Monthly Archives: January 2013

  1. Simplified Philately

    The opinion makers in philately held a serious discussion in the 1930s about what direction they hoped the hobby would go. By 1930 there was already a wide enough body of stamps issued for most countries that collectors were already beginning to lose interest in collecting collateral philatelic areas like cut squares, postal stationery, and revenues. The issue at hand was whether to preserve the complicated catalog listings or to bifurcate the hobby into more specialized traditional philately on the one hand and a simplified face different form of collecting on the other.

    For United States stamps, this discussion played out in the "simplified" catalogs and albums that were issued in the 1930s and which you can still see today. The theory behind it was easy to understand. Most US collectors never really understand types of the classic US stamps, most never can tell the Bank
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  2. Washington Bicentennials

    The Washington Bicentennial set is over 80 years old. Issued to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the first President's birth, the set was issued on January 1, 1932. It has always been a popular set and has more or less been the breaking point between modern and classic US philately. Stamp issues before 1932 include the Washington-Franklins, the early Bureau issues, Bank Notes, and nineteenth century issues.  All of these are difficult specialized stamps. After 1932, US philately is far more face different than it was before. By 1932, philately was enjoying similar popularity to what it enjoys today, and mint stamps were put away is large quantities. Because
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  3. Raymond and Roger Weill

    Raymond Weill, who died ten years ago at the age of ninety, was a dealer in the very old time tradition. He and his brother Roger joined their father in their New Orleans stamp business in 1932. Although Weill began as a full range stamp dealer, his business very quickly moved into the higher end of the market, dealing only in rarities. The Weill brothers handled many Airmail Inverts and at one time owned as many as twenty of them. They sold the famed Post Office Mauritius cover, had a special interest in St. Louis Bears postmaster Provisionals (their family had originally been from St Louis), and were the purchasers of the famous Phillip Ward stock in 1960, which in its time was the finest stock of rarer United States Stamps in existence

    At any given point in philatelic time, the high end US rarity market is usually controlled by one or two dealers who maintain
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  4. The Return of Writing

    One of my first professional philatelic tasks, some forty years ago, was to assemble old correspondences for sale. You saw these more in those days than you do today, but what they were were large selections of letters that had been sent between correspondents over a period of years. Usually these were things like weekly letters between brothers and sister or parents and children who fate and circumstances had parted. Remember, in 1860, if your daughter and her husband moved from Ohio to California, the high probability was that you would never see her again. Her letters became a very real record of what was left of the relationship. They were saved and cherished and reread. And often these correspondences were kept in families long after the correspondents had passed away. Philatelists and postal historians collected them because they usually had the envelopes with stamps and postal markings. Such correspondences represented the intersection
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  5. Hieroglyphics

    One of the great stories in cryptology over the last 200 years was working out the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics. This was the Egyptian writing of the old dynasties (the ones that had built the pyramids). The writing had fallen out of use and been replaced by different alphabets so that by the beginning of the common era (about two thousand years ago) there was no one left who knew how to read hieroglyphic writing. Throughout the next 1800 years, scholarly interpretations of this writing
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  6. Rooms Full Of Stamps

    Many collectors who thoroughly enjoy their hobby imagine that their pleasure in their hobby would increase if only they had more stamps. The fantasy grows from one album to a dozen to a full shelf to a stamp room. Recently, we were called in on a case of philatelic gluttony gone wild. The collector was a wealthy mid-western man who lived in a large home which had a 3,000 square foot detached grounds keepers home. It was this home, all 3,000 square feet, that he devoted to stamps.

    Every week saw new cartons come to his stamp home. He spent most of his time bidding at auctions and online. He liked collections and dealers stocks
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  7. Broad Traits That Collectors Share

    There are three broad traits that philatelists share with each other. The first is inquisitiveness. Many very intelligent people are quite content with what they know. They do well in their professions and in their life, and their idle time is spent being entertained. Others, people who are receptive to our hobby, love to learn and know about things, and find information and facts interesting. They collect knowledge, and its an easy transition for them to collect stamps.

