Hotchner: Cataloguing The Collectors

Stamp Collectors at The Bourse
By John M. Hotchner
hotchnerStamp collectors have a passion for classification. It’s what we do — trying to match the stamp on hand to the picture and listing in the Scott catalogue. But for some of us, there is another aspect to philatelic classification: the fun of observing our fellow collectors and collectresses at stamp shows and bourses, and using their behaviors to fit them into the category of homo philatelicus that best describes their collecting interest and method. For us on the buyer side of the table this is sport. For dealers with limits on time, attention span and stock, being able to recognize these types is a matter of life and profits.

(NOTE: I will use the masculine pronoun below, but these folks can be of either gender.)

The Scholar: This ultra-serious collector comes equipped with a portable microscope, tongs, a perf gauge, and often a briefcase full of specialized philatelic literature. Though he will hop on a bargain in a heartbeat, his passion has little to do with dollars and cents. He is to be found especially at any dealer booth selling stamps for 5¢ apiece out of old picked-over albums. His specialty is socked-on-the-nose cancellations and perforation-combinations that are not specifically listed in the catalogue.

The Looker: This person is not actually a stamp collector. He masquerades as one; carefully looking through dealers’ stocks to find the perfect example of a stamp in which he has an interest. Having found it, he heaves a great sigh of satisfaction — and puts the stamp back in its holder; and hands it to the dealer to hold for him until later in the day. And is never heard from again.

The Accumulator: This type knows what he likes, and is discriminating. Price is important, but not as important as seeing and purchasing stamps he does not remember having. Memory is the key. He extracts a promise from the dealer to take back anything he already has, but the dealer is safe. Our friend may have 15 additional copies, but he takes his purchases home and throws them in a box, or filing cabinet, or many boxes. There they will sit for the remainder of his natural life as he would not dream of wasting money on an album, or any other means of organizing what he owns. He will get to his growing mass of material “some day.”

The Heir: This is a person who thinks he might be interested in stamp collecting, as he has inherited someone else’s collection. He tried to sell it, but was disappointed with the offer he got, as compared to what he thought the value was from word-of-mouth or from consulting the Scott Catalogue at the local library. The problem, of course, is that the parallel will also be disappointing: the price of material he needs to add to the collection. The dealer will have to spend a lot of time explaining the buying and selling of stamps to the heir; often not the first time the heir has heard this lecture. By about the fourth time from different people, he will be inclined to believe what he is being told — as opposed to believing that folks are just trying to rip him off.

amcvr14_037aThe Perfectionist: This type comes in two grades: Annoying and Superb. The former wants perfection on inexpensive stamps, but does not want to pay any premium for them. And by perfection, we are talking about light cancels, VF+ centering, pristine gum, and bright color. Nothing else will do.

The latter can actually be a pleasure to deal with as he understands the scarcity of perfect stamps in the realm he is seeking, which is most often old and difficult material. And he understands that scarcity equals higher prices, and that such material is called “investment grade” for a reason. He will happily pull out the checkbook to be able to add exceptional material to his collection, but there is a downside: His standards can be frustrating for a dealer to have to meet.

The Investor: Related to the Perfectionist, this collector can be focused on condition, but only to the extent he is a real collector. Many of this sort are not as concerned with condition as they should be. They read in the philatelic press that this or that stamp or set is on the rise, was issued in low numbers, or is part of a growing collecting area, and figure it is a good bet to increase in value. The tip off as to who is in this category is when they buy multiple copies of an item if they feel the item is priced at a level allowing for early growth. The problem is that their definition of “early” is probably not a good match for reality. They often think it terms of months, while most significant appreciation takes place over years.

The Busy Body: This collector frequents the dealers who love to tell stories — especially about other collectors and dealer colleagues. Names are as important as stamps to the Busy Body. And a successful visit does not necessarily require the purchase of stamps. A good nugget of information will do just as well.

The Organizer: With want lists in hand, the organizer knows what he has, what he needs, what the values are, and has a firm idea of acceptable condition. Want lists can be in marked catalogues, on paper, in electronic form, or in rare instances, in his head. Whatever the method, he is a delight to deal with as he has everything he needs at his fingertips, reviews stock efficiently, and moves on; requiring a minimum of dealer tending.

The Bargain Hunter (also known as the Negotiator): Don’t ever expect to see this collector pay the marked price. Whatever it is, it is too high; and it does not matter whether it is one 50¢ stamp, or a $100 collection, or a high quality rare item worth thousands. He will only buy if he gains a sense that he has gotten the better of the dealer. Of course this invites dealers to price material much higher than the price at which they are willing to sell it, but there is a price for that approach because of the next category.

The Browser (also known as the Shy Shopper): Yes, this collector will buy material, but is uncomfortable negotiating, pointing out flaws, asking for other copies for comparison to find the best condition, and even asking for a specific category of material to look at. He will look at what is on display and decide to buy (or not) based on the marked price. The dealer may never know he could have made a sale if the item(s) had been marked at a more reasonable level. (This is one of the many reasons that being a dealer is not as easy as it looks!)

Do you recognize yourself in any of the brief descriptions given above? If not, tune in for next column here on The Virtual Stamp Club. We will have another group of philatelic customers who may ring a bell.

Don’t see yourself or your friend here? Check out Part II.


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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Collecting FDCs Can Be Fascinating

First Day Cover Collecting Includes Fascinating Byways
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerAs a kid I sent off for First Day Covers (FDCs) of new issues, and was thrilled when cancelled covers arrived in the mailbox. And then, for whatever reason I can’t recall, I turned up my nose and dropped FDCs as a collecting area. It was foolish of me to do that — perhaps influenced by the mantra among experienced collectors that FDCs were only for beginners.

What I didn’t realize at the time was the rich diversity of First Day Covers. They actually go back to the 19th century, when a stamp might have been used on a known first day of release, but there was no organized first day ceremony, and no organization keeping track. Stamps were placed on sale at post offices as received and the result is that the Scott U.S. Specialized Catalogue generally lists Earliest Documented Use (EDU) dates in this era rather than first days.

It is a sport among collectors of 19th century U.S. stamps to find covers or socked-on-the-nose stamps that push the EDU dates further back than the Scott listing. There are also a good many EDUs listed for the first 20+ years of the 20th century, as it seems that only commemoratives had stated first days until the coming of the 1922 Fourth Bureau Issue definitives. By this time, there were many collectors of FDCs, but the only identifier was the cancellation date. If you didn’t know what to look for, you could easily miss the significance of a FDC.

linn610That all changed when George W. Linn, the founder of Linn’s Stamp News, added text to the covers he prepared for the issuance of the perf 11 flat-plate Warren G. Harding Memorial stamp (Scott 610), released on September 1, 1923, shortly after the death-in-office of the president. As shown here, his covers had black mourning bands and the words “In Memoriam, Warren G. Harding, Twenty-Sixth President, Born Nov. 2, 1865 Died August 7, 1923.” These covers exist in several different sizes.

