Some thoughts about stamp collecting
“It exposes her to the wider world, teaches her about geography, history and art, gets her thinking about ways of approaching and depicting subjects and events.” So said one father about the benefits for his young daughter of stamp collecting. Through stamps, schoolchildren, businesspersons, laborers, artists, and retired people all enjoy something in common with royalty, entertainers, politicians, industrialists, and business giants. Stamp collecting has been called the “hobby of kings” because so many famous individuals have been avid collectors. The stamp collector appears in every walk of life. You might picture the young stamp collector as a future accountant, librarian or other profession that requires thoroughness, concentration and cataloguing abilities.
Philately, or stamp collecting, is one of the world’s most popular hobbies – there are known to be millions of collectors worldwide. What is it that has men, women and children excitedly scanning catalogs, visiting post offices on the first day of issue of new stamps, feverishly swapping with other collectors, joining stamp chat boards and excitedly hunting down that last stamp to complete a series? Typically, stamp collectors are motivated by interest in history, geography and art. The type of child who wants to get every baseball card for a particular team or season often goes on to collect stamps.
Since the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in Great Britain in 1840, people have been buying stamps and storing them in ways appropriate in their time. Collections are often handed down through generations (just ask Queen Elizabeth II) and many collectors fondly recall sitting at a table examining stamps under a magnifying glass with parents or older siblings. The zeal is often transmitted from parent to child, and sometimes, to grandchildren. Today avid collectors may access print catalogs, internet resources such as websites and stamp chat boards or attend stamp shows to find exactly what they’re looking for. While some collectors simply enjoy the search-and-find aspect of modest philately, others dream of finding that one-in-a-million rarity. And, who knows? It could be you!
Although storage methods are now more sophisticated – at one stage stamps were stuck directly to an album page, forever to be adhered! – collecting remains a quiet, exacting but exciting hobby. Parents might struggle to comprehend a kid’s fervor for game consoles, but stamp collecting is truly understandable for all the family. And while the world is larger, with many more countries producing fascinating stamps, the hobby has actually changed little since the 1800s. Some basic and inexpensive supplies will be needed: tongs, a magnifying glass, perhaps a perforation gauge, proper storage, a means to research . . . a hunger for new knowledge and an appreciation of minutiae. And the first stamp in a collection need not cost more than $1, if the stamp appeals to the collector for any reason.
There are now so many countries in the world and each produces so many stamps that a complete worldwide collection would run to thousands of volumes. Therefore, most collectors limit their scope – to a particular country, or a particular historical period, or to a type of stamp, or to a theme or subject matter such as birds or inventors or music or writers (called topicals). While details like watermarks, perforations, paper differences and printing errors excite some collectors, others are lured by the quality of the image or design.
Family albums through the generations show the progression in the way people collect stamps. In the first half of the 20th century ambitious collectors wanted to assemble worldwide collections, comprising the stamps of every country in the world. The Italian Count Philipp von Ferrary dedicated his considerable fortune to the purchase of stamps and probably had the largest collection ever assembled. These worldwide collections are fascinating archives. One collector recalls his father’s collection – “It was full of stamps from countries like Ceylon, Rhodesia, Sikkim and Transjordan which no longer exist.” A journey through an old stamp album shows you graphically how the world’s map has changed.
What does a stamp collector look like?
Here are some stamp collectors whose names you might recognize:
John Lennon: Future Beatle Lennon began his hobby at about the age of 10, collecting 550 stamps from several countries including India, the United States and New Zealand. The collection was bought by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. for $53,000 in 2005.
Warren Buffet: Investor and businessman Warren Buffet has indicated many times in interviews that he collects stamps. Indeed, stamp collecting and investing have some commonalities. Buffett’s wealth savvy came, in part, from his childhood interest in stamp collecting. Through numerous activities, the would-be Oracle of Omaha amassed the equivalent of $53,000 by the time he was 16. One such enterprise: he sold stamps. If you needed a fancy stamp, you could turn to Buffett’s Approval Service, which sold collectible stamps to collectors around the country. Buffett collects classic stamps of the United States of America.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: President Dwight D. Eisenhower collected stamps in his youth. His collection is in The Spellman Museum in Weston, Massachusetts.
Freddie Mercury: Freddie Mercury was a British musician, best known as the lead vocalist and songwriter of the rock band Queen. Stamp collecting since he was 12 years old, when Mercury died of AIDS complications in 1991, his father sold his philatelic collection. In the winter of 1993, the Freddie Mercury stamp collection was purchased by the British Royal Mail for £3,220 and the proceeds of the sale went to an AIDS charity.
