamps without reading the story, you can also click on this link, which opens in a new browser tab)

1c 1869 Pictorial with RED cancel
My stepdad was basically a "hoarder" who'd buy loose album pages, cigar box lots, stock sheet lots and so on, all with a focus on US stamps from the beginning to about 1930.

I know it was his intention to "eventually" build a real collection of US... but as he aged (he died at age 92) the project seemed to just become more and more overwhelming for him. And yet? He'd keep buying these "odd lots," look at them for a while and then store them away for the future.

Since I was "the stamp expert in the family," I ended up with this chaotic accumulation, assembled over a period from about 1982 till his passing in late 2010. Two large moving boxes' worth, filled to overflowing.

Although I may be somewhat of an "expert" on Danish and Swedish philately, I actually don't know the first thing about US stamps... at least not beyond what a somewhat experienced collector can figure out with the help of a Scott catalogue. As I have written previously, I was very tempted to just sell the whole thing as a "bulk lot," but got some rather lowball offers for what seemed like a good number of stamps with some decent value. So I decided to sell the stamps, myself.

Of course, much of what I am finding IS basically "common junk" not worth talking about. But it seems like pretty much every folder or wad of album pages I examine has something "of value" to be found.

I just finished my 8th stack of album pages (and bulging stockbook), which has only taken me about 1/2 of the way into the first box... if even that.

A nice mint 75c Parcel Post stamp
This time, I came up with about 120 individual stamps worth listing. The vast majority are in the $10.00 to $50.00 catalogue value range, although there are some as high as $200.00+. In other words, a lot of decent "mid-range" stamps. Some are in perfect condition, some are "presentable."

This go around I found more mint stamps than usual-- my stepdad was mainly interested in used stamps (they were "cheaper," he said!) so the mint has been pretty limited.

When I first started the massive task of sorting through all this material-- and discovered there were a good number of better stamps-- I decided that I was going to put the proceeds from sales into the grandkids' college funds. Of course, it may not be much more than a drop in the bucket towards a college education by the time they get to be young adults (they are four and one, respectively), but I figured it would be better than nothing, and I'd like to think that my stepdad would have been pleased, too. He never actually got to meet our grandkids, but I think the thought that his stamps would help with "something useful" would have appealed to him, as he was rather a pragmatist.

Anyway, this week's selection is one of the larger and best quality (120 lots) I've assembled so far, which means multiple lot winners can reasonably save with combined shipping. I've done my best to identify everything correctly, but where there was any doubt between two stamps, I've identified each as "the cheapest version."

US Scott 418, 15c Franklin, mint NH-- catalogue value $190.00
In any case, these stamps are now up for auction on eBay with my "usual terms:" ALL stamps have the bidding start at ONE CENT, regardless of value... I'm just going to trust collectors and "the market" to come up with what's a fair price... aware that some stamps may sell for $0.01.

As previously, I am using my "personal" eBay account, rather than the one I used to trade Scandinavian stamps.

Someone recently asked me-- or rather, commented: "I could go into your auctions and just bid five cents on every single item, and end up with some perfectly good stamps I could trade or resell for 100x more than that?"

Yes. Yes, you could. At several of my previous sales from this accumulation, collectors walked away with $25.00 stamps they only paid one cent for! Of course, that's the exception, not the norm-- but it does happen. The point is that I want to sell the stamps, not "collect" them or save them for later. So there will be some extraordinary bargains to be had.

Anyway, the stamps are now available for bidding. Bidding remains open till 10:00pm Eastern/7:00pm Pacific time, on Sunday, July 13th, 2014. As always, there is reduced shipping when you win multiple lots. Here's a link to the auction listing; go have a look, and I hope you find something useful!

Are there more like this? Well, maybe not like this, but I'm barely 25% into sorting the whole thing, so there are many more to come, and it will probably take me several years to finish sorting through everything.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Found! Top Quality Mint Stamps from Denmark

One of my favorite parts of being a stamp collector comes from what I call "treasure hunting."