That changed the playing field. Text or illustrations on a first day cover have come to be called “cachets,” and cachetmakers sold their creations; competing to create the most popular art. Some collectors chose a cachetmaker and tried to get every one of his or her covers for their first days. Other collectors rejected this new fad, and stayed with the plain cancelled cover. It is estimated that until about 1936, the majority of FDCs were of the uncacheted type, and virtually all were addressed and actually went through the mail.

In 1937, the now familiar “First Day of Issue” cancellation was used for the first time on the 3¢ stamp commemorating the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (Scott 795). This is a curiosity as a significant percentage of FDCs dating back to this time — some would say a majority — have not actually been cancelled on the first day. The requester generally has had up to 30 days after issuance to send in cacheted covers to have the stamp and first day cancel added.

Although it has developed that there are standard printed cachets that are most often encountered, ArtCraft being most often seen, many other cachetmakers have had long, or shorter runs producing their unique art. Often printed in small quantities, and sometimes hand drawn in even smaller quantities, FDC collectors of today often enjoy collecting the sc737motherswork of a specific cachetmaker. Others focus in on the stamp, and try to get as many different cachets as can be found for that stamp.

I’ve returned to FDC collecting as a member of the latter group. Although I accumulate the FDCs associated with about a dozen commemoratives, my favorite stamps are the Mothers of America issues of 1934 (an example is shown at above right), and the Adlai Stevenson issue of 1965. (A Marg cachet is shown at left.) The latter illustrates another aspect of sc1275marg2my FDC collecting. In this case, the United Nations Association of the United States of America (a non-governmental organization), used the occasion of the release of the Stevenson stamp to do a special cachet, and stuffed these envelopes with a fund-raising letter.

Other organizations used standard philatelic cachets, but included fund=raising letters, or letters trying to sell a product by relating the stamp issuance to it. An example is a letter included with an ArtCraft cachet for the Stevenson issue from the Prudence Mutual Casualty Company of Chicago, Illinois. Quoted in part it says:

“This FDC honors Adlai Stevenson and comes to you from Bloomington, Illinois, where the Ambassador to the United Nations grew up and is buried…. President Johnson requested the issuance of this stamp in a letter to PMG John A. Gronouski, in which he noted that ‘Adlai Stevenson enlarged our horizons as Americans and helped to light the hopes of mankind all around the world.’… President Johnson, recognizing the importance of the fight against Cancer, authorized issuance of a special stamp in April, 1965, in honor of the Crusade Against Cancer. At the same time, Prudence designed a new Cancer Expense Policy which protects the policy owner against the extreme costs of cancer to a maximum of $10,750.00. Every individual and family should have this low-cost protection.”

It is signed by a printed signature of the president of Prudence.

I find these types of FDCs fascinating and collect the full range of business and non-profit cachets and messages; regardless of which stamp was being released. One sub-genre of these is Congressional FDCs. These were prepared with the idea of sending them to friends and constituents with letters soliciting support for initiatives the Congressperson was involved in, and less often, support for their reelection efforts.

I also dabble in autographed FDCs, pre-first days, and have a pretty good collection of programs from first day ceremonies. The point here is that FDC-collecting can be a serious challenge, a fascinating reflection of the times of the stamps, and an excellent glimpse of the history behind the stamp. Whether you choose to collect the current stamps on standard cachets or to go further afield as noted above, FDC collecting is just plain fun.

There is a national association of FDC collectors called the American First Day Cover Society (AFDCS) devoted to helping collectors understand and appreciate the field.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here..

Hotchner: Put Fun Back In Philately

Didja hear the one about the stamp collector who…?
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerWhen I wear a name badge showing I am a member of the Errors, Freaks and Oddities Collectors’ Club, my wife has been known to chide me with “Which one are you?” And it is undeniable that there is a perception that some, if not all stamp collectors are a bit “off”. As a group we are possessed of a demon that demands we acquire ever more little colored pieces of paper, and often the envelopes on which they have been used. In doing so, we set ourselves apart from most other people and inhabit a mostly solitary world of cancellations, catalogue values, perforation measurements, and other trivia where stamps become a passion that is barely comprehensible to family, friends, colleagues at work, and casual acquaintances. And what others do not understand, they often denigrate or, worse, assign a personality warp to those who practice the unimagined art.

Enough for that meaning of “funny.” It struck me recently as I chuckled my way through a Carol Burnett rerun, that the world is full of comedy, and yet we see little of it in our hobby. It is possible that this is because the practitioners of the hobby in a public setting are involved in serious pursuits; running clubs and societies, studying the endless questions our material raises and writing articles proposing answers, or exhibiting our stamps and covers in competition. These things can be fun, but are rarely treated as being in any sense funny.

Extend this to the questions that are a constant in letters to the editor: How many stamps per year is the right number? What is attractive and effective stamp design? Is there a good way to separate self-stick stamps from paper? What is the latest outrage in postal service policy? Monologue and even dialogue on these subjects is passionate, but distinctly unfunny.

carriers1In fact, when an opportunity comes up to address humor, such as cartoon or other representational art used as stamp designs, the overwhelming response is that this is not serious art, or a serious way to treat a serious subject!

And yet, stamp collecting is supposed to be fun, a respite from the serious matters that make up our normal day-to-day. Part of that fun is humor. We are hard-wired as human beings to enjoy a good laugh. Is there any list of qualities for a possible mate that does not include “a good sense of humor?” Certainly laughing together is an essential glue of any relationship. But I digress…

The fact is that Humorless equals Unattractive. So, is it any wonder that stamp collecting is having an increasingly hard time competing for new adherents when our image is often that of serious clinicians rather than people having fun and sharing smiles?

OK, it is a fact that we are probably dealing with a leopard that is not going to change its spots, but is there any way to increase the humor quotient in philately … to make the hobby more appealing to those who enjoy a good laugh?

I think there is. Our hobby’s public face is multifaceted. It includes our publications, our websites, our exhibits and exhibitions, and ourselves as collectors in how we present ourselves to the unwashed. In the good old days of philately when I was getting involved, there were humor-based columns in our publications, cartoons, an emphasis on the fun in philately. That is much less seen these days, replaced by what to an outsider would be as dull and useless as an insider’s understanding of the workings of the stock market to a non-investor. Make no mistake: Much of this is fascinating to the insider — the serious collector. But it does not sit well with another audience: those we want to bring into the hobby, or even many of those who are beginners and considering whether to devote more time and effort to the hobby.

Part of this problem lies with writers, and part of it lies with editors. When I began my series of cartoon contests in Linn’s many moons ago, the editor at the time was not in favor of the idea. His take was the concept would fail because “Stamp collectors have no sense of humor.” I’m glad I persisted, as 20+ years later, I think the monthly Cartoon Caption Contest has proved otherwise. Everyone has a sense of humor, but as any successful comedian will tell you, it is hard and serious work to make people laugh.