Bill Gates: Bill Gates is one of the founders of the personal computer revolution and has been the richest man in the world for most of the past many years due to Microsoft’s enterprise and power. According to some sources, in addition to his numerous other collections (Leonardo da Vinci writings, collectible cars, fine art), Gates has an interest in philately and a collection of stamps.
Nicolas Sarkozy: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s growing stamp collection is helped by fellow heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth II of England. When Sarkozy made state visits, his fellow heads of state often presented him with valuable stamps and other philatelic material, as it is common knowledge he is an enthusiastic collector.
Ronnie Wood: Ronnie Wood, the lead guitarist of The Rolling Stones, took up stamp collecting as he completed alcohol rehabilitation. Claiming life without booze was “boring,” Wood now occupies his time with heavy all-night bouts of philately (better known as stamp collecting). So instead of pouring himself a drink, Wood spends his days poring over his impressive collection of rare postage stamps. Reportedly, Wood has assistants regularly seeking out new finds.
Jascha Heifetz: World renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz was a topical or thematic collector who mainly collected stamps depicting music. His collection is in the Spellman Museum in Weston, Massachusetts.
Maria Sharapova: Former world No. 1 Russian professional tennis player, Sharapova has won three Grand Slam titles and has been collecting stamps since she was a little girl. Traveling around during tournaments and endorsement deals gave her a chance to gather stamps from other countries. Apparently she is not too happy about her hobby of stamp collecting coming out. She states, “Oh, stop. Everyone’s calling me a dork now. We’re getting emails from, like, stamp collecting magazines asking if I can do an interview. I mean, it’s just a hobby.” Her agent has banned her from talking about her stamp collecting as he was worried it will make her look like a nerd and not fit into the image of her he is trying to build.
Theodore E. Steinway: Steinway (1883 – 1957), of the famous Steinway piano family, was a member of the Collectors Club of New York and Board of Trustees of the Philatelic Foundation. In 1952, Steinway was awarded the first Lichtenstein Medal for his efforts in the field of philately as well as his contributions to the growth and prestige of the Collectors Club. Steinway was perhaps the first prominent stamp collector to embrace topical or “thematic” collecting. He mainly collected stamps depicting music.
Francis Spellman: Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman (1889 -1967), Archbishop of New York from 1939 to 1967, was created a cardinal in 1946. He was a topical collector who collected stamps depicting religion. His collection is in the Spellman Museum in Weston, Massachusetts.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. His collection contained about 1,250,000 stamps. He also designed several American commemorative stamps while President. He stated, “Stamp collecting dispels boredom, enlarges our vision, broadens our knowledge, makes us better citizens and in innumerable ways, enriches our lives.”
Philipp von Ferrary: Philipp von Ferrary (1850 – May 20, 1917) was a legendary stamp collector, assembling probably the most complete worldwide collection that ever existed or is likely to exist. Among his extremely rare stamps were the singular Treskilling Yellow of Sweden and the British Guiana 1856 One-Cent, Black on Magenta. No person since has owned both of these stamps at the same time.
Anatoly Karpov: Anatoly Karpov is a Soviet and Russian Chess Grandmaster and former World Chess Champion. He is passionate about collecting stamps. He states, “For me philately must not be an individual, ‘secret’ hobby. It gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of people internationally, interesting people out of the chess world, and it remains one of the most satisfying parts of my life.”
Czar Nicholas II: Nicholas II (May 18, 1868 – July 17, 1918), last Czar of Russia, was known as an ardent philatelist. In 1913 the first Russian postage stamps carrying portraits of the czars were released and Nicholas found his own image on a stamp. Of course, the stamps had to be cancelled with the postmarks. Many postmasters refused to desecrate the face of the czar with postmarks and left the stamps uncancelled.
(Left to right) A one-hour presentation about the Great Britain Royal Philatelic Collection; Duke of Edinburgh; George V; George VI; Elizabeth II with her stamps
The British Royal Family: The Royal Philatelic Collection is the postage stamp collection of the British Royal Family. It is the most comprehensive collection of stamps from the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth in the world, with many unique pieces. In fact, there are three separate collections in hundreds of albums, the Green, the Blue and the Red Collection. The Green albums are those of the present Queen; the Blue albums contain the collection of King George VI and the Red Collection belonged to King George V.
HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh: Prince Alfred (August 6, 1844 – July 30, 1900), the second son and fourth child of Queen Victoria, was the first serious collector in the British Royal Family. He started what would later become the Red Collection but sold his stamps to his brother, the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. The Prince of Wales was not really interested in stamps and gave the collection to his son, George. Prince George, the Duke of York and the future King George V, already had a collection of his own when he was given his father’s albums.
