Rare stamps are bringing unprecedented prices, but technology could imperil philately.
As philatelists anticipated, the Sotheby’s auction in June of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta postage stamp became a stamp-collecting milestone (see “Uncommon Cent,” May 2014). Issued in 1856 in the former British colony in South America, the stamp fetched an auction-record $9.48 million.
Scott Trepel, president of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries—the New York City auction house that handled the British Guiana stamp when it was consigned for sale in 1970 and 1980—acknowledges that some in the wider world might consider the sale a bust because the stamp’s price fell below the $10 million to $20 million presale estimate. Nevertheless, he considers the auction a success: “I think anything that draws attention to the stamp market is good,” he says.
Donald Sundman, president of the Mystic Stamp Company in Camden, N.Y., also applauds the results of the British Guiana sale. “It’s higher by any amount than the next closest stamp,” he says. “It’s a big price by any measure.”
Sundman’s company was involved in a 2005 transaction that received nearly as much fanfare as the British Guiana stamp’s auction did. The financier and stamp collector Bill Gross spent about $3 million at Siegel Auction Galleries on a plate block of four Inverted Jennies, a rare 24-cent stamp issued by the United States in 1918 that infamously, and accidentally, shows a World War I plane upside down. Gross then traded those stamps to the Mystic Stamp Company for the lone privately owned U.S. One-Cent Z Grill stamp. The trade enabled Gross to achieve his goal of amassing the only complete collection of 19th-century U.S. stamps.
As a generation of aging collectors decide what to do with their stamps, Sundman expects to see more headline-grabbing sales, because the culture of the hobby favors consigning over donating. “In general, collectors don’t want to see stamps in a museum. They want to own them,” he says. “The thought is, ‘I enjoyed the stamp, and I want someone else to, too.’ ”
However, because of the prevalence of digital communication, stamp collecting could become a lost hobby. Stamp collectors typically catch the bug as children, often by challenging themselves to fill an album with stamps attached to mail delivered to their home. But with e-mail and social media rendering handwritten letters and other correspondences sent via the postal service obsolete, unusual stamps now seldom if ever arrive with the mail. “Seventy to eighty percent of our members were exposed to stamps, or had a brief period of collecting stamps, before the age of 15,” says Ken Martin, executive director of the American Philatelic Society. “Exposing kids to stamps is certainly a concern of ours.”
Philately received a boost last September with the opening of the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery at the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Funded partly by Gross, the gallery draws young people into the hobby by giving away stamps; visitors are allowed to pick as many as six to take home in an album. On the same day that the Smithsonian opened the Gross gallery, the United States Postal Service unveiled a new Inverted Jenny stamp made with the original engraved dies from the 1918 stamp. The new stamp has a $2 face value to avoid confusion with the 24-cent original.
“Our future is going to thrive,” Trepel says of stamp collecting. He cites the appeal of the stamps on mail that survived the crash of Hindenburg, and the stamps on postcards sent from the ports Titanic visited before it sank. “When you talk about the event, you can point to the stamps,” he says. “For as little as $10 or $20, I can find you something that has a story that can be told.”