Our hobby’s websites are unfortunately tracking with our print publications. In fact they are often just our print publications. I’m not an expert here, as (showing my age) I don’t have as detailed a sense of what is going on in cyberspace as I do in the print realm. But the Internet is an increasingly important recruiting tool for appealing to younger folks, and it needs to have a humor component every bit as much as the print media does.

Our exhibits and exhibitions — Competition is a good thing. It encourages our best effort, and in philately, it is responsible for much of the geometric growth of knowledge that makes philately a rich and inviting place for specialists. But there is a down side. Despite the fact that it is the exhibit being judged, it can be hard to separate the self from the exhibit; leading to a feeling of being personally judged. Combine this with the scholarship required to attain a Gold medal, and we have seen a trend toward the scientific approach to building competitive exhibits, with the result that many (including some of mine) are dull and boring. It may not be possible to fix this, but again, it is possible to bring more fun into the frames.

How? I’d like to see much more in the way of non-competitive exhibits at our shows; exhibits that are maybe not explicitly funny, but are at least FUN, and present that side of the hobby. Examples? The late Clyde Jennings’ exhibit on outhouses. The late John Briggs’ exhibit on “How to win a gold medal: craftiness in philatelic exhibiting.” The late Jo Bleakley’s “Frog and Toad Trivia.” The late Vernon Moore’s multiframe on music; and other entertaining exhibits… Are you seeing a pattern here? We need a new generation of exhibitors who are not devoted to just the search for Gold medals, but are motivated to present the fun of philately.

And the people, ah, the people. Get any two stamp collectors together talking about their hobby, their dealer experiences, other collectors, and their search for material, and there will be plenty of laughs. But put a stamp collector and a non-collector together, and the discussion will quickly default to values, the benefits of the hobby, and similar serious issues. The fun part does not sparkle in these interchanges.

And speaking of sparkling, if the public face of the hobby is its people, then we need more people like the earlier mentioned Clyde Jennings; not just for his wonderful exhibits (both Gold winners and fun exhibits), but for his wardrobe. Clyde owned a wide range of matching sport coats and slacks (and underwear!) in just about all hues of the rainbow. He always stood out in a crowd, and he always provoked and enjoyed the humorous comments on his newest garb. Just by being there, he made any philatelic event a fun place to be. And while he took his exhibiting pursuits seriously, his object was to bring joy to the faces of those with whom he came in contact. In doing so he made the hobby attractive. We need many more people so motivated.

Fun and humor are not the same thing, but they are first cousins. We need much more of both in our public face. Readers are invited to drop me a line with your ideas on how we can promote those aspects of our hobby; especially among those who are not now collectors.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Challenges Of Being A Dealer

So, You Think Being A Dealer Would Be Easy?
by John M. Hotchner

(This is written in first person for effect, though I have only worked for a dealer.)

  1. hotchnerIf I were to calculate the value of my time spent cataloging and looking up references in order to price my material fairly and to sell, my return per hours spent would be minimal.
  2. And that’s before I spend additional time calculating offers on material collectors and dealers are selling. And the time spent keeping up with philatelic news and trends by means of reading philatelic periodicals and other literature.
  3. For every item I sell, I must buy something on which I can make a reasonable profit in the future. Since only half or less of what I buy will sell again within a year, I actually need to buy more, knowing that I may have to discount some of it eventually to clear it out.
  4. Every transaction has to be recorded for the benefit of the tax man — federal, state and local. And it has to be recorded in a consistent and usable format. I wish I’d paid better attention in my “business math” course in high school. College calculus doesn’t help much.
  5. I am expected to be an expert on all things philatelic by my customers: to be able to spot fakes at 500 paces, to answer even the most elemental questions as well as the tough ones patiently and in depth, and to be able to predict what will gain or lose value on the long term. The good news is that philately is a continuing education. One cannot help but learn new things.
  6. Increasingly, I need to be a technical wizard to reach my potential customers “where they are” on the Internet, Twitter, texting, etc. None of this comes for free — either in terms of time or money. This is a good thing as I can now speak my children’s language, though I could use more of their technical savvy.
  7. And I must balance those methods of outreach with more traditional direct and in-person outreach such as print advertising, taking a table at stamp shows, getting involved as an active member of a local club, and even contributing articles on my business or my specialties to the philatelic press.
  8. I must — often a pleasurable experience, but just as often not — to shows, to evaluate prospective purchases, to meet clients. And once I make a commitment to be there, neither rain nor snow nor hurricane is an adequate excuse for not showing up as promised. Even illness doesn’t cut it unless I or one of my nearest and dearest is in extremis. And yes, I must keep track of all those expenses, including the extra hotel nights when weather cancels planes or closes highways.
  9. Connected to #8, I have to explain to my significant other and family members why their spur-of-the-moment or short-term plans for birthday parties, school events, weddings, births, and even deaths conflict with my commitments made sometimes two or three years into the future. Against this problem is the fact that mostly when I am home, my time is my own. I’m not punching a clock.
  10. I must maintain a home office — or even more significant, a business address — where I do my work, run my business, communicate with my customers, and store my stock. While a tax-deductible set of expenses (again that accounting!), those costs have to be figured into the pricing of my material,
  11. They know me at the post office, where the increasingly intricate rules for mailing flats and using controlled mail mean I must stand in line just about every day. Oh, yes, and there are the constantly increasing rates, too.
  12. I must maintain a significant philatelic library covering the areas in which I am active, including “investing” in the most current catalogues and specialty society literature, as well as the standard references from the past.
  13. I need to be master of the watermark tray, the perforation gauge, color charts, and cancellation measurement devices — even a small mistake can cost me a bundle of bucks, or make me look like a complete idiot to my customers.
  14. My customers are not only my bread-and-butter; they are the reason I got into the business. I enjoy them and enjoy filling their wants. And yet, some few seem to go out of their way to be ill-humored, overly contentious on prices, and/or are so taken by their own importance that they treat me like a bug they can squash. I try to stay detached and not take it personally.
  15. Studying the souk in Damascus is a sport for me as I have had to integrate the lessons of human impulse, financial motivations, and the game of bargaining in how I negotiate with customers. Reaching a mutually agreed price — whether buying or selling — is a good deal more complicated than marking an item at $5 (or $500) and waiting for someone who wants it that badly to show up. Some dealers will not move on price. I don’t like to, but for good customers, or ones who buy a lot…
  16. I often need to find and employ knowledgeable and honest part-time help to keep my stock in order, to service customer orders, to help cover my booth at shows, but also to design my web interfaces, and to help with my accounting and tax chores. This brings a new level of complexity to my “sole proprietorship”.
  17. I must maintain good relations with other dealers in the community; not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we often help each other with knowledge, with references to available material, with mentoring, and in many other ways.

And yet despite the requirements and the obstacles, I love the hobby, the great majority of its practitioners, their lust for challenge and discovery, and simply handling stamps and covers. I enjoy seeing material I’ve sold being used in exhibits, in articles, and achieving new catalogue status. I enjoy the discoveries I make, and even the ones that others make in my stock. (After all, I got the price I needed when I sold the item.)

