Today, we have another post from writer Kosmo… influenced by a killer.
My birthday is coming up later this month. My wife recently asked me what I wanted. Most years, I don’t have a good answer. I pre-order Kindle versions of the books I want, and I generally don’t accumulate a lot of “stuff”.
“Stamps,” I replied.
Why am I beginning a stamp collection just as I approach my 45th birthday? Well, a killer made me do it.
My favorite writer is Lawrence Block. I’ve written several articles about his works over the years. If you like mysteries, you’ll probably find a Block series that you like. The killer who stoked my philatelic interests is a man named Keller, the subject of a five book series. Keller is a hit man. He travels around the country, killing people who need to be killed. When he finishes the job, he ends up with a bunch of cash. You can’t deposit a lot of cash without having the bank file a form 8300 with the IRS. Nor can you structure your deposits in such a way to avoid detection. In fact, making five deposits of $9500 each will raise more eyebrows than a single $47,500 transaction.
So, what’s a hit man to do with all this cash? He plows it into stamps. They sit in albums, slowly appreciating in value (although Keller is quick to point out that it’s difficult to recover the purchase price very quickly, due to dealer markup). Block tends to weave a lot of actual knowledge into his books (particularly the Keller and Tanner series). So I was able to pick up the basics of collecting from Keller.
Block also wrote articles for Linn’s Stamp News. Those were compiled into a book called Generally Speaking. I read it when it initially came out, despite having no interest in actually collecting at that time. The book was recently updated, so if you’re interested in the hobby and haven’t read it, this is a good time to read it.
But enough with the free advertising for my favorite author. What do I hope to get out of stamp collecting?
It’s certainly not a profit motive. While Keller can invest in high dollar items such as Martinique 2 and Martinique 17, I’m going to be buying considerably lower dollar items, such as this lovely set from the Ross dependency. (What’s the Ross Dependency? It’s the section of Antarctica that belongs to New Zealand). I’m doing it purely for the enjoyment. I’ll periodically spend small sums of money and expect the collection to never be particularly valuable.
Speaking of money, there are a lot of things you can buy when you’re getting started in the hobby.
- Catalogues – If you want to have an idea of what’s out there and what to expect to pay, you’ll want a catalogue. Scott is the dominant force in the market. There are a variety of catalogues, depending on your area of interest. Expect to pay about $100 for a new catalogue, or many hundreds if you collect several countries (especially if they are in different part of the alphabet). There are some free online catalogues, such as Stampworld and FreeStampCatalogue. However, everyone has their own numbering scheme, and most seller use the numbers from the Scott catalogue (or sometimes Stanley Gibbons). So if you don’t have a Scott catalogue, you may have to do a bit more research when you’re buying or selling. I’ve opted not to buy a Scott catalogue, at least for now. Instead, I spent $15 on a used copy of a book about New Zealand’s stamps.
- Tracking software – You probably want to track what you actually have. These are generally subscription-based services. I opted for StampWorld’s VIP membership ($30 per year) which includes tracking of your collection.
- Magnifying glass – If you want a close-up look at your stamps, you’ll want a magnifying glass. My close vision has been getting worse in recent years (as a normal part of the aging process), so this will be a must.
- Tongs – You shouldn’t touch stamps with your fingers, because the oils on your skin can harm the stamps. Instead, you should special stamp tongs to move stamps.
- Storage – There are a different ways to store stamps.
- You can spends hundreds of dollars on nice albums. There are albums for various specialties. If you’re collecting newer stamps, there will be supplements each year, for the stamps that were issued during year. The album will have a specific space for each specific stamp in your collection. You use mounts or hinges (older method, less expensive than mounts) to attach your stamps.
- Stockbooks – Stockbook pages contain a number or vertical strips. Simply slide your stamps under a strip, and you’re done. It might not look quite as nice as a pricey album, but it’s less expensive and it’s easier to move stamps around (for example, if you get a higher quality version of a particular stamp).