HRH King George V: George V (June 3, 1865 – January 20, 1936) become one of most notable philatelists of his era. He was the real founder of the Red Collection. He expanded the collection with a number of high-priced purchases of rare stamps and covers. His 1904 purchase of the Mauritius two pence blue for £1,450 was, at the time, a world record price for a single stamp. A courtier, after reading a newspaper article, asked the then-prince if he had seen that “some damned fool had paid as much as £1,450 for one stamp.” “Yes,” George replied. “I was that damned fool!” During World War I when he was the King, he tried to seek relaxation with his stamps, spending several afternoons a week with his collection. He left his heirs 328 albums of 60 pages each.
HRH King George VI: King George VI (December 14, 1895 – February 6, 1952), the son of King George V and the father of Queen Elizabeth II, chose to collect stamps from his own period of reign. He got all the issues of all the colonies, dominions and protectorates of the British Commonwealth throughout his reign. His collection is known as the Blue Collection.
HRH Queen Elizabeth II: Born April 21, 1926, the Queen collected stamps as a young girl, although she is not currently an active stamp collector. The stamps from the period of the reign of Her Majesty the Queen are being collected in the Green albums. Although the Queen herself is not an expert as her grandfather and father were, she maintains a real personal interest in her own collection.
Unlike the Crown Jewels and the Royal residences, the Royal Philatelic Collection is privately owned by The Queen, rather than belonging to the nation. The Queen has said that her stamp collection is her single most valuable asset. Experts believe that the Royal Philatelic Collection is now valued at £400 million (U.K. pounds sterling) making it the most valuable stamp collection in the world. The collection is maintained by a team of curators. The only stamp of significance from the United Kingdom and the British commonwealth that the collection does not contain is the British Guiana 1856 One-Cent, Black on Magenta, thought by some to be the world’s most valuable stamp
Bill Gross: Billionaire bond king Bill Gross says his favorite investment is in stamps. Over the course of his lifetime, Gross has spent reportedly between $50 million and $100 million buying stamps. That’s not an insignificant chunk of his $2.2 billion fortune. Gross, the founder of PIMCO, donated $10 million to the National Postal Museum to create a new 12,000 square foot gallery in his name. Select stamps from his impressive collection were sold to help finance the donation.
Said Gross: “Stamp collecting has been such a rewarding and educational hobby for me that I wanted to share the joys of philately in a way that would benefit future generations of students, citizens and scholars. The gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum will use stamps and mail to offer a unique perspective on American history and identity. The story of stamps in America is the story of America, and I am proud to be part of preserving and showcasing these treasures.”
Bela Lugosi: Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó (October 20, 1882 – August 16, 1956), was an actor famous for Dracula (1931) and other horror films such as The Black Cat, The Raven and Son of Frankenstein. He was an activist in the actors union in his native Hungary and was a charter member of the American Screen Actors Guild. Lugosi was an avid stamp collector when he wasn’t busy in front of the cameras.
John E. DuPont: John Eleuthère duPont (1938-2010) was an American billionaire and member of the prominent U.S. chemical fortune family. In 1997, he was convicted of murdering Olympic Gold Medalist wrestler Dave Schultz the year before and sentenced to 13 – 40 years in prison. Among his interests was a passion for stamp collecting. He died in prison on December 9, 2010. In a 1980 auction he paid $935,000 for one of the rarest stamps in the world, the British Guiana 1856 One-Cent, Black on Magenta. The stamp most recently sold (2014) for nearly $9.5 million, almost a billion times its face value.
While President Franklin Roosevelt may have been the most famous U.S. collector, other well-known collectors include astronaut Henry Hartsfield; actors Gary Burghoff, James Earl Jones and Patrick Dempsey; author James Michener; the explorer Jacques Cousteau; the aviator Amelia Earhart; and cartoonist Gary Trudeau.
Most individuals collect for relaxation and enjoyment although many secretly hope that they will discover a rare and elusive stamp that will make them wealthy. As stamps are miniature works of art, it’s nearly impossible to collect them without gaining a large amount of knowledge.
Collecting stamps is a hobby for millions of people and an investment for a tiny number of them. All American Collectibles, LLC does not recommend “investing” in stamps – rare or otherwise – but we highly recommend collecting them as a hobby. The stamp world can produce astonishing headlines: The 2010 sale of a single Swedish “Treskilling Yellow” set a then-record for the world’s most expensive single stamp. Though the exact selling price has not been made public, it is estimated to have been more than $3 million, an amount now surpassed by other stamp sales. Like many hobbies, stamp collecting can help broaden one’s social life by connecting buyers, sellers and like-minded individuals.