No occupation is without its hurdles, and despite mine, I enjoy most of the work, and it does put dinner on the table!


Should you wish to comment on this column, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contribu-tor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting “VSC” in the subject line.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Be A Show-Off

Showcasing Our Hobby. Why? How?
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerHave you noticed if your local library, post office, hospital, or church has an enclosed bulletin board where you could put up a small display of stamps? Those of course are not the only places that a showing of postage stamps could be displayed. How about the local Audubon Society, bar association, garden club, music club, veterans association, or any of dozens of other groups with a substantive focus that would match up with stamp designs from the U.S. — or indeed from around the world.

Those who have the collector gene and are into stamps often have interests beyond stamps, and the opportunity to cross the divide and present stamp collecting to another collecting or special interest group is one that can spark interest and add new adherents to our hobby. And if that is done by a display, it eliminates the sometimes bothersome problem of having to stand in front of a group to give a talk.

While actions that add one collector at a time to the body of stamp collectors may seem like spitting into the wind, that is the only way the hobby has ever grown, and will ever grow. And the one person you “recruit” may turn into a recruiter him — or her — self, or a club officer, philatelic writer, or serious researcher who makes great contributions to the hobby. If each of us over the course of our collecting life brought in just two people — one to replace ourselves, and one to add to our numbers, we would see tremendous growth in the hobby.

There are of course many ways to do that, but one that I think gets too little mention is looking to adults who are already collectors or who have a specific interest that stamps can help to feed. And the objective is to reach them where they are — in clubs devoted to their interest, through their professional associations, and relating to their life experiences. In a location like a library, consult with library staff to see what sort of literature they are intending to feature; perhaps related to a coming holiday, a type of literature, or current events in the community.

No one can force feed potential stamp collectors. Committing to the hobby is a voluntary act. And it starts with hooking the interest of a potential recruit. In other words, we need to put the hobby in front of non-collectors, and if one of 100 who view the presentation decide to look into stamp collecting, we have been successful. If a bunch of the remaining 99 file away the experience as a positive one, that also is success. Even if they themselves do not start a collection, perhaps they will support a friend or relative who announces that they are getting involved in the hobby.

In that way, putting up a display of stamps in a non-philatelic venue is a bit like throwing a pebble into the water: You just never know where the ripples will go, or who might be affected downstream.

So, what to show, and how to show it? The obvious answer is stamps that relate to the venue. But that isn’t the only answer. Keeping in mind that the audience may have handled thousands of stamps while mailing letters, but is essentially illiterate about the fine points of the hobby, the emphasis should be on design content and visual appeal; not on different perforation methods, covers and odd usages, or watermarks. Stamps within the reach of viewers should be featured; and that would mean inexpensive U.S. stamps are the best vehicle to get across the point.

This is not to say that the ‘Wow! Factor’ should be ignored. If you have a beautifully cacheted first day cover, an attractive foreign stamp that relates, or something with a design error, a highly visual error like an invert, or a variety such as a bad misperf, it does not hurt to show the variety of the hobby in that manner, but it should constitute no more than about 10% of the display — unless of course you are specifically aiming to show an American on foreign stamps, the world of EFOs, or another subject that demands broader coverage.

Mint stamps are best, but lightly canceled used stamps are ok. Condition should be as good as it can be, without obvious faults. Unless the display box can be closed and locked, expensive stamps should not be used.

Now, on to the How. Small doses of the hobby are best with an audience that is unschooled and/or in a hurry. In philatelic exhibitions aimed at collectors, we normally show multiple frames composed of 16 letter-sized pages. I think that less is better for those not yet collectors. Eight to 12 pages (or six to nine) would be ideal depending upon the area available in the display box you are filling.

The pages themselves can be from a printed album, or specially made up for the specific display. If the former, one page should be reserved as an introduction so that you can convey to viewers your enthusiasm for the subject, your enthusiasm for the hobby, and contact points that they can use to get further information. This can be your local stamp club, the American Philatelic Society, a specialty society, or if you are willing, your own email or postal addresses.

I like the idea of showing album pages as they show that one can get into collecting with preprinted pages, rather than having to make one’s own. Of course collectors often “graduate” from album pages and find that it is actually fun to make your own. But the very thought could be overwhelming to a beginner.

How to put the pages up on the display box? It is easy if the box lies flat. But if it is up on the wall, then double-sided tape can work well. Another alternative is putting your display pages on larger construction paper using photographic corners, and then tacking the large sheets into the box can work equally well. You want to avoid putting tack holes into pages you have worked hard to make attractive.

Pay a bit of attention to the size of your type, and the density of your write-up. Dense paragraphs of small type are a put-off. Much better is limiting the write-up to one or two sentences of fairly large type. Labels giving essential information (year of issue, country, design content, if not obvious) are even better.

Once you have done a couple of these displays, you will have developed a technique, but for the first efforts, try them out on your family or a friend who is not a collector, so you can get feedback and guidance on how your display will be received, and whether you need to use a different approach.


Should you wish to comment on this column, 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.

Or comment right here.

Hotchner: Who Started You In Stamps?

Who Started You on Your Philatelic Path?
by John M. Hotchner

escortedkids2A friend reminiscing as he leaves the hobby due to serious medical issues recently wrote about his start as a stamp collector 65 years ago: “When I was eleven, my Dad left us, and we were transported from a major city to a relatively remote rural farming community, where my maternal grandparents took in my mother, younger brother and me.

“To say that going from the city to the farm was under-stimulating in many ways would be an understatement, but I had the great good fortune of seeing an ad I think from Kenmore, or H.E. Harris for a whole envelope of postage stamps from around the world.…for a dime. Off went my dime, and I waited impatiently for the stamps.

hotchner“Our tiny place had a general store, and in the store a small post office. We were P.O. Box 15. I haunted the post office daily, and the postmaster caught on. After my stamps came, I sent off other dimes and quarters (my weekly allowance) for more…and more…and, well, I guess I never quit until today.

“The postmaster introduced me to Mr. Stone, a World War II refugee from England, who had settled for some unknown reason in our town. When Mr. Stone discovered my interest in stamps, he invited me to his home. It was a marvel of strange baking smells, and he and his daughter introduced me to scones and tarts and the art of drinking ‘real’ English tea.

“He would bring out boxes of stamps, and as we sat at the dining room table, he would pick up his funny little tweezers (tongs, of course), and comment on every stamp: where it came from, the history at the time in that particular country, who the people were on the stamps, etc. And then, wonder of wonders, he would start a pile of stamps for me there on the table and if I could identify the country, the stamp was mine! I had died and gone to philatelic heaven!

“And that was how it started for me. Stamps were my window to the world, and I eventually got to see in person many of the sights that had only been on stamps for me until then. I would go on for many decades, collecting, accumulating, sorting, saving, and even writing about stamps.

“I wish I could thank Mr. Stone for what he did for me in my restricted life. But maybe he knew anyway.