7 øre Christian X, XF post office fresh mint NH
Some collectors are very "neat and tidy" in their approach to collecting. They have a specific spot in the album they want to place a stamp in, and they go off and acquire that specific stamp without ever deviating from their "mission." That has never really been my approach... I like to "treasure hunt" through messy lots and accumulations to find "just the right thing."

We each have our own ways-- not implying that one is "better" than any other.

Whereas there is a lot of "fun" in the hunt, it has its downsides: Quite often you'll look through a box of "junky" stamps and come up with almost nothing, or nothing at all. That has happened to me, more than a few times. And then you're left to dispose of a box of junk, hopefully for a price that's somewhat close what you paid, in the first place.

One of the questions I often get asked goes along the lines of "but if it's already in a box as 'junk,' hasn't it already been gone through and the good bits removed?"

On the superficial level, the response would seem to be "yes." But on closer contemplation, if you are a specialist, odds are the collector who went through the box before you was looking for something different from you. True, you're probably not going to "accidentally" find a 4-margin Penny Black, but you might still find a rare variety, inverted watermark, cancel or something else that happens to be your area of expertise.

8 øre Christian X's 60th Birthday issue, mint NH
What keeps me going is that "treasure" does show up, and sometimes you can still find a veritable gold mine of goodies in an unlikely box of seemingly random junk.

Such was the case, with a recent "box lot" of European collections I bought-- basically unseen-- from a major auction in Norway. Although the box was mostly touted for its Germany and Malta (an unlikely combination?), there was also a sentence that caught my eye: "... also some older mint Denmark and Sweden on Hagner sheets, but most appear to be stuck down; a couple of pages of classic used Scandinavia in somewhat mixed condition."

"Box lots," of course, are rarely photographed for auction catalogues... you pretty much "get what you get," unless you're able to attend an auction preview, in person. Not so feasible when you live in the US, and the auction is in Norway!

For reasons unknown... but perhaps because the Germany seemed pretty nice and like I could parcel it out for the cost of the box and "take a chance" on the Scandinavia... I decided to "take a flyer" and placed a minimum opening bid on the lot. Somewhat to my surprise, the bid (about US$400) "stuck" and I became the owner of the lot. Of course, there were also auction fees to be paid, not to mention the cost of shipping a box from Norway to North America. Still, I was hopeful I'd have an enjoyable time sorting through the box and even be able to sell off the remainder and still break even.

5kr Postal Ferry stamp, XF mint never hinged
A few weeks later my box of stamps arrived. The German was much as expected. The Malta? Well, I don't know much about stamps from Malta, so I'll have to learn more about that... For my own purposes, though, it was the "used classic Scandinavia" that was of interest. And it was actually quite good, yielding several nice Danish skilling stamps with plate flaws along with some nice numeral cancels. That-- in and of itself-- made the purchase worthwhile, to me.

I was also reminded that the term "mixed condition" has different meanings in different parts of the world. In the US, it basically seems to mean "ALL stamps over 50 cents are faulty." In Europe-- Scandinavia and Germany, especially" it means "some are faulty and some are not." In this case, only about 1/4 had smaller to larger faults.

But that was not where the true "gold mine" was located.

The best part of the lot was the 75-odd Hagner sheets of mint stamps-- mostly from Denmark. They had been listed as "mostly stuck down" but I would attribute that description to a hurried (or lazy?) auction describer who determined there were "issues" on the first 3-4 pages and then characterized ALL the pages thusly. Of course, I'm not really "pointing fingers" here, because this WAS a messy box lot, and most auction houses don't have the time to thoroughly examine what basically amounts to a "job lot."

Rare early printing of 12 øre Bicolour, mint NH
As it turned out, only a few dozen stamps (out of many hundreds) were stuck down, or partially stuck down, or had minor gum damage from someone trying to "unstick" them.

But here's the amazing thing about the remainder: They were obviously collected by someone who was a stickler for quality: Almost everything was pristine mint, never hinged... and clearly had been stored "properly" as the gum was fresh, and the stamp colors bright. Not only that, most stamps were in choice VF or XF centering. On top of which, many were from that "difficult" period between 1875 and the 1950's where you can certainly find "mint stamps," but almost all stamps were hinged, to put in album... the condition of gum was not considered nearly as important as it is today.

