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Friday, 28 June 2019

Salvage Philately 3: Problems with Roulettes

There is a good rule to follow when collecting rouletted stamps: Don’t

I apologise to collectors of classic Finland, but I am sure they will understand why I say that. Rouletting, whether of the fancy Finnish kind or the regular straight cut kind, may be all right for raffle tickets, cloakroom tickets, printed on thin paper without gum and where only rough separation is needed. But for small size stamps on paper thickened by gum, rouletting does not work.

Here are some of the problems we have inherited:

1.      Post office clerks who tried and failed to separate rouletted stamps cleanly often gave up and started to use scissors. Many classic rouletted issues were supposed to be an improvement on previous imperforate stamps, but the clerks decided otherwise. This creates confusion now because some rouletted stamps will look like imperforate ones thanks to what the clerks did at the time.

2.      Collectors in the past thought that the rouletted stamps they were soaking off covers looked untidy, so they tidied them up by trimming off the roulettes. Where scarce imperforate versions of the rouletted stamps existed, they sometimes cut down a rouletted stamp to produce a spacefiller and a fake imperforate. Dealers also did this and the result now is that the world is full of faked imperforate stamps which were originally rouletted stamps.

3.      Though catalogues confidently give spacing sizes for roulettes ( roul 8,roul 11, and so on), it is very hard to measure roulettes unless you have a multiple which makes things easier. Indeed, if you insist on collecting roulettes, my suggestion is that you collect multiples.

South Australia is notorious for both poorly perforated and poorly rouletted stamps. It would seem that the workers who did the job had access to unlimited quantities of rum. The work was so unsatisfactory that some rouletted stamps were subsequently perforated in order to try to get a better result. Badly perforated sheets were also removed from post office stocks for overprinting to make what are known as "Departmentals", an interesting group of stamps used on Official mail.

Between 1855 and 1868, the first design for South Australian stamps appeared imperforate, rouletted, perforated, perforated over roulette, and perforated x rouletted. So a serious collector has to try to illustrate all these possibilities, as well as shades. Fortunately the watermark remains constant.

Take a look at this group of 2d stamps in a variety of shades. All  have traces of roulettes even the one which looks as if it has been seriously cut down. But then ask, Which copies here are good examples of South Australian rouletting? Some are clearly better than others but compared to the kind of clarity which perforation usually permits, none of these stand out as just what a collector needs …

Most of the stamps here are almost certainly SG 25 and 26 and so have a catalogue value of only two or three pounds each. For purposes of writing this Blog post, I have washed them but would not otherwise have bothered.

Click on Images to Magnify

Salvage Philately 2: Stamp or Cover? That Is The Question ...

Click on Image to Magnify

Unless the UK descends into complete chaos or the grim reaper decides that my time is up,  I will be at the LONDON 2020 international stamp exhibition in May 2020. I have booked two stands: on one, I will sit with my specialist stocks; on the other, I will try to sell off all the bin ends, bits and pieces, mistakes, and so on from my time as a dealer. There will be just two prices on this second stand: £5 and £2, and the aim is to offer good value for those prices.

As a dealer, I try to use my time well but like many dealers I fail. The simple pricing system - either it goes in a £5 box or into a £2 box - does save time, but only if I don’t think too much about what I am doing. In relation to stamps, it most definitely does not make sense to check perforations or watermarks or even postmarks unless they are very obviously significant. Nor does it make sense to clean up used stamps by soaking off old hinges and so on.

Collectors have a different set of problems. Take a look at the fragment of a cover illustrated above. It actually shows a lot of information of interest to a postal historian: (1) dated Sydney despatch cancel for 27 March 1868; (2) dated London arrival marks for 21 May 1868, as a result of which we know the total journey time taken by what was this letter; (3) a one shilling stamp which could have been the entire franking - I don’t know what the tariff was but a specialist will and will thus know if the franking is still complete.