“Don’t know the purpose of this little tale, but feeling nostalgic about it today, and just wanted someone else to know how I got my start in stamps.”

With the electronics of today, kids no matter how rural their location, need never be “under-stimulated”, and therein lies the problem we have in bringing new collectors to the hobby. There are simply too many alternative activities for young people to get involved in. They don’t engage with stamp collecting because there is no void to fill any more. And beyond that, if introduced to stamps, many kids find it boring because there is little immediate pay off. They find the electronics more stimulating.

Yet, some do have a brush with the hobby—usually because of a connection to another collector—and it takes hold. And there are younger collectors—just not in the numbers we used to see.

I suspect that the ways that people come to the hobby these days are more varied as at least half the collectors I meet seem to have ‘joined up’ as adults even though they had no experience with the hobby as children.

We have spoken here before about the need to pass the hobby from one generation to the next by mentoring, and my friend’s experience is a good example of that. But I believe we need to learn from other models too. And for that reason, I would like to invite the readers of U.S. Stamp News to tell me about how YOU got started in the hobby. My hope is that you will share experiences that might help us today to bring new people into the hobby.

The reason is not, as some would have us believe, solely that we need to assure there will be collectors to buy our stamps when we ‘age out’. Rather, it is that stamp collecting is a wonderful hobby with many benefits for the collector in terms of relaxation, enjoyment, learning, fulfilling the need most of us have for organization, and so much more. In other words, I view it as a kindness to a fellow human being to get them involved in the hobby. I don’t care if they choose to collect something that I collect, or sail off into the sunset with something entirely different, so long as they are bitten by the bug, and discover the wonders of the hobby.

Increasingly, I think it is people approaching retirement age that are our best cohort for recruiting. This does not mean that youth should be ignored. There are already a wide range of youth outreach programs, including some innovative efforts through the electronic media of which they are so fond. But we have done less in the realm of outreach to adults who suddenly find themselves with time on their hands once their working life has come to an end.

And there is even less outreach to young professionals who might be convinced to dabble in the hobby even before retirement as a means of reducing the stresses of career-building and family-raising.

I want to know what worked to bring you into the hobby. What were your first experiences with stamps? How and by whom were you introduced? What were your first perceptions of the hobby? What got you to stick with it? What do you see as its benefits, or drawbacks?

There is no suggested length for your thoughts. Leave your omments right here.

Hotchner: Organizing Covers

Maintaining A Cover Collection: Organization Is Everything
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerMy friend Doug Quine poses this question: “One of the great challenges in philately to me is that a cover (or article) that I collect today for an interesting stamp, postmark, or usage may prove to be of interest tomorrow because of its auxiliary marking. How do you manage to seemingly have your massive collection and reprints organized in such a way that when a new item appears you instantly know when you last saw it and how many you have?”

Doug seems to think I have mastered this particular devil. But given that at least once a month I dig for something I know I have and can’t find it immediately, I’m not so sure. There are, however, processes I’ve developed to minimize the problem, and I’m happy to share them.

The first is based on the assumption that file folders are cheaper than losing things.

I’m going to use as my example for this piece my Auxiliary Markings (AM) collection. AMs are the messages usually in purple hand stamps pre-1980, and often on computer paste-ons since, that tell us why the Postal Service has not been able to handle a letter as routine — leaving it damaged, undelivered, delayed, in need of more postage, or suffering from any of dozens of other problems.

I began accumulating them in the 1970s — examples, often free or inexpensive — went into a box. No need to organize at this point. But by the late ‘80s as children began going off to college followed eventually by weddings, I could no longer afford to feed existing collections and needed something cheap to play with. Down from the shelf came that AM accumulation.

To make a long story short, over the next 15 years that box of covers developed into a Gold and Grand Award winning exhibit, the source of inspiration for many articles, and the basis for founding, with Doug’s help, the Auxiliary Markings Club.

In the process, the collection supporting the exhibit grew in volume to fill six Xerox boxes.

The exhibit began by covering the entire 100 years of the 20th century. Over ten years, the amount of material needed to illustrate the period covered dictated a reduction in scope from 100 years to 75, and then from 75 to 50, and the present form of the exhibit just covers 1900-1949.

I’m hopeful that time and health will allow for preparation one day of a parallel exhibit covering 1950-1999 delayed mail. And I have not ruled out an exhibit for 2000-2025 (by which time I will have turned 82!) The result is that I’m actively accumulating candidates for those exhibits, as well as trying to improve the existing exhibit.

If covers were the only thing to organize, store and access, the challenge would be difficult enough. But there is another dimension because there is no single reference for information about delayed and undeliverable mail. So my horde of covers is augmented by something over 2,500 clippings, articles, printouts of Post Office rules, and images of covers in other collections and from auction catalogs.

This is needed to support research to explain the covers in the collection, and practices that acted on the covers in the exhibit. And it is also essential background for my writings in Linn’s, LaPosta, and other venues, as well as to answer questions from readers.

Bottom line: This mass of material demands a high level of organization so that I can find things. How to do that? There is a process.

The first sort for incoming material, be it covers or information, is into one of four boxes labeled Pre-1900, 1900-1949, 1950-1999, and 2000+. As time permits and necessity dictates, these boxes periodically get sorted into file folders labeled by time period and for the type of delay. For example, each time period has folders for Transportation Delays, Postage Due From Sender, Postage Due From Addressee, Natural Disasters (which can be subdivided into Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Floods) Delays, Damage in the Mails, and much more.

It may be evident that one cover or clipping could fit into more than one folder. So, in addition to fat file folders being subdivided into ever more specific categories, there is a need to cross-index by writing on the folders a note about where else to look for a specific item. An example would be “See also Suspended Mail Service” on the “War Covers” folder.

This can get to outlandish proportions as with the category of “Inability to Deliver the Mail” which for 1900-1949, where most of my work is concentrated, now subdivides into 28 subcategories including for example, “Deceased,” “No Such City in State Named,” “Signature Refused,” “Addressee Gone Away,” etc.

This system works for me, but it is not enough by itself. For 1900-1949 there is also a folder for “Candidates for the exhibit” and another for “Information to update the exhibit”.

Of course there are also other complications: Articles in progress require gathering of a group of covers and information on the desired subject into a clear plastic page protector, which goes into the appropriate “pending drafting box” for one of the nine publications to which I regularly contribute.

Those packets may take six to nine months to be translated into article form and be published. And once sent off to a publication, the pending article and its support materials go into a separate pending file. With all these places to look, is it any wonder things get “lost,” at least temporarily?

I can say with a straight face that I have a pretty good memory. I know if I have seen a marking, if I have it, and if I have information about it. And if something is not where it is supposed to be, I may or may not recall what I may have done with it, but I do generally know where else to look. It may be in the exhibit, in one of the pending files, in the primary sort box, in the current correspondence file, or (rarely) in a big box of stuff that I have declared excess and available for trade or sale.

