Sine Waves: Why Join?

To Join or Not to Join: Is That A Question?
By Richard L. Sine

RLSShould you join a local stamp club (or help start one if none is nearby), a specialty group for people who collect the same as do you (i.e., alligators on stamps, postal history of Pit Hole City, PA, etc.) or a national all-purpose organization such as the American Philatelic Society or the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada?

Post those questions to stamp collectors and you will hear two responses: a resounding YES, or a low murmur that isn’t quite a “no,” but you aren’t certain. And, of course, there is no reason to parade around the kingdom carrying a placard: “Don’t Join!”

Let’s look at key reasons to join any stamp organization, no matter what its reach:

  • Ability to associate with others who share your interest
  • Learn more about stamp collecting than if you do not join
  • Take advantage of services only open to members, or at a lesser fee than members are charged. Such benefits include being able to read current issues of the group’s publication, notification of philatelic events (particularly those nearest you), and a safe(r) environment within which to buy/sell or exchange stamps.

How about some “lesser” reasons?

  • Just to receive the periodicals … really, then, you not are “joining” so much as subscribing to a periodical.
  • To be able to tell others you are a member … yes, I have seen that in the just-under 50 years since I first paid a membership fee. I also have seen a few collectors whose collecting interests include the number of memberships.

Don’t join merely to “support” [fill in organization’s name here]. If you wish to support, send an annual check as a donation. Particularly relative to smaller groups — both local clubs and specialty groups — non-participating members then leave it to those volunteers to pick up the slack for you … and what appears to be a “membership” of 100 really is one of only 35! To me, passive membership, unless of course there are health issues, is deception. You may put the decal on your auto bumper, but you bought it rather than earned it.

It is the rare stamp organization that does not welcome those who offer to be on committees, help at events, run for office, and on and on.

Philately is going through some drastic changes. In the first place, postal services are carrying far less mail and, therefore, there are far fewer stamps. The number of philatelic periodicals continues to dwindle, both in number and in size; some large stamp shows are no more; and I could add more tear-jerking examples.

Digital media, complete with “memberships” of sorts, dot the environment. I remember when each of VSC’s predecessors burst forth. What we see here now is not the same as what I remember from a long time ago. And, the better philately-by-keyboard approaches will prosper over time just as have stamp organizations.

Make your decision on the basis of what is best for you. As a hobby, this is for your recreation. Enjoy it your way, for your reasons … because, most importantly, stamp collecting is for you to enjoy!

Sine Waves: Inside Stamp Catalogs

Sine Waves: The “Ugly” Side Of Stamp Catalogs
By Richard L. Sine

RLSWith the presumption that you have used a stamp catalog and are familiar with information presented in a stamp’s listing, abbreviations and acronyms, and the like, let’s look a bit at what goes into what you see.

Even through my time at Scott Publishing ended in 1992, I do not believe updating an annual publication has changed a lot.

When I first arrived at Scott, there was a catalog staff that knew what it was doing. At the time, the Scott catalog listings, other than new issues and values, were static. That is, to make a change in a description cost the firm $1.75 for each physical line. Consequently, only when egregious errors were discovered was something revised.

With the production change about 1988 where everything became digital, we then were able to “correct” anything and everything we found that was wrong. Toward then, during my remaining time at Scott, with each catalog year we corrected no fewer than 10,000 items. With the move to fully digital came the ability much more easily to add varieties, which would be inserted into existing listings, and handle new issues.

While catalog listings are considered the final word to nearly all the collecting public, remember that they are merely the most current information known about a given item. That information is subject to change at any time better information becomes available. That is just the way it is.

If you are a more general collector, such possibilities for change may not mean a lot to you. The more you specialize, the greater the possibility that adding or changing a listing easily may provide you with more items to procure. This certainly has happened to me.

Of course, if you are a specialist and something has been added or changed in your area of interest, you may well have been part of the effort leading to that change. Collectors are a major source of information leading to catalog adjustments.

Without even considering catalog value (which will be discussed separately), stamp catalogs – whether Scott or one of the specialty catalogs – are dynamic. The non-value information may well be as important to you as the current year’s values. I don’t get a catalog every year. The most recent edition I have caused me to review nearly all of the pre-1945 items in my collection because of what I found to be quite a bunch of new and changed listings.

The new varieties I was able to confirm added a lot to my total catalog value. More importantly, the number of “different varieties” in my collection increased. I should note that, over the years, I purchased a lot of bulk lots and only now (a few decades later) am going through the material stamp-by-stamp for what I expect to be the final time.

