Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Much Does It Cost to Collect the World, 1840-1940?

There are two statistical questions that I have been interested in since beginning to collect the first century of philately. The first asks: how many stamps were issued between 1840-1940? That one has been answered well enough for my satisfaction. (There are approximately 80,000 major varieties. For more details, search this blog using the two words "how many.")

The second question is: how much does it cost to collect the first hundred years of philately? Or more precisely, what I'm really interested in is how many stamps from this era are affordable.

I have cited in an earlier blog post Michel Bégin's cost analysis. But Bégin's work was limited to only a couple of dozen countries. I have recently learned that Sandy R. Stover undertook a more complete study which was published in 2006.* Rather than attempt to add up the value of every stamp in the catalog, Mr. Stover used statistical sampling for stamps cataloging less than $1000. (For stamps above $1000, which otherwise might have skewered the results, he identified individual stamps.) His initial calculations used the Scott Classic Catalogue for 2000, which he updated five years later for his article.

To briefly summarize Mr. Stover's study, he estimates there were in the neighborhood of 82,000 stamps issued between 1840 and 1940. Of these, 50 percent catalog less than $1.50, 77 per cent less than $10, 92 per cent less than $100, and 99 percent less than $1000 per stamp. However, if you wanted one copy of every major number in the Scott Catalog, you are looking at approximately $22.5 million American dollars (with the understanding that many rare stamps do not have values in the Scott catalog if there is insufficient market information available).

Along this line, Mr. Stover analyzed the affordability of collecting Classic Era stamps of individual countries. The United States had by far the largest number of stamps valued at $1000 and above: 341. The US was followed by Italian States/Italy German States/Germany, Great Britain, France, and, surprisingly to me, Mexico. A total of one hundred and ninety stamp issuing entities had at least one stamp cataloging $1000 and above. One hundred and forty one had none!

Mr. Stover enlivens his statistics with a number of interesting comments. For example, although it is heartening that 92% of Classic Era stamps catalog at under $100, he notes that this still comes to an aggregate catalog value of $540,000. While obviously, one would be paying only a percentage of the catalog value, even half of a half a million dollars is no small sum for most of us, even if amortized over decades of collecting.

But those of us using the Blue can take satisfaction that our total cost will be rather less than $540,000. How much less is unclear, but I suspect we are talking about a current catalog value for a Blue Volume One falling in the very low six figures.

*Stover, Sandy R. "Surveying the Classics: Questions of Value." The Circuit: The Official Journal of the International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors, July/August 2006, pp 6, 9; September/October 2006, pp 6-7, 9.


Jim said...

Great topic.

Full- or mostly full- Big Blue's appear to sell for $10,000- $20,000 recently. Still too rich for my blood, so piecemeal accumulation will have to do. ;-)

If the CV for a album is in the neighborhood of $100,000, then one would obtain 10-20% of CV as a seller.

The piecemeal approach- fun as it is- will probably be a loser when it comes time for selling.

There is a reason I consider this a hobby- one really gets paid in hours of fun. ;-)

DrewM said...

Very interesting.

Here's a few thoughts: If 92% of Classic Era stamps are $100 or less, and if that produces about $500K for the 92%, that's awfully daunting. In fact, it would be impossible for nearly all collectors to ever come close to finishing a Classic Era collection. 100% would be impossible. But I imagine most people already knew this!

But it really is a very different picture if we use the 77% figure (stamps cataloguing $10 or less). Eliminating the 15% of the more expensive stamps would save somewhere around 90% of the total $500K. That means -- if I have this correct -- that a collector could purchase about 3/4 of Classic Era stamps for a great deal less, somewhere around $50K, more or less. That's catalogue value, so it would cost far less in actual purchase price.

And if you go one more step and consider that the Big Blue omits nearly all the more expensive stamps, the cost to fill it would be a good deal less. So it's not at all unrealistic that you might be able to collect most -- perhaps nearly all -- stamps in the Big Blue for a few tens of thousands of dollars, a lot less if you bought used collections. Spread over a decade or more, it's doable for a lot of people to fill most of a Big Blue without breaking the bank too badly.

Someone check my numbers (guesses?), though.

Houghton Grandmal said...

Piecemeal probably triples the percent of cv that one has to pay. For one thing, you end up with a lot of duplicates, for another, you have shipping and handling costs, which rise proportionately with the smallness of the piecemealing.

