Monthly Archives: June 2012

  1. Ezra Cole

    Ezra Cole was already an old man when I first came on the philatelic scene in the late 1960's. Mr Cole (and I would have no more called him Ezra than I would have spelled God with a small g) was a US dealer known for assembling the finest collections and dealing in the very rarest United States stamps. Even by 1970 he was something of an anachronism, but he came out of a tradition of dealers like Eugene Klein, Phil Ward, Eliot Perry and others who were not only stamp dealers but fine philatelic students, men who studied Philately and though they tended to make a pretty good living from our hobby, always gave the impression that it was Philately far more than success that motivated them. The hobby has grown bigger now. When Mr Cole was coming up in the business the very best stamps were spread among a few hundred collectors. Those same rare stamps are now spread among many thousands making it far more difficult for any one dealer to see and control the quantities of material

    Read more »
  2. Difficulty, Cost and Satisfaction

    There are three aspects of any philatelic specialty to consider when you are looking around for a new area to collect-difficulty, cost and satisfaction. Specialties vary in difficulty and difficulty is not always relative to cost. Collecting the mint stamps of the United States is a moderately difficult undertaking if you plan to try to attain much completion in the pre-1900 period. Most US stamps are available mint with a little searching. But they are expensive. A good mint US collection, still with plenty of holes but pretty good, could easily run $100,000. That's an expensive but not difficult specialty. Complete precancels of the United States are an impossibly difficult specialty even though except for a very few stamps nothing is more than a few cents a piece. (One of the world's greatest collectors, with other collections worth millions, spent his life and resources try to complete US Bureau issue precancels and never could find scores of 20c stamps.)

    Most collectors

    Read more »
  3. Countries and Politicians Tell their Real Intentions

    All hindsight is 20/20. But exceptionally keen seems to be historical hindsight. Japanese military postal cards and covers from the Russo-Japanese war and the period leading up to WW II seem exceptionally jingoistic and war admiring. The pervasiveness of militaristic themes was constant. The same was true of Third Reich philately. It always strikes me as odd when people believe that nations will act in what those people believe to be a country's self interest, rather than believe those countries plan to do exactly what they say they are going to do. For years Germany and Japan extolled war and militarism as their preferred policy for what they wanted. Some people wanted to believe that their
    Read more »
  4. American Wealth Declines

    The Federal Reserve issues a triennial revue of the net worth of Americans and the results for 2001-2010 are what you would expect-down- overall about 30%. Stock market values were steady over the decade but what caused most American families to lose net worth in the period was a substantial decline in home values which, for most of us, represents our greatest asset. This is not news. It just quantifies what we have all known for a long time. Most of us are poorer than we were and it doesn't seem to be getting better quickly. All sides agree on the diagnosis. The treatment plan is a bit more contentious.

    But there is one silver lining in this cloud if you are a stamp collector. The value of  many types of stamps has remained steady throughout the period and the value of some philatelic material has increased and even soared. Ordinary mint United States postage type material

    Read more »
  5. Watermark Fluid

    Until about 1980, philately was one of the most toxic of hobbies. Collectors used watermark fluid in great quantities. Novice and intermediate collectors used it to determine watermarks, but advanced collectors and stamp professionals used it to determine quality of stamps and whether stamps were repaired. Watermark fluid works as a wetting agent which shows comparative thickness of the paper against the black background of the watermark tray. A good philatelist can see an enormous amount in a watermark tray, similar to what a good radiologist can see on an X-ray. To make it work, the wetting agent needs to soak the stamp and allow good visibility of the paper's varying thickness. With experience, you can determine creases, thins, and even the most sophisticated of repairs. Wetting agents need to be quick drying and not damage gum and paper, so, obviously, water can't be used. The earliest
    Read more »
  6. The Uncivil War

    How history is remembered is one of the best ways of determining how a people wishes to understand itself. Currently we are in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and this conflict, and the way that it is taught and learned and understood tells us much about ourselves in the early 21st Century. The sheet illustrated above is a USPS 1994 sheet commemorating the Civil War. It is evenly divided between Northerners and Southerners, slaveholders and those who opposed the ownership of human beings. Clearly, 150 years after this great war, which killed nearly as many Americans as all of our other war combined
    Read more »
  7. Gandhi

