Wednesday, September 28, 2011

APS Circuits

I started receiving APS Circuit books in May 2010. While I always knew I would eventually want to do this, the immediate motivation was the scarcity of large worldwide albums on eBay, a situation that has gotten even worse this year. (The albums housing even ten thousand stamps are few, and the only larger albums I've seen lately have borne ridiculously high price tags--there is one now on eBay with an ask price of $29,999 which might have 15,000 stamps, probably fewer.)

Now after examining some 300 sales books, I thought it was appropriate to report whether these are a useful way for the Volume One collector to build his or her collection. (I originally posted some of this on

In case you aren't familiar with the circuits, the American Philatelic Society operates a Sales Division for its members which, according to the APS website, circulates some 42,000 sales books with close to $2 million in sales each year. A typical sales book contains 16 pages with 12 spaces per page. Members of the APS purchase blank sales books in which to mount the stamps they wish to sell. Cost of each stamp is set by the individual seller and can range from a few pennies to a $1,000. The APS encourages sellers to price their stamps reasonably for quick sale (but see below!).

The stamps mounted in each book are supposed to correspond to one of 165 or so categories, categories being countries, areas, or topicals. The greatest specialization is, of course, within U.S. stamps: for example, there are separate circuits for U.S. General, U.S. Fancy Cancels, U.S. Revenues, etc. Because of the popularity of the British Empire, there are also a fair amount of categories here, such as British Atlantic Islands and Australia States. In addition to individual countries, there are also more generic categories, such as Southeast Asia and Southern Europe.

APS members who wish to buy inform the Society which categories they wish to receive. The APS keeps track of who wants what and assembles circuits of ten or so books from different sellers which are sent round robin to up to 10 members who live in roughly the same geographical region. Each member has one week to decide what they want before forwarding the circuit to the next member on the list. Once the last person on the circuit returns the books to the APS mothership, another circuit is sent out and the process starts all over again.

So, to begin with, are there any categories specifically tailored to 1840-1940 collectors? Yes, a few: US 19th Century, British Empire-Victorian Era, British Pre-Elizabethan, Great Britain 19th Century, Europe (1840-1940), France 19th-Century, Germany Pre-1945, and Global (1840-1940). But, of course, there are many other single country and area choices that will contain stamps from the first 100 years of philately.

Because I collect the world 1840-1940, there are far more circuits of potential interest than I can cope with. So I tend to subscribe to some circuits for a year or two and then switch to something else for awhile. So far, at least, the APS staff have been very accommodating.

I have received 31 circuits in the past 15 months or 300+ individual books. From these I've purchased a total of 857 stamps at a cost of $692.88 which works out to about 81 cents a stamp. What is missing, of course, is how that compares to the catalog value. The majority of what I am currently buying are inexpensive stamps, i.e., under $5, and these probably average out to 40% of Scott catalog. (It usually works out a little better than this as the seller may be using a Scott catalog that is a couple of years old.)

But I have bought some more expensive stamps--perhaps a hundred--and these have typically been at a fraction of catalog value because of defects invisible from the front, usually small thins or, my favorite, "no gum, priced as used." I only kept a record of the catalog value of the first four circuits I received, but these worked out to almost $600 catalog value for a little over $100 or 17%.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of the circuits (the fact that there are more disadvantages doesn't mean I think the disadvantages outweigh the advantages--the opposite is the case):

--Prices are generally pretty good, certainly better than most dealer's prices for individual stamps. Fine to Very Fine appearing expensive stamps with defects invisible from the front can be real bargains.

--You can verify the condition of stamps on the spot.

--Most stamps are priced individually allowing one to fill in short sets (although, of course, you will find complete sets offered which are either bargains or frustrations depending upon whether you already own some of the stamps).

--You can drool at your leisure over rare or expensive stamps that you might not otherwise see in person, even if you can't afford to buy them.


--If you subscribe to many circuits, especially those that have only a few other members on the circuit, you will simultaneously receive multiple mailings on occasion. My record is 5 within 3 weeks. Contrarily, the more popular the circuit, the longer it takes to make the rounds. I tend to receive circuits more often as there are only 4 or 5 of us on several of my circuits. By the way, if you know you are going on vacation, the APS can arrange for you to be skipped.

--Because I receive a lot of "general" circuits with multiple countries, I too often encounter sellers who make little effort to mount countries in alphabetical order or stamps within a country in order by catalog number. For a worldwide collector, this can be really irritating and I've cancelled two circuits that just were more trouble than they were worth. I don't mean this to be a tirade against a few mistakes but I saw one book where literally every page was random.

--It typically costs $5-$7 to mail circuits to the next recipient plus a 5% buyer fee. I still think I come out ahead as I would in any case be paying postage and perhaps tax when purchasing a similar quantity of stamps by other means.

--While most sellers price their stamps at no more than 50% or so of catalog, you will find a few books priced at less and sometimes rather more. You have to wonder why the latter bothered to take the time.

The APS has started sending a single mailing of selected circuits to members. I have requested these on a couple of occasions for countries that I don't normally see in my other circuits. So if you are "on the fence," watch the APS Journal for what is available. The APS has also started offering the possibility of purchasing complete "clearance" books, but I haven't tried this yet.

For more expensive stamps that look to be a bargain, I suggest checking out the same stamps in the APS store. For example, I was considering buying one of the Cape of Good Hope triangles recently from a sales book only to find a slightly better copy of the same stamp for $10 less on the APS store site.

The bottom line is I really think this is one of the best services offered by the APS.