    The second trait that people with a philatelic predilection share is that they are savers. Sure, they have bank accounts as successful adults, often large ones, but they also had bank accounts when they were little pipsqueaks and always left aside a little for later even when in school and in times in their life when they were decidedly not financially well off. In the parlance of 
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  8. Brazil

    Make a prediction for long enough, and it is apt to come true. Brazil is a vast country with a large population and prodigious natural resources. In recent years, huge oil deposits have been found in deep water off shore. And Brazil has always had vast hydroelectric potential. The preconditions for economic success have always been there for Brazil, which is why the country has been touted as the next great growth area for most of the Twentieth Century. What has always held Brazil back has been poor governments (which existed largely to enrich the governing class and preserve the perquisites of the wealthy) and an impoverished population. Over the last ten tears this has changed, and today Brazil is one of the fastest growing countries in the world with a decent per capita GDP and rapidly rising living standards. The World Cup will be played there in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, which should
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  9. When Philately Had Tax Preferences

    There are very few economic activities that Americans engage in that are not either encouraged or discouraged by the tax code. The tax code currently runs to over 70,000 pages and is involved minutely in most of the activities of our lives. We wake up in the morning and dress in clothes made of taxed textiles, then drive in cars run by gasoline whose price is influenced by oil depletion allowances, ethylene offsets, and state and local taxes. Investments all have tax incentives or disincentives from 401-Ks and 501C-3s to preferential tax treatment for capital gains, IRAs, dividends, and home interest deductions. About the only investment market that has no tax preferences is the collectibles market.

    This was not always the case. In the late 1970s, collectibles, including stamps, were allowed in IRAs, and many stamp collectors had an investment portfolio of
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  10. The Stamp World is not the Only One That Has Changed

    Get a group of sixty year old doctors together, and you are sure to hear complaints about managed care and capitation and MBAs that get between doctors and patients. Lawyers have similar issues. People in the printing and publishing business lament the Internet. And independent booksellers now all seem to work for Barnes and Noble for $8 an hour. Every business and avocation has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. Philatelists, with our view of history, should be more understanding of this. Change has always affected all hobbies and occupations. Certainly the Internet and all that technology has opened up to us has dramatically changed our world. But have these changes been more dramatic than the changes that the electrification of the world between 1880 and 1920 caused? Are the changes now more overwhelming than how our lives were altered by the great
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  11. The Decline in the Popularity of Stamp Collecting in Japan

    Like Germany, Japan was devastated as a result of WWII. American bombing had destroyed industrial production, and the war had killed a high percentage of young adult males. Many homes were in ruins, and the electric and telecommunications grid was annihilated. Like Germans, the Japanese are an energetic and frugal people, and by the 1960s, fifteen years after the end of hostilities, Japan had largely rebuilt and was on its way to reemerging as one of the industrial powers of the world. The Japanese poured their export earnings into technology and universities and infrastructure, but unlike the Germans, the Japanese never really got into stamps.

    Philately never had much of a tradition in Japan. There were some important native collectors, but one of the greatest students of Japanese stamps was
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  12. The End of Auction Catalogs

    Early cars had mechanical crank starters. They didn't work very well, were hard to use, and required the strength of a good sized man to turn them. In cold weather they sometime "kicked", breaking the hand of the person trying to start his car. Yet even after electric starters were invented, for many years cars were equipped with both the newer starters and the older type. People were used to one thing, and even when something better came along they were reluctant to change. Such is the case now with stamp auction catalogs.

    Auction catalogs are cumbersome to produce. They require long lead times and are very expensive to print and mail. The average stamp auction company prints and mails about 3,000 catalogs at a cost in excess of $30,000, which is over $10 per catalog. In general, only
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  13. Postal Rate Increases

    Postal rate increases have been more modest in the last ten years than they were in the earlier era. Between 1971 and 1981, US postage rates increased from 8
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  14. Hyde Park on the Hudson

    The new movie Hyde Park on the Hudson is the first mainstream movie in years in which stamps and stamp collecting play a major part. The movie is about Roosevelt in the late 1930s at his summer home in Hyde Park, and Roosevelt is portrayed as a person to whom his stamps are very important. He shows his collection to his future mistress, to the visiting King George VI, and seems to go to his stamps for succor during his most stressful times in the movie.