It also soon became clear that the original collector had known quite a lot about Danish stamps, because there were many scarce types and varieties included in the lot. Even after pulling almost 200 stamps for my own collection, I had 100's of exceptionally nice mint NH Denmark left over. The photos on the page are just a few of them, but they are representative of just how nice this otherwise "ordinary sounding" box lot turned out to be.

I suppose the "moral" of this story is that "treasure" is still out there, for stamp collectors, waiting to be found. All the "good stuff" has NOT "already been found." In this example, it turned out that a box I paid about US $650 for (after shipping) contained several hundred VF and XF mint NH stamps with catalogue values between $15 and $100. Did I "get lucky?" Probably so-- but it does happen.

60 øre Christian X, the scarce brown and ULTRA
On a more personal level, this story is a good example of why I collect stamps the way I do. I suppose I would be a more "methodical" collector if I didn't also enjoy the "trading" part of stamp collecting-- helping the stamps I don't need "find new homes." Because-- as I mentioned above-- just because I have looked at these stamps doesn't mean that someone with different interests from me won't find them interesting, and of value.

In the course of the next few weeks, I will be putting some of the stamps I decide not to keep into my eBay and other online shops... there are some really good stamps, and it's always nice to be able to offer "top quality," since so much that's offered online is in pretty dodgy condition.

For those who regularly read these pages-- yes, I do still mostly collect postally used stamps. If-- and only IF-- I come across a super nice mint NH copy of any stamp from Denmark or Sweden, I will add it in-- these are specialized collections for me that I have been working on for over 30 years... and by now they are made up of pretty much "anything that appeals to me," including mint, used, postmarks, covers, varieties and whatever I can find.

Which is my own take on the saying "There is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to collect stamps."

Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 07, 2014

eBay and "Shipping Shenanigans"

Like most stamp collectors in the 21st century, I use eBay to buy and sell stamps on a pretty regular basis. In many ways, the online auction giant has been a great help to stamp collectors in the way it has enabled us to connect with each other and with stamps we want for our collections, from all over the world.

Whatever you might think about eBay (some people love it, some people hate it), one thing is certain: It's very important to pay attention to what you are doing. Never assume anything!

Just this morning, I was checking eBay to see if there was anything new and interesting from Denmark, one of my major collecting areas. Because I look for cancels, plate flaws and varieties, I am often in the market for "lots and accumulations."

Indeed, I did find a couple of duplicated collections that seemed quite interesting-- as well as quite reasonably priced. That is, until I checked the seller's shipping terms. $12.00 to ship about 50 stamps from the UK to the US? Huh?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of the "cheapskates" who try to nickel-and-dime sellers and leave negative feedback because they were charged 50 cents for a letter that cost 49 cents to send. I understand we all have expenses when we sell stamps... personally, I charge 75 cents when I sell on eBay, because it covers the cost of the stamp (49c) plus an envelope, a glassine and the possibility that I will have to pay for a "second rate" after I've put a cardboard stiffener in the envelope. I feel that's fair, and if anyone wants to "argue" with me about that, I'd prefer they just buy their stamps from someone else.

But that's a really long way from charging US $12.00 for a letter that might cost £1.50 to mail (or about $2.50). To me, that loosely falls under the broader heading of "shenanigans" and "deceptive practices." Of course, that's just my opinion-- some professional stamp dealers may disagree with me.

Of course we always have the option to "move on by" if we don't like someone's postage rates, and that's precisely what I did. And so... the point of this article is primarily to remind people to READ the so-called "fine print" before you click on the "bid" or "buy now" buttons... and be sure you understand what the "real" cost of that stamp is.

In general, I have found that "discussing rates" with people who charge uncommonly high shipping rates is a waste of time. Why? Well, because they are typically in the business of "selling cheap stamps and making their profit on shipping" and so they are really not interested in hearing what you-- as a collector-- have to say about it. Sad... but true.

Overall, though, I continue to recommend eBay as a place to buy stamps... because the positive experiences FAR outweigh the negative ones.

