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Thursday, 30 June 2016

Thinking of Becoming a Stamp Dealer?

Well, it can be fun .... But here are three things to think about:

You are probably thinking about a one-person business. Now, a one-person business can only be as good as the one person. If you are well-organised as a person, it will show in your business. If you are lazy, the same. If you are mean, the same. Etc. Usw.

If you choose to stock just a few expensive items, then it will be easy to see if you are making a profit and what kind of profit. It will be quite easy to keep records. But most dealers end up with stocks bigger than the stock of the local IKEA. It's very hard to keep a record - it could take 100% of your time. It's very hard to know what profit, if any, you are making when you sell one item on the Internet or at a Stamp Fair. At best, you can have a general idea. So maybe you bought 1000 items for 1000 euros. So you know that if you are selling each one at more than 1 euro you are doing something right - if you sell them all. But if you sell one item for 100, you know that means that you can afford to sell some other items for 50 cents. The only method I have is this: when I buy 1000 items I try to put a price on them all before I even sell one. That way I at least know what Total value I have placed on them. Maybe if I was starting again I would use bar - coding and store everything in a data base. But I still think that maintaining the data base could be a full-time job. You will neglect the important things: studying what you have in your stock, picking out forgeries, picking out damaged things,noticing good things, doing a bit of research when you get something you have not seen before.

Trust. If you don't trust other people, it's difficult to be a stamp dealer. I don't have a problem trusting other people and it saves me a great deal of time. Here is a short list of things I don't do: I never make photocopies of things I send out on approval or of things in my boxes, I never use "Premium" postage or shipping services, I don't insure my stock. Sometimes I say to a client "Go through them" - maybe it's a bag with 1000 stamps in it - "pick out what you want and then we can agree a price". And I have no idea what is in the bag. Oh, and another thing: I usually say, Pay me when you get the stamps I am sending you today. That way, when I get a cheque or a bank transfer I know that the transaction is finished. (Among themselves, dealers constantly rely on trust).

Of course, sometimes I lose things this way. But it's rare, actually very rare. And I save so much time. If you asked me why I think my business is profitable, I have to say: well, partly because I trust other people. Having clients you trust is a very big business asset. It makes life so much simpler.

Friday, 24 June 2016

BREXIT and a British Stamp Dealer

This is not a good day for me.

I am a stamp dealer based in England paying United Kingdom taxes on my business profits. But maybe half of those profits derive directly from both buying and selling within the European Union. My stock is acquired mainly in Finland and Germany with some purchases from non-EU Switzerland. Those Swiss purchases tell me what life outside the EU will be like in future. A parcel which it takes Swiss customs 30 minutes to process (you can see this on the Tracking Data) takes the UK's Border Authorities who deal with it at least two weeks. They have to look inside, write you a letter, make you sign a form which tests whether what you say is in the parcel corresponds to what the paperwork on the parcel says is in the parcel etc etc. In other words, they behave as if trading with foreigners is inherently suspicious. At the end of it all, you are charged Customs Duties. With the UK outside the the EU they will be able to delay all the parcels, just as they did before the Free Movement of goods within the EU was fully established. When I first started business in the early 1990s, I bought from a collector in the Netherlands. Every packet and even every letter he sent me was opened by Customs officials whose Rule Book told them that Netherlands = Marijuana. You get fed up with this kind of thing. And the paperwork wastes your time.

As for my sales, I sell in auction in Finland and Germany and I have private clients in several EU countries - more in the past than now when I am semi-retired. It's easy.You put things in the post and there is no Customs declaration to fill out. You take payment in euros - in my case, a German bank account is all I need thanks to the Single European Payments Area. It's beautifully simple and the UK tax authorities benefit. Now I am being given an additional reason to think about retiring.

Within the United Kingdom, I sell at stamp exhibitions and small fairs and my clients are for the most part buying goods imported from other EU countries.  Fluctuations in exchange rates make pricing a bit difficult - I would have voted at the time for the UK to join the eurozone - but apart from that the free movement of goods works well for me and for them.

The free movement of people includes my movements to auctions and stamp shows in Europe. I did more in the past and am sorry to have had to reduce my activities. Now I will soon have a reason to reduce them further. It's bad enough already trying to get out of this country or back into it at Calais. It can only get worse. I remember how when I first travelled to the Czech Republic the border wasn't yet open and queues of lorries,many kilometers long, waited at the border checkpoint. That was also before the motorway from Germany up to the border was built. In France, of course, there was always bureaucratic regulation and I always found the paperwork for the Paris Salon d'Automne ludicrous. It was like checking into a hotel in the bad old days when you had to surrender your passport and you felt that a phone call would be made to the Prefecture or its local equivalent. Perhaps it still is like that in France.

Anyway, a bad day. And even worse day I guess for the organisers of the LONDON 2020 international stamp exhibition. I pay my next tax bill on 31 July. I will think hard then about whether to go on working, now that my fellow citizens have decided to make it more difficult.


A friend in Germany offers me comfort:

"Nichts wird so heiƟ gegessen wie es gekocht wird!"

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Crown Jewel of Western Ukraine Philately?

