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Becoming A Specialist — And Trying Exhibiting

By John M. Hotchner

Exhibiting isn't for everyone, but you'll never know if it can enrich your philatelic life unless you give it a try. The benefits are huge — and I say that from experience.

You are a candidate for this activity if you have a favorite philatelic collecting area that has gone beyond being housed neatly on printed pages. If so, you are on the road to becoming a specialist. For me it was Error, Freak and Oddity (EFO) material, but later I moved on to 20th Century auxiliary markings showing delays in the U.S. mail, and then to the history and philately of the 1934 and 1935 U.S. Christmas seals.

In each case, when I decided to do an exhibit, I had to organize what I had, determine what of it I could use to tell a complete and cohesive story, and then figure out what I needed and search for those items that would be important to telling the story with philatelic material rather than with words.

EFO collecting is a very large field. I had to narrow down to something manageable. What I chose was perforation-related EFOs because that was what I had most of, and I found most interesting. Then I began to get surprises; pleas- ant surprises that drew me into the subject, increased my interest many fold, and taught me a great deal about philately and the progress of technology as applied to stamp production. For instance. I learned that there are three basic ways of perforating — different kinds of machines — and that each has had distinctive signatures so that the student can learn to tell one product from another.

And I learned that three misperforated stamps can look the same but have very different causes. So the exhibit began to take shape around the idea of the kinds of EFOs that could be created when different things went wrong in the perforating process.

That turned out to be too restrictive, and I eventually went in an unexpected direction by telling the story of stamp separation from 1840 to modem times in a ten frame exhibit.

I will not tell you that it was easy, or always fun, or inexpensive. What I will tell you is that building that exhibit was a challenge that demanded a level of commitment I never would have predicted I could muster.

And when, nine years after I began, it won a Grand Award at one of the 35 National level shows in the United States (and thereby qualified for the annual Champion of Champions competition), I had learned something about my talents and abilities that I could have learned in no other way. I would not trade those lessons or my pride in overcoming the challenge for all the tea in China!

You have probably noticed that I've used the word "learned" several times to this point. If you have no sense of adventure, and think you know everything you need to to enjoy your hobby, then exhibiting is probably not for you. However, if you have an inquisitive nature, are excited when the light bulb turns on over your head, and are capable of listening to others (colleagues and judges) who will open unexpected paths of thought and learning, then the building of an exhibit will provide you the pleasure of repeated flashes of insight.

I said above that exhibiting isn't always easy, fun or cheap. What worthy challenge is? Instead it is exciting. It gives you a goal to work toward — whether it is the exhibit itself, or the medal levels it can earn.

There will likely be ups and downs in getting to the end of the rainbow. That's what I mean by it's not always being fun. A knotty problem, a disheartening experience with a philatelic judge, the inability to find or buy something you need for the exhibit — all of these and more can leave you annoyed enough to quit. That feeling will pass, and you will find ways to overcome. And that is part of the fun.

The cost of exhibiting puts some people off. If I have heard it once, I have heard this or a version of it dozens of times: "I can't afford expensive stamps, so I can't exhibit." First it needs to be said that exhibiting at the international level requires money and lots of it. But exhibiting at the local to national levels can be affordable. Of course, having significant disposable income can help — and will be needed — if you pick something expensive to exhibit, like say "The Inverted Bicolor Stamps of the United States."

But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of subjects, that are way less expensive than that; in which study and the assembling of a collection of scarce (not necessarily expensive) material more than makes up for simply showing expensive stamps. In fact modem exhibiting has evolved to the point that an exhibitor can no longer just throw a lot of expensive stamps on pages and expect to get high medals. The story, the study that goes into it, the scholarship shown, and the condition of the material is equally important.

That does not mean you will not be tempted to buy some expensive material. And if you are like me. you will give in to the temptation. There is a dynamic at work here. As you start exhibiting, you will say as I did, that you just can't afford the best pieces, and you will make up your mind to be limited to a Silver medal. But as your enthusiasm catches fire. and the commitment you feel to meeting the challenge you set for yourself begins to gather steam, your attitude toward spending money on the exhibit will change.

Other things that once seemed more important, be they greens fees or remodeling the basement, seem to pale in comparison to upgrading the exhibit and the pride you feel in the items of philatelic significance that you own. Time, by the way, is on your side. There is no exterior force dictating when you have to get your exhibit to Gold, and I have found that as long as I was making a little progress week by week, I was happy. That included buying some fairly expensive items which other collectors and dealers usually allowed me to pay for over a period of time.

The actual creation of the exhibit is a bit like the creation of of a painting. It is art with a little science, and the creativity you put into developing layouts and text is a key part of the effort. As with art, there are certain broad rules and practices that are generally accepted in the community (which for exhibiting you can read about in the APS Manual of Philatelic Judging), but there is a lot of room to develop your own approaches within the general guidelines. A nice thing about exhibiting is that it can be done in small chunks; a page a day or a week. And when it is done and ready to show, you will get terrific feedback from the viewing public — including the offer of both related information and material that will help with improvements. Why? Because your exhibit is an advertisement for your collecting interest.

Some might say, "Ouch! This sounds too much like WORK." True enough, but "work" is only a four-letter word when you are forced to do something you hate in order to make a living. Exhibiting is a labor of love, and entirely discretionary. If you find you hate it. then drop it like a hot potato. It just wasn't for you. But my bet is that most people who try it, will like it.

Exhibiting can be done for the sheer joy of it, or with the idea of competing. Most people, even those who are philosophically opposed to "mug hunting," come to appreciate the recognition of accomplishment that a medal brings. And we strive for it. Yet, you can exhibit non-competitively if you choose. Either way, the improvement of the exhibit becomes a primary goal, and that implies receiving critique on your efforts in addition to medals.

The judging criteria can be summarized in a few words: To what degree is your exhibit a genuine challenge well met, and is it becoming the best it can be. If the answer is yes to both questions, and the exhibit conveys that, the medals will follow.

Receiving critique can be one of the downsides. Virtually every exhibitor has a horror story about comments by a judge that revealed his or her own ignorance of the subject exhibit- ed, or clear insights about the exhibit that were painful to hear; requiring significant additional work. This is a bit like falling off a horse. Evaluate what you learned from the experience and climb back on.

There is lots more that can be written on the subject of exhibiting, but this is enough for this column. If I have succeeded in getting you interested enough to learn more, I can offer a publication titled "The Best of The Philatelic Exhibitor, 1986-1996" which contains many articles to help the exhibitor new to the game. It is yours for $1.59 in mint postage. We also have a free brochure titled "Getting Started In Philatelic Exhibiting," available for 39¢ postage. Send your requests to me at the address below. (By the way, TPE is the quarterly magazine of the American Association of Philatelic Exhibitors, and I have edited TPE since it came into existence 21 years ago.)

APS Manual of Philatelic Judging: Available from The American Philatelic Society, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823, for $9.60 (members) or $12.00 (non-members). Online order is available both for members (about two-thirds of the way down the page) and non-members (also about two-thirds of the way down the page).

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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