Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Trouble in philatelic paradise???? The "Autumn of Discontent" for Scott and Gibbons...

For those of you who have visited either the Stampboards or Stamp Community forums in the last couple weeks, you may be aware that two of the most important names in the philatelic world, Stanley Gibbons and Amos Publishing (publisher of the Scott line of albums and catalogs in the USA) have both been having very trying periods.

In the case of Amos, it seems to be a massive technical failure that has completely eliminated their presence on the internet.  Going to the main Amos Advantage website only results in an error message and a note saying that the company hopes to be back online soon.  But for now, access to the products produced by Amos for the philatelic community via the publisher's own website is completely cut off.  With the holiday season rapidly approaching, hopefully these technical issues will be resolved soon, since I am sure that Amos, like most retailers, depend on holiday sales for a significant portion of their business.

While Amos grapples with internet gremlins of the first order, a much more potentially serious problem is growing for the British philatelic institution Stanley Gibbons.  A few years back new owners of the comany decided to take Gibbons into the world of Stocks, floating what had been a private company with what was, at the time, a fairly successful Initial Public Offer.  The management at Gibbons then began aggressively marketing the Gibbons company as an opportunity for investors in rare philatelic collectibles, promoting the idea that philatelic items could be a good alternative investment in an age of low returns due to the very low interest rates available in the West, and the uncertainty caused by the rapid gyrations of stock markets since the start of the 2008 Global economic crisis.

The year 2015 will likely go down as Gibbons "annus horribilis" in terms of its decision to travel down the investment pathway.  Investors have not invested to the degree imagined, and the auction market for the type of high-end UK and Commonwealth material that is the bedrock of Gibbons inventory has been flat at best and losing value in some areas.  Gibbons stock, which started the year with a value of over UKP 3.00 per share, has now fallen to  below UKP 0.90, a nearly 75% drop in value.

The fundamentals of the Gibbons company do not augur well for a recovery any time soon. It's internet presence via the Bidstart marketplace (which Gibbons purchases a couple years back hoping to increase its internet-based retail presence) is dire and going through yet another revamping. Profits have not met market expectations, and the result has been a steeping downward slide in the value of the stock. Parts of the Gibbons empire, such as the Catalog business, remain vibrant, but that branch alone can not support a company whose marketplace ambitions may simply have been too big for the resources at its disposal.  Hopefully Gibbons will be able to turn things around, reorganize itself around its core philatelic business, and seriously rethink the idea of being a vehicle to promote stamps as an "investment opportunity" for those seeking a quick profit.  Hopefully this can be achieved without Gibbons having to be "liquidated" in wake of further profit losses, but its unclear just how much lower Gibbons' stock price can go before the marketplace starts to consider that the most likely option.

For collectors in North America, there is a little solace in knowing that Amos Publishing is a privately-held company, so much less subject to the whims and pressures of a financial market that prioritizes short-term profit over long-term potential for growth.  As disconcerting as the longer than expected resolution of Amos' technical issues is, these issues should be resolvable in the end, and hopefully the financial cost to Amos will not have been too egregious. If Amos was in Gibbons' position as a publicly-traded company, the potential for investor flight gravely damaging the economic health of the company due to this technical crisis would probably have been immense.

I am not anti-capitalist by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes keeping a company privately owned is a better option for the long-term health of the company instead of exposing the company to the whims of the global financial marketplace. I personally think the experience of Gibbons as a publicly-traded company illustrates the great risks that any company involved in collectibles faces.  In the end, philately really should never be seen as an investment tool, but rather for what it is, an enjoyable hobby that, perhaps over the long term, can also be profitable to the collector with a bit of luck, patience and time.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Hinged vs Never Hinged...frankly my dear I don't give a.....

A couple months ago in a previous post I talked about the debate over whether it is better to collect mint stamps in hinged or never hinged condition, and the legacy that the never hinged fetish has created for the current generation of collectors.