Click on Image to Magnify

The famous stamp shown above was unsold in the Christoph Gaertner Rarities auction in New York on 30 May 2016. It's described in the catalogue as the "crown jewel of Western Ukrainian philately" - and I used the same words when I wrote the descriptions for the Ron Zelonka sale at Corinphila Zurich in 2011. There the stamp was started at 30 000 CHF and sold for 44 000, which meant a final bill to the buyer of 52 800. So the Gaertner start price looks as if the 2011 buyer was prepared to sell with a chance of doing no better than getting their money back.

Personally, I think it's an over-rated stamp. The stamp issues of the Western Ukraine National Republic in 1919 all had strong philatelic motivations and little genuine postal use. This combination of stamp and overprint, in an edition of two, was entirely speculative - it was made so that someone or some group could benefit in some way. It must have added significantly to the value of the Ekonomat document to which it was originally affixed, even before its "Crown Jewel" status was given to it..

In contrast, scarce and rare non-philatelic mail used in the Republic during 1919 is bought and sold for only a fraction of the price expected for this stamp. For example, in the Zelonka sale I described a lot of 37 mostly non-philatelic covers as a "valuable lot" and attached a start price of 3 500 CHF  - 100 CHF per cover. It sold for 11 000 hammer, but that still works out at only 400 CHF per cover. But if you started out today to accumulate 37 non-philatelic covers from 1919 Western Ukraine, not in the Zelonka lot, you would I think be lucky to achieve your goal. True, most of the covers in the 11 000 lot were franked with unoverprinted Austrian adhesives - but that is what you would expect. The overprinted stamps were made principally for dealers in Vienna, not for local mail. The exceptions are the Registration and CMT stamps of Kolomya and that for the rather strange reason that the philatelist involved in the issue, Cerniavski, liked to collect ordinary commercial mail - at the time, a fairly eccentric choice. Since he worked in the local court in Kolomya, he simply collected the envelopes coming into the court from all over the district of Kolomya / Pokutia - and very interesting envelopes they were!

Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

Monday, 6 June 2016

Kharbin in the Russo-Japanese War 1904 - 1906

Kharbin in Manchuria was the largest Russian military rear base during and immediately after the Russo-Japanese War, with warehouses holding supplies of food and weapons, barracks housing soldiers, and hospitals for the wounded and dying. A Hospital Suburb  [Gospital'ny Gorodok] was created in 1904 and by July of that year there were 12 Army hospitals and two Red Cross facilities. By January 1905, the number of hospitals had grown to 84 with a capacity to hold 30 000 patients. I take these figures from David Wolff's To The Harbin Station.

In the context of such numbers, it is not surprising that a post office was opened in the Hospital Quarter just as one was in the Barracks or Camp Quarter [ Korpus'ny Gorodok ]. In 1959, Tchilingirian and Stephen in Stamps of the Russian Empire Used Abroad, Part Five recorded a cancellation from the Camp on the basis of a single example. But they did not record a cancel for the Hospital Quarter. I show an example below; the cancellation is identical in style to the Camp Quarter cancel and reads KHARBIN GOSPIT. GORODOK serial "b". The card is an Imperial Formular card, pre-addresed in hectography to the Maria Feodorovna charities in St Petersburg.

What is puzzling is why this cancellation and the Camp cancellation should - apparently - be so rare. There were a very large number of people in Kharbin who would have wanted to write home at this time. Perhaps cards like this one are buried in dealer boxes, but after a hundred years that seems a bit unlikely - I did not find this  in a dealer box and paid a three figure sum for it But maybe readers do have other examples of this cancel and the Camp cancel. I will happily show them here if sent scans.

Click on Image to Magnify

POSTSCRIPT 7 June 2016

At the same time as I was writing the above piece, I was looking out Theatre Tax stamps from my stock. It occurs to me that I may have the answer to an old problem.

There exists a Kharbin Theatre Tax stamp which is rarely seen .I show it below. I first saw an example maybe twenty years ago when I bought parts of Agathon Faberge's fiscal collection. I have seen two or three since and have the example below in stock. Now, the printing, the burelage, the paper and the gum looks like those I would associate with the State Printing Works in St Petersburg; it does not look like a local production. The 2 kopeck value seems too low for a World War One or Civil War period production. The obvious conclusion is that this stamp was issued at the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 - 06 in response to the vast influx of troops and other personnel to Kharbin, some of whom would have sought out theatres or concert halls for entertainment. In effect, Kharbin was a boom town at this time. Though the inscription on the stamp refers only to charitable purposes, the style in two halves with repeated text is that of a Theatre Tax stamp, designed for tearing in half.

Can any reader offer any confirmation or alternative suggestion?

12 June: YES is the answer to that - and I am wrong.Jack Moyes tells me in conversation that this stamp is a Theatre Tax stamp ( he tells me that he has in the past owned theatre ticket stubs) but that it is a First World War (Imperial period) stamp. We discussed why the theatres weren't using Maria Feodorovna Theatre Tax stamps and came to this conclusion: Kharbin was not part of Imperial Russia! It is for this reason that the stamps could be issued by the local government of Kharbin

Click on Image to Magnify