Scoping a Collecting Area Realistically

One of the main challenges of choosing an appropriate specialty in philately is choosing a topic that contains enough variety to remain interesting, but not so much that it becomes impossible to manage. At the same time there has to be enough material available in the philatelic marketplace to hold your interest. This last point is largely a personal matter, as there are some collectors who are quite content to add one stamp to their collection a year, while there are others that simply must add many dozens each and every week!

Usually after a while, the philatelist specializing in a particular topic runs into one of two problems:

1. They realize that they over-reached - the area they have chosen is far more extensive than they thought and much more expensive than they realized. Consequently they come to the conclusion that completeness is not going to be a realistic goal with the area they have chosen. Then they have to decide whether completeness is important to them or not, and if it is, they may have to abandon the are they have embarked on.

2. They realize that while the scope is good, the material is much scarcer and harder to acquire than they thought and they are not patient enough to wait for it to become available. Consequently their interest in the area withers and dies on the vine so to speak.

To avoid these problems, it helps to have a general appreciation for the scarcity of philatelic material in general, and to be able to realistically determine scope so that you can see what a complete collection would look like before you start. Then you can form an idea of what it will cost and thus whether or not you can afford it.

Many collectors under-estimate the true amount of scope involved in specialized collections and this is mostly because they rely on standard catalogue listings to guide them. What they don't understand is that the catalogues are simplified listings, even the specialized ones. They list groups of printings for each issue. There are many aspects to each stamp issue that are not covered by the catalogues:

1. Most catalogues do not list the types of postal history items that can be collected for a particular issue, nor do they list the different types of cancels. Most collectors have no idea of how many different post offices there are in the country they are collecting - it is usually far more than they imagine.

2. Most catalogues ignore all the pre-production material associated with the issue: the sketckes, the un-adopted designs, the colour trials, the die proofs, the plate proofs and so on. This materialis always rare and expensive, so that even a seemingly mundane, common modern issue can be made challenging by the inclusion of this material.

3. Although major shade varieties are listed, there are usually 2-3 times as many actual shades that can be collected as what the catalogues list.

4. Other characteristics that require more than novice experience and special equipment to identify, such as paper varieties, gum varieties and line versus comb perforations are usually ignored by most stamp catalogues.

5. Re-entries are not usually listed in catalogues, and when they are, it is only the most major ones.

Many collectors also underestimate their ability to afford a particular area because they don't consider the possibility that they may collect something for 25 or 30 years. For example a collector who spends $100 a month on their collection, spends $1,200 a year, $12,000 every 10 years and in 30 years will spend $36,000. $36,000 will buy a lot of stamps, and there are very few areas that you couldn't make serious inroads in with $36,000. Lets face it $100 a month or $25 per week is a fairly modest collecting budget. Many collectors will have much more than this to spend, so unless your area is early Mauritius, USA mint, or Canada Pence Issues, most topics that interest you should be within reach as long as you scope them properly and make a plan.

For example, lets say that you only collect mint and you like the Maple Leaf Issue that I just posted about. A complete mint collection could look like this (assuming you only collect very fine condition):