Look upon your catalog, then, not as (only) a way to calculate a value of your collection, but rather as your primary reference resource as to just what it is you have. Understand how your catalog is “built” and it will reward you with more information than you expected. Your catalog is your friend.

Sine Waves: Catching Up With Foxcatcher

by Richard L. Sine

RLSWhile I have a thing against name dropping, the recent release of the movie “Foxcatcher” prompted a couple of philatelic memories that just didn’t appear to make the final cut of the film. During my time at the American Philatelic Society as editor of The American Philatelist, I twice accompanied the late Horace Harrison (founder of the APS Insurance Plan) to solicit a donation to the society from du Pont. We failed in our mission, but the experience was memorable.

John du Pont, within philately, is best known as a previous owner of the 1¢ British Guiana.

The visits were in about 1982-3, and I fully admit to a little lack of memory as to the date. The current film is involved with the situation where du Pont shot a U.S. Olympic wrestler. When that happened, du Pont was hosting Olympic wrestlers at his estate, named Foxcatcher. At the time Horace and I visited, he was sponsoring a national-level swimming team, aptly named the Foxcatchers.

Soon after we arrived the first time, I mentioned that my three children were competitive swimmers. Our host then took us on a tour of the Olympic-sized swimming pool adjacent to the residence.

Inside the home, we were taken to his library, which actually was a safe, complete with what appeared to be a foot-thick door. The library was much longer than it was wide.

Aside: remember that the du Pont company was started following the founder’s invention of dynamite. As you entered the library, you quickly “noticed” – in the far right corner – a gleaming gold Gatling gun. If that wouldn’t quickly cause you to pause, you had no emotions at all.

Du Pont apologized on our first visit for not having the British Guiana for us to see, but noted something to the effect that it could only be removed from the safety deposit box with proper security. Instead, he gave us an autographed photo of the stamp. Yes, you read that correctly.

British_Guiana_13On our second visit, he again apologized for not having the British Guiana (left) for us to fondle … and, instead, let Horace and me inspect a U.S. 1869 24¢ invert on cover. Read the end of the previous sentence again before you go to your catalog for an idea of current value.

We tried both visits to engage our host in “philatelic” discussion, but to little avail. I was certain that he was not trying to deflect any sort of fundraising effort, but rather just not philatelic as such. Rather, his interest in the hobby was much more along the lines of an acquirer. He certainly knew what he had, but just didn’t appear to exhibit the passion that I saw over the years in so many other collectors. Pity.

To me, the passion is critical. It is that passion that drives one collector to have as much enjoyment with an album of current and recent U.S. stamps as does another collector who has a world-class collection based on the printing varieties and usages of a single classic stamp.

Dick Sine: Preparing For The Inevitable

Do Something Nice for the Executor of Your Estate
By Richard L. Sine

RLSDisclaimer: I neither am an attorney nor accountant, nor have I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in the past 12 months.

Given that such a high percentage of stamp collectors do not dispose of their collections prior to their move on to that great stamp meeting in the sky, their estate executors are faced with the primary question of what to do. Here are some of the disparate issues that may emerge:

Collection where perceived value is “catalog value” and an attempt to sell brings (legitimate) offers at 10% of that value range

If the above occurs, the executor tells family and friends of the extreme low-ball offer and philately gets a bad name. The collection then is placed at the back of a closet, keeping others from being able to enjoy its contents for a long time.

Collection where no value is known by the executor; a prospective purchaser, who senses this lack of knowledge, makes an extremely low-ball offer and smilingly goes off to resell at a tremendous profit

To reduce stress on those who follow you, particularly at a time when the executor is working to do the best job possible, you need to provide some preparation. First and foremost, keep your collection in an organized manner, with albums of boxes of glassine envelopes properly identified.

Further, have an inventory of your holdings, preferably noting each stamp and at least individually accounting for the higher-value items. The more information you provide, the better. If you have expertizing certificates, so note. Essentially, your inventory document … whether digital or on paper … will be the guidebook for the executor.

I have an Excel spreadsheet with individual pages for regular issues, airmail, official stamps, etc. I include Scott catalog values to allow an executor to have a feel for total as well as individual value. While I have been building this inventory for at least 25 years, the key word here is “building.” Not yet included is a “text” page that provides an overview of the collection and my own estimation of how it will be valued if/when offered for resale. My text page will include a note as to what sort of overall value one could expect, i.e., what percent of catalog value a dealer might offer.