What's YOUR opinion? Do you think sellers often "overcharge" for sending stamps? Do you fee that it's "fair" if stamp sellers cover their basic expenses to send stamps-- like envelopes, glassines and so forth? Do you ever try to "argue" with people who are charging high shipping fees, because you really WANT a stamp they have for sale? If you feel this topic merits discussion, please consider sharing to your Facebook page or favorite stamp forum!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing on Stamps: It's selfish!

As a life long collector-- and a fairly active trader on eBay and other sites-- I have looked at a lot of stamps.

I am also well aware of the fact that there is no "right way" to collect stamps, but that doesn't mean I am exempt from having a few pet peeves, when it comes to philately. One of my pet peeves is "writing on the backs of stamps."

Among "serious" stamp collectors, there is some debate about whether or not something written in pencil on the back of a stamp reduces its value, or is "neutral." Personally, I don't mind if there is a small lightly penciled number on the back of a stamp, if someone feels compelled to add one.

There was also a day gone by when experts would sign the back of a stamp-- in pencil-- and it actually added to the value of the stamp.

That, however, is a far cry from the backs of some (surprisingly many!) stamps I have seen... where a collector (or series of collectors) have attempted to document the entire history of the stamp and its catalogue value on the back surface. To me, that is a complete no-no.

You might ponder why it's a bad idea to write on stamps, since we don't generally see the back, in the first place. I see a number of reasons-- based on experience-- why the practice should be avoided.

For one, pencils can be pretty sharp, and most people don't have a "light hand" when they write. I have seen some really good stamps rendered valueless because the pencil point actually damaged the paper.

Two, some collectors are "purists" and will be sufficiently annoyed by a pencil note that they will try to erase it. Unless you are extraordinarily careful and gentle (and skilled!) odds are you'll actually damage the stamp by trying to erase pencil marks-- causing a shallow thin, or at least unwanted bends/creases, which in turn will reduce the value of the stamp.

Three, most who write on the backs of stamps are doing so for identification purposes... and a large percentage of the numbers I see are just plain "wrong." Why? Sometimes because the collector really didn't know what he or she was doing and wrote a number down that never was right, to begin with. This then misleads the next owner of the stamp. Alternately, the writer might have lived in a different country, and the Michel number they wrote looks "wrong" compared to the Scott number we're trying to establish for the stamp.

Which leads me to the deeper "why" writing on the back of stamps really annoys me: It's selfish, in the sense that it disregards the next owner of the stamp. A simple number may only be useful to the original writer, while a more useful complete sentence like "Michel 83, 2007 value 300 Euros" is truthful and helpful, but simply too much writing to put on a stamp.

My advice? Don't write on the backs of stamps!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It's Called "Show and TELL!"-- Meaningless Photos in Philatelic Groups

I get much enjoyment of our stamp collecting hobby from interacting with other collectors and seeing/hearing about their collecting interests and adventures. As a result, I belong to many online forums and groups for stamp collectors. There are literally hundreds of them out there... something to fit almost every collecting interest, as well as "general" groups for people who are simply "interested in stamps," in the broadest sense of the world.

Although I mostly collect Scandinavia, I have also had
a small collection of Australia, for many years, because
my godmother was Australian
At the risk of sounding "curmudgeonly," I am somewhat baffled-- and a little annoyed-- by the common practice by many people of posting dozens and even hundreds of photos of (seemingly random) stamps with never a word of descriptive text about the stamp. Basically, we are "treated" to what amounts a seemingly endless parade of "meaningless" images. This practice seems particularly prevalent in groups on social media sites like Facebook and Google+.

"WHY bother?" I ask myself.

Back when I was in school, we had something called "show and tell." This was when you had to bring something to school, get up in front of the class to show it off and talk a bit about what it was and what it did, and why you were interested in it. I expect many people experienced "show and tell," when they were in school.

All these years later, online stamp groups largely work as a "show and tell" for (by now adult) stamp collectors.

So why do I consider these "blank" images posted to stamp groups "meaningless" and even annoying?