As I said then, for me I tend to have a cutoff date of around 1960 for stamps in hinged or never hinged condition, which coincides with the first major hingeless stamp mount to gain wide popularity among American collectors, the (now infamous) Crystal Mounts from Harris. Pre-1960, I won't turn my nose up if offered a never hinged set if it is at a good price, but for me hinged is just as acceptable, provided there is no damage on the stamp from the legacy of being hinged at one point in its life.  Since I collect using Lighthouse Vario pages, the stamps will not of course be re-hinged, so that while they are in my personal custody no potential further harm from hinges will result.

(This last point is relevant today because hinges produced in the past twenty years or so are no where near as good as the ones produced back in the late pre-war and early post-war era. Just ask any collector who has been collecting for several decades and they will get a wistful look in their eyes remembering how good the quality of hinges were "back in the day")

Anyways today in the mail I received an item I had ordered from well known Australian stamp dealer (and owner/operator of the Stampboards.com forum) Glen Stephens.  I remember this set well as a kid, it was one of the first sets I ever helped my father mount onto album pages (with Crystal Mounts *shudder*) when I was a budding philatelist growing up in the St Lawrence Valley of New York State.

The iconic first Queen Elizabeth II definitive issue from Singapore, 1955. A piece of my childhood memories of collecting with my late father now brought back into my life, at a price that did not break my collecting budget. 

Mr. Stephens had offered this set on the Stampboards.com forum sales subforum (which is a great place to get stamps, and offer stamps for sale - definitely worth checking out!).  Yes it was listed as hinged, but it looked beautiful and the price being asked, AU$60.00 or about US$50 at the time, was I thought a bargain for one of the iconic definitive issues of the 1950s British Commonwealth. I was away on vacation when he listed it, and feared that it would get snatched up by some wise collector before I returned home. But the fates were kind to me, and I claimed it within about an hour of returning to Columbus.

The scan probably does not do the stamps justice. They are gorgeous. The $5 coat of arms, in particular, is beautifully centered and very fresh, with just the lightest hint that at some point in its life it was hinged by a previous collector. A couple values have some light toning, but we are talking about stamps issued in a colony with a tropical climate. A little tan is not a bad thing in my opinion, though other collectors would probably vehemently disagree.

Of course many would argue that since it is a hinged set, it has lost a lot of its value.  Both Gibbons and Scott value the set in Never Hinged condition only (Scott CV in 2012 for NH was US$150, Gibbons has it at £130 (approx US$200) in the 4th edition (2013) of the Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore catalog.) This is probably why no one jumped on the set immediately when it was listed. It had the "scarlet letter" of hinge marks. My gain, the set is a beauty, and in the end how many people collect stamps to show them gum-side out to show that  they are in "virginal never hinged condition?"

I will never understand why the main catalog publishers do not provide guideline for hinged material in the period from the start of their "never hinged" pricing until around 1960.  Yes most collectors these days will pay premiums for never hinged material, but there are a lot of gorgeous sets whose only "sin" is that they were hinged, but otherwise may be superior in centering or other measures of stamp condition. Even just a rough percent discount that would be appropriate for hinged material would be more helpful that complete silence, since there is a LOT of this material in the marketplace. 

Personally, until such time as the catalog publishers finally realize that some guidance for hinged pricing for the early never-hinged price years is something that many collectors will find useful, I'll continue searching for these wonderful sets in hinged condition and snatch them up for a song.  Because in the end I think dealers and collectors are heavily undervaluing them all for the name of some sense of "purity" of gum on the small supply of these issues that, at the time of their issuing, were not hinged by collectors as was the usual practice for mounting stamps in an album at that time. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The "democratization" of philatelic retail - the impact of the internet on the philatelic marketplace....

Over at the Stamp Community Forum there has been a lively debate going on regarding the impact of ebay and other online marketplaces upon the business side of the hobby.  The discussion started with the question "Can dealers compete with ebay?" and has ranges across several related topics, as is the want of a forum thread that is already eight pages long.