There has even been the occasional misfile. So it comes down to this: There is no perfect system, even as there is no perfect human. But if one is willing to devote the significant amount of time to developing and using a logical system of organization, almost everything can be located because the alternative locations where it can be found are limited and defined.

So, Doug, I hope this helps you and others.

Associations With People In the Hobby Enrich Life

by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerIn a previous column I mentioned that my history in the hobby stretches back over 60 years, and it got me thinking. In many respects I’ve had two jobs – my means of putting food on the table for my family, and a nearly equal amount of time week-by-week devoted to the hobby. The financial returns have been modest, but the enjoyment has been a gift; whether time spent working on my own collections, or writing and editing time, or working with others helping to build the hobby’s infrastructure.

What came to me as I thought about the 60 years is the wide range of friendships I have had, but would not have, had I not gotten involved in organized philately, in exhibiting and judging, and recruiting for the hobby. One of the wonderful things about our hobby is that everyone, both the well-known names and the beginning collector are equal in our enjoyment of the collecting experience. When I began at the “beginning collector” end of that spectrum, I asked a lot of questions of anyone I thought might be able to answer. And it was rare that I did not get a cheerful, helpful answer.

All these years later, remembering back to those days, it is clear that I have gone through a role reversal. I now get to field a lot of the questions collectors have, but that is terrific, because I have always treasured the opportunity to hear about what others at all levels of the hobby think about what is happening in the philately, what they collect and why, and the odd things they find and enjoy. Perhaps that is one of the motivations of my becoming a philatelic writer. But the bottom line is that I feel privileged that my pursuits have allowed me to meet and get to know a great many wonderful people.

I want to take the rest of this column to name some of them; some names you will recognize, others not. My object is to acknowledge and say thanks; but also to make clear that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. I’d also like to entice you further into the hobby as I know that you will enjoy the experience AND will find that involvement is a one way ticket to friendships and associations that will enrich your life as they have enriched mine.

I must start with my father, Howard Hotchner, a Brooklyn boy who began collecting stamps before age ten and never quit. Of his three children I was the only one to catch the disease from him, but I was well and truly hooked early, and benefited for 40 years from his knowledge, encouragement and guidance. In the early years, my enthusiasm for the hobby was matched by that of high school (and beyond) buddy Bob Olds, who through his own enthusiasm stoked my philatelic fires, and remains a dedicated collector to this day.

Several of Dad’s friends were also mentors and friends to me: Jacques Minkus, Ernie Kehr, Elizabeth Denny Vann, Bill Hermann, Herman Neugass, Jan van der Vate, Bill Waldrop, Wes Capar, Bill Littlewood, Bud Petersen, and others now gone, pushed or pulled me along the path. Minkus and his Washington, D.C. staffers Morris and Hilda Flint even gave me a part-time job at the Minkus operation in the Woodward & Lothrop Department Store, just a few blocks from the White House, that lasted several years.

In the local Dolley Madison Stamp Club, those I got to know well over many years included Ray Hall, Margaret Babb, Ralph Walker, Mary Onufrak, Hank Simpson, Charlie Baker, Eric Emsing, Ann Brown, Tom Bristol, Miles Manchester, Gil Corwin, Carl Troy, Marilyn Mattke, Jim Cross, Bill Olcheski, and Harry Wohl, a few of whom are still above the sod, and remain good friends.

When the time came to get deeply into interest areas beyond my father’s, I got to know by mail such people as George Brett, Vernon Bressler, Jack Molesworth, Dick Graham, and Joe Bush. They could have ignored the twerp who asked a lot of what must have seemed to be elementary questions, but they were unfailingly gracious, and the dealers among them spent far more time on my queries than I spent money with them!

Eventually I got knowledgeable enough to trade information and material with others sharing my philatelic persuasions. Among them I would recognize with special fondness Larry Weiss, Frank Pogue, Pete Martin, Dan Pagter, Phil Nazak, Hugh Wynn, Jerry Wagshal, Charles Rudd (from New Zealand), Pip Wilcox, Doug Lehmann, Jim Cotter, Ernie Mosher, Don Evans, John Briggs, Ella Sauer, Lyle Hall, Tom Current, Ray Garrison, Jack Beachboard, Steve Datz, Bruce Mosher, Howard Gates, Bill Hatton, Ray Fehr, Bob Collins, Lou Caprario, Alex Hall, Brian Saxe, Arne Rasmussen (of Denmark), Ernest Malinow (of the UK), and Lou Repeta.

My first expedition into organized philately beyond my local club was in our Virginia State Federation, and there were many who befriended the new kid: Joe Harowitz, Alma Snowa, Jo Bleakley, Rudy Roy, Mike Falls, Darrell Ertzberger, Ed and Fran Rykbos, Leroy and Cora Collins, and last but not least, Don Jones and his wife Mary Ellen, who have become lifelong friends and in doing so went a long way toward convincing my wife Nanette that philately can be a positive despite its stealing time from a marriage.

Speaking of marriage reminds me of children, and my four Rick, Jay, Posey and James each took a turn at the hobby, and dropped it in favor of other activities. But unlike when they begged me to stop smoking, all have been and continue to be supportive of the old man’s obsession with little bits of colored paper.

The Virginia Philatelic Federation led me into exhibiting and then to judging, and it was here that I met and was taken under the wing of the colorful Clyde Jennings who must have despaired at times of my geeky and shy approach to life, but encouraged me to do things I had never dreamed of by telling me repeatedly that I could — and should. Other early mentors and founts of knowledge included Bud Hennig, Bill Bauer, Bud Sellers, Phil Ireland, Gordon Torrey, Charlie Peterson, John Foxworth, Pete Robertson, Bob Odenweller, and George Guzzio.

As I got established in the hobby, I was lucky enough to meet and learn from/work with contemporaries Steven Rod, Randy Neil, Peter McCann, Stan Luft, Jim Lee, Dick Winter, Steve Schumann, Rich Drews, Francis Kiddle (of the UK), Dan and Pat Walker, Steve Luster, Jackie Alton, Jamie Gough, Karol Weyna, Scott Shaulis, Ed Jarvis, Jim Mazepa, Alan Warren, “Connie” Bush, Ted Bahry, Edgar Hicks, Cheryl Ganz, Roland Essig, Steve Suffet, Art Groten, Jack Harwood, Steve Washburne, John Warren, Pat Walters, Joann and Kurt Lenz, Henry Sweets, Eliot Landau, Nick Lombardi, Roger Brody, Phil Stager, Hideo Yokota, Bill Waggoner, Joe Ward, Ann Triggle, Jane Fohn, Nancy Zielinski-Clark, Charles Verge, Phil Rhoade, Abraham Gelber (of Costa Rica), Paolo Comelli (of Brazil), and Jay Jennings (son of Clyde).