The fragment - though it is without pencil notes or hinges - has been badly affected by water and quite possibly by water which was not very clean when it encountered the cover. The stamp has been affected.

A stamp collector might look at this fragment and decide to wash the stamp off . There will be no hinges on the back of the stamp, no thins, and when thoroughly washed the overall appearance might be really quite good and it will be easier to verify which stamp is actually on this piece. I measure the perforations at 13 and so the stamp is either SG 168 (rose-carmine, cat £8) or 169 (carmine, cat £8.50).

Well, at those values it is hardly worth the effort - you could buy a better looking loose stamp from a dealer for half cat. or less.


My decision as a dealer is to leave the stamp on the piece and put the piece in my £5 box without comment. If it doesn’t sell there, then in due course it can go down to the £2 box. Of course, I  made the decision in two seconds - and before I started to study the fragment to write this Blog post.

Oh, and I forgot something: for the social philatelist there is a lot more information on this fragment: “…Woodward Esq    8 Parliament St     London” is enough to Google with even if you have to play around a bit to get results (there are results).

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Over 500 000 page views ...

I see today that the page views of this site have now gone past 500 000, which averages out at just under 1 000 views for each  of the 542 blog posts.

I don't know how successful Google is at filtering out from the count the page views of bots, crawlers, etc., which periodically go through the site and sometimes cut and paste it elsewhere, so I guess not all the viewing has been done by humans.

This week, for example, there have been over 4 000 page views which Google traces to Israel, entirely out of proportion to other sources - the USA generated 212 in the same period, and the second highest figure which, I think, suggests a strong likelihood that the Israel figure is not a collector-generated one.

Google searches are the entry route for the overwhelming majority of visits. The all-time highest number of page views is attributed to the USA (127 242 as of today), followed by Ukraine (55 995), the UK (44 908), Israel (40 892 - but keep in mind the previous paragraph), Russia (33 809), China (25 129), France (25 083).

I am posting much less new material, as regular readers will have realised, and I have thought of stopping. But it is very easy to lave a Blog open and simply come back to it whenever ...

Friday, 7 June 2019

Social Philately

All museums and all collecting hobbies started out by removing things from their context. I can’t think of an exception. This was very evident in early “cabinets of curiosities” which were no more than magpie hoards of this, that and the other. Likewise, the Vatican drawers, created for the purpose, were full of the detached relics of saints but contained no actual saints.

When stamps were introduced in 1840, it was the job of post office clerks to remove them from the sheets - which provided their initial context - so that they could be stuck onto envelopes. Early collectors promptly removed them from this context of use, the envelopes onto which they were stuck. Only later did collectors begin to show an interest in sheets (to which were later added booklets and coils) and an interest in covers, out of which has developed the hobby of postal history collecting.

What is now called “Social philately” is simply an expansion of the context into which collectors place their stamps or covers and it has been greatly enabled by the ability we all now have to google something, to find out who wrote a card, who was the addressee, what a town was like one hundred years ago, and so on. Likewise, serious stamp collectors have long been interested in stamp printers, the machinery they used, the inks they sourced, the ways in which they marketed their services, the scams in which they were involved.

 In these ways, stamps and covers are placed in an ever enlarged context of social and economic relations. But “Social philately” is really a matter of degree rather than of type. Anyone who ever googles to find out who wrote or received a letter is engaged in social philately, even if it is not the main focus of their interest. On this Blog, see this post as an example of what might be involved:

The potential of  social philately is well-illustrated by the collection held by Boston University where Professor Thomas Glick amassed several thousand stationery cards from the archives of a pre - 1914 Romanian grain dealer. The cards allowed the way in which business was done to be reconstructed from the written texts on the cards and the places from which they were despatched. They also show a business being conducted in two languages, Romanian and Yiddish. 

