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.

5 thoughts on “Hotchner: Cataloguing The Collectors

  1. I recently purchased an old stamp collection at a sale and know nothing about their worth. There are at least 20 albums, catalogued, that I’d like to sell but want to know if dealers are really the best resource for appraising their value, if any.

  2. You missed me in your describtions above ——The guy who buys for entertainment ,I make my money elsewhere ,but I purchase to add to my worldwide collection . I come to the show or bourse with a open checkbook and a pocket full of cash . I breeze past most dealers because their prices are not in line with what stuff sells for at auctions or ebay . Most dealers who are told I am a WORLDWIDE collector try to sell me picked over collections or bags of junk stamps ………at this point in life I don’t need bottom feeder material ,show me something exciting and well done and researched . Usually I just move on and spend nothing

  3. Pingback: Hotchner: Cataloguing The Collectors, Part II | virtualstampclub.com

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