I know that stamp collecting doesn’t always have to make sense, but for years I have been confused about postal history.
There can be little doubt that postal history is interesting to most collectors. Stand back at almost any stamp event where there are exhibits and watch the people. Most collectors spend a lot of time looking at postal history, particularly where it tells a story. Great rarities may be incredible, but when we look at letters and see them in the context of a human story it means so much more. Those are the exhibits where most people stop, and spend a fair amount of time reviewing.
That is also true in the case of most philatelic literature. I think it is fair to say that most collectors have a few books on the subject. Certainly we all have a more or less recent copy of at least one standard catalogue, well-worn from frequent reference. But the other stamp books in our library are more than likely more than just listings of stamps. I have books on airmail, early postal history, and even books on stamp collecting.
Many of the various publications I receive at work have at least as much attention paid to the stories behind the stamps as well as the stamps themselves and how they are produced.
Often, when I talk to collectors they find the story of postage, how early mail was carried, and how it was sorted and delivered of great interest.
Okay, so far it all makes sense.
Now let’s see this same material come up for sale.
Several years ago a phenomenal collection of postal history became available, by none other than Allan Steinhart, a famous collector and numismatic author.
In this case, famous covers with a historical context, and strong postal history, matched by a provenance to a great collector, saw some pretty impressive results. The sale of his stampless covers, in 2005, brought in more than $1 million. All too often, however, postal history goes for much less.
While some items of postal history, disaster mail comes to mind, are able to do rather well at an auction, chances are that a first-known usage of a particular rate or stamp will have much more limited appeal.
My working theory is that postal history which connects to people has a broad appeal, while postal history which contributes to our understanding the process of postal functions just doesn’t have that personal connection.
It may even be a reason why we like errors, because, as the saying goes, to err is human.
Of course, none of this is anything more than a theory.
As usual, I’d love to hear what our readers think.