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Coping With The Tyranny of Completeness

by John M. Hotchner

What is completeness? And what part does it play in your collecting philosophy?

Most of us have a vague idea when we start a United States collection that we will be working toward a complete collection. As we proceed, reality eventually sets in, and the picture of what completeness means comes into focus — along with the realization that all the money in the world may not be enough to achieve it if owners of the few items that are unique or one of say, ten known, donít want to sell.

So, if completeness weighs on us at all, we have to redefine our goal. Most of us do that by defining out the really tough/expensive stuff. For example, by collecting everything from 1930 onwards, or collecting only commemoratives. Yes, that may put a strain on your wallet what with the dollar value Columbians and Trans-Mississippis, but you can dream of hitting the lottery. And when you do, they are available in every major auction of U.S. material, as contrasted with the 1¢ 1867 Z-grill, of which two are known. Even if you had the $3 million that the Scott Catalogue says it is worth, neither will be for sale for the foreseeable future.

Another redefinition strategy is to continue to strive for one of every Scott numbered U.S. postage stamp, but recognize that we can approach completeness but not achieve it. And so we will retain our goal, but define our level of accomplishment in a way that allows a feeling of pride, such as "I am 92% complete." Or with some more generalized statement like, "Iím complete from 1928, and have most of the stamps from before that."

Curiously the great majority of non-collectors who ask me about my collection want to know how many stamps I have, or what the value of the collection is, or whether I have one of those inverted airplane stamps. Completeness is a remote concept to them, and they have no clue what it means or what sort of challenge it truly represents. This leads me to believe that the concept of completeness is one that we impose on ourselves, and what could be more natural?

By definition, as collectors most of us are detail-oriented anal retentives. Measuring and counting comes naturally to us. But even if we know consciously that completeness is not really important, we canít shake the concept. As the number of blank spaces in our album shrinks, we tend to put more and more energy and longing into filling those spaces.

Shouldnít it be the opposite? Should we not put most of our energy and enjoyment into gazing at and appreciating all of what we have acquired? I know, a radical thought, isnít it? But while we can certainly enjoy a jolt of happiness in filling up another space, long term happiness is found in enjoying what we have accomplished.

But here is another anomaly: I know so many collectors who have reached the end of their quest, met the challenge as best they can, who forthwith sell the collection and start on something else. There is happiness in that, too. We declare victory and move on; free ourselves from the tyranny of completeness, the frustration of finding nothing else we can afford, in favor of starting on something else that can command our passion, and make the quest fun again.

To me there is nothing sadder in the hobby than a collector who goes to a stamp show or bourse and despite diligent searching canít find anything to buy.* Sure, as I have heard it charged, maybe this is the fault of the show committee because they didnít lure in the right dealers. But more likely it is the fault, if fault must be assessed, of the unhappy collector who refuses to branch out into another realm. Branching out is, to me, one of the best coping strategies. And while you are at it, branch out into something that has no definable end point. My latest hobbyhorse is the 1946 5¢ large transport stamp of the United States (Scott No. C32). Current for only six months from Sept. 25, 1946 until it was replaced by the 5¢ small transport, issued March 26, 1947, it can be found on a wide range of interesting covers going all over the world, paying a range of different rates, the covers falling victim to lots of problems in the U.S. and other postal systems, etc.

I include in my searching C32 covers dated up until January 1, 1949, when the 5¢ rate was increased to 6¢. Just dealing with one sheet stamp (no booklets, no coils) might be seen as boring, but I know I will have years of fun looking for unusual uses of "my" stamp. Will my collection be complete at some point? No, because I cannot know what completeness is. Another strange cover can always be just around the corner.

Who could predict, until it came into view, that a C32 could have been misused on a Canada-to-U.S. air mail cover, cancelled with a nice socked-on-the-nose White Horse, Yukon, Feb. 5, 1947? Because Canadian postage had not been paid, the mailing was assessed 14¢ postage due (double the 7¢ air mail letter rate) though it is my understanding that the postage wrongly paid was sometimes credited, such that in this case 9¢ could have been due rather than 14¢.

If I chose to collect the stamp off cover, the same might be true, what with perfins, local precancels, production mistakes, dated cancels, color varieties, and more. My conclusion from this is that completeness is overrated as a goal. The joy of stamp (and cover) collecting is found, rather, in a combination of the quest, the understanding of the material added to the collection, and the enjoyment of the collection itself.

*Well, perhaps there is one thing sadder, and that is the collector who having achieved what s/he thinks can be achieved with a collection simply drops out of the hobby in frustration without looking for the blessings of the hobby through extending it in another direction.

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
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