1. Die proofs of issued stamps in black (8 x $1,000-$2,000 each) = $8,000 - $16,000 - 8 items
2. Die proofs in issued colours (8 x $1,000 - $1,599 each) = $8,000-$16,000 - 8 items
3. Plate proofs in pairs - $2,000 - 8 items
4. Imperf pairs with and without gum - $10,650 - $20,000 if you insist on NH - 14 items
5. Issued stamps on vertical wove ($2,000 - $6,000 for NH) - 8 items
6. Issued stamps on horizontal wove ($2,000 - $6,000 for NH) - 8 items
7. Extra shade varieties of the 1c (2 x $70-210 each - at least one additional shade on 2 papers) - 2 items
8. Extra shade varieties of the 2c (6 x $80-240 each - at least three shades on 2 papers) - 6 items
9. Extra shades of the 3c (6 x $100-$300 each - at least three shades on 2 papers) - 6 items
10. Extra shades of the 6c (2 x $200-$600 each - 1 additional shade on 2 papers) - 2 items
11. Extra shades of the 8c (6 x $400-$1,200 each - at least three shades on 2 papers) -  6 items
12. Extra shades of the 10c (2 x $800-$2,400 each - 1 additional shade on 2 papers) - 6 items
12. Extra shades of the 1c and 2c plate proofs (2 pairs at $265) - 2 items
13. Re-entries on the 1/2c (dozens at $20-$60 for each stamp up to $90-$270 for the major re-entry) - assume 20 items
14. Re-entries on the 1c (dozens at $70-$210 or $250-$750 for the major re-entry) - assume 20 items
15. Re-entries on the 2c (dozens at $80-$240 or $200-$600 for the major re-entry) - assume 20 items
16. Re-entries on the 3c (dozens at $100-$300 or $150-$450 for the major re-entry) - assume 20 items
17. 5c guide dot and plate scratch variety (2 x $1,200 - $3,600 each - 2 papers) - 2 items
18. 3c imperf left margin - $1,500 - 1 item
18. Re-entry on the 6c and engraver's slip variety (4 x $2,200-$6,600 - 2 shades, 2 papers) - 4 items
19. Re-entry on the 8c (8 x estimate $1,000 - $3,000 each - 4 shades, 2 papers) - 8 items
20. Re-entry on the 10c (4 x estimate $1,000-$3,000 each - 2 shades, 2 papers) - 4 items
21. Plate blocks of 8 - 30 blocks costing between $720 for the 1/2c and $28,800 for the 10c. The 30 blocks assumes one of each shade and paper variety and assumes only 1 plate per value, but of course there were many more for the 1c, 2c and 3c.

Just from the above, without the plate blocks, this collection consists of 177 items and would cost well over $100,000 to assemble in just VF hinged condition. You can basically multiply this amount by 3 if you collect never hinged and then again by 8 if you want all the plate blocks. Not only that, but it would take a lifetime of dedicated searching to find it all - if that was even possible. 177 items is not large - if you placed an average of 10 stamps to a page, you are talking a 17-25 page collection. With plate blocks it would be much larger - closer to 30-50 pages.

The Unitrade catalogue listing alone wouldn't give you the impression of just what is involved in forming a collection like this because they information is just numbers on a page. If you still like this issue and want to collect it, but don't have the kind of money alluded to above, then you have essentially two choices:

1. You can elect to collect a lower condition grade. Lowering the grade from very fine to fine, will cut the cost in half to a third. Accepting very good, will cut it in half again. Lowering your expectations on condition and buying shrewdly at auction will bring the above collection to within reach of a more modest lifetime budget like the one I outlined above.

2. You can reduce the scope. For example, you could decide to cut out the pre-production material, or the plate blocks, deciding on just a single of each variety.

Having a realistic starting point like the list above will allow you to experiment with different scopes until you find one that suits your budget and collecting style. If you are the type of collector who likes to play with hundreds or thousands of stamps, then they only way to expand the scope for this issue to that level would be to collect used and covers. If you include cancellations and covers on the above issues, then you have an almost unlimited scope. Otherwise, if you only like mint and you are after quantity and quality, then this may not be a good choice of issue, despite your interest in it.

If your budget is very limited at the moment, but you expect it to increase, then it may be a good idea to look at a set where most of the basic stamps are inexpensive, but in which there are a few challenging and expensive items. The 1967-73 Centennial Issue is an example of such a set. You can collect the less expensive stamps, have fun and achieve a high degree of completion while you wait for the more expensive and limited number of rarities. The above analysis indicates that the Maple Leaf issue is good for a collector who has a high collecting budget that remains more or less steady over time.

You will find that going through this exercise ahead of time will help you choose the right collecting area to pursue and will result in you having more fun and enjoyment with your choice.


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