Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are Stamps Stuff?

One of my favorite quotes about collecting is that it is "an obsession organized." Some of you may know about a new book titled Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Dr. Randy Frost and Dr. Gail Steketee. While the book focuses on compulsive hoarding, the chapter "We are what we own: Owning, Collecting, and Hoarding" does have some interesting bits relevant to stamp collecting.

So, why do we collect? It may be instinctual or cultural or both. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm "suggested that acquiring things is one way that people relate to the world around them." But regardless of the motivation, collectors exist in practically every culture.

What constitutes a collection? Collections must contain multiple objects and "the items must be related in some way--they must have some kind of cohesive theme." Even that doesn't get completely encompass the essence of collecting. To riff on one of the author's analogies, a handful of stamps in your desk drawer intended for postage doesn't constitute a collection. But put them in an Blue International Volume 1 and voila.

In our country alone, perhaps one third of adults collect something. But collecting is practically universal among children, "sometimes beginning as early as age three. Not coincidentally, it is at that time that children begin to understand possessive pronouns such as 'mine' and 'yours.'"

In what reminded me of the K├╝bler-Ross 5 steps of grieving, some scholars find collectors follow a typical pattern:

1) deciding what items to collect;
2) planning how to acquire the item(s);
3) fantasizing about the item(s);
4) hunting for the item(s);
5) cataloging new acquisition(s); and
6) displaying them.

The authors provide some interesting insights on these steps. During the planning stages, "the fantasies increase the object's subjective value and give it a magical quality, and soon the value of the object outstrips and becomes disconnected from any functional utility it may have. Next comes the hunt, frequently the most pleasurable part of collecting. Many collectors shift from a self-focused state to what some have described as a 'flow state,' a mental state in which the person is so absorbed in the activity that he or she is unaware of his or her surrounds."

"When the acquisition occurs, it is accompanied by a wave of euphoria and appreciation of the object's features, which become part of the 'story' of the acquisition. Finally, the excited collector catalogs the object and adds it to the collection, arranging for its display. Often subtle rituals accompany newly acquired objects. For instance, Freud used to place new acquisitions on his dining room table so that he could admire them while he ate." I, myself, about as normal a person as you will find who writes a blog on filling spaces in a Blue International Album, has been known to leaf purposely through specific pages in my album to admire the "Penny Black" and other stamps I have looked forward to acquiring.

Some scholars believe that "collecting is a way of managing fears about death by creating a form of immortality" whereby our collections "can live on after we die." Others suggest a compensation theory is at work where "people who question their self-worth" need the objects in their collection to boost self-esteem.

If all of this has you worried about whether stamp collecting is pathological, the authors offer this reassurance: "It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn't interfere with his or her health or happiness or that of others." Well, that's a relief.

UPDATE 8/20/10: Normally, Lawrence Block's "Generally Speaking" column in Linn's consists of topics that I wish I had thought of first, even if I could never treat them as well as he does. But his column in the 23 August 2010 Linn's titled "Philately and the 'H' Word" is about hoarding--the topic of this blog entry. Of course, he brings in some aspects that I had never considered, namely do you do any of these:

1) save stamps that you receive in the mail without intending to add them to your collection?
2) save the glassines that you receive stamps in from others?
3) save stock cards that you receive stamps in from others?
4) save auction catalogs or pricelists?
4) save old stamp catalogs?
5) save back issues of stamp periodicals?

I have to plead guilty to all but the last two. I only keep catalogs that I use in my collecting and every month or two I tear out the articles I'm interested in from newspapers, newsletters, and magazines and recycle the rest. So there may be hope for me yet.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

APS Circuits

[This post is really part 2 of "Some Preliminary Observations on the Cost of Building a Volume I Collection" that appeared earlier this month.]

I'm currently building my collection largely through American Philatelic Society Sales Circuits. I've subscribed to these several times in the past with previous collections, and know they can be a good way of acquiring stamps at a reasonable percentage of catalog value.

If you aren't familiar with circuits, the APS website provides a succinct overview: The Sales Division acts as an agent for members who wish to sell some of their philatelic material using blank sales books (see below for a page from one of these books). The 42,000 sales books generate more than $1.8 million in sales annually. Books are divided into 165+ categories. "Items priced from one cent to $1,000 -- Majority in $1 to $40 range."

Typically, one receives 3-4 mailings (circuits) in each category during a given year. Circuits typically contain ten sales books each. You keep the circuits for up to 1 week before forwarding to the next person on the list.

I subscribed to six categories a couple of months ago: US Cut Squares, British Pre-Elizabeth, France & Colonies, Global 1840-1940, Italian Colonies, and Portuguese Colonies. (I've just added China.) I chose Cut Squares because this is the weakest US area in my album. Obviously, Global 1840-1940 and Pre-Elizabeth British were added because they match (more or less) the years contained in the Volume 1. France, Italy, and Portugal were selected more for hoping to add to my holdings of their colonies than for the mother country.

Here is a sample page from a recent World 1840-1940 circuit. (Not shown here is that when you buy an item, you use a personalized rubber stamp to mark the now empty space.)

My thought is that I would subscribe to a category for a year or two and when I'm not finding many new stamps to purchase, I will cancel and move on to another.

