Leaving A Lasting Mark on Philately
A few years ago, I looked at a collection that consisted of a number of retired philatelic exhibits. For many years, the philatelic public marveled over the precise mounting and meticulous hand lettering of these exhibits. Many held this particular exhibitor in high esteem and measured his philatelic prowess by the number of gold ribbons he had managed to assemble. Thus, when I received the call to come out and evaluate the collection, I thought that I was going to be in for a philatelic treat.
The exhibitor's widow was a sweet lady who talked in comic reverence about her husband's exhibits. First she showed me how he had taken great care to press each exhibiting ribbon that he had received between the pages of a scrapbook. "Turn the pages carefully," she instructed. She was concerned that the delicate ribbons would fall out because they were only fastened into the scrapbook by the ribbon's string being tucked into a carefully cut notch in each page. The ribbons spanned over fifty years of philately and to see them all in one place was quite impressive. I often wondered what exhibitors did when they received multiple awards over the years. This scrapbook seemed like a fitting testimonial to the man's philatelic accomplishments.
The cheerful widow also showed me several walls that contained numerous philatelic plaques, and a few display cabinets that held things like silver and crystal bowls and other trinkets that were awarded to her husband for having numerous award winning exhibit over the years. Sometimes, I question why some shows award such extravagant and impractical prizes to exhibitors. In most instances, such trinkets only serve as dust collectors and their purchase price only inflates the overall cost of a show. I have a friend who won a number of silver bowls when he avidly exhibited. He now keeps them filled with loose change and peanuts. Maybe stamp shows should re-think their awards and give rolls of nickels and dime and perhaps a jar of unsalted peanuts to the owners of award-winning exhibits.
After nearly an hour of polite conversation and the widow's tour of philatelic awards I was finally led into a room to view the deceased's collection. I was surprised that unlike most stamp areas, this man managed to keep everything neat as a pin and there was no philatelic clutter. All the exhibits were neatly arranged in binders that were lined up in a lovely hand-crafted bookcase.
At first I did a "quick flip" through each book to ascertain the contents. I then asked the widow if I could carry the books into the other room and sit at a table so that I could examine the collections more carefully. I admired the handiwork of this exhibitor. He had hand-lettered each exhibit page with India ink and in another time and place, he would've made a fine scribe in some monastery. Each exhibit page was enclosed within a sheet protector. I explained to the widow that I would have to take the pages out of the sheet protectors in order to examine the key stamps. A look of panic emerged on the lady's face. She finally uttered, "You'd destroy the integrity of my husband's collection if you took it out of those sheet protectors. Why don't you just give me a price for everything without looking any further?"
I learned years ago that it's unwise to leave any philatelic rock unturned. I've encountered too many collections that were purported to be "never hinged" that contained many hinged or damaged stamps. On several occasions, I've discovered that what appeared to be stamps encased in a protective mount were actually high-resolution color photocopies of stamps! Thus, I politely explained to the widow that I needed to examine the backs of the stamps so that I could present her with a price that would be mutually fair and acceptable. She reluctantly allowed me to take a look at some of the earlier exhibits that her husband had assembled in the 1950s. I was shocked to discover that the stamps had been affixed with large red and white paper adhesive strips!
I asked the nice lady if she knew that that her husband's very expensive stamps were affixed by such extreme measures. She sweetly smiled and replied, "Oh yes! My husband was always annoyed when the stamps would fall off their stamp hinges. So one day, I suggested that he make more durable hinges out of the labels that I used on my canning jars. Once he started using my jar labels, the stamps stayed in place and he started winning all those awards!"
Dealers are often confronted with such awkward moments. I sat looking at all the very expensive stamps that had red and white caning labels affixed to their backsides and had to come up with a quick and polite answer. I finally uttered, "Right now, I only have customers who want to take apart nice exhibits like these. But if I come across someone who wants to buy these nice exhibits that are already mounted, I'll give you a call."
