Philately—Absorbing Hobby and Big Business
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRITAIN
PHILATELY, or the collecting of postage stamps, is said to be the “world’s greatest hobby.” The first stamps were simply ‘bits of paper covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the user might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of a letter,’ according to British postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). His ‘bits of paper’ became so popular that today postage stamps are hailed as an invention that changed the course of communications throughout the world.
For collectors and dealers, stamp values vary from virtually nil to astronomical sums of a million or more dollars. How can this be when postage stamps are so commonplace? And what gives them their appeal and their value?
The Unique Penny Black
The first handstruck stamps denoting prepayment of postage were the invention of merchant William Dockwra, who in 1680 started the London Penny Post. The mail deposited at the receiving house was stamped with a double-lined triangular postmark inscribed with the words PENNY POST PAID, ready for transmission by Dockwra’s messengers. But other messengers and porters strenuously opposed this arrangement because they felt their livelihood threatened. The government post office, too, saw Dockwra’s post as an infringement of their monopoly.
It was not until the early 19th century that postal reforms succeeded in making penny postage available throughout the country. In May 1840, the first adhesive postage stamp went on sale in Britain and soon became famous as the Penny Black. (See photo.) It was unperforated, and each stamp had to be cut from a sheet.
In 1843, Brazil became second only to Britain in issuing adhesive stamps valid for use throughout an entire country. Gradually other countries adopted their use for inland mail. Later, to facilitate overseas delivery, a worldwide postal union developed. Today the Universal Postal Union, with headquarters in Bern, Switzerland, is a specialized agency of the United Nations.
Collections Tell a Story
As international communications increased, each country designed and printed distinctive stamps. Some, called commemoratives, illustrate outstanding events and people; others, called definitives, are well-defined for regular use in a series of values to meet varying postal needs. Over the years some 600 postal administrations have issued an estimated 10,000 new stamps annually. Both the serious student of stamps (the philatelist) and the person who simply enjoys collecting stamps as a pastime can find something to suit their tastes in the quarter-of-a-million different stamps issued so far!
Obviously, with such a quantity and variety of stamps, no single collector can expect to own a copy of each type of stamp ever issued. Instead, many choose to collect stamps by themes. Agriculture, animals, Antarctica, bees, Bible, birds, bridges, caves, cinema, coal, country, energy, Esperanto, Europe, fire, flight, flowers, fungi, geology, industry, medicine, music, Olympic Games, photography, postal services, Red Cross, religion, space, sports, transport, UN, and even the weather are all collectible subjects. You name it, stamps have it.
Other collectors focus on stamp variations. What does this involve? Take a look again at the Penny Black. Do you notice the letters printed in the lower corners of the stamp? Originally, these stamps were printed in a sheet made up of 240 individual stamps arranged in 20 horizontal rows of 12. The first stamp in the top row had letters AA; the last in the row, AL, and so on alphabetically down the sheet to TA and TL at the beginning and end of row 20. The letters were hand punched in the corner squares of the design in the final stages of platemaking. A post office employee would suspect forgery if stamps on many letters he handled featured the same two characters.
Even though an estimated 68 million individual Penny Black stamps were issued, a collector who today owns an unused one has something rare and of value—in the range of $4,200 to $6,800.
Apart from subtle variations in design, stamps that are printed from different plates, on paper with different watermarks (a faint design in the paper, visible when held against the light), and even those with a different number of perforations (the holes along the edges) all command the interest of specialized collectors. To succeed, such specialists need more than tweezers (Never use your fingers!) and magnifying glass. Gages detect differences in perforations; ultra-violet lamps show up damage, hidden phosphorescence, and other minute details.
Certain collectors show special interest in mistakes in stamp design and printing. For them, owning something that other collectors have missed is the big thing. Consider the difference in value. By 1990 estimates, an 1841 Penny Red with the letter A missing, a mistake on the first stamp of the second row of the sheet, was worth some 1,300 times as much as one without this error!
Stamps Are a Big Business
Nowadays the stamp hobby attracts a variety of investors. The genuine investor purchases portfolios of rare classic stamps that dealers believe are most likely to appreciate in value over a fixed term. When the investment matures, the dealer undertakes to sell his client’s holdings at the highest prices obtainable. “Light, legible postmarks are a requisite for postally used stamps—often the most common stamps are comparatively scarce with ideal or unusual postmarks and are worth a corresponding premium. Condition is crucial to the value of a stamp,” writes stamp authority James Watson.
In 1979 the London Daily Mail reported that “in the past five years, classic stamps (those dating from 1840 to 1870) have been appreciating far more than shares and other forms of investment, and in many cases, even more than house prices.” A portfolio of seven rare stamps that cost $84,700 in 1974 increased its value to $306,000.
In 1990 a Time International advertisement reported: “As an investment, stamps have had a varied time of it. In the 1970s prices were pushed up very rapidly as speculators looking to profit from scarce stamps built up investment portfolios. But as London staged its 1980 Stamp World Exhibition, the bubble burst and the speculators found that the only people prepared to underpin the market were the collectors, and they had sensibly withdrawn. ‘When the investors tried to cash in their portfolios, they found that many stamps were not as scarce as they had supposed,’” and they lost out. What a warning this is for those who invest in stamps!
As a collector, then, or even as a philatelist, aim for balance. Enjoy your stamps. Learn from them—about the world, its geography, peoples, and cultures. Do not let collecting become an obsession. Carefully weigh your interest in stamps, and measure this against the more important things in life.
[Picture on page 17]
[Pictures on page 18]
Stamps from Austria, Spain, and Britain