Rinker on Collectibles: A Look at the Future of Stamp Collecting
Having heard numerous rumors that stamp collecting—like many other traditional collecting categories—is in decline, Harry Rinker decided to see for himself at the American Philatelic Society’s 129th Convention and Exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich., last month.
The American Philatelic Society held its 129th Convention and Exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich., last month from Aug. 20-23, 2015. Since I live in Kentwood—adjacent to Grand Rapids—and as a member of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) and the press, I was invited to attend several of the events associated with the convention.
Having heard numerous rumors that stamp collecting—like many other traditional collecting categories—is in decline, I decided to see for myself. I went with an open mind, albeit after reading what follows, I suspect, I will be accused of extreme prejudice from the start.
The good news is that there always will be stamp collectors. There are several reasons. First, the high-end of the stamp market is investment driven. High-end stamps are commodities, objects bought and sold among the wealthy elite with focus on long-term value increase and not the fun and joy of collecting. Stamp collectors have identified the masterpiece/ultimate units and upper echelon stamps. Investor/speculators, willing to believe auction and stamp media hype, compete to own them. The funds required to “collect” in this stratosphere are outside the pocketbook of more than 99.9 percent of collectors. The closest these collectors will ever come to seeing one of these stamps is at a postal museum or special exhibition.
Second, stamp collecting is global. America is not the world’s leader. China and Germany, although signs of decline are evident in this country as well, are ahead of the United States. In terms of the growth of stamp collecting among the general population, China is the exception.
Third, many collectors of stamps are not members of the traditional stamp collecting community. These closet collectors are more fun-focused than the traditionalist collectors. They connect via the Internet, although the connection is tenuous. They are the individuals who still cut stamps from envelopes because they love a stamp’s subject matter. These closet collectors do not care if the stamp is canceled or slightly damaged. Owning an example is far more important than owning a mint, never used pane (sheet), plate block, first day cover or individual stamp. They use their fingers and not a tweezers to touch stamps.
This column is not about the joys associated with stamp collecting. The American Philatelic Society and others promote aspects such as the educational value, historic lesson value, understanding global geography, topical appeal, individuality and fun. Stamp collectors want the public to believe a stamp is a work of art, just like the limited-edition plate manufacturers asked buyers to accept that each mass-produced plate was a work of art. Ask a simple question: “when was the last time you, your children or your grandchildren sat down to cut, sort and talk about stamps?” The answer for my children and grandchildren is never.
Over the past decade, I have written about the graying of a collecting category. The graying process has three distinct aspects. First, the average age of collectors exceeds 50. In some cases, it can exceed 60. Second, although a few younger collectors are attracted to the collecting category, their number is insufficient to replace the older collectors who retire from collecting or die. Third, the traditional collectors are so set in their ways that they are not open to changing the collecting parameters in their collecting category to attract younger collectors. A “my way or the highway” attitude prevails. The American Federation of Doll Collectors is facing a similar situation.
My first impression of the American Philatelic Society’s 2015 Convention and Exhibition in Grand Rapids was how small it was. This was the Society’s national convention. I expected to see hundreds of dealers packed into a large convention hall. Instead, I encountered six aisles of booths. This number is generous, considering it counts the outside booths in Aisle 1 and Aisle 4 as separate aisles. Discounting booths assigned to membership clubs, philatelic societies, the American Philatelic Society, and special feature activities, there were approximately 135 sapces available for stamp dealers. Some dealers rented more than one booth. The Bourse Directory in the program lists 107 sellers.
Author’s Aside: A smiley face in front of a seller’s name in the Bourse Directory indicated that “the dealer caters to beginners.” Only 23 of the 107 listings had a smiley face in designation. What does it say about a collecting category when three-quarters of the dealers tell new collectors that they have no desire to deal with them? One thing it does not say is “welcome.”