Once you have an inventory document in decent form, take whatever time necessary to walk the projected executor through your collection. Make this upbeat and not at all morbid. If you are an APS member, be certain to mention the APS estate advisory service. At the same time, also note that unless the person who the APS sends to help your executor knows you, that person will come in somewhat blank relative to your material. Therefore, while there certainly will be some expertise offered, such at first necessarily will be general and that person also will be depending on your inventory document.

Finally, if planning to sell the material, try to obtain more than one offer. If the first two are very close in price, that is a suggestion that there is accuracy as to value. If you get three and one is much higher than the other two, consider seeking another offer. While your executor need not make this a lifelong quest to obtain the best price, certainly he/she will want to obtain true value.

This whole process is not easy on anyone. Unless there is a need for quick cash, there is no need to rush. If the executor needs a market value to satisfy probate requirements, a call to a reputable dealer to get a ballpark percent-of-catalog should work. The executor should not use catalog value to satisfy probate requirements, and run the risk of increasing fees and/or taxes.

There are a lot of war stories revolving around inherited collections, from the “WOW, it’s worth how much?” to feelings that dealers all are creatures living below ground and who only come out to rip off the unknowing. The best situation, I believe, is one where there is no story to be repeated.

Dick Sine: Writing = Sharing

Writing = Sharing
By Richard L. Sine

We collectors normally go through a sort of progression … not all of us, but I have to believe it applies to a very large percentage. First we obtain a stamp album, either for our home country or the world. Then comes the attempt to fill all of the pre-printed spaces. For some, that is most enjoyable and as far as those collectors go. Others tire of what they consider the repetition of purchasing or trading for stamps to mount into the albums.

RLSA next step is a specialization. It may be a larger U.S. album, a country album that represents the collector’s own heritage or where he/she has traveled, or stamps that represent something else the collector likes or likes to do … these are topical collections. Specialization can become as targeted as a collector wants: a single stamp issue, stamps of only a certain color, only postal stationery, and on and on.

Once engaged in a specialized collection – or any depth – the collector begins research that further adds to the enjoyment. Note: the enjoyment aspect is key here. After all, why have a hobby if you are not going to enjoy it?

There are no limits to the breadth or depth of such research. Collectors may want to investigate how a given issue/stamp came to be, or how many varieties exist of a given issue and how best to describe/define them, or how a specific issue is used in the movement of mail … the latter really refers to older issues that had a specific reason for release.

Now we go back to the title of this article. When you have found something in your research, share it with others. There are any number of outlets for your research. All you need to do is put forth what you have learned in a very logical, straightforward manner. This is not the time, particularly if you are new to philatelic writing, for flowery language. Just get the information out there for others to learn.

Send your article to your local club publication, a specialty publication, or set up your own website where you will be able to expand on your work as well as allow others to react and comment. The digital world has opened a very expanded world for philatelic writing, which more than overcomes the loss of print periodicals over the recent past.

Some quick hints from a philatelic editor/writer who began in 1976:

  • Lay out what you have learned, make your point, then stop writing that article
  • Be certain your article has no spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors … get help before you are published
  • Where possible, cite references so others are able to look for themselves
  • Incorporate illustrations … philately is a visual hobby

Even with my hope that you will share your finding with others, only do so if you are comfortable as a writer. There is no obligation, merely an interest in sharing.

Dick Sine: The Value of Your Stamp Collection

The Value of Your Stamp Collection
by Richard L. Sine

RLSGo figure! Literally. How do you arrive at the “value” of your collection? That is not as simple as question as it may appear. Just what “value” are you going to consider?

  • Catalog value
  • Market value
  • Replacement value
  • Resale value

They are not the same. So let’s e-value-ate the terms.

Catalog value is determined by the publisher of a given catalog. Some publishers tell you how that is determined and some don’t. When I was at Scott Publishing, the definition of catalog value was the price you would expect to pay for a given stamp at a specific grade when purchased as a single item. I don’t know if that definition continues today, but it appeared to work then.

Getting to that value, however, is the key. Those of you around at the time may remember the stir Scott caused around 1980 when it changed its internal approach to reaching “catalog value.” Before arriving at the changed approach, we even employed the services of a retired mathematician as a consultant. After reviewing our data, he opined that the best we had, given how few data points for nearly all items, was “fuzzy numbers.” You can see how that term would stick with me after about 35 years.