So, while it's possible to find a lot of the less expensive stamps on EBay etc. for 20-25% or so of cv stamps from some countries and the more difficult to find items across the board are going for 40-50% plus s/h.

Yes, the fun. I'll concede the fun-factor.

Buying two half-filled Big Blues might seem to be a good compromise, but the percentage of dups will be higher than if one bought one half-full BB then focused on purchasing at 35-40% of cv to fill in the gaps. If one were able to find two half-full BBs whose gaps complemented each other, now that might be the most efficient way--well, 2nd most efficient. The most efficient would be to shell out $12000 for the Harmer-Schau nearly complete BB right now.

But that'd be no fun.

Mason said...

In relation to what Houghton writes about piecemeal vs whole - I think a lot of sellers(like me) struggle with the question should I break things up into smaller parts, because that's really how people collect - i.e. they need this or that, but not a lot of duplicates etc. or if I just put everything in a box and hope it gets a lot of eyes on it.

Seems like when I'm in buying mode(I'm in the process of "filling" up old Brown albums 1840-1920 that I inherited) - the best deals are medium size lots coming from sellers who are relatively new to ebay.

In any case, my eye twitches to think of what it would cost to fill "just" the 19th century brown album...

Mike said...

Hi. Great blog. Learning a lot. But I have a question...

I understand that the Big Blue was meant to allow the collector to focus on affordable stamps and so it keeps the more expensive varieties out of the album. No problem. My question concerns the Scott Specialty albums.

If I was to, say, decide on collecting Austria and purchase the Scott Specialty album for that country, would I see the same lack of spaces for the classic period like in the Big Blue? Is that section of the album just a copy? Or are the Specialty albums more complete, following it Scott number by Scott number?

Thanks for your input and a very informative blog.


Bob said...

Mike, according to an article by Albert Ewell, Jr on the Scott Specialty Albums, "the same plates--borders, stamp arrangements, all the rest --that had been used to print the [Brown] Internationals were used for printing the specialties." I don't think this is totally accurate. While there are many similarities between the Browns and the Specialties, there was still considerable rearrangement of pages, changes in the row headings, and the addition of Scott numbers.

But the bottom line is that the Specialty albums were intended to be as comprehensive as the Browns and provide a space for every major Scott number.

You can get an idea of the coverage of many of the Specialty albums as these are what iare largely used by the two major worldwide collections available online: for example,


My understanding from what others have written is that the Steiner pages are even more comprehensive for some countries than the Specialty albums. Jim's Big Blue blog is cataloging these differences as he compares the Blue, the Brown (a la Virtual Reproductions) and Steiner.

Hope this helps.

Keijo said...

Interesting topic, and I have to say that I've thought of it too (though only in much wider 1840-2010 scale).

I've come to think this a bit differently, as I collect by a somewhat fixed and limited annual budget. This way I know pretty accurately what the total cost of my collecting has been so far, and I can somewhat accurately project what it will be in the future. Long story short, I've come to an assumption that during my lifetime I'll likely spend somewhere around 21,000€ worth in stamps. So for me the interesting question is how far can I go within this budget?

And this is where the differences between collectors, acquisition channels etc. start to show up. For my collection the average cost per stamp is currently only €0.04. But I notice that for Bob it's as high as

I'll admit that likely the cost per stamp will go only upwards as the collections mature and become better. But considering the small percentage of higher value stamps, it should only happen when you reach high completion levels (say 50-60,000 different classic era stamps, or if collecting everything like me, somewhere closer to 500K items).

Just some thoughts.

James said...

My experience is somewhat limited compared to those who have commented so far. But I've been struck that once you get beyond the most common material for a particular country or region, especially for the period before 1940, its very hard to go much below about 20 cents a stamp even in buying scores at a time on country pages. This seems especially the case for the British and French colonies, the more obscure countries, semi-postals, airmails, etc. One of the reasons I decided to go up to about 1960 is that it increases the range of less expensive but still interesting stamps to find. I hate to think, though, of how much it would cost to fill my entire Minkus Supreme Global--as Bob showed in an early post, the first page of Great Britain alone catalogues many thousands of pounds, and the corresponding US page is even worse. But I don't really mind, as it's fun to see my inexpensive 'finds' in the context of at least some of the great classics.

Bob said...

James, et al, thanks for everybody's comments. I'm pondering all of this and will post some more on this topic in the future.