By Bret Evans
After a short time in the world of stamp collecting you start to take certain things for granted—things that don’t always make sense to the rest of the world.
I sat down and made a list of the weird things about this philatelic world and decided to share my top five:
(1) Used stamps can be worth more than mint versions
To the non-collector, the phrase “mint condition” carries a meaning of value. The implication is that an unused stamp in perfect condition has to be worth more than one that has been used to send a letter.
Now that may be a good rule of thumb, and in most cases it is true, but there are plenty of exceptions.
Among modern stamps, especially the high-value definitives, finding a good postally-used stamp can be tough. That just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. Another area is postal history, where the right cover can make a mundane stamp very special.
(2) The market isn’t always logical
This may seem like another version of the above point, but it applies in a much broader sense.
While the market does recognize the great rarities, and gives them substantial value, that doesn’t always hold true in other cases. The matter is complicated by the fact catalogue values have little reflection on market values, but are more a guide to relative scarcity; even weirder is that some stamp issues are more popular than others. That means competition among collectors can make them comparatively more expensive than other stamps, even though they have comparable rarity. That’s why many British North American and airmail stamps just don’t carry the values that their scarcity would seem to justify.
(3) Thieves are afraid of upside-down chairs
At the end of every bourse—if it is a multi-day show—dealers go through the same ritual. First, they drape a cloth over the locked cases on their table, presumably to keep out prying eyes. Next, they place their chairs upside down on top of the table. Then they walk out and leave their stuff in a locked room. This isn’t being done to make it easier for the cleaners; it is meant as a form of security. The logic seems to be that somehow a thief determined to get into the room would be deterred from trying to break open a case if it is covered in a cloth and an upside-down chair.
Not being a thief, I am unsure how the upside-down chair strikes fear into their hearts, but it is a ritual I have seen time and time again. To be fair, this isn’t just a stamp thing; it is a ritual practised by coin dealers as well.
(4) There are rules (but only sometimes)
For the most part, collectors get to collect the way they want. By that, I mean a collector can be a generalist, a specialist, or somewhere in between. They can decide what does and doesn’t have a place in their collection, and include non-philatelic material if it strikes their fancy.
The only rule is that you enjoy the hobby.
All of this changes when you start to exhibit. Exhibits have rules. It makes sense because judges need standards to measure. If you expect to get medals, you have to follow the rules. There are even rules about how you get to be a judge. Shows have rules about what constitutes a national or an international event. I’m not saying the rules are bad; they exist for a reason and serve a purpose. But the paradox remains that stamp collecting has no rules some of the time, and lots of rules at other times.
(5) You can use old stamps
This is going to seem weird to stamp folk, but most people never see older stamps in use. Their mail world is dominated by postal meters and current definitives. Old stamps are just old stamps and the thought of putting a 20-year-old stamp on a letter would never occur to them. Stamp collectors and dealers, on the other hand, know that older stamps are still usable.
What’s more, they have access to stocks of unused older stamps, sometimes available at a discount. That means the letter with the rate made up from a stack of low-value stamps, so common in the offices at Canadian Stamp News, are rarely seen by the rest of the world.
I enjoy these irregularities; they give the stamp hobby character, but they also may help you understand why, sometimes, your non-collecting friends just don’t quite understand.