    In the past fifteen years two emerging economic giants have seen their stamps become very popular and shoot up in price-Russia and China. And in each case among the best performing sets from an investment point of view have been the sets of the founders of those two states- Lenin and Mao. The last ten years has seen another emerging economic giant, India. The second largest country in the world by population, the economic growth rate of India has been tremendous. To date, Indian stamps have gone up in value but still have quite a ways to go. And the founder of the modern Indian state Mohandas Gandhi was commemorated on a 1950's set #203-206, a set which was always available but which is now seldom
    Read more »
  8. Corinphila

    For most of the last century the greatest stamp auction company in the world was Corinphila. Housed in Zurich, Switzerland, Corinphila had one or two auctions a year. But what auctions they were! The philatelic auction model in Europe was different than it is in the United States. For reasons relating to tax laws, there was no real stamp auction market in France. Nor was there much of one in Italy. Germany and Scandinavia had active philatelic auctions, but no nation approached the philatelic powerhouse that was Switzerland. In the olden days, much of philately at the higher end was tax driven. Currency controls made it difficult to move money out of one country and into another. But there was always stamps. Collections were made in Brazil or Poland and sold in Switzerland and who knows into what account the monies were deposited.

    Corinphila was at the top of the Swiss stamp auction business and their model is one that they still follow today. They would hold only one

    Read more »
  9. Disappointment

    Life is an arc with childhood the beginning and old age the end. In our earliest years our potential seems boundless and time stretches on forever. As we age we must come to grips with the realities of life, our limitations, situation and our luck. Philately helps people with the psychological issues that they face as they age and this is probably one of the reasons why people begin to reconnect with their hobby as they get older. Every collector has their goals. Some make them easy to attain such as collecting United States 1940 to date, some more difficult such as Tonga Tin Can Mail, and other virtually impossible such as Inverts of the World. What we choose and how we go about accomplishing it helps us deal with disappointment which is one of the major issues of old age. The happiest collectors I have found are the ones who pick somewhat aspirational goals but which are still reasonable. They push themselves to get the material that they need but are forgiving of

    Read more »
  10. Collectors Who Want Our Hobby to Fail

    One would think that all members of a team would want that team to succeed. Or that all politicians in a nation would want that country's economy to thrive. Or that all philatelists would want to see our hobby and their subset of the hobby increase in popularity. But, unfortunately, this is not always the case with teams and countries and philately. Most collectors want their hobby to do well, but there are a subset of collectors that deliberately make their specialty societies hard to join, their literature obtuse, and are very unwelcoming to new collectors. The majority of collectors want our hobby to do well. But I know of two specialty societies (and they will remain nameless, because as a stamp dealer there is a limit to the number of enemies that I can afford to make) that are purposely off putting to new collectors. They often rationalize it as being upper crust collectors or snooty, but the reason the president of one of these societies explained to me years ago was this:

    Read more »
  11. Signed Stamps

    A major difference between European and American philately is how collectors in those areas view the signing of stamps. Signing stamps on the back, usually with a handstamp and usually in ink, began in the late Nineteenth Century in Germany as a dealer identification marking. Dealers would sign the stamps that they sold and such signatures, by prestigious companies such as the Senf Brothers, became an early form of guarantee. If Senf sold it, the stamp was genuine and the new owner could buy and sell the stamp confident that he was dealing with the genuine article. This signature system has evolved to the current European system of expert signatures to the point where nearly every European stamp of value has been indelibly marked in ink by various experts to confirm genuineness and provenance.

    Americans have always felt this system to be somewhat daft. If the goal in collecting is to find a specimen as close to post office issued quality as possible then the marking of

    Read more »
  12. Mounting Problems

    The history of philatelists mounting stamps in their albums has four phases and does not really represent progress. The earliest stage, beginning about 1850 when people first began collecting stamps, to about 1880 was the period where stamps were simply gummed down in albums. If the stamp was mint, the gum on the back would be wetted and for used stamps a paste or glue was added. This was a quick method of mounting, but far too permanent. As collectors began to trade and sell their stamps more often the most common mounting method changed to using gummed selvage or slips of paper to hinge stamps. This method was the dominant mounting solution from about 1880 to about 1920. Stamps could be taken in and out of albums but the gummed selvages stuck too well and could not be removed without soaking them from the stamp. This was inconvenient for used stamps but damaged mint stamps which collectors wished, by 1920, to collect with full original gum.