Also, there is the concept of minimum value, i.e., the least catalog value at which any stamp is valued. While that value ostensibly considers the cost to a dealer to handle a stamp, each time it is raised by five cents boosts the “value” of many collections (mine included) by a bunch. (Note, “bunch” is not a technical term.)

Market value is the least definable of the group. It can reflect any ups and downs of stamp value, or the difference in value in different parts of the world. A highly specialized collection of U.S. stamps probably Is worth more in this county than in Germany. As for market ups and downs, I remember when, over a period of a few months, the market value of a set of mint U.S. Zeppelin air mail stamps dropped from something like $13,500 to $2,700 each. I was at Scott at the time and remember the gasp of an investor/speculator at the other end of a phone call when I told him the current value … he had something like 17 sets.

Replacement value is what you would pay to replace your current collection with stamps of identical quality. It may differ widely from catalog value, because you would have the benefit of purchasing in quantity, i.e., another collection or partial collection or by the set … all rather than by the individual stamp. This term comes up if a collection is stolen or destroyed in a fire or flood.

Resale value is where the possibility of a sharp kick in the heads occurs. Perhaps you want to sell your collection … yes, some collectors do that. And, let’s further presume that you are not one of the very few collectors who has a rather small collection of items that perhaps you have exhibited … thus, they each are of rather high catalog value and perhaps exceed the quality level at which catalog value is set. Then, you can expect what may well be a shockingly low offer for your material. This statement is not designed to be critical of any dealers, or stamp dealers as a whole. It is reality.

Remember the mention above about catalog minimum value, which is set to recognize what it costs a dealer to handle the most inexpensive items. This is the other side of that coin (sorry about mixing hobbies a bit). That is, 1,000 stamps with a minimum value of 25 cents each DO NOT have a market value of $250. Thus, being offered 10-15% of catalog value for a collection may not be unreasonable, no matter how much it insults your philatelic macho instincts.
Why this discussion in the first place? A whole lot of stamp collections become part of estates on the death of their owners. Heirs have heard their beloved fathers/mothers/uncles/aunts talks about the “value” of a collection over the years. When an heir attempts to sell that windfall, the purchase offer will not cover the cost of a new automobile to drive home … but, rather, may barely cover an airplane ticket. And, that is why I have known more than a few collectors, late in life, who have sold their own collections rather than bring on stress-caused-by-reality to others.

There are times when we stamp collectors must take a step back from our wonderful world of philately and into the real world to be certain there is someone in the family who understands just what “value” there is in our collection. It is important to have a complete inventory of the collection. My inventory is in a 352 kb Excel spreadsheet file.

That somber thought aside, let’s return to our regularly scheduled collecting practice and go buy a lot of stuff.

Why Collect Stamps? by Dick Sine

Why Collect Stamps?
by Richard L. Sine

RLSFor the first blog I have ever written, this may be a bit of a broad subject. Stay with me for a couple of paragraphs and perhaps you will see where I am going.

Each of us has begun collecting for our own reason. Each of us has continued collecting for our own reason(s). And, many of us began collecting, ceased collecting, and resumed collecting … again, for our own reason(s).

At some point early in our philatelic experience, we learned that not all stamps have the same value, and sometimes the same stamp (same catalog number) has different values. For many of us, that did not make much of a difference for quite some time. We came to understand the concept of stamp quality, i.e., grade, and other attributes that impact value, such as how/where the item was used.

Rather than getting into the whole “value” concept, there are some other philatelic “attributes” to consider. Many of us have collections that reflect the home place of our ancestors. Others of us develop collections that relate to where we have traveled or other interests in our life.

For myself, in the summer of 1966, I entered the wrong lot number on a bid sheet and, rather than winning some items that would have filled some spaces in my U.S. album, I received a seemingly large bulk lot of stamps from a country far away. I was intrigued … to shorten the story severely, that bidding error has led to a single-country collection that today numbers nearly 8,000 different varieties and a total of more than 78,000 items.

Had you asked me a week before that bulk lot arrived if I had even thought of collecting the stamps of that country and my response would have been, “no, why would I?”

Along the way, I have been exposed to other aspects of the hobby: research, exhibiting, broadening the base of collectors through education programs, etc. Each has its place in philately and none, at least in my belief, is more important than another. What IS important is that we continue to enjoy what we are doing. After all, it is a hobby.

Consider your reason(s) for starting and staying.