Many baby boomers that are retiring with expendable income are starting to get back into stamp collecting.
PHILATELY WILL GET YOU EVERYWHERE
By Julie Carpenter
GEORGE V had one of the most impressive collections in history while more recent devotees include John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Sophie Ellis Bextor.
We are talking about stamp collecting, or philately as it is termed by those who know their Penny Blacks from their Inverted Jennys.
Lennon and Mercury might seem unlikely fans because – let’s not mince words – collecting stamps is not considered the most rock ’n’ roll of pursuits. In fact in many minds philately equals fusty.
It’s considered the domain of the anoraky obsessive who sits in their bedroom sticking “treasures” into albums while poring over catalogues with a magnifying glass. A taste for stamp collecting is something to be confided quietly not sung from the rooftops.
According to experts at Stanley Gibbons, the world’s biggest dealers, it doesn’t have to be this way. The hobby is on the increase and, internationally, there is a veritable boom. Stamps are the third most traded commodity on eBay and prices are going sky high. In the UK the reason for this is partly because the baby boom generation, who took up philately at school, are returning to the hobby in their retirement.
“We go to a retirement show every year and we are now inundated with people who come up to us and say: ‘Wow, Stanley Gibbons, I remember you guys when I was a kid. How do I get back into stamp collecting?’” says Keith Heddle, director of sales and marketing at Stanley Gibbons.
“These are people with disposable incomes who also often have an emotional connection to stamp collecting because their fathers used to travel and they would send back letters or postcards. So while their fathers may no longer be alive, the hobby is a way to link back to them and to their childhood.”
Hugh Jefferies, editor of Gibbons Stamp Monthly, refers to himself as a classic baby boomer but he has not so much returned to philately as kept it up for 50 years. He is also the fourth generation of his family to collect stamps. He believes that the economic climate is playing its part in the pursuit’s surge in popularity.
“Stamps have always done well when the general economy is a bit dodgy,” he says. “They’re seen as a better investment than putting your money into a building society and earning 0.01 per cent.”
Now there is also the demand for stamps from such countries as China and India. In China, Chairman Mao banned stamp collecting for its bourgeois connotations but since his death in 1976 and with the rise of Chinese entrepreneurs, it has been going from strength to strength. The country is now home to 18 million collectors.
“What happens when economies open up and there’s an expanding middle class is that people start buying their stamps back,” says Jefferies. “So a lot of stamps from China, the Middle East and India are all leaving Europe and going back to the countries they originated from and when this happens, prices rise.”
“In China stamps are breaking records every month,” says Heddle. “They keep being sold at auction for more and more money. The interest here is primarily in Chinese stamps, and particularly pre-Revolutionary stamps which are things of beauty and craft whereas Communist ones tend to be utilitarian.”
Interestingly, equating collecting with anorak types is a peculiarly British association which does not happen elsewhere.
“In India for example, where the stamp market is going through the roof, there is no stigma attached to it,” says Heddle. “Actually, there’s the reverse. There’s a degree of pride in collecting things. The same is true in other European countries such as Italy. I was at a stamp show 18 months ago in Rome and I was gobsmacked by the number of beautifully dressed thirtysomethings coming around, checking out the prices of stamps on their iPads and smart phones and then coming over to buy. Having a rare stamp in Italy is rather like having a fast car. It’s a trophy. And I was also amazed that on the evening of the stamp fair how many couples were milling around. In the UK you can’t imagine many young-ish couples turning to each other to say, ‘It’s Friday night. We’ve got nothing on. Do you fancy popping down to the stamp show?’”
Perhaps it is time for a change of attitude in the UK. It would no doubt be welcomed by writer Simon Garfield, author of The Error World: An Affair With Stamps, who has been collecting since he was a child.
He says of the hobby: “There is a risk that you come across as a slightly sad individual so you have to keep things a little bit private.”
Garfield “outed” himself in his book which charts his complicated emotional attachment to stamp collecting and concludes with the sale of his collection for the healthy sum of £40,000.
“I did ok out of it. It was more than I had paid for them,” he says.
Whether collecting is a good investment is an issue that divides opinion, however. Certainly some very rare stamps have gone for huge prices.
“We sold Britain’s rarest stamp last year. A very dull-looking stamp called the Six Pence IR Official which went for £375,000,” says Heddle. “Rare stamps are the world’s most valuable commodity by weight.”
But Garfield warns that stamp collecting is not necessarily the best route if you are hoping to generate a tidy nest egg.
“You have to know what you’re doing to make money out of stamp collecting,” he says.
“Inevitably the stamps that go up in value are the stamps that are very expensive to begin with and very hard to get hold of. All the attics have been emptied now and while someone might find an odd rare stamp, no one is going to find an unfolded sheet of pristine stamps from 1844 and be made a billionaire overnight. It is just not going to happen.”
Stamps which fetch a lot of money tend to be ones of the highest quality and which were either made more than a century ago (the first stamp, the UK’s Penny Black, was issued in 1840) or are deemed an “error stamp” where, as Jefferies puts it, “things have gone wrong. Stamps printed in the wrong colour or with the Queen’s head printed upside down, for example”.
“These types of stamps are very rare,” explains Garfield, “whereas if you bought anything from the Post Office over the past 30 years, the chances are that they are worth the same or less than you paid for them because millions were issued.
“People will be buying the new Prince William and Kate Middleton engagement stamps thinking they will be an investment but that’s what people thought about the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and they’re only worth a few pounds now.
“Collecting can be quite a risky endeavour and really it’s one you do out of love.”
Garfield says he, like many collectors, started at school. “This was the Sixties,” he explains, “and there wasn’t much else to do.
“There weren’t computers or video games, just the weekly trip to the cinema, reading or playing football. Stamp collecting was encouraged because it was safe and reasonably intellectual.
“You could learn a lot about different countries through the stamps.”
He too believes that many people are taking up the hobby again as a way to “recapture one’s lost youth” but explains that much of the appeal lies in “the thrill of the quest, the desire to hunt down that really rare stamp that you read about when you were at school and there’s almost the feeling that when you’ve got it you’re not so interested any more and you move on to the next one”.
Garfield experiences the “occasional pang of regret” (although not financially) at having sold his collection and says the urge to collect anything is difficult to explain. “Those who don’t have the urge to collect often think the rest of us are bonkers, whereas collectors understand other collectors.
“Take the character of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons. There’s a great line where he says: ‘I’ve dedicated my life to collecting comic books and now there’s only time to say, life well spent!’ It’s not a sentiment shared by all.”