My reply to the question was that the question was asking the wrong thing. It's not a question of dealers competing with ebay, but rather "Should dealers consider using ebay as a platform for their business"  Ebay itself is simply a tool, a digital marketplace where buyers and sellers can meet in cyberspace and exchange goods.

Which raises a separate question. Is there a difference in the terms dealer and seller?

A question of semantics to be sure. I would say anyone who is offering to sell stamps, in any marketplace, is a dealer.  Others would seem to prefer to "rarify" the term dealer by restricting it only to those who make a professional living from their business. For those who only do a little business on the side, they would argue that -seller- is a better term.  And in the end, the "sellers" on ebay are making it much more difficult for many "dealers" to make a living.

This observation then leads to the actual heart of the issue at question - the decline in value of most stamps over the past decade.  And here it would be wise to not separate the two groups into "dealers" and "sellers" because they are all doing the same thing : offering stamps for sale to buyers.

If we think about how the business of philately operated say back in the 1980s (yes I am sure that is ancient history for some readers of this blog, who may not have even been alive then.  Me I was a teenager, working on my stamp collection while listening to Bon Jovi, Miami Sound Machine and Heart on the radio). You had your local stamp dealers if you lived in a large enough metropolitan area. You had dealers who advertised in publications such as Linn's Stamp News.  But unless you travelled a great deal around the country, it was often difficult to find stamp dealers who might have the material you are looking for.  You could write to those dealers who placed ads in the various philatelic publications, but in general the total number of people selling stamps in the 1980s was fairly small, and in general the demand for stamps equaled the supply available (or seemingly only available) through dealers.  In that retail environment, most stamps tended to rise in price slowly, and some that would become -hot- issues could rise very fast very quickly, as anyone who remembers the US stamp bubble of the late 1970s can attest.  Philatelic retail was, I would argue, controlled by an "oligarchy" of dealers, many of whom were quite chummy with each other and would rarely move to undersell their product verses a competing dealer.

Then came the internet, and all the rules of philatelic retail were changed. Philatelic retail became "democratized" and the benefit has been to the buyer at the expense of the dealer.

Today, the ability of the buyer to "comparison shop" between different dealers of stamps is so much, much greater than it was in the 1980s.  And, with the ease the internet provides to allow anyone to become a purveyor of stamps (compared to the days when most dealers had huge overhead in the cost of a shop, the cost of advertising, etc) it means the potential for a large number of retailers to join the marketplace now existed  The result is that today there is now a lot greater supply of stamps in the marketplace for purchase than there was in the 1980s.  What might have been 20 dealers in the USA offering stamp X for sale via local channels and, perhaps, an advertisement in a national publication, now has become 200 dealers of offering the same stamp, and the buyer can compare prices with just a few keyboard clicks.

The one problem with this of course is that demand for many stamps has not kept pace with the increase in availability of supply in the marketplace.  This is especially true for the "meat and potatoes" type of stamps - those stamps that were always worth more than being packet material back in the 1980s, but they were not so rare as to be nearly unobtainable unless you had deep pockets.  It turns out that these "meat and potato" stamps exist in sufficient quantity that if you have more sellers offering to sell the item than buyers to buy them, the value of the stamp is going to decrease in the marketplace.  This is especially the case for the stamps of Western Europe and North America where demand is weak due to the lack of new collectors of the stamps of the West and the vast quantities of most stamps printed at time of issue. Many stamps are now selling at a percent below face value in the marketplace because they are so common and demand is so weak for them. Countries that were -hot- in the 1980s like Germany have in particular been hit hard. A perusal of the Scott Catalogs and comparing prices clearly illustrates this - most of the "meat and potato" stamps have either remained stagnant or declined in catalog value over the past decade.

Meanwhile those stamps that always have been rare due to limited quantity in desired conditions continue to this day to increase in value because there will never be enough supply to meet demand. High quality pre-1930 USA issues, for example, continue to rise in value if they are in above average condition.  And of course one can not forget the impact of booms and bubbles in in philately. While the Chinese stamp market did decline a bit over the past couple years due to China's own internal economic weakness, the days when Chinese stamps of the pre-1990 era sold just above face value are never going to come back either, as it seems the supply of these issues is much less than the demand even when you factor out speculation.

