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Friday, March 4, 2016

The Condition Obsession

I wanted to take some time before I really get into the detailed posts about the Admiral stamps to address a trend that I have noticed really taking hold over the hobby in the last 30 years. That trend is the obsession with condition - namely perfect condition. It has had a very marked impact on the hobby during that time, both in terms of how people collect, what they collect and what the resulting demand is for various stamps. It has also had some side-effects that I feel are not so positive.

But first, I should talk about the actual trend itself because some of you may think that condition has always been of paramount importance to collectors. I will say that while it has always been important, there was a difference between how collectors approached condition 30 years ago versus how they approach it now.

Back when I was a boy just starting out in the hobby, the standard catalogue for Canadian postage stamps was the Lyman's Catalogue. As far as I know, it has been out of print since the mid 1980's, having been overtaken by the Canada Specialized, which later became the Unitrade catalogue that collectors know today. Back then the highest grade they listed for mint stamps prior to 1870 was very good. Fine was listed for used stamps prior to 1870 and in addition, a third grade, good, was also listed. Good is one grade below very good. The grading chart listed the attributes of a stamp and specified what the characteristics were of each grade. Very fine was not even listed as a grade until the Small Queens and very good continued to be listed for mint stamps right up into the 1940's. It was as though collectors recognized the scarcity of VF material and understood that it was not possible for every collector to own VFNH examples of every stamp.

Because the catalogues were laid out this way, most collectors were perfectly willing to collect stamps in these grades. In addition, most collectors were fine with hinged stamps until the Elizabethan period at least. At the same time, there were not always significant premiums charged for stamps that were VF when there was no VF price in the catalogues.

Then sometime in the 1980's Canada Specialized began listing VF for stamps in both mint and used all the way back to the first pence issues. At the same time the good grade was dropped and VG was only listed for mint up to the end of Edward VII. The impact of this on the market for low grade material is that all of it sells for much less today than it would have 30 years ago. What is interesting is that there is still demand for it from a small percentage of the collecting population, but not nearly as much as there used to be.

In fact, it is now very difficult to sell stamps that are not VFNH after the Small Queens. There are buyers for them, but it takes a long time to find them, even though very fine hinged stamps are still very beautiful and nice to look at, and they cost a fraction of what VFNH stamps cost. It seems as though most collectors now expect to have perfect examples of every stamp they are interested in. This expectation seems to exist completely independently of what is actually in existence and available in the marketplace. For example, many stamps have been re-gummed over the years to supply collectors who want perfect never hinged stamps. Of course, knowledgeable philatelists who study their stamps and are intimately acquainted with the specific characteristics associated with what the gum is supposed to look like on specific stamp issues can tell the difference. But many collectors cannot - especially when the re-gumming has been done by an expert and has taken great care to avoid the things that typically give away a re-gummed stamp. Most US collectors are aware of the prevalence of re-perforating that has been done since the 19th century to convert perfectly sound stamps with straight edges into stamps with perforations on all sides. They have effectively ruined perfectly good material to supply a demand that is essentially rooted in unrealistic expectations. This is an example of an instance in which giving collectors what they want is NOT preferable to educating them about what is realistically attainable. In this example, if more attention had been paid on promoting stamps with straight edges as being perfectly collectible, as opposed to their perforated counterparts, then those stamps might still be with us today.

Much of this has to do of course with the fact that we live in an age of entitlement. This sense of entitlement extends to every single area of our lives, and has culminated in the mentality where we feel that it is necessary to trade up our homes every few years, remodel perfectly functional kitchens and bathrooms every few years. In fact, no where is the entitlement mentality more prevalent than in our homes. There was a time only a few short years ago, when granite countertops would be considered a high luxury item affordable only to the very wealthy. Now, it seems every homeowner expects to spend $3,000-$5,000 on just their countertop, when $300-$500 would have been more reasonable only a decade ago. This has extended into the hobby now, and the result has been a dumbing down of philatelic knowledge as more and more collectors place complete reliance on auction houses and expert committes rather than their own senses and experience to determine what is collectible and what is not. The end result of this too is that many areas of philately that used to be popular, for which perfect material does not exist in quantity have languished, while areas that have lots of well centered and pristine stamps are doing well.

The extreme end of this is the trend that we have seen in the US where perfect examples of very common stamps, that used to sell for 10 cents are now selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars at auction. This, while nice, collectible examples of classic stamps that are hinged or not absolutely perfectly centered are selling for pennies on the dollar at auction. It is a trend that I hope to see come to an end, as I think that collectors on the whole will have a lot more fun with their stamps once they accept the idea that it is OK for some of their stamps to be less than their ideal grade. Of course, it is the professional dealers and auctioneers who can make the biggest difference in collector's perceptions by treating this material with the respect that it ultimately deserves.

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