Don't let collecting craziness spoil your fun

Sep 22, 2003, 10 AM

By Rick Miller

Stamp collectors are generally the salt of the earth. I cannot count the number of times that a collector whom I barely knew went out of his way to assist me in my collecting endeavors, solely for the reason that I, too, collect stamps.

But in their collecting preferences, stamp collectors can be a crazy lot. I have been struck a number of times by the fact that most collectors, myself included, seem to want to collect or to place a premium on items that do not exist naturally and that have to be artificially manipulated to come into existence.

Take, for example, letter-card postal stationery. Letter cards, as the name implies, are cards that could be sealed after writing to provide the privacy of a sealed letter. The message was written on the back, which, when folded, became the inside of the letter card.

Worldwide letter cards are listed in the Higgins & Gage World Postal Stationery Catalog, but most sections have not been updated in years.

European postal stationery, including letter cards, are listed in three Michel German-language postal stationery (Ganzsachen) catalogs: one for Germany, one for Eastern Europe and one for Western Europe.

Many country catalogs also list postal stationery for their area of specialization.

Most letter cards were equipped with gummed, perforated edges. The sender moistened the gum and folded the card to seal it.

An unused Austrian 15-kreuzer pneumatic letter card, Michel No. RK3, is shown unfolded in Figure 1. Note the perforated edges.

When a person received a letter card in the mail, he normally tore off the sealed edges along the perforations to open the card. After all, that is why the perforations were put there: to make it easier for the recipient to open the letter card and read the message inside.

A used Paraguayan 2-centavo green letter card mailed April 1, 1904, Higgins & Gage No. A3, is shown in Figure 2. Note that the perforated edges were torn off when the card was opened.

So the normal state in which a used letter card is found is with the perforated edges torn off. A collector should be perfectly satisfied to collect a used letter card in its normal state, right? Wrong.

Used letter cards that were opened without tearing away the perforated edges usually sell for two to four times as much as those from which the edges have been removed. This is utterly perverse.

Suspicions should be aroused that a used letter card with its perforated edges still intact has been artificially contrived. Perhaps it was produced by and for a collector. Normally collector-contrived covers are considered less desirable than a natural, commercial use.

A related conundrum is the collecting of used Italian two-part parcel post stamps and Mexican two-part revenue stamps.

Starting in 1914, Italian parcel post stamps came in two parts. When used, the left-hand part (inscribed "sul bolletino") was intended to be affixed to the waybill with the parcel, and the right-hand part (inscribed "sul ricevuta") was intended to be affixed to the receipt given to the sender.

So that's the way that collectors want to collect them, right? Wrong again.

The Scott catalog notes: "Complete stamps were and are obtainable canceled, probably to order [for the asking]." Used halves of Italian parcel post stamps are valued by Scott at 15¢ to 75¢ each, whereas for example, a complete (canceled-to-order) 20-lira parcel post stamp, Italy Scott Q19, has a catalog value of $125.

Beginning in the late 19th century, many Mexican revenue stamps were issued in two parts of unequal size. The main part of the stamp was intended to be affixed to the document or item being taxed.

The smaller part, called a "talon," was intended to be affixed to a receipt or record book by the issuing office.

These stamps are cataloged in The Revenue Stamps of Mexico by Richard Byron Stevens.

You guessed it. As listed and valued in Stevens, used stamps with the talon still attached are generally much more valuable than those from which the talon has been removed.

A used Mexican 1-centavo yellow-orange Goddess internal revenue stamp, Stevens No. R129, with the talon still attached, is shown in Figure 3.

Another collecting preference that appears to defy simple logic is the status of normally occurring straightedge stamps from sheets and panes of stamps.

Until about 1940, panes of United States stamps often were perforated only between the stamps, not between the panes. This meant that stamps from some outer rows and columns have one straightedge and that stamps from some corners have two straightedges. A used 2¢ carmine rose Wright Airplane stamp, U.S. Scott 649, with a straightedge at right, is shown in Figure 4.

Logic says that straightedge stamps should be perfectly respectable. They are part of the normal stamp production process, and they even are less common than stamps perforated on all four sides.