Well, here's just a random picture of a stamp. OK. Fine. What am I supposed to do with that? Are you expecting me to go find a catalog and look up what it is? WHY did you post it? Do you particularly LIKE it? Do you HAVE it in your collection? Or are you LOOKING for it? Are you wanting to TRADE it? Are you asking others to help you IDENTIFY it?

The "Posthorn" definitive series from Norway is widely regarded as the
world's longest continually running stamp series. Introduced in 1872,
the basic design remains in use today.
It's really not rocket science to write a small comment about an image-- like the captions under the images on this page.

Obviously, people who post hundreds of images to stamp group surely must have some kind of "objective." Presumably, they are "showing" their stamps with the hope people will look at them. But if you don't care enough to provide at least a tiny bit of information about the stamp, why should I "care enough" to look at them, let alone "like" or "comment" on them?

Now, you might be wondering what "the big deal" is here, and why I am even bothering to comment on this particular trend. Why not just "ignore them and let it go?"

I guess the "big deal" for me is that I (and quite a few other people) am interested in the social aspect of online stamp groups... and when someone posts one "meaningless photo" after another, the actual stamp discussions pretty much get pushed out of the way... and I find myself spending a lot of (not particularly enjoyable) time sifting through mountains of photos of common definitives from "Upper Slobodnia" or "Philamondobondistan" I don't care about. I might care if you gave me a reason to... but you don't.

Is it really "a problem?"

Iceland became the 3rd country I started collecting
after learning about volcanoes and geothermal
geography in school.
You might well wonder just how much of an "issue" a few collectors posting "blank" pictures can be. For curiosity's sake, I perused some of the online profiles of the posters... and at least a couple of them had posted more than 50,000 (yes, fifty thousand!) images each. That's more pictures of stamps than there are in many collections.

Really makes me want to shake these folks and say "How about a little QUALITATIVE editing?"

Don't get me wrong-- I honor the fact that different people approach stamp collecting from different perspectives... and I also honor the idea that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to collect stamps. That said, there is the broader issue (outSIDE your stamp collection) of a little awareness of others and how your actions impact those around you. If your actions-- however innocent they may be-- result in your monoplozing a philatelic group's space, you may be taking away from others' enjoyment of the group, even though your root intentions may be the exact opposite!

The other issue that comes to my mind concerns the general future of stamp collecting. Will an endless "encyclopedia" of stamp images with no explanation attached inspire potential new collectors to join our hobby.... or just confuse them? I lean towards the latter, thinking they'll just see some of ALL those pictures and think "pretty cool, but I feel so lost. This is very complicated and I'm afraid I'll never figure it out." Or worse still, they'll think philately is some kind of "private club" where if you don't know what something is, you "don't belong." And then they'll move on.

What do YOU think? If you are reading these words, you're obviously a stamp collector online. Do you belong to stamp collecting groups? Do you notice people doing this sort of "empty image posting?" How do YOU feel about it? Leave a comment!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Danish "Bicoloured" Stamps of 1870-1903

Being born and raised in Denmark, it was only natural that my primary stamp collecting interests included Danish stamps. After all, they came in the mail, and it was what most of my school friends collected. Back then (mid- to late 1960's) lots of kids collected stamps.

My first "really old" stamp
My first ever "very old" stamp was the 8 øre value from the "Bicolours" series, issued between 1870 and 1903. I clearly remember how exciting it was to discover (with the Danish AFA catalogue, at the local library) that I actually had a stamp from 1875! It didn't matter to me that it was actually very common-- an estimated 754 million of these stamps were printed in three different series-- to me it was "ancient treasure."

Many many years passed. Although I was an active collector of Danish stamps, my collection was mostly "general" in nature-- that is, I was collecting "one of each" by the main stamp catalogue numbers. However, in my late 20's, I had reached a point where "filling the next empty space" in my Denmark collection had become more costly than I could afford, on my limited income.

