Exhibiting beyond local level a matter of perseverance

By Jesse Robitaille

It’s easy to learn but difficult to master.

Progressing through the local, regional, national and international waters of philatelic exhibiting requires careful skill, attention to detail and committed passion for the hobby. Beyond the local level, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out from the competition, but according to a trio of award-winning exhibitors and members of the North Toronto Stamp Club (NTSC), it’s all about perseverance.

“It’s not one and done,” said NTSC Exhibition co-chair John Wilson, who was joined by fellow exhibition co-chair Jean Wang and website administrator Leon Matthys for an hour-long presentation at the recent National Postage Stamp and Coin Show. “It’s about repeated iterations.”

Wilson used another award-winning Canadian exhibitor, Douglas Irwin, as a example of relentless perseverance. Beginning at the local level – the NTSC Exhibition, in fact – Irwin’s “Postal Beginnings at Niagara Falls” exhibit eventually progressed to the top philatelic competition in the U.S., the American Philatelic Society (APS) Champion of Champions class, in 2007. The following year, the exhibit earned a Large Vermeil at the international exhibition “SESCAL/AMERICAS 08.”

“Because he was from the area, he was fascinated with post offices in Niagara Falls, and he developed a dandy exhibit,” said Wilson, who’s also the NTSC’s immediate past-president, historian and library chair. “He entered his exhibit in the World Series of Philately nine times. The judges told him to try it this way, so he ripped it apart and did it that way, and tried again and again.”

Wilson said judges – and fellow knowledgable collectors alike – can offer much-needed guidance to exhibitors trying to reach certain goals or aspirations.

“Judges will always offer you suggestions on what they see as good taste, and these will push you towards more successful techniques. You’re at liberty to accept or reject them, but generally, I think exhibitors and judges share a fairly narrow taste band, so that’s why you start to see a style develop at the national level.”


A good way for philatelists to enter the exhibiting world is through single-page exhibiting.

“When I started, I got encouraged to create a one-pager on a topic that I could throw together pretty quickly,” said Matthys, who added his first exhibit was a single page studying a Nova Scotia post office.

“I was really struggling to find a way to make a story out of it, but that’s what you have to do,” he said, adding the story shouldn’t be “too wordy.”

The requirements of a single page include a title and three different philatelic elements, which together will tell the exhibit’s story.

“When you actually work these things through and try to get your three elements on page with your title, it is a serious challenge,” said Wilson, who added collectors can usually find two elements but will struggle to find a third element to fit the story and the page. “It forces you to be telegraphic in your writing.”

Wilson also strongly recommended all aspiring exhibitors read the APS Manual of Philatelic Judging.

“It’s written in what I would call a very accessible style; it doesn’t preach to anybody.”


After one page is complete, it’s a matter of repetition – or practice – to evolve your exhibit, Matthys said.

“You get good at layout, you get good at treatment and you get good at – or better at – developing how you can do this. Eventually, you’re going to find it takes two pages to show your stuff, and eventually you get to a whole frame, 16 pages. That’s a big thing.”

Organizing an exhibit and laying out elements so they appear in a strategic way is a big part of producing a compelling exhibit, whether it’s one page or a full frame.

“You want to capture the audience member’s attention so they read the whole thing; it’s a matter of advertising,” Matthys said, adding newly found material – even non-philatelic material – can make an old exhibit new again.

“Don’t just buy stamps; buy pins, buy comic books and buy other stuff that pertains to your topic. Think outside the box because these things can make a world of difference in getting people into the fold,” he said, adding he displayed a worker’s permission badge with his award-winning “Great Halifax Explosion” exhibit. “Those things are hard to find, and they embellish your exhibit, so don’t just use stamps.”

An exhibition’s prospectus will allow a certain percentage of non-philatelic material to be displayed, Wilson said.

“Any exhibit can benefit from one or two outside pieces; you just always have to make sure your philatelic material is prominent,” he added.

At the higher exhibiting levels – the national and international levels – judges begin considering whether the material being shown is suitable for the amount of space given.

“If your covering the topic too superficially, you’re going to get knocked down on the medal level; in other words, you could build it into a two-, three- or five-frame exhibit. What’s the best length to tell the story?”

At the national and international levels, judges will also ask exhibitors to submit two things in advance – a title page, which gives an idea of how an exhibitor will treat their exhibit, and a synopsis, which explains how the exhibit’s story will be told.

“You can also use the synopsis for stuff you cannot say, in modest behaviour, on the pages of your display: ‘This is the rarest of its kind in the world and I had to pay 83-million shekels to get it,’ or ‘I’ve been looking for 22 years and only seen three of these stamps,’ or ‘The Queen has the other one and it’s not for sale,’ or ‘I’ve bid on this for 11 years, and every year it’s $10,000 more.’ You tell the judges why it was hard for you to collect it, why this material is of interest and why it’s important.”

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