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15 Minutes of Philatelic Fame For Fad Items
By John L. Leszak

Philately has two types of highly marketed material that command strong prices realized. The first type of material consists of the traditional items like a set of Zeppelins, classic postal history and items of unique quality and vintage. The supply of these items is finite, and demand for quality and scarcity maintains and influences their strong resale value.

The second type of material that evokes a strong resale value can best be described as "Fad Items." These items experience Andy Warhol's proverbial "15 minutes of fame" in the philatelic marketplace. One day these items are popular and the demand often outweighs the supply. Many new issues fall into the 15 minutes of fame category. It seems everyone wants to be the first to acquire a new issue, and the mystique endures until the hype for the next new issue begins. In the blink of an eye popular favor sways to the next new and exciting fad item. Once the luster wears off a fad item, it's likely to become a philatelic albatross.

Philatelic fad items truly came into vogue during the 1960s. Here are some examples of 1960s philatelic fad items that have crept into the marketplace over the years: In the 1960s, the philatelic world could not get enough stamps honoring John F. Kennedy, the Space Program, emerging African nations, the Vatican and the United Nations. A quarter century later, in the late 1980s, these items started to appear in the philatelic market place in droves because all their original owners were passing on to their eternal reward, while dealers were also liquidating "dead inventory."

With the 200th Anniversary of Lincoln's birth as the current philatelic hot topic, many dealers have scrambled to blow the dust off ancient inventories of Lincoln topical stamps and covers that were churned out for Lincoln's 150th birthday and subsequently for Civil War Centennial events.

I remember a dealer in the Midwest, circa 1983, who wanted to sell me a 3600-pound lot of covers that consisted of United Nations FDCs, Space covers, and Vatican covers. His asking price was $3500, or as he put it, "less than a dime per pound." The 3600 pounds translated roughly into 36,000 covers, or less than one cent per cover. I passed on the lot because I already had a glut of such items. A few months later, I learned that the 3600-pound lot was actually carved out of a much larger lot of the same material. Depending on who told the story, the enormous "mother lot" of early 1960s cover weighed in around 10 tons. For several years thereafter, chunks of this lot were melded into cover auction lots to add bulk. It was difficult to buy a cover lot that didn't have part of this lot mixed in.

Here we are in the year 2009, and some of the stuff that was once part of the 10-ton lot is now in demand by new philatelic aspirants. Truly the fad has come full circle and has intrigued a new generation of philatelists. Dealers who once chided auction firms for blending in these surplus covers are now checking their own junk boxes to see if they can uncover any hidden gems.

One of my dealer friends told me that he combed through his junk boxes for unusual United Nations FDCs with color cachets from the 1960s and located several hundred items for immediate resale. He related that he pulled the covers out of his 50-cent box one morning before the opening of a major stamp show. He sleeved them, priced them at $5 each, and they were all sold before he closed up on Sunday. He was grateful that the sale of these covers resulted in a little over 80 percent of his sales for the entire show!

Another dealer friend told me how he has been slowly listing 1960s space covers from his dollar box of covers on the Internet. He tells me that some of the covers have fetched in excess of $25 each! He called me recently to exclaim, "The cover world has gone mad! They only buy junk!" I've noticed a renewed interest in space covers from the 1960s especially in the overseas market. My wife Paula has developed several enthusiastic buyers for space covers in former Iron Curtain countries. For them, it's a chance to explore the Space Race from an American perspective.

Several of my dealer friends often kid me that if I only had the foresight to buy that 3600-pound lot of covers for $3500 all those years ago, it might've parlayed into a million dollar inventory today. Hindsight is always steeped in romantic speculation. I never regret passing on the lot, and still get a chuckle when I can still find small segments of it at stamp shows in junk boxes. Sometimes I pick out a few, and sometimes I stand back and shake my head and muse, "If all those Internet buyers truly knew the enormity of the original hoard, their generous bids would soon diminish."

I like to explain to my friends that nearly 50 years have elapsed since some of the covers in that 10-ton hoard were created. It's been a quarter century since the same type of covers were a millstone on the market. At least two philatelic generations have passed since the first covers were churned out! The time has come for these covers to be "re-discovered" by a new generation of collectors.

After experiencing a dormant stretch, the 1960s fad covers are now entering their Renaissance years. It only proves that every philatelic item, no matter how "ordinary" it may seem, will eventually find a buyer. What is shunned by one generation may be highly prized two generations later.

It's ironic how the generational philatelic ebb and flow works. When that 10 ton lot of 1960s covers was slowly slithering into late 1970s auction lots, the philatelic world was rediscovering and embracing such things as National Air Mail week covers, 1937 Coronation covers and sets of Farley's National Parks FDCs.

I recall a conversation with the late Don Graf, who was the dean of local cover enthusiasts from the 1930s through the 1980s. He'd often say, "John, I don't want to load you up with too many of these covers. You're a young man, and there's no market for these items." He thought little of the 1930s and 1940s items because they sat on his shelves for nearly a half a century. He'd sell me a box of 1930s event covers for $20 and call me a few days later with grave concern that he had somehow wronged me. I would assure him that the covers made me quite happy, and I wanted more.

Don Graf serviced thousands of National Air Mail Week covers as a postal clerk and created some fascinating examples. During World War II he was a postal clerk in the Army and was assigned to an Army Field Hospital overseas. He would retrieve all the discarded envelopes sent to wounded soldiers because he possessed philatelic genius and inspiration. Somehow, all those covers made their way back to his home in North Tonawanda, NY, and filled three rooms! In the 1970s I would make pilgrimages to his home and considered it to be some sort of philatelic shrine. I perceived his hoard of covers from the 1930s and 1940s to be fascinating because they were preserved like a philatelic time capsule. Now, as I perceive it, a generation later, new collectors have the very same outlook about fad covers from the early 1960s.

Andy Warhol once remarked that everyone is entitled to "15 minutes of fame." I often think about that when it comes to fad covers. The only difference is that the fad covers seems to have a recurring 15 minutes of fame from generation to generation. No, the fad covers will never hold the same esteem as classic covers such as Zeppelins; there are simply too many fad covers in existence. However, the fad covers will, from time to time, ascend to popularity and value until the next retro wave of fad covers washes up on the philatelic beach.

What's waiting in the wings for the next wave? Some speculate that Scott #1396 first days, affectionately dubbed "The 7-1-71 Affair" by the legendary Roy Mooney, are on the verge of rediscovery. Scott #1396 FDCs have always had a devoted, yet modest, following. However, an entirely new generation of collectors is suddenly discovering the intrigue of these covers.

In a larger sense, does it really matter when it comes to value or vintage in this glorious hobby? What's at the core of it all is that people find philatelic items to be a source of joy and happiness. If covers that once sold in bulk for less than a dime a pound a quarter century ago are now cherished, who am I to argue?

Last autumn, I listened to a lady who was totally thrilled that she had purchased some Project Gemini covers on the Internet. She showed them to me with great pride and remarked, "Can you believe that they're in such pristine condition? It looks like they were just made yesterday!" I didn't want to burst her bubble, so I shared in her joy. In the back of my mind however, I thought about the 10-ton hoard, and before reality set in, it really did seem that the covers were "made yesterday."

© John L. Leszak. All rights reserved. Published on The Virtual Stamp Club by permission.

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