And it has been a privilege to get to know some of the rising generation of leaders typified by Tim Bartshe, David McNamee, Liz Hisey, Tony Dewey, Tony Wawrukiewicz, Tom Fortunato, Lloyd de Vries, Larry Fillion, Vesma Grinfelds, Alex Haimann, John Allen, Andy Kupersmit, Mike Lampson, Cemil Betanov, Steve Davis, David McKinney, Dzintars Grinfelds, John Phillips, Rudy de Mordaigle, Don David Price, Tim Hodge, and Dan Piazza.

Randy Neil deserves a special note. The man is a marvel. I was lucky to work with him in founding the American Association of Philatelic Exhibitors, U.S. Stamps & Postal History (the predecessor of USSN), in establishing American Stamp Dealer & Collector magazine, and on a dozen initiatives in APS. No one else in the hobby has been more creative in making it an attractive pastime.

When I first ran for a Director position on the APS Board, it was then Director of Administration Frank Sente with whom I had worked as head of the Chapter Activities Committee who told me to go for it. People not already mentioned that I met during the APS years that have been sources of inspiration include Keith Wagner, Mercer Bristow, George Martin, Bob Lamb, Janet Klug, Steve Reinhard, Dana Guyer, Barb Johnson, Ada Prill, Ray Ireson, Norm Holden, Dorothy Blaney, Cheryl Edgcomb, Ken Martin, Wade Saadi, David Straight, Kitty Wunderly, Ernie Bergman, Gordon Morison, Steve Zwillinger, Joe Cleary, Dave Flood, and Bob Zeigler.

My writing career really began with a go-ahead from Ed Neuce, then editor of Linn’s, but so many wonderful people have been talented editors, supporters and collegial colleagues over the years including Mike Laurence, Ken Lawrence, Dick Graham, Les Winick, Ken Wood, Rob Haeseler, Michael Schreiber, Denise McCarty, Donna Houseman, Fred and Elaine Boughner, Barth Healey, Charlie Yeager, Len Piszkiewicz, George Amick, Jim Czyl, Allison Cusick, Fred Baumann, Michael Baadke, Wayne Youngblood , Joe Brockert, John and Elaine Dunn, Dan Barber, Dane Claussen, Dick Sine, Jay Bigalke, and Brian Baur.

Other organizations and other people played a role in my philatelic life, be it as elder mentors and guides, and/or colleagues on projects to push the philatelic boulder up the mountain a few more inches. Among them are Bill Schumann, Jacques C. Schiff, Jr., Jim McDevitt, Mike Bush, Robert Morgan, Michael Dixon, Harry Chamberlain, Elmer Cleary, Ralph Nafziger, Tom Breske, Doug Quine, David Beeby, George Godin, Jerry Kasper, Howard Petschel, Dennis Clark, Gene Zhiss, Stan Kenison, Hal Griffin, Al Kugel, Wilson Hulme, John Cali, Ed Dykstra, Carl Burnett, Jay and Denise Stotts, Steve Turchik, Jim Lee, Jack Williams, Kay Don Kahler, Gary DuBro, and Tony Crumbley.

To think that I might have missed meeting the great majority of these people if I’d remained a “closet collector!” And this is not a complete list. I have undoubtedly left out people who should be mentioned, but faulty memory and lack of space don’t permit a comprehensive list.

Also, among those named, many could be mentioned in several categories. Again, I simply want to convey the breadth of influences on my philatelic life, and by doing so illustrate how by allowing ourselves the freedom to get involved, we can enrich our lives in undreamed of ways.

Hotchner: The Last 60 Years

A Review of the Last 60 Years
by John M. Hotchner

“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” according to the old wise man. But as I think back over my 60+ years in the hobby, where we have come from and the changes I have seen, I don’t think this old saw is true of philately. I’d like to do a little free association here, and list ten changes I am pleased with and ten I am not so happy about. In other words, things that help the hobby, and things that in my view are not positives. First the positive changes, in no special order:

scottcat1. Improvements in the Scott Catalogue (addition of color, new features in the Specialized, release of the 1840-1940 Classic Specialized, increasing the scope of listings in all catalogs, efforts to have prices mirror the market). Catalogs are the bedrock of the hobby. The more complete, accurate and attractive they are, the easier it is to collect.

2. The increase in the range of subjects on U.S. stamps since the Presidentials of my youth. Of course this can be and sometimes is a mixed blessing, but in general, the more the nation’s stamps relate to the lives and passions of the people who collect them or might collect them, the better. Development of regular multicolor printing has made the stamps more attractive as well.

3. Continuing and growing interest in the usages of stamps on cover. Not only does this speak to why the stamps were issued, but it also expands the hobby in a way that is limitless as one stamp can be used in many ways, to many destinations, with many different interesting cancellations, and more.

4. Philatelic exhibiting has gone from showing mainly expensive stamps in a stamp- or set-focused presentation, to an undreamed of inclusiveness that encompasses postal history, topical/thematic collecting, illustrated mail (think of FDCs and other cachets), the development of aeronautics and astronautics as shown by covers, Cinderella material, post cards, and even exhibits that include non-philatelic memorabilia that supplements it.

5. In parallel with #4, constantly increasing quality, consistency and accountability in philatelic judging, that puts more emphasis on the story being told and illustrated by the stamps and covers, and less on the raw dollar signs associated with the material in the exhibit. Together, numbers 4 and 5 bring exhibiting within the range and ability of many more stamp and cover collectors, and computers have made it far easier to do exhibits, too.

6. The rise of the Internet while a bit of a mixed blessing makes philatelic information and access to the hobby’s formal infrastructure far more available to both collectors and potential collectors.

7. The rise in the number of philatelic specialty organizations has promoted inquiry into, and collecting of, smaller slices of the philatelic pie that used to be mostly ignored. The result has been publishing and wider dissemination of information about previously unknown and uncared for material, making the hobby much more attractive to a wider range of collectors.

npmexterior8. The establishment of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., which has brought a focus to the importance of stamps and the U.S. mails in the development of the United States. The expansion of the Museum due to its director Allen Kane and his deputy, Cheryl Ganz, will give all collectors in the U.S a home in the Smithsonian system, and center of excellence to be proud of in showing their families the importance of philately.

9. A growing realization on the part of many in the hobby’s organizations, especially the American Philatelic Society, that more than children and Caucasian men aged 50 and beyond should be targeted with the good news of philately — its ability to generate enthusiasm and enjoyment, and its collateral benefits in learning, reducing blood pressure, and meeting and sharing the hobby with new friends. This has led to productive outreach efforts and there will be more.

10. The inevitable rise in the number of direct buy and sell systems on the Internet, and the presence of dealers and auctioneers who are learning to use new technology to grow their businesses and to fill the needs of increasingly computer-literate generations of collectors.

All right. On to the less-happy changes:

1. The inability of the trade to replicate Denison hinges.

2. Steep price rises in the cost of some of the basics of collecting: catalogs, albums, yearly supplements.

3. Decrease in the number of worldwide collectors, and even total-country collectors, in favor of topical collectors. I’ll happily accept new collectors in the hobby however they start, but those who start with a more limited vision of their challenge may not ever gain a full appreciation of the breadth and depth of the hobby.