     Gummed glassine hinges were

    Read more »
  13. Zeno's Paradox

    Ken Martin, the executive director of the American Philatelic Society, is a kind and capable man and a very good friend. So it is with good  humor that I point out his article in the June American Philatelist. Ken mentions that the APS "only lost 10%" of its members this year and is down to just over 30,000. It is true, as Zeno was the first to point out, that one can never get to zero by subtracting ten percent at a time but membership is quickly approaching 40% of its peak twenty years ago and the APS is at the point where services will soon need to be cut back. All societies of every type are begging in the Internet age so the APS is no worse than many others. Its a shame that Zeno's paradox sets downward limits but has no advice on how to change the spiral.

    Read more »
  14. Another Example of US Exceptionalism

    Stamps represent a form of a bearer certificate, like currency. The holder or bearer of a stamp is entitled to a certain amount of a service. In the United States, unlike every other country, this promise has been without time limit going back over 150 years. Every other country in the world has demonetized their postage stamps at a far more recent date. Demonetization renders stamps worthless for the purpose for which they were issued. The stamps of every Euro zone country issued in the original currency of the country were demonetized in 2001. Great Britain demonetized her predecimal stamps around 1970. No country has maintained an unbroken promise of postal validity for its postage stamps as long as the United States. Every stamp issued since 1861 can still be used on a letter (though you would be crazy to use many of them) and the very first issues were only demonetized at the start of the Civil War to deny funding to the secessionist slave states. As this summer's budget

    Read more »
  15. K. Bileski

    Kasimir Bileski, or as he was known professionally K. Bileski, was already a philatelic mainstay when I came into the stamp business in the 1960's. Born of Ukrainian immigrant parents in 1908, Bileski's philatelic career is in many ways instructive of how philately changed during the Twentieth Century. His biography is fascinating. He was truly a self made man. But
    Read more »
  16. Stamps and Early Capitalism

    Technological changes have produced greater changes in society and history than any other factor. Hard driving nomadic tribes existed across the Asian steppe for thousands of years, but when the technology of compound bows allowed the Hunnish cavalry to pierce Roman armor by arrow from a distance, the Western Roman Empire fell. And when gun powder lowered the cost of siege warfare and could pierce armor even heavier than a man could wear, feudalism and knights and castles finally gave way to the modern period. The modern period has been defined by capitalist and pre-capitalist economies where profitable business produces capital which in turn finances further financial growth. Communication is critical to capital formation, and it is as a facilitator of rapid and inexpensive communication that
    Read more »
  17. Walter

    Walter was my father
    Read more »
  18. Technology Has Not Served Philately Well

    Normally, technological changes reduce economic costs and create social benefits. But technological advances have not worked out very well for stamp collecting and not only in the more apparent ways. First, beginning in the 1950's postage meters began to reduce the number of postage stamps that were used on letters. This reduced collectors
    Read more »
  19. Zero Sum Game

    In economic theory, zero sum games refer to activities in which the net is fixed and any gain for one party means a diminution for another. In medieval times agricultural yields were fixed so if the lord of the manor took more grain from his land, the peasants ate less. If your grandson takes a larger piece of birthday cake, there is less cake for your granddaughter (and you). Zero sum games makes us all adversaries. Whatever benefits you must be to my disadvantage as if you get more I get less. One of the remarkable realities of modern capitalism is that when investment is combined with technology and productivity then games become non zero sum. Outputs can be increased and productivity and capital investment allows everyone to get more at the same time. The economic pie grows.

    For many years stamp collecting was a zero sum game. The supply of fine stamps was fixed and if you had a certain stamp there was one less for me to have. The vast majority of collectors chased the same

    Read more »
  20. Discipline

    Discipline should be one of the cardinal virtues (though it is related to fortitude which is one). Discipline is the ability to work, though rewards seem slim and to continue in a course of action when the fun and the initial glow begin to fade. It is the the skill that creates accomplishment, builds careers and marriages and yes, fine stamp collection.

     Many people come to our hobby and don't progress past the stage where they acquire a nice set of albums and the group of stamps that are most readily available for the countries that they collect. They enjoy our hobby, until they move on to their next diversion. Disciplined collectors maintain their interest even when the collecting gets tough, when new acquisitions are infrequent and the time spent looking for what is needed does not always seem worthwhile. Discipline is the skill needed to pursue advanced educational degrees and is found in most of the successful people in every field.

    Read more »