Dealers who do not make use of sites such as ebay, Delcampe, Zillions of Stamps and others here I think really are making a grave business error. These platforms provide an audience of millions of potential collectors from around the world that the dealer would never have been able to reach had the structure of the retail trade remained the same as it was in the 1980s.  The cold hard reality is that the marketplace is now much, much bigger than it was, and as the amount of supply has grown faster than the demand for stamps from collectors, the laws of supply and demand work to the benefit of the buyer. And this will remain the case until a new equilibrium between supply and demand is reached.  It is a whole new retail ballgame in philately, and the days of the stationary retail brick-and-mortar stamp shop are probably numbered. A dealer with the cost of overhead such as owning a retail space is going to find it difficult to compete with a dealer selling items from the comfort of his or her home.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's A Charlie Brown Christmas at the USPS this year

Back in the late summer the USPS announced the subject of this year's contemporary Christmas issue. Fifty years ago this coming December the animated cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas," based on the characters of the legedary American cartoonist Charles Schulz, was broadcast on the CBS network.

For a whole generation of Gen-Xers like myself, the annual broadcast of this animated film was proof that the holiday season was truly here and soon Santa Claus would be making his rounds.  The film itself was written by Schulz as a reminder of what the point of celebrating Christmas was originally all about, in an age where mass commercialism was rapidly changing its meaning in the collective American psyche.

The 2015 Charlie Brown Christmas double-sided booklet pane of 20, released 1 Oct 2015 by the USPS. 

The new stamps are available only in double-sided panes of 20 self-adhesive stamps, and capture many of the classic vignettes from the 1965 film.  For a sentimental Gen-Xer like myself, these designs truly bring back many great memories of holiday seasons past. 

My only qualm with the issue is the layout - twelve stamps on one side, eight on the other.  With ten different designs and the double-sided format, this means that you really need to collect the entire pane of 20 to be able to have a complete set that maintains the se-tenant format for the entire issue, which is only possible for the arrangement of the stamps on the twelve stamp side.  

As a way to minimize use of extra paper backing and save space for the consumer the layout is great, for the collector not so much.  But at US$9.80 for the pane, it's not a bank breaker. And we can be thankful that there was only one printer used, in one format.  I would not be fond of going back to the days in the late-1990s when a plethora of printers were used on contemporary holiday issues, resulting in three or more different varieties of the same set. A specialists dream in terms of perforation varieties and printing varieties, but definitely much more expensive on the collector's bank account.

In the end though it is funny to reflect on the background of this issue and its release this year.  Schulz created the film as a way to challenge what he saw as the growing commercialization of the holiday in a rapidly secularizing American society of the 1960s. Yet today, the Peanuts "brand" has become as much about making profits for the company holding the copyright to the characters as it is about entertaining and educating Americans. In a few weeks the first full-length animated film based around the Peanuts characters will be released in cinemas worldwide (and from the various previews that have been produced over the past year, it looks to be an amazing production showcasing just how far animation has come in the decades since the release of the Christmas special in 1965).

Schulz himself passed away in 2000. One wonders what he would have made of what has become of his creations in the intervening fifteen years since his passing. He himself consented to licensing use of the characters for advertising purposes (the classic Met Life insurance ads have used Snoopy in its ads since 1987) so I think it would be safe to say that he would not be totally aghast, and clearly the characters he created remain much beloved in American, and indeed global, pop culture.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Getting back in the swing after a period away...

Last few weeks been hectic for me between work, visiting my family back in New York during my vacation week from work, and hosting my university days bestie from Singapore for two weeks. Now with the weather turning colder (first frost here in Central Ohio last night) I'll be putting more time (I HOPE!!!) into my collecting and being more regular at posting on this blog.

Friday, September 18, 2015

RIP Marvin Frey...and the question of sourcing stamps for your collection.