Many other correspondences exist which were originally in commercial, family or state archives and which allow similar reconstruction projects to be undertaken, though often the archives are quickly dispersed before anyone has the chance to buy them up intact. Similarly, printers’ archives have been broken up and individual items often command prices which make any thought of reconstructing the whole archive unrealistic. But it is entirely possible to reconstruct from a limited set of examples how, for example,  a nineteenth century stamp printer worked.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Salvage Philately

Recently, I attended a provincial auction which specialises in putting into boxes the collections of dead collectors and offering them at a low price, leaving it to those who look through the box to work out its value to them. If the auction house sells a box for fifty or a hundred pounds then that’s a good enough result.

Many of these boxes do not contain collections in the usual sense; they are hoards accumulated often over many years with no system, no attempt at conservation, and so on. Most are almost worthless.

Every day since that day in May 1840 when the Penny Black went on sale, the world supply of mint and used postage stamps (and covers and cards - but I will use “postage stamps” as a general term) which are potentially available to collectors has increased EVERY DAY. Wars, floods, fires, and despatch to the municipal rubbish dump have never done much to slow the growth in supply. Even now, with so much mail being sent electronically, there are around 200 postal administrations in the world producing stamps and selling them every day, though a significant proportion of those administrations do not expect more than a tiny percentage to be used for sending mail. What percentage of  stamps issued by Pitcairn Island get to be postally used?

There may have been a time when there were enough dealers and collectors to handle the quantity of material available and the daily additions to it. That is no longer true and may have ceased to be true well before 1900. There is now a very, very large inventory of stamps which are not being collected in the ordinary sense, just moved in bulk from one temporary holder to the next. Think of old bundleware which was tied with cotton thread into bundles maybe one hundred years ago and which comes to auction still unopened. 

These stamps are a bit like the water in bottled water. The water costs nothing; the bottling, the transport and the selling costs money. Buy in sufficient bulk and the cost to you of a stamp drops to some tiny fraction of a cent - maybe there is a world record; maybe someone somewhere has already bought 5 000 000 stamps for something like 0.000001 per stamp.

In my view, all this creates the possibility for a very interesting hobby which I will call Salvage Philately. Salvage philately is about going through these vast inventories and picking out things worth having - rare classic stamps in really, really bad condition but which will look a bit better if they are washed; very unpleasant looking covers from which a stamp worth having can be soaked off; pre 1914 multiples of MNH ** stamps which have somehow survived in dead stocks and which can be used to upgrade spaces in old printed albums; occasional postmark interest stamps which have never been noticed.

Traditionally, all this has been called Things To Do on a winter evening. But salvage philately is really a hobby in its own right.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The Mathematics of Rarity Pricing.

This is a post for those who are better at mathematics than I am. I am just going to set out the basic idea which explains rarity pricing.

Suppose that country A (now dead) issued 100 stamps. Ninety nine of these are very common (millions of them) and can be bought for one peso each in any currency. But one is very, very rare - only a few dozen are believed to exist.

Suppose there are 1000 collectors of this dead country. Most are prepared to budget 1000 pesos to form a collection and they are very happy to find that they can achieve 99% completion for just 99 pesos. A few are prepared to budget more than 1000 pesos. All would like to have the 100th stamp which will complete the collection and most will bid in auction when one of these rare stamps appears. The sale price will be determined by those with bigger budgets and of one thing you can be sure: it will exceed 901 pesos which is how much most collectors are prepared to budget to complete a collection of country A.

Now turn to country B (also dead) which also issued 100 stamps. Of these 50 are very common (millions of them) and can be bought for one peso each in any currency. But fifty are very, very rare - only a few dozen of each are believed to exist.

There are also 1000 collectors for this dead country and most are prepared to budget 1000 pesos and a few prepared to budget more.

Now everyone can achieve 50% completion for 50 pesos, leaving a minimum of 950 pesos in their budgets. But what should they do when one of the rare stamps appears at auction? How much of their remaining budget should they allocate to one stamp when they know that there are 49 more just as scarce and still to be bought? It is more than likely that they will bid low because a different rare stamp might appear next week. Probably they will bid more than the baseline average of 19 pesos which they would be able to pay for the missing 50 stamps and still stay within budget (19 x 50 = 950). However, there are also the guys with the bigger budgets. But they will have to make a similar calculation:  what is my budget for the remaining 50 stamps and how much of it would I risk on just one rare stamp now knowing a different one will come up next week. 