Ah, but what does logic have to do with a collector's fancy? Very little, it seems.

Sheet stamps with a normally occurring straightedge sell at steep discounts from catalog value, if they sell at all.

Today, fewer and fewer straightedge stamps from the classic period can be found. Shady practitioners, knowing the collector preference for stamps with perforations on all four sides, were only too willing to add them to stamps that needed them.

I am a stamp collector, not a gum collector. The subject matter of stamps is what attracted me to stamp collecting. As a young collector, I was drawn to the history, geography or topic portrayed or to the beauty and intricacy of the design. I haven't changed much in that regard.

I like the backs of my stamps to be sound and without fault, but not to the exclusion of what is on their faces.

It is perfectly logical, in the age of stamp mounts, to collect stamps from the modern period in never-hinged condition. It is perversely illogical to expect that stamps from the classic period, which were originally collected before stamp mounts were invented, to be never hinged.

Unless the stamp is from a multiple that was broken down into singles after mounts became widely used, how did it avoid being hinged when it was originally collected?

As in the case of stamps with straightedges that have had perforations added, if collectors are seeking classic stamps with never-hinged gum, someone, somewhere will supply them, whether they exist that way or not.

A few years ago, the editor of a British stamp journal wrote an editorial in which he vowed that he would pay no more than a £5 premium for a classic stamp with never-hinged gum.

The editor had a beautifully centered unused £1 black Postal Union Congress London stamp, Scott 209, that lacked gum. A similar stamp is shown in Figure 5.

The editor sent his gumless beauty to a regumming service in Germany, which for the equivalent of £5 added pristine, never-hinged full gum to the back of his stamp.

The German firm gave value for money. This experienced editor admitted that the gum was good enough to fool him, if he hadn't already known the truth. Hence came his decision never to pay more than a £5 premium for never-hinged gum.

The Scott catalog values the £1 PUC stamp at $650 unused and $1,150 never hinged.

Is the gum really worth $500? If it is, then stamp gum is one of the most precious commodities known to man, far more valuable than gold – by weight, volume or any other measure.

If you are worried about re-perforated or re-gummed stamps, expertization can help you sleep better at night. But always remember that an expert opinion is just that – an opinion. Opinions can change or be overturned. And better expertization techniques can lead to better fakes and better forgeries.

The gum of modern stamps is also a problem for many collectors. The disappearance of stamps with moisture-activated gum from the stamp programs of many countries and their replacement by self-adhesive stamps has left many traditional collectors at a loss. How should they collect mint new issues? Some have given up new-issue collecting entirely for this very reason.

Self-adhesive stamps are a problem for collectors for the same reason that they are so easy to use and so popular with noncollecting postal patrons: they stick to paper without moistening.

To get one mint self-adhesive stamp for a collection, a traditional collector using a preprinted album must buy at least a corner block of four stamps, peel off the surrounding stamps and selvage, and trim away the excess backing paper. The thrifty collector, of course, will find a use for the other stamps.

For some issues, it might be necessary to start with a block of nine stamps to cut around and save the one in the center.

The collector of mint self-sticks will also have the problem of album bulge. All those self-adhesive stamps with backing paper add to the thickness of the pages.

And what is a collector to do about linerless coil stamps? As singles, these stamps have no backing paper.

If you are going to mount a linerless stamp in an album, the logical way to collect it would be to stick it on paper and soak and dry it prior to mounting it. Another option is to stick it on something, trim around the unit and mount it.

Yet another option is to collect it (gasp – heresy!) postally used.

One of the great attractions of stamp collecting is that the individual collector is free to collect whatever he wants to collect in the manner that he wants to collect it.

A wise man once told me, "If you aren't having fun, then you aren't doing it right." He was speaking of life in general, but the same applies to stamp collecting.

Why do we so often let perverse or illogical collecting conventions dictate what we do? Why can't we collect stamps and covers as they are rather than as an artificial ideal that may not exist?

I don't know, but if you enjoy it, by all means, keep doing it. On the other hand, don't give up collecting because the United States Postal Service is issuing only self-adhesive stamps. Find another way or another thing to collect that you do enjoy.