Heard the sad news earlier this week that the owner of Bellmore Philatelics in Massapequa Park, New York, Marvin Frey, had passed away.  I have been dealing with Bellmore off and on for many years. I was a huge fan of their "in home approval service" where they would send out an assortment of old albums, dealer cards etc and let you pick the items you wanted at a percent of Scott catalog value.  For me it was a wonderful way to re-activate my collecting interest after several years away, and most of my French Colonial purchases made over the past few years have been via Bellmore.

Alas, with the passing of Mr Frey, Bellmore announced that it will no longer be providing its approval service.

For me this brings up a question that all collectors have to deal with. What is the best way to source items for your collection?  These days, the internet of course provides the collector with options to purchase items that simply did not exist before the Internet Revolution. Before you were limited to what local dealers (or dealers within your country) could offer, and comparison price shopping was at the same time quite difficult.

Today though the collector is truly blessed with a cornucopia of options, from general auction sites such as eBay to collectibles markets such as Delcampe (my favorite) or Zillions of Stamps, to all sorts of individual dealers who do maintain strong internet presences posting their pricing and stock lists for all to see. There are also several approval services, my favorite being the approval branch of British auction company Universal Philatelic Auctions. They provide amazing customer service and work very hard to send you selections to look over that fit your collecting interests.

In some ways today is definitely the best of times to be a collector, since it is now much easier to find the items that you want for your collection AND be able to compare prices to find the best deal to fit your budget.

Still, I am going to miss receiving those approval selections from Bellmore. It was a fun way to pass an afternoon and allowed me to exactly see the condition of the stamps I was going to purchase. Sadly it's increasingly rare to find approval services that give you the luxury of viewing at home first before you buy. Pictures on the web of front and back of stamps help, but there is nothing like seeing the actual stamp in person before you buy to make you feel confident you are purchasing what you want, and of course there are lots of horror stories about items listed on eBay or other sites that turn out not to be as described. But as the excellent service from UPA shows, stamp dealers that provide approvals still do exist.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Future of Scott Catalogs - Take The Survey!!

A couple days ago Amos Publishing sent out a survey form via various dealers to survey the philatelic community about how they would like to see the Scott Catalogs organized in the future. The current six-volume general catalog has apparently reached its size limit, and Scott is going to have to choose either to expand the existing format into more volumes or perhaps re-arrange the organization of the catalogs along geographic and historic lines (much as Stanley Gibbons, Michel and Yvert et Tellier already do for their catalogs).

Thankfully the publishers in their email included a link to their survey and permission to share the link, and a kind soul at the Stampboards Forum posted it.  Since this is something that I think every collector who uses Scott catalogs even on a casual basis should be participating in, I have decided to put the link to the survey here below.

Scott Catalogue Collector Survey

It's not a long survey, and at the end you have a chance to register to win a copy of the Scott Classic Specialized Stamp Catalog 1840-1940.

The one thing that the survey does NOT address is the question of digital versions of the Scott Catalogs.  This is a shame, since digital reference really is the future for hobbies such as philately.  Collectors my age (I am 44) and younger are very much wired into the digital world, and really live our lives connected to the internet.

While the survey does not directly address digital versions, it does offer respondants a space to leave further comments and opinions. My suggestion to those who believe Amos Publishing need to bring the Scott Catalogs fully into the twenty-first century is to fill this section out with what you think the optimal digital version of a Scott Catalog would be.

On my part, I suggested the following ideas

  1. regional organization similar to SG, Michel and Yvert Catalogs
  2. fully functional search feature within catalogs based on keyword
  3. clear digital images of all stamps listed, not just one -sample- design as currently in the Scott Catalogs
  4. ability to use the product offline for those occasions when one is at a show or bourse and there is either poor Wi-Fi access or none at all.
  5. My last suggestion would probably be controversial : allow those who buy the digital version of the catalogs be able to have a low-price point subscription model that would allow automatic updates of content (such as adding new issues once they are given Scott numbers) and the ability to purchase new editions of the full catalog at a reduced price.  This is roughly similar to the model my favorite gaming company, Paradox Interactive in Sweden, follows for its historical strategy game - you buy the game, get free patches to fix errors, access to some free new peripheral content, and then ability to purchase new updated versions with more changed and new content at a price lower than the original game.  This is a model that works well for gaming, and I think would work well here for Amos Publishing to make the Scott Catalogs the best catalog for stamp collectors going forward into the twenty-first century.

