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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.