4. The rise of the Internet has had an unfortunate effect in luring collectors away from philatelic publications and the clubs and societies that are responsible for so much of the positive activity upon which the hobby is built. Why should they pay dues or subscription fees when so much is freely available? But deeper engagement with the hobby’s activists and scholars is a desirable end, and it can’t be done as a lone wolf. Nor does that status help to build the hobby’s institutions, which is done mostly by volunteers who get involved.

5. The inclusion and then exclusion of European post-WW II Allied Military Government (AMG) issues from the Scott U.S. Specialized, and Scott standing fast these days on refusing to bring them back into the Catalogue.

6. The decreasing presence of U.S. history and non-arts, non-sports Americans of note on U.S. new issues.

7. An increase in condition standards such that too many look down their noses at anything less than 100% perfection in original gum, centering, lightness of cancel, etc. I have no difficulty with such condition elements being appreciated, but much difficulty with those who proclaim that all else is trash.

8. The over-planning and -organizing of young peoples’ lives leaving no time for free-form activities such as stamp collecting, because planned activities leave parents free to work or pursue their own activities, and because stamp collecting is not thought to contribute to future success in getting into the right school.

9. The rise of toys giving immediate gratification (from hundreds of TV channels, to video games, to handheld electronics) that crowd out activities like stamp collecting that teach slow but steady progress toward long-term goals.

10. The U.S. Postal Service’s short sighted judgment in cancelling the Benjamin Franklin Stamp Clubs in the early ‘90s because the expense in running a program aimed at young kids could not be justified by short-term stamp sales; never mind that the BFSC program represented an investment in longer-term health of the hobby, and with it stamp sales in the future.

You will have noticed that some of the positives and negatives are different sides of the same coin. Change is complicated, and frequently, though it responds to external conditions, the need for change is not always appreciated by those it most affects. Thus, it often is painful if only in the requirement that we suspend old assumptions. What I think is a tragedy is the reaction of some in throwing in their chips and leaving the hobby because they want things to stay the same. Our world is dynamic, so that won’t happen. So, as with all other areas of life, we must learn to adapt as best we can.

I know my lists are not going to match up exactly with yours. If you would like to add your pluses and minus to the above, post them in the comments area here.


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.

Is the Hobby Viable? Some Warning Signs

By John M. Hotchner

hotchnerI scanned with trepidation an article in Bottom Line Personal (March 15, 2012) titled “Buyer Beware: 10 Collectibles Not Worth Collecting Anymore” by Terry Kovel. Happily, stamps were not included in the list, but there were some surprises, and some object lessons for our hobby.

Among the ten are “Hummel figurines,” “anything made by the Franklin Mint,” “Limited edition Barbie dolls,” “Thomas Kinkade paintings and prints,” and “Autographed sports memorabilia.” Explanations given by Ms. Kovel of why she chose these items provide some tips for us in philately.

She says that the generation that appreciated Hummels is now downsizing or dying off, dumping Hummels back onto the market by the thousands. With few exceptions, most have dropped from hundreds of dollars apiece to less than $100.

Could we see this happen in philately? Yes, indeed, if we do not work to recruit the next generation to stamp collecting and encourage them until they catch the fever as serious collectors. We seem to be doing all right with this if serious auction prices are a guide, but it would be a mistake to leave it to chance in the future. Every generation needs to recommit itself to bringing aboard the next; not just so that our stash retains its value but also because we have a wonderful hobby to share.

Ms. Kovel notes regarding the Franklin Mint that they “sell a wide selection of ‘limited edition’ coins, plates, medals, and other collectibles, but there is little resale market for any of it.” Happily she did not mention commemorative covers, which along with the other material have been packaged with descriptive information and hawked as products with historical significance.

There are other parallels in stamp collecting — fancy first day covers, gold-leaf reproductions of U.S. stamps, subject collections of specialized commemorative cancels celebrating something like Norman Rockwell. This sort of stuff is usually bought by novice collectors with an interest in stamps. The purveyors are careful not to say explicitly that their products have investment potential, but that is implied.

But Ms. Kovel is right, it is not unusual to see those covers selling for 5¢ on the dollar ‘invested’ in the aftermarket. This emphasizes the fact that collectors who approach the hobby as investors are often disappointed. Bad enough that they get burned, but they or their heirs will badmouth the hobby forever after their unfortunate discovery. Thus, we should not be “selling” the hobby for its investment potential, but for its joys as a pastime in everyday living.

Limited edition Barbie dolls were sold as toys, but were toys in name only. Ms. Kovel explains that “most were never played with, just set aside as investments, so they never became any rarer.” The company selling them “issued so many different limited-edition Barbies that few collectors could collect them all, and most stopped trying.”

Early very limited editions still have value, but as time passed and more buyers entered the market, more Barbies were released in larger numbers. Think about the growing boom market in the early stamps of the United Nations, Vatican City and Israel. Though after the very first issues, some were indeed used on mail, the great majority were snapped up by collectors as investments, and were never scarce. As new collectors came into the market (believing the hype about these areas having value potential) and started buying older issues, investors began to ‘dump’ their holdings.

It rapidly became apparent that there were more stamps available than buyers for them, and the bottom dropped out of those markets. The lesson: Beware of new flash-in-the-pan collecting areas. If investing is your game, older, high-quality stamps with established value are a far better bet.

Ms. Kovel’s article was written before his untimely passing in April, 2012, but she reports that Thomas Kinkade paintings and prints were heavily promoted, and sold in huge quantities in the 1990s, and now have “very limited” resale value. Because of his passing and attendant publicity, there is now a boomlet, but over time, I think we will see the market return to Ms. Kovel’s reported level.

It isn’t that the art has no merit. Rather, anything that becomes an instant hit through marketing can also become an instant dud when the hype passes and a new product takes its place in popular culture.

Finally, we have autographed sports memorabilia, which Ms. Kovel reports has declined sharply as it has become clear that many of the autographs are forgeries, and it is difficult to tell the good from the bad.

Like some elements of stamp collecting, proof of authenticity is required from an expertising service for the article to be salable. We are blessed in philately with several very good expertising committees that are able to render authoritative opinions in the vast majority of cases. Thus, happily in the case of autographed sports memorabilia, as with others the problem which has sunk a collectible has affected only a small portion of the broad stamp and cover collecting hobby. Still, the cumulative effects can be a concern, and we who are practitioners and guardians of our hobby need to be watchful.

Are we recruiting? Are we providing information to help newbies make good collecting decisions? Are we gently discouraging fads (recognizing that everyone should ultimately be free to make their own decisions, based upon their interests and pocket book, about what to collect) and refusing to be taken in by excessive hype? Are we collecting for the joy of the hobby, avoiding using stamp collecting as a get-rich-quick scheme? Finally, are we careful to assure that what we buy is genuine?

If we can answer yes to each of these questions, then stamp collecting will not be a subject of future iterations of Ms. Kovel’s article.


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.

Or comment right here.