Although I was now a resident of the US, I would still return to Denmark at least once a year to visit family. One of my favorite things to do while "home" was to get in touch with my cousin Ib-- and we'd see if we could have a "date" to either go to a stamp show or to a public stamp auction. Ib-- who was actually some 20 years my senior-- was also a keen Denmark collector, and he'd taught me a lot about stamps. On this particular occasion, we discovered we'd be able to attend a large stamp auction in Copenhagen, over a two-day period.

In the course of our conversation, I explained to Ib that I really wasn't sure what I was going to bid on-- if anything-- because I couldn't really afford any of the stamps I was missing in my Denmark collection, but since I'd also taken up Sweden and France (and had much smaller collections of these) I might look for something there... although all "the really good stuff" was from Denmark, given where the auction was being held.

My first interest in the Bicoloured stamps
was actually related to numeral cancels
"Maybe you should consider some kind of specialty collection," Ib suggested.

I wasn't too sure about that. I'd seen "specialized" collections at stamp exhibitions, and it seemed to me that those collectors had invested thousands and thousands in rarities I couldn't even hope to own one of. I also had this "image" of specialized philatelists being mostly "grumpy old cigar-smoking men who isolated themselves in their offices."

However, I'd seen Ib's recently started collection of the Danish "Wavy Lines" issue, and his enthusiasm was considerable. "Suddenly every box of stamps is a treasure hunt," he explained, "you just never know what you might find, and usually the stamps only cost a few kroner each!"

And so, my first "adventure" with specialized stamp collecting became an interest in Danish numeral cancels. Since I was quite little, I'd always thought it was interesting how "old stamps" were often canceled with a number, instead of a place name. And finding nice upright and readable number cancels seemed like it could be a challenge, but without costing a fortune... after all, there were millions and millions of 4 øre and 8 øre bicoloured stamps with numeral cancels.

So one thing led to another, and I ended up bidding on-- and winning-- a "messy stock of mostly common classic period stamps" in a shoe box. I think I paid the princely sum of 1500,- Danish kroner (about $175.00 US, at the time), when all was said and done. And I suddenly had thousands of stamps to look at-- a very large number of which (as expected) were 4 and 8 øre Bicolours.

A 100 øre Bicolour from the 1st printing, with the
scarce "RM2B" frame type
Also in the box was a copy of the 1981-82 "AFA Specialkatalog" which included an extensive specialist section about the Bicoloured issues, showing lots of varieties and plate flaws. Which, of course, I found extremely interesting, given that I had just become owner of several thousand of these stamps. At the time, I had no idea that this was possibly the single most popular stamp issue with specialist collectors in Denmark.

The rest, as they say, "is history."

I've been collecting the Bicolours for about 25 years now. I wouldn't call myself a fanatic or "flyspecker" exactly, but I have built a pretty nice collection of notable plate varieties across the many printings. My primary interest is in the "fine perforated" (first øre set) issues, and I also have quite a few of the skilling stamps. And I still continue to look for really nice numeral cancels-- which was, of course, what I originally set out to do.

So what is the appeal of these stamps? And why are they so popular with specialist collectors?

As classic stamps go, the Bicoloured stamps are attractive and colorful. In the course of 33 years, four separate series were released: First came a set of stamps denominated in skilling; then came the first øre set in 1875, after monetary reform in Denmark. A second øre set started in 1895, this one perforated 12 3/4 instead of the original 14 by 13 1/2. Finally, a third øre set started in 1902, this time with watermark large crown III. Although other other stamps were in use concurrently with the Bicolours (the "Arms" types), the design remained effectively in use until the introduction of the "Wavy Lines" type and Christian IX type in 1904-05.

A 5 øre stamp with a so-called "pearl flaw," one
of the most sought after frame varieties 
The design elements are fairly detailed-- especially the outer frame. This created an opportunity for lots of varieties to be discovered-- both in the original plates, as well as in subsequent plate damage from use. In addition, because the stamps were printed from two passes through the printing press-- one for the frame, and one for the oval-- a number of stamps ended up having "inverted frames." The frames look "similar enough" right way up and inverted that they would routinely be printed oriented in either direction. Thus, inverted frames were not "major errors" (although some are quite rare), merely varieties that help collectors identify stamps by printing and position within each sheet.