The sweet lady seemed overjoyed that her late husband's work would not be desecrated. She thanked me for my time and her parting words were, "Find someone who wants to buy and exhibit my husband's collection and I'll throw in all the awards too!" I hoped that she'd find a buyer, but I honestly had no customers who would've wanted stamps with such dastardly efficient and permanent hinges!
About a year later, I received a phone call from an out-of-town dealer who was having a major frustration attack. He was ranting about a collection that he had purchased and when he got it back to his shop he discovered that all the stamps were affixed to the exhibit pages with "red and white paper labels." I felt sorry for the dealer, but he should've been sensible enough to examine the stamps more closely before buying them. "Geez, John, what am I going to do? The seller already cashed my check!" I told him that he'd just have to take the good with the bad as it was presented along the road of philately, although a snickering part of me wanted to suggest that he try exhibiting the material since it was so neatly compiled.
In the early 1980s I had an avid customer who insisted on Federal Duck stamps that had Very Fine centering and were Never Hinged. He never had a problem paying a premium for extraordinary examples of the Duck stamps that he had on his want list. A few years ago, that customer passed away and I received a call to evaluate his collection. To my dismay, his entire "collection" was in a series of large picture frames that hung in his living room. I spoke with his adult children who were in awe of the "collection" because their dad had even hand-crafted the frames. I explained that I needed to see the backs of the stamps and they refused my request because they felt it would be a desecration of their father's collection. His daughter added, "You won't be able to look at the backs of the stamps because Dad licked each stamp and carefully put them into place."
"He licked them?" I asked in dismay. I went on to explain that he always paid a premium for Never Hinged stamps.
One of his sons quipped, "Yeah, well, Dad didn't want to lick something that has a hinge on it because he didn't want to come in contact with something that contained someone else's saliva."
I was relieved when they decided that they would each take a frame of Duck stamps as a fitting remembrance of their late father.
Over the years, I've probably seen at least a million dollar's worth of quality stamps that have been abused into insignificance by their owners. I've seen my fair share of stamps that have been taped, glued, waxed and, on two occasions, stapled into albums (the stamps were stapled in the selvage, but there were many "misses"). No, the owners of these collections were not deranged individuals. Most were highly respected philatelists in their community. It's unfortunate that they never looked beyond their own personal and well-intentioned preservation habits.
Unfortunately, dealers and other collectors seldom see a philatelic friend's personal collection while it's a work-in-progress. A few years ago I gave a lecture at a stamp club about the many ways people destroy stamps and mentioned that cellophane tape was the prime cause of philatelic destruction. I suddenly noted a couple of faces in the audience that had been overcome with philatelic guilt. One man had a look of panic on his face that screamed, "Oh no! I've been taping stamps into my album for years!"
In the 1980s I was contacted by a retired dealer who said that he had a hot lead on a collection that was assembled during the 1950s. On the drive over to the collection's location, my dealer friend rattled off a list of some of the stamps, including a complete set of U.S. airmails that were all never-hinged. He told me that the deceased had made a fortune in real estate ventures and that he had spared no expense. After we examined the collection we were aghast to discover that all the stamps had been destroyed! Many were taped into place and others were stapled into multiple volumes of photo scrapbooks. This particular collection was one the greatest philatelic heartbreaks that I've experienced.
On the drive home, my dealer friend kidded me that he was disappointed that I wasn't going to pay him a finder's fee. I told him that I would've gladly paid him a fee if I had purchased the collection. Then I jokingly asked him "If you knew this guy's buying habits so well, did it ever occur to you that he wasn't buying hinges, mounts or supplement pages for an album?"
Perhaps the worst collection of big-ticket philatelic items that I ever saw consisted of over $50,000 worth of top-notch stamps and covers that were in pristine condition. The owner believed that he should preserve his philatelic treasures so he paid dearly for extreme preservation. Thus, he had all his expensive material individually encased into clear Lucite blocks.
The man argued with me that his stamps and covers were pