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Do You Care If It's "Scarce" Or "Rare?"

By John M. Hotchner

The mail brings interesting ideas, questions and observations. A couple of recent letters relate to one another, and form the basis of this column.

I've always used "scarce" and "rare" more-or-less interchangeably. This turns out to be a mistake. A friend has just pointed out to me that the unabridged Webster's Dictionary defines the two as follows:

    Scarce: Deficient in quantity or number compared with the demand.

    Rare: Seldom occurring or found.
Take for instance the Scott U.S. C3a, the inverted 24¢ Jenny. A pane of 100 was sold shortly after issue in 1918 at a Washington, D.C. post office. All but a few are currently accounted for. And a year does not go by that several copies are not offered at auction.

Some would call it a Rarity. Using the above definitions, this is not correct. They are available if you have enough money. The demand is far greater than the supply, as the prices paid testify, but it is by no means a rarity.

Another for instance: 1938 partly perforated-between Presidential-era pairs, known as War Perfs because they were created as a result of shortages of metal needed to repair broken perforating pin wheels. They exist with seven missing-pin-pattems. These affect virtually all the non-dollar-value Proxies, the 1941 6¢ Transport air mail, the three National Defense stamps, the 2¢ Allied Nations, 3¢ Win the War, and several War Savings stamps.

I know of no instance where there are more than half a dozen of any one value with any one missing pin pattern, and in many cases there are only one or two examples known.

They are properly termed rare, but it is debatable as to whether they are properly termed scarce. I know of few collectors, including myself, who avidly collect these flawed stamps. Demand is such that when found, they sell for between $15 and $50, though they are far more difficult to locate than a C3a.

In 30 years of looking for on-cover examples, I've found exactly one. It cost me $30. Yet I could not find another example no matter how much money I would be willing to pay. This is the perfect candidate for an online auction, as several collectors would beat each other's brains out to add this to a collection. It is both scarce and rare.

Another differentiation needs to be made here: I am talking about rarities and scarce items that are significant. Examples of insignificant varieties that are sometimes called rare or scarce include a cover to a small destination with a mixed franking of two definitive issues, paying the internal surface rate; which is asserted to be the only example dated in 1956. That is not significant. Define the cover down to its smallest elements, and virtually every cover can be made to sound as if it is a rarity.

The same is possible with stamps. Take the 21¢ Presidential, with a wide Bureau precancel from Chicago, Illinois. Nothing much special about that, but add an SRC (Sears, Roebuck and Co.) dated print for 11/42, claim it to be the only one known with that date, and then one has to apply the "So what?" test. That test asks whether anyone truly cares about the last elements of differentiation.

Now comes the tricky part: What should be credited more in a collection or in a philatelic exhibit? Truly Scarce material or Truly Rare material? Let's start with a truism. Among knowledgeable collectors, "rare" and "scarce" material may be equally expensive, but truly rare material may be much harder to find, identify, and acquire, even if it is not expensive.

The answer probably is that it depends upon the audience. If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me if I have one of those "upside-down-airplane stamps," I would be far better off than I am. But from a non-collector who has had very limited exposure to the breadth and depth of the hobby, that question is forgivable.

The follow-up question is often, "Well, what's the most expensive stamp in your collection?" My answer is that I don't keep track of values, as that is not why I collect, but I have many that have catalog values in the thousands. They are not, however, the ones of which I am the proudest.

What floats my boat is the true rarities of which most collectors are not even aware, that I have identified, or knowing they existed, have found improperly identified in a collection, a dealer's stock, or a sales or exchange book. Not to say that I don't enjoy showing off something that a non-collector can appreciate, but the real joy is when I can make a fellow collector drool over some item that they wish they could own, but can't buy because the few copies known are nowhere available at any price.

Now, when the audience becomes a philatelic exhibition judge, you would expect the judge to have a fine appreciation of the difference between scarce and rare, and to have a preference for seeing material that is either rare, or both scarce and rare. But what I see is that there are two different types of judges: those who are bowled over by dollar signs that may not always bespeak rarity, and others who appreciate true rarity regardless of "value," and see it as a reflection of the knowledge and research that the exhibitor has put into his or her collection.

Value has its place, but the non-rare, scarce item that costs six or seven figures is only a space filled in the "completeness" column, while a rarity which the exhibitor had to learn to understand, and had to seek in unconventional places, and may appear once in a collector's lifetime, rather than in every third top-of-the-line auction catalog, makes my heart go pitter-patter.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

How important are scarceness and rarity to you in acquiring or possessing a stamp or cover? Which one is most important? Join us in the message board and tell us about it.

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