- DIY – I’m actually going to buy some Stockbook pages and put them into a three ring binder I have. It’s a nice, big binder that was originally purchased for my baseball card collection. It ended up going into storage and never got used. Finally, it gets to shine. I’m going to buy some stockbook pages and put them into the album. You can buy pages with a various configurations, because stamps vary in sizes. Additionally, some collectors collect “covers” (envelopes with the stamp attached) and those naturally take up much more room. Stockbook pages usually have a lot of holes, so that they can be used in a variety of binders.
- Glassine envelopes for short-term storage of stamps. Glassine is a semi-translucent paper.
- Stamps – I knew I was forgetting something. Now that you can store and handle stamps, it’s time to buy them. You can buy from a dealer, or on Ebay or stamp auction sites such as HipStamp.
Before you start just buy stamps randomly, you’ll want to figure out what you want to collect. This may be a particular country or date range (worldwide pre-1940 is a common specialty) or a topical subset, such as stamps that feature fish.
My primary focus will be on New Zealand, pre-1970. In recent years, I have adopted New Zealand as a country of interest. (Executive summary: I wanted to bond with Indian co-workers over cricket. I somewhat randomly picked New Zealand as my favorite team and got hooked). It seems like production of stamps really proliferated after about 1970, and I don’t really care for a lot of the newer stamps. In addition to New Zealand itself, there’s also the Realm of New Zealand – Ross Dependency (in Antarctica), Tokelau, Cook Islands, and Niue. So there’s plenty for me to collect without going beyond New Zealand. If I do branch out further, it will likely be into the non-Australian portions of Oceania.
I’ll also have a few topical subsets, just for fun. I’ll collect baseball, cricket (the sport), dinosaurs, tigers, and elephants. I’ll probably also delve into covers a bit. There are some items from the Ross Dependency that have postmarks from the actual location in Antarctica, which seems pretty cool to me.
How many philatelists are in our midst? What have you found most enjoyable about the hobby? What advice to you have for new collectors? And, if you don’t mind sharing, how much money have you sunk into stamps over the years?
Your post brought back fond memories for me. One of my friends, who passed away several years ago, had a business selling stamps to collectors. Your article made me think of her. Have fun with your new collection.
I’m glad I was able to bring back fond memories.
Did she have a brick and mortar store, or mail order? I can imagine that it’d be fun interacting with collectors at a brick and mortar place. There are such a variety of personalities and budgets.
Interesting that your friend was female. It seems that the hobby is primarily male, for some reason. Queen Elizabeth II is a collector, though – she has a pretty incredible collection.
I collected stamps as a kid with my dad. Amazingly, we had 2 great philately stores within a 5 min walk from our house — used to go every weekend to buy something new. I credit it with giving me a tremendous educational jump start in geography and history. In middle school, I knew countries and capitals better than anyone in my class as a result. Pops and I used to spend hours making new custom pages for the album and staring at the amazing artwork through a magnifying glass. Still have my collection. Timeless memories!
Lazy Man says
Sounds like I should use Kosmo’s guide and dive into this hobby.
It was a mail order business that she operated from her home. She would have loved a brick & mortar business that would have allowed her to have personal contact with people. She was so outgoing and entertaining. It’s funny that you mentioned Queen Elizabeth II because my friend was born in England, so maybe it’s a British thing.
So far, I’ve bought stamps from people in five foreign countries – UK, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. I’ve paid in US dollars, British pounds, Australian dollars, and US dollars. I’m getting to the point where I can look at prices in the various currencies and know if it’s a reasonable price or not.
New Zealand has some dinosaur stamps that I’ll definitely need to buy at some point. In fact, I might need to buy two sets – one for my New Zealand section (even though the 1993 release date falls after my normal 1970 cutoff) and one for my dinosaurs topical subset. Happily, they aren’t very expensive.
I’ve already spent a not-insignificant amount of time plotting out the organization of my stockbook – which stamps will be on which page. Initially, the first few pages in the album – the ones with the earliest stamps – will be pretty empty, since those stamps are more expensive. I’ll slowly accumulate some of those stamps, though.
International mail is currently very flow. Items from Canada and the UK each took two weeks to arrive, and several other items are still inbound.