In any case, take a few minutes to fill out the Scott survey and let your voice be heard!!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Do-It-Yourself Album Labels - easy as pie!

So you are building up your stamp collection and eventually you get to the point where you need to seriously consider how you are going to organize and store it.  Everyone does it differently. Some prefer pre-printed stamp albums, others stockbooks or (my choice) stock sheets in binders. Some forgo the book format altogether and use regular boxes. I even saw once on I think The Stampboards Fourm a collector who purchased an old library card catalog cabinent and stored his collection in dealer cards stored in the boxes where the library card catalog records were kept - VERY CLEVER and it looked amazing.

My French colonies collection is reaching a point where I have several lighthouse Vario-F and Vario-G binders to house it.  The Lighthouse binders are wonderful, but they of course have no information on the outside to tell you the contents.  I could just write the name on a self-stick label but to me that isn't really all that attractive.  Now you can purchase labels from Lighthouse for certain nations, or even have custom album labels made by Palo to say anything you want.  But for me, that seemed like paying money for something I could just as easily do at home.

And after experimenting a bit, I discovered it is definitely something worth doing at home.  All you need is an inkjet printer, some good label paper, and a good graphics program such as Photoshop to edit any graphics you might want to include on the label.

Growing up I always thought that albums which had the coat of arms of the nation whose stamps were in the album looked really classy, so I decided that is what I wanted to put on the spine of my binders. Just the coat of arms, not the name of the nation (being trained as historian means I know my coat of arms and flags of nations like the back of my hand).  Since my collections are organized along modern nations, with colonial issues being the first part of many of those nations, I chose to use the coat of arms of the independent nations. For those remaining areas of the French empire *ahem, Departments d'Outre Mer, s'il vous plait* I use their coat of arms as well.

The process is actually quite straight forward.

1) choose the kind of label paper you like.  I am using Silhouette brand printable silver foil. They make a gold foil as well as a transparent (more correctly translucent) printable paper as well. For me, the gold seems a bit too ostentatious, and the transparent made it difficult to see the coats of arms clearly, so silver was a nice compromise. And the pages are 8.5x11 inches and designed to work with inkjet printers that have the capability to print on photograph paper.

Silhouette brand printable silver foil. Restrained refinement perfect for this project.

2) Next I needed the designs of the various coats of arms. In Wikipedia we trust. Coats of Arms are public domain items so downloading the images from the Wikipedia is not a problem. 

3) Once you have the designs, a graphical editing program like Photoshop is necessary to make the images small enough to fit on the spine of the album. I am a huge fan of Photoshop but any good graphic editing program will do, and many of them are free/shareware.  Once you reduce the images down to the right size, you can create a new image file and then, using copy and paste, create a whole page of images.  I could fit twenty of them on an 8.5x11 page.

The balance of the first page of coat of arms labels I printed, having cut out a few already to place on binders.  I can fit twenty coats of arms on a page total.

4) Once you have the graphics done I needed to save the file in a format that would keep the background transparent when printing so that the silver foil would come through. In photoshop that is easy enough just choose save as a .png file.

5) Then you start the printing. In your printing preferences, you need to see the print type to printing photos, paper type to glossy photo paper, and print quality high. Then just load a piece of the label paper in and hit print.  Once done, LET THE PRINTED PAGE SIT SEVERAL HOURS TO DRY. This will help prevent smudging and "set" the designs.

6) Then once you let the labels dry, simply cut out and put onto the binder spine.