What is probable is that they will risk less than the 901 pesos which provided a clear rarity baseline figure for country A collectors.

In other words, if someone aims to collect a series in which there are rare stamps to be found, the greater the number of rarities in the series the lower the price which each, on average, will command - just because collectors are trying to stay within a budget, however notional and flexible it may be. The absolute rarity (in terms of numbers) of the stamp is not the critical issue; nor is it entirely a question of how popular a collecting area is.

So it is that rarities of Russian Civil War philately - from Armenia and Ukraine, for example, sell for small sums. There are just so many rarities and you can’t have them all if you spend all your money on one!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Could You Make a Living from Stamp Dealing?

Could you make a living from stamp dealing? 

I will start by supposing that you are modest and that a “living” is as little as £25000 per year, before tax. That’s 30 000 euro or 32 500 USD. To achieve that you will probably need to achieve sales (turnover) of the order of £100 000 (120000 euro, 130000 USD). I arrive at that figure by assuming that you achieve a 100% gross mark-up on sales, so that you get back £100000 on stock which cost you £50000. But there are costs to running a business. There are the costs of acquiring stock - travelling to auctions, visiting the homes of dead collectors, etc. There are the costs of selling it - taking tables at fairs, running a shop (forget it!), advertising, paying commissions on sales on ebay or at auction, travel and hotel costs, postage and stationery - I include postage and packing costs within the gross turnover. There are the more or less fixed overhead costs of websites, telephones, office space, an accountant to sort out VAT and digital tax returns, insurance if you are so inclined. In my experience, it will be impossible to get all those costs below about a quarter of turnover, so £25000 - which then leaves the £25000 pre-tax profit I set as the lower threshold.

So if your working year extends to 50 weeks, you have to sell, on average, £2000 worth of material each week, every week. If you work a 40 hour work, then you need to be selling £400 every day, £50 every hour of your working week. How is that possible? Leave aside for the moment working 60 hours each week…. working 40 hours, you are earning for your time and effort the grand sum of £12.50 per hour, before tax. It's easy to reduce that hourly rate, harder to increase it.

In the UK there are dealers who travel around the country attending small stamp fairs. Table costs are often low (£25 - £100) but so is turnover - £500 might be acceptable to someone with a small stock and the cheapest table; a bigger table and £1000 would be rather better but still implies two fairs each week, every week - and an awful lot of travelling and bad food.

An online shop would need to show a very big range online to turn over £2000 each week, which is why most online shops offer more expensive material to cut down the number of transactions needed to achieve the sales target.

Buying in bulk and breaking down for resale at auction is another possibility but requires enough capital to contemplate large purchases and confidence that they can be profitably broken down, one way or another.

And so on. I think you will get the picture; it’s not going to be easy to make a living from stamp dealing even if your “living” is as little as £25000. 

I am lucky that I started up as a full-time stamp dealer when I already had a pension from past employment. When I got to 65 and added to that a state pension, I took the opportunity to reduce the scale of my business. In the UK, there is a very high registration threshold for VAT - currently with turnover under £85000, your business is exempt from VAT; you neither claim it back or pay it. So I scaled back to under the threshold (which, remarkably, has gone up every year since I scaled back). 

It does mean that I cannot make a “living” from what I now do, but I don’t have to. But I still work long hours to achieve the turnover I aim at.

The stimulus to writing this Blog post was the fact that the UK tax year has just ended - it runs from April to March, not January to December - and I have just assembled my draft calculations to pass to the accountant who does the fine tuning which tells me in due course how much net profit I have made and how much tax I will have to pay on it. I already know that it wouldn't be enough to live on.