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Sentimental Philately Can Be Priceless
By John L. Leszak

I frequently like to pose this question to ardent philatelists: "If you had to save just one item in your collection from a burning house, what item would you take?" Several collectors cited items that were key pieces in their collections or exhibits. However, the vast majority indicated that they would select an item of great sentimental value.

One man said that he would grab a Federal Duck Hunting stamp that had been signed by his grandfather. Although the stamp had a major tear, it was indeed a priceless family heirloom. A proud mother who collects first day covers told me that she would snatch a first day cover that had a cachet that was drawn by her baby son. Her son drew the cachet in 1978 when he was 10 years old.

It was heart-warming to hear people tell such loving and cherished stories about the most prized items in their collections. Yet, beyond the several people who identified highly specialized and expensive items, all the rest mentioned items that would have a resale value of $5 or less. I found it refreshing that so many philatelists were not driven by resale value, but actually cherished the story that accompanied a particular stamp. Quite often, philately is driven by such concepts as the percentage of catalog or face value, and the warmth of collecting for personal fun and satisfaction is abandoned.

In the early 1980's, I encountered a collection of used French stamps that was formulated during World War I by a Doughboy in the American Expeditionary Force.The entire catalog value of the stamps probably didn't add up to $20, however, the sentimental value coupled with the historical intrigue was outstanding. Each page in the album contained a single used stamp. The stamp was framed by a hand drawn rectangle, and the rest of the page was adorned with artistic renditions of war-related artifacts. Flowers were pasted into the scrapbook, and the neatly printed text revealed that the dried flowers had been picked in fields were various battles had been waged. There were other pages that contained shreds of fabric from uniforms, pieces of ribbon, and even a large wooden splinter that was described as having been removed from the man's arm after a shell had exploded near a fortified trench. Reading through this collection was like a history lesson and I had great reverence for it.

The man selling the collection said that it had belonged to a deceased neighbor and that it had been rescued from the trash after the man died. Other dealers passed on the collection because they felt that there was no resale value for the stamps. The man who wanted to sell the collection said that "anything" he got for the collection would be "found money." I had a couple of historians in mind who might appreciate the collection and made some calls. Not surprisingly, the collection sold to one of the buyers for $300! The buyer recognized the historical significance and made the collection the focal point of his collection of World War I memorabilia. When I mentioned the sale price to some of the other dealers, they scoffed and said, "Well, a stamp collector certainly didn't buy it, those stamps were worthless." I replied that sometimes the best buyers for sentimentally or historically inspired collections are indeed non philatelists.

One of my dealer friends once had a scrapbook of stamps that was assembled in the early 1900s by a lady who also painted watercolors. The thick porous nature of the scrapbook pages proved themselves ideal for watercolor painting. Although the used stamps in the collection were quite common, they were adorned by flourishing artistic renditions. My dealer friend bought the book as part of a massive auction lot. He surmised that the book was stuffed into the lot to help bulk up the overall weight of the lot. By pure luck, his wife recognized the name of the person who originally compiled the collection as that of a regionally famous artist. The collection was turned over to an art dealer who separated the collection into individual pages, which he then framed and sold for a handsome profit!

Not all sentimental collections that are inspired by creativity fetch a small fortune. Dealers often encounter collections that hold stamps that are labeled, "The last stamp purchased by Mom before she died," or, "The first stamp given to me by Grandpa." Indeed, such stamps hold immense sentimental value, but once they pass into the hands of others, the sentimental value fades into oblivion.

Several years ago, I evaluated a collection that was owned by three sisters. I made a generous offer for the lot and was surprised when the sisters refused. Curiosity got the best of me, and I asked if there was any particular reason why they didn't want to sell. All three sisters became misty-eyed and revealed that they had favorite stamps in the collection that their late grandmother often took out of her albums for them to admire. The stamps held no significant catalog value, and some were actually worn from frequent handling. I told the three sisters that my offer would be the same if they elected to remove the specific stamps that held sentimental value. They eager agreed and were even happier when I told them they they could have the binders that held the collection because their grandmother had written assorted recipes on the inside covers.

About every two years since 1981, I have looked at a stamp collection that's owned by a mother and daughter. Every time I've looked at the collection, I've come up with a different price because of market trends and especially the severe catalog value fluctuations of the 1980's. However, despite the varied offers over the years, the mother and daughter always accept my offer. Then, just as I'm about to write the check, they start sniffling as tears stream down their cheeks and they reminisce how their deceased loved one would sit for hours at the very same table and assemble this remarkable collection. Then intense remorse settles into the room as they dry their eyes and they proclaim, "Sorry, John, we can't sell, it would be like giving away the last shred of our memories." Years ago, I made notes on the collection, so I don't have to sit at their dining room table for hours to examine each stamp.

Some of my dealer friends think I'm insane to go through this ongoing philatelic ritual every two years. However, I don't mind; the ladies make a great pot of coffee, and they're my best promoters because they have steered at least six other significant collections my way over the last quarter century. It's their sincere efforts to find other collections for me, that, like the sentimental value of their collection, is priceless.

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

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