 The first three binders with their new coat of arms labels.  The black binder is for French Antilles (Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guiana coat of arms respectively top to bottom), the middle one is for Cameroun, and the one on the right for Gabon.

Easy peasy as Jamie Oliver would say and makes it much easier to find a specific country in my growing collection. And as I am still very much a worldwide collector and plan to focus on other parts of the world as my collecting evolves, I think this will be a nice look for my albums on the shelf.

The only thing I am not certain of, yet, is if over time the labels will be peelable, so that if I need to move a country's collection to a larger binder, I could easily peel the coat of arm label and reuse.  The labels adhere well to the Lighthouse binders, and at least initially do seem peelable within the first couple days of being applied. Long-term though not sure that will remain the case. But given how relatively inexpensive making these labels are, its not a major problem, and one could recycle a binder by putting a new label over the old if needed.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A what if of philately...the US overseas possessions....

The most recent post to JKJblue's excellent blog deals with the stamps of post-partition Samoa.  This of course means the stamps issued for the western half of the Samoa archipelago, as from the time of its annexation by the United States in 1900, the eastern half of the archipelago used (and still uses) the postage stamps of the United States.

This is not an exception for American overseas terrtories.  With the exception of the Philippines, which did issue its own postage stamps during the United States administration of 1899-1946 (likely because the Philippines had its own currency at the time of annexation, the Philippine Peso, and that currency was retained by the US Administration), and the overprints issued in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American war of 1898 for Guam and Puerto Rico, American overseas terrritories have used the postage stamps of the United States from the time they came under American rule.

One of the most beautiful stamps issued during the US Administration of the Philippines, the 1932 2c Mount Mayon pictorial (image courtesy mountainstamp.com)

USA 1c Benjamin Franklin stamp of 1894 overprinted -GUAM- for use on that island after its capture by US forces during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Regular USA issues would be used on the island after 1901.  (image courtesy pecollectibles.com)

Similarly, after the US annexation of Hawaii in 1898 separate postal issues would be superceded by regular United States issues in 1901.

1899 stamp issued by the US administration in Hawaii, the high value in a set of three stamps that would be the last separate issue for Hawaii before its stamps were replaced by regular US stamps. (image courtesy treasurecoastamps.com)

The same fate would befall the Western Virgin Islands after they passed from Danish to American rule in 1917 when the US government bought the islands from Denmark.

Danish West Indies stamp depicting King Christian X, one of a set of eight issued in 1915 that would be the last stamps released before the transfer to American sovereignty in 1917 and the end of the Western Virgin Islands separate philatelic identity (image courtesy linns.com)

I always thought it was a pity that the overseas external territories *cough colonies* of the United States lost their philatelic identity so quickly after they came under American administration. As the Mount Mayon stamp from the Philippines shows, the potential for some truly beautiful stamps that depicted these, to Americans in the contiguous 48 states, exotic lands governed by the United States would have been great.

The Postal Service would, to a degree, do this with the Overseas Territories issues of 1937, although Guam and American Samoa were not given any recognition in this series.

The 1937 External Territories issue of the US Postal Service, honoring Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but NOT Guam or American Samoa. (image courtesy delcampe.net)

A lovely set, isn't it?  Now imagine what *could* have been had the external territories been given postal autonomy to issue their own stamps under US Postal Service oversight.

But...it never came to pass. Alaska and Hawaii acceded to Statehood in 1959.  While Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth/Estado Libre Asociado in 1952, it did not regain postal autonomy, and given recent events on the island, the likelihood it will become a full-fledged state in the next decade seem quite high. And the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam remain external territories, with varying degrees of self-government, and (non-voting) representation in the US House of Representatives. And they continue to use regular United States postage stamps.

On a similar note, I think it is also sad that the five French overseas departments (départements d'outre-mer) also have lost philatelic autonomy. No more separate issues for Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Reunion or, more recently, Mayotte. The distinctive cultures of these five territories produced some gorgeous stamps during their philatelic lifetimes, and while the French have issued stamps depicting scenes or personalities from these regions from time to time over the past sixty years, something I think was definitely lost to philately with the end of their philatelic independence.

