Here's what you can collect instead of stamps

Feb 12, 2001, 10 AM

By Michael Baadke

Several months ago I attended a stamp show in New York City and visited a well-known stamp collector at his home. I'd never seen this man's collection before, and I was a bit surprised when he told me with a smile on his face, "I don't have any stamps in my collection!"

The term "cover" is used to describe any envelope or postcard that was sent through the mail and then saved by someone with an interest in postal history.That's a little odd for a stamp collector, you might think, but it was true. He doesn't have any stamps in his vast collection: All he has is covers.

Most covers bear postage stamps, but all of the covers that I saw in this collection were stampless: either mailed before stamps were issued in the United States, or mailed shortly thereafter, but sent without a postage stamp.

Handwritten markings or markings stamped on the outside of early stampless covers usually indicate that postage was prepaid, or that postage fees were to be collected from the recipient when the letter was delivered.

Figure 1 shows an example of a stampless cover. It was mailed in 1846, just one year before the first U.S. postage stamps were issued.

If you think this cover doesn't really look like much, then it is true that looks can be deceiving. In 1998 this example of a stampless City Despatch Baltimore local post cover sold for $4,500 at an auction by the Baltimore firm of Matthew Bennett.

The characteristic that makes this particular folded letter so valuable is the red "CITY DESPATCH" marking struck in the lower-left corner. Only three such stampless examples are known, according to the Bennett auction catalog.

As with this cover, many distinctive areas of the stamp hobby don't involve collecting actual postage stamps.

Some items, such as the City Despatch stampless cover, can be very costly to own or collect. Such items may not turn up in your collection or mine, but we can still learn from them even if we're not able to call them our own.

Many other stampless covers are much more affordable, and they can lead a collector into interesting areas of study. Different markings on covers provide information about their history and help us to learn how mail was delivered generations ago.

A few weeks ago, in the Jan. 8 Refresher Course, we looked at souvenir cards issued by the United States Postal Service and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. These cards are often sold at major stamp shows.

While they frequently reproduce engravings that have previously appeared on postage stamps, mint cards do not bear actual stamps.

Yet the collecting of souvenir cards is a well-known area of the stamp hobby, and U.S. government-produced souvenir cards are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers.

Many collectors appreciate souvenir cards because they enjoy looking at the fine lines of a hand-engraved design. In this way souvenir cards share a characteristic with classic U.S. postage stamps.

The collector who could not even hope to afford an expensive classic stamp may be able to obtain a similar item printed on a reasonably priced souvenir card.

From time to time postal authorities also produce other souvenirs related to specific stamp issues. Figure 2 shows a small program from the United States marking a 1984 unveiling ceremony for the 22¢ stamp of 1985 that commemorated and promoted the Ameripex 86 stamp show.

The program, which shows an early mock-up of the stamp, would be a great addition to a collection of modern U.S. stamps.

Die proofs and plate proofs are other collectibles showing fine stamp engravings that are within the budgets of many collectors. However, many stamp proofs are scarce and cost much more than the average souvenir card.

A proof is a test printing of a design, although some proofs were made after normal production, mostly for the collector market.

Proofs are closely tied to the stamp hobby because they usually show the actual designs that appear on postage stamps.

Figure 3, left, pictures a die proof of the 12¢ Pictorial stamp of 1869 showing the SS Adriatic. Like the actual postage stamp, this proof was printed in green ink. Trial-color proofs often are printed in colors that are different from the issued stamp.

A die proof is a test printing from, usually, a single-image steel die. It can be from the master die into which an engraver has cut the stamp design, or it can be from a working die made from the master.

A small die proof is called that simply because it is printed on a relatively small piece of paper. Large die proofs are on larger paper.

Plate proofs are impressions created from finished plates, usually the plates actually used to print stamps.

The 1869 small die proof of Figure 3 has a catalog value of $1,600. It was offered in a March 2000 auction by the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries of New York City. Some proofs sell for much more than this 12¢ stamp proof, while others sell for considerably less.

Proofs of United States stamp designs are also listed in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog.

Essays are postage stamp designs from an earlier stage of stamp production. Issued stamps differ in appearance from their essays, and in many instances various essays are created but are rejected for the stamp under consideration.

At right in Figure 3 is an essay for a British 4-penny Queen Victoria stamp. This design may have been considered for stamp production in the 19th century, but no stamp using the essay design was ever issued.

Nevertheless, the essay sold for more than $1,400 at the 1991 Ivy, Shreve and Mader sale of the Alford Collection.

Such an item makes a significant addition to a collection or study of Victorian postage stamps from Great Britain.

A long list of U.S. essays also appears in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog, while essays of other countries are often documented in specialized literature for that region.

Many stamp collectors are interested in almost anything associated with postal services, and some go so far as to collect blank forms, labels and other postal paraphernalia.

Some collectors seek out items such as Official seals, which are used by postal personnel to close up envelopes found open in the mailstream, or the test stamps used to check stamp-dispensing machinery or to train postal clerks.

And as you might guess, many of these objects also are listed in stamp catalogs.

The International Reply Coupon is another postal item that catches the fancy of collectors. Figure 4 shows a 1971 example of an IRC issued by Norway.

The name of the country appears in the center portion of the coupon. The postmark in the upper circle at right is from St. Hanshaugen, a district of Oslo.

The purpose of the IRC is to provide a mailer with a means to offer return postage to a correspondent in another country.

Regardless of the country of origin for the IRC, the recipient can take the coupon to his local post office and redeem it for postage stamps equivalent to the standard international airmail rate.

In the United States, an IRC costs $1.75. As reported on page 8 of the Jan. 1 issue of Linn's, the price jumped from $1.05 when international postage rates increased Jan. 7.

IRCs sold in the United States since 1907 are listed in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog.

The different collectibles discussed here only begin to describe the surprising number of items that stamp collectors might collect that aren't stamps. Such items often augment an existing collection of stamps by providing additional information or material. Some collections are built entirely of nonstamp items that are closely related to the stamp hobby.

As always, the collector gets to decide which items are best suited to fit into his stamp or no-stamp collection.