One thing I particularly like about the circuits is that they encourage you to spend more time studying the stamps. For example, I found that it wasn't obvious where some of the overprinted 19th Cuba stamps in a Circuit book belonged in my Blue, so I took the time to fire up the Scott Catalog (on my iPad!) and write in the numbers for each space in my album. This is something I rarely made the effort to do when I was adding hundreds of stamps at one time from an eBay album purchase. I generally add catalog numbers for at least a couple of countries per Circuit.

You could compare buying albums versus sales circuits to flying in an airplane versus a car trip. The plane takes you to your destination faster but you don't have nearly as good a feel for the journey. And I think every stamp collector would agree that it is the journey rather than the destination that matters to us.

Another bonus benefit is the chance to examine interesting stamps that you might normally not see up close. For example, there have been three of the Cape of Good Hope triangles, even though none of them were inexpensive enough for me to take the plunge. I was sorely tempted by a Suez Canal Company 1868 Blue Local. But these locals aren't in the Blue International so I gave it a by.

So far, the sales circuits are meeting my expectation. As you can see from the table below, I've been able to pick up stamps at no more than 1/3 catalog. Admittedly, this is somewhat skewed because I have control over what I purchase and can always pad my purchases with a few high catalog items that are listed as a fraction of catalog value, usually because of minor faults. So, for example, I picked up a F-VF appearing Great Britain, Scott #96, for $7, catalog $140, because it had a minor hinge thin on the back.

So far I've received circuits in four of the seven categories, one of them twice. Here's a summary of my purchases.

# of stamps
Cat Value
Purchase Price
% of Cat
Avg cost per stamp
World 1840-1940
France & Colonies
Portugal & Colonies
Pre-Elizabethan British

For this group, I paid an average of 79 cents a stamp or 26% of 2007 Scott catalog value.

A goal I've set for myself is to add 2000 stamps a year for the next few years. It will be interesting to see if I can keep this up through APS circuits alone. I would like to bring the cost down though or these 2000 stamps will run me about $1500 annually. Maybe buying another big album wouldn't be such a bad deal! But then there's a big difference in spending this figure over twelve months as opposed to in one fell swoop.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More on the Cost of Building a Volume I Collection

You may have heard about the recent craze where (mostly) teenage girls upload "Haul" videos of their fashion purchases to YouTube and similar venues. Surely it is just a matter of time before stamp collectors start to do the same. Well, maybe not.

Over the past 6 weeks, I've added about 500 stamps to my Blue. My collection is now large enough that buying large albums is getting to be prohibitive, so I've begun to search for other cost effective and efficient ways to fill in the remaining spaces. One possibility is to look for sellers who have broken up an International, Minkus Global or comparable album into individual countries. Another is American Philatelic Society Circuit Salesbooks. I'm currently exploring both.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the cost of acquisition of each of these methods, recognizing that my experiences so far may be so limited as to be misleading. But I'll keep records and refine this over the coming years.

Vis-a-vis the first option, there were perhaps three dozen countries from a Blue offered recently on eBay. I managed to win 11 of these. Now a prudent collector in deciding what to bid would no doubt have guesstimated the approximate catalog value of the stamps that weren't in his or her album. But I couldn't get enthusiastic about the time required to do that, knowing that I wouldn't win everything I bid on. Instead, I did a rough count of the number of stamps shown in the eBay images that were missing from my album and based my bid on that. So how did I do? I spent $181.11 to add 489 stamps, paying 35% of catalog or 42 cents per stamp.

In the following table (also known as a Haul Matrix), 'Cost' is what I paid on eBay. 'Catalog' is the 2007 Scott Catalog value of the stamps I actually added to my album. 'Avg' is the average cost per stamp I added. '% Cat' is the percentage of the 2007 catalog value I paid. '# to Sell' are the stamps I didn't need for my Blue.

Country Cost CatalogAvg% Cat# to Sell
Allenstein $12.05 $45.75 $0.46 26%4
Argentina $13.00 $40.00 $0.35 33%131
Cameroun $7.55 $35.55 $0.20 21%27
Dahomey $10.50 $35.80 $0.29 29%18
Ivory Coast $14.50 $26.50 $0.44 55%18
Lebanon $7.01 $28.20 $0.18 25%20
Lithuania $20.50 $43.95 $0.26 47%32
Middle Congo $28.12 $57.85 $0.54 49%39
New Caledonia $7.83 $35.05 $0.20 22%26
St. Pierre & Miquelon $22.05 $52.56 $0.31 47%34
St. Thomas & Prince $19.00 $64.00 $0.90 30%34
Tripolitania $19.00 $64.00 $0.90 30%17
$181.11 $529.21 $0.42 35%400

Looks like I overbid on the Ivory Coast and probably Lithuania, Middle Congo, and St. Pierre & Miquelon. Ah well.

How does the cost of acquisition for these individual countries compare to buying entire albums? I don't know the catalog value of the stamps in the albums I've purchased, but I do know my cost figures to 8 cents or so a stamp. So my brief foray with buying individual countries has so far come out to more than five times that of buying entire albums. That doesn't sound good. However, my actual cost will drop some as I'm preparing to sell the stamps I don't need through the APS. I have 400 stamps to sell and assuming I can get as much as $100 total when all is said and done, that will drop my actual cost per stamp from individual country pages down closer to twice what I've been paying for stamps from the whole albums. That sounds better.

Next week I'll post my early experience with buying stamps from the APS Sales Circuits.