Iconic low value stamp from the 1947 pictorial issue of Guadeloupe.  Alas this would be the final set of stamps issued specifically for the island, as stamps of France itself would replace Guadeloupe stamps shortly thereafter. (from author's collection)

Stamp issued by France in 1970 depicting the Rocher du Diamant in the overseas department of Martinique.  Martinique, like Guadeloupe, issued its last stamps in 1947. A beautiful stamp to be sure, but only one of a handful of stamps released in the past nearly seventy years depicting the overseas departments (image courtesy delcampe.net).

Of course, philatelic independence can also go horribly wrong, as the recent philatelic histories of the external realms of the Kingdom of the Netherlands - Curacao, Aruba, Saint Maarten, and the Caribbean Netherlands communes of Saba, Saint Eustatius and Bonaire, will attest. Philatelic independence for these external territories had in the past five years led to their selling their philatelic souls to a philatelic agency that issues stamps in their name with often only little relevance to the local cultures. But this is a recent phenomenon, and in particular I always found the stamps of Aruba in particular to be gorgeous until it made its bargain with the philatelic devil. 

Aruba 1993 Folklore issue, from the days when Aruba's philatelic production was conservative, relevant to the island, and the stamp designs in general of a very high quality. (image courtesy delcampe.net)

Aruba 2014 Classic Cars issue, released by the philatelic agency the Aruba Post Office sold its soul to.  Higher-than necessary face values, little cultural resonance to the island, and less that stellar artwork.(image courtesy delcampe.net)

So perhaps this is one of those double-edged sword issues, since the temptation by almost all postal services these days semes to be to to use their philatelic programs as cash-cows, cashing in on the popular topics and generally ignoring the culture, history and society of the countries or territories the stamps purport to represent.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Always remember, haste makes waste....especially when adhesive tape is involved...

I recently bid on a stamp up for auction at the Delcampe marketplace. I wanted to fill a hole in one of my French colonial pictorial issues to complete the set.  Saw a dealer with the stamp, placed a bid on it, and won it. It was not an expensive stamp, and the dealer mailed it out using French euro- and mixed-denominated commemorative stamps. Unfortnately I had not changed my address at Delcampe, so the stamp was addressed to my old residence, but I had a forwarding address set up with the USPS so it received a new address sticker. So far, so good.

The stamp arrived in this cover. Have blocked out personal info but its a nice cover with a change of address sticker added by USPS that did NOT damage the French stamps!

I opened the letter, and inside were two pieces of what felt to me like index card stock. All good, the stamp should be fine.  The stamp itself had been placed inside a Scott-type center back cut mount  the perfect size to fit the stamp. All good.

Then the dealer decided to attach the mounted stamp to the inside center of one card with....ADHESIVE TAPE over both cut ends of the mount.


The stamp itself did not shift during mailing. The use of the right size stamp mount meant that it was snug as a bug in a rug. Simply adhering the mount directly to the card would have been the best solution. But the dealer felt that to secure the stamp, sticky tape was needed.

I do not know what the French use for adhesive on their tape, but the stuff would hold together parts of the Space Station.

How to liberate the stamp from its prison. I could not insert a pair of stamp tongs inside the mount since both cut ends were firmly shut by the tape.  So my plan was to peel one side of the tape off the card, then use tongs to extract stamp from back of mount.  MacGuyver would have been proud.

Alas, the tenacity of the French tape was amazingly strong. It was not going to peel easily. I worked slowly, but soon the Taurus within got the better of me, and I decided to give a harder pull.

DOMMAGE! - the tape ripped, tearing into the mount, and also putting a small rip on the top edge of the stamp itself.   MERDE!

The good news is the stamp itself was not particularly expensive, and I did receive a nice cover in the bargain. But, I still have that hole in my set to fill, all due to the overzealous zeal of a dealer who feared the stamp would not survive the Trans-Atlantic journey secured in every way possible.