    FDR's stamp collection was of the more ordinary kind. In the movie he takes a large magnifying glass and seems to enjoy looking at stamp designs without enjoying any of the more esoteric aspects of the hobby. The stamps shown in his collection are common and of the sort that would have
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  15. Great Buys

    In all the many ways that the hobby of stamp collecting has changed in the last 50 years, probably the most significant has been in the de-emphasis of the "great buy" that was at the heart of philatelic writing in previous generations. Everyone wants a good deal and to get what they pay for (and maybe a little more), but most collectors today are happy to get good value when they buy and don't hope to find an Airmail Invert every time they go to the post office. This change is more significant than most may think because it has happened slowly. Fully half of Pat Herst's great book "Nassau Street" written in 1960 is about great deals that he made. And while the stories are interesting, they are his great deals, not ours, so our interest after a while seems a bit prurient and his ethical standards somewhat low. Oddly, Herst's ethics were considered sterling in his day, but
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  16. Cinderellas

    Preprinted labels as collected by philatelists come in three broad categories: postage stamps, revenues, and Cinderellas. Postage stamps are collected by all philatelists. They are the major stamp issues of each country and are issued for the prepayment of postage. Postage Stamps are listed in many major worldwide catalogs. Collecting postage stamps has a long history and is very popular.
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  17. Modern Forgeries

    Probably nine out of ten philatelic forgeries were created in the nineteenth century. There were three primary reasons for this. First, stamps that were issued in the earliest period (before there were many stamp collectors) never existed in sufficient quantities in even the limited market by 1890. Second, early philatelic standards did not view forgeries the way we do today. Many early collectors were glad to have a
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  18. Philately Today

    The world was very different in 1960 than it is today. The universe was only four billion years old, a considerable age but adolescent compared to the nearly 14 billion years astronomers think it is today. Black holes hadn't been theorized or discovered. There was less documentation to prove evolution, as DNA had only been worked out a few years before. No one had been to the moon. No one had color television sets. I Love Lucy hadn't been replaced by Snookie and J-Wow. Making a phone call meant sitting down in your home and dialing. There were no computers and Internet and philatelists reading articles like this would be holding newspapers in their hands. And mail meant stamps. The world around us is very different than it was when the Baby Boomers were kids.

    But the stamp world has changed very little in the last fifty years. True, most collectors buy their stamps differently. Online sales predominate today and Ebay is a market force. However, the modern world

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  19. The Problem with US Philately

    The United States is probably the most difficult country to collect, no matter how you figure difficulty. If your measure of difficulty is cost, then US stamps win hands down; a complete collection of US stamps, only done once, would be worth near $20 million, many times the cost of any other single country. If your definition of difficulty is how hard it is to identify different major catalog numbers from one another, classic US philately has the crown there, too.

    No other country has turned minor plate varieties into major numbers like the Scott catalog has done. On the 1851 issue (#5/16) even plate design differences (not printing differences) create major numbers. No other country has subtle shade differences resulting in so many major numbers as we have on the 1857 issue (#27/30A). Our Bank Note issues (#134/218) are a study in how to make a hobby off-putting,
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  20. Stamp Packets

    Every kid in the 1950s and 1960s began collecting stamps the same way. We started with a Harris or Minkus worldwide album. Mine was the Statesman Deluxe, which had spaces for over 25,000 stamps. Next up the ladder was the Citation album, which had spaces for over 50,000 stamps, and to which I aspired. What made these albums interesting (and what made philately the social hobby that it was in the 1950s and 1960s for children) was the fact that these albums had illustrations; Harris and Minkus also marketed packets of 10,000 or 20,000 different stamps which contained many of the stamps that were illustrated in the album. Each packet contained not only many of the same stamps, but also many stamps that were different from one packet to the other. This meant that you and your friends could get together with your albums and trade stamps from your packets. Each of us were collecting from the same body of worldwide stamps, and it  might be because
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