Part of the appeal lies in the relatively low cost to start a specialized collection of truly "classic period" stamps. The 4 and 8 øre values both had more than 100 printings, each of which can be identified by a skilled specialist... with the implication that the majority of these stamps have low catalogue values, yet it is possible to form a specialized collection (definitely the work of a lifetime!) of thousands of distinct stamps... all without "breaking the bank."

Another nice aspect of these stamps-- today, in 2014-- is that they have been studied by thousands of collectors for well over 100 years, so there's lots of information available to the aspiring specialist, from small handbooks, to an impressive 6-volume reference work by expert Lasse Nielsen detailing virtually every known variety discovered. That said, there were so many of the stamps printed-- and they were in use for so many years-- that you can still find varieties in collections and duplicates stocks that have not been through the hands of a specialist.

The above all figure into my own interest in the Bicolours. However, as much as anything, they evoke a memory of stamp collecting in my childhood and youth-- and of that first "really, really old" stamp in my collection.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Memories: Childhood Stamp Collecting

The end of the year has always been the time of the year when I end up "taking inventory" of life, and where I am, and what I hope to do in the year ahead. I don't really do formal "New Year's resolutions" as I have a nasty habit of never making these goals.

One of the common Danish stamps from my childhood. It is even
(faintly) postmarked RUNGSTED KYST where we lived.
Putting away the Christmas decorations brought up some childhood memories, reminding me of my beginnings as a stamps collector. My parents had traveled extensively before they returned to Denmark to start a family, and they had made friends all over the world. And part of "keeping in touch" with this global group of friends involved the annual ritual sending of Christmas cards.

As a result, December was the time of the year when lots of mail would arrive from all over the world, in envelopes carrying stamps from many exotic places. And I got to keep all the stamps from the Christmas cards, which was very exciting.

Meanwhile, my dad would also bring home large numbers of stamps from the office. His company traded extensively with other companies and clients all over the globe, and there was usually an extra load of mail during December. That mail was particularly interesting because some companies and people would send gifts of various kinds, and those gifts would arrive in boxes actually franked with postage stamps from their countries of origin. This was the mid- to late 1960s, so stamps were still widely used on parcels. I didn't have a real concept of "high values" as a 7-year old-- I was just aware that the stamps were significantly "different" from the ones my dad brought home during the rest of the year

The 8 øre stamp from the 1875 "Bicolour" set was one of
the first "really old" stamps in my childhood collection.
Although I don't remember the exact way I "got started," I do remember my first stamp "album," which was a 16-page stock book with "picture cover" that was a collage of stamps from around the world. In fact, I still have it somewhere. I also remember getting old newspapers and "pressing" stamps in our phone books after soaking them off paper. I was impatient, so sometimes a stamp had to be soaked 2-3 times before it finally let go of all the glue and no longer stuck itself back to the newspaper.

Stamp collecting was pretty simple back then. My friends and I simply collected "stamps." That said, it was not long before we discovered that most of our stamps were from Denmark-- since that's where we lived-- so "collecting Denmark" seemed to make more sense than "collecting the whole world."

I remember buying my second stock book with my own lawn mowing money, because I wanted my Danish stamps to be in a book by themselves. I'd heard that that was what "serious" collectors did, and I wanted people to see that I was "serious" about stamps.

Stamp collecting-- back then-- was also a pretty common hobby for kids (and adults), although it seems that in my native Denmark there were far more stamp collectors than anywhere else I have lived, subsequently. At least 7-8 people in my grade school class of some 25 had stamp collections, and to the best of my knowledge, at least half of them went on to be collectors, as adults. There were also several stamp collectors in my extended family, and nobody thought that "collecting stamps" was even the slightest bit "odd," as something to do. It wasn't until I moved to Texas as a 20-year old to go to college that I first ran into people who'd look at me "strangely" and say things like "How weird. I thought that was just something cranky old retired guys do."

The fact that being a stamp collector has sometimes gotten me perceived as a bit of a "strange nerd" has never put me off the hobby... and now that I have been collecting for over 45 years, I still actively promote philately as something interesting to do, in your spare time.