The new Most Expensive Thing in the World—as of June, 2014–is this stamp; the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta. It sold for $7.9 million ($9.48 with the 20-percent buyer’s premium). Traditionalist stamp collecting takes an elitist approach; little wonder younger collectors are turned off. When it comes to stamps, ivory tower elitism is as odiferous as in the academic community.
The Bourse consumed a little over half of the floor space in the convention hall. Exhibits, row after row of panels devoted to specialized collections (“boring,” as my 9-year-old grandson Marcelo fondly says), a youth area (inhabited by less than 10 youths each time I checked it), two large sections devoted to auction companies, and the United State Postal Service booths for stamp sales, merchandise, cancellations and antique mail vehicles filled the balance of the space. In spite of all this, the hall appeared cavernous. I wanted to shout to see if it echoed.
The crowd and dealers consisted primarily of sexagenarians, septuagenarians and octogenarians. As a person in his mid-70s, I fit in. A few attendees were in their 40s and 50s. They were a distinct minority. There were a few youngsters but always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. I was tempted to ask if they really wanted to be somewhere else but did not.
I walked the Bourse three times, paying close attention to the age of the sellers. If there were sellers in their 50s, they were in their late 50s. Most of the dealers appeared to be my age or older. I talked with several. Their major comment was how slow sales were.
I attended the show on Thursday and Friday. Because it was opening day, Thursday was busy. No booth was crowded. On Friday, the aisles looked deserted. In fairness, I did not visit the show on Saturday or Sunday.
My overall impression is that, in spite of heavy newspaper advertising, the general public was not attracted to the show. The general public that did attend headed for the “Stamps in Your Attic” feature, two booths featuring stamp appraisers willing to review large piles of stamps and collections for free. Most of the individuals taking advantage of this were young adults who had inherited a parent’s or grandparent’s collection with no idea how to best dispose of it.
As a member of CSAC, I was curious to see how the dealers dealt with contemporary United States issues. American Philatelic Society members on CSAC constantly assert the buying power represented by the organization’s members. I question the statement and decided to investigate.
I found only one dealer who had a large selection of recent (last 30 years) USPS issues. I bought a 2007 Star Wars pane from him. He offered me a 20-percent discount from the book price, which amounted to a little over four dollars. When I told him I would pay full book, he was shocked. “I have watched your booth for a while,” I told him. “It is clear you are not doing much business. Given your expenses and time, I would rather you have the extra four bucks as a token of my thanks for doing the show.” He did not argue.
Harmer-Schau Auction Galleries and Regency Superior held stamp auctions as part of the show. I obtained copies of both catalogs. I wanted to see how they dealt with post-1960 USPS stamps. The subhead on the Regency Superior catalog—“USA Classics, British & Foreign, Covers and Collections, and Coins and Currency”—produced a hint. The primary focus was on pre-1940 U.S. stamps in both catalogs. Later issues were included if they had an error or appealed to a special sub-colleting category within the stamp community.
This is ample proof that traditionalist stamp collecting takes an elitist approach; little wonder younger collectors are turned off. The old guard protects and watches over its “correct” approach to the collecting category.
This elitism also is demonstrated by a portion of the stamp collecting hierarchy that separates itself from the general stamp collecting community by identifying themselves as philatelists, several notches above that of the average collector. A philatelist is a person who studies stamps and postal history. When it comes to stamps, ivory tower elitism is as odiferous as in the academic community.
Stamp collecting is not an endangered collecting category, at least not yet. Will it be 20 to 30 years in the future? The answer is unclear. The possibility exists. One thing is certain. It will be a much smaller collecting community than it is now.
To end on a positive note, Mary-Anne Penner, the acting director of USPS Stamp Services, announced the October 1 issuing date of the Charlie Brown Christmas stamp booklet. The 10 images are fabulous. It is one of the best Christmas booklets the USPS has ever done. While it will not add significant new young collectors to stamp collecting, it should encourage youngster to use stamps. Since these are “Forever” stamps, buy lots of booklets so youngsters can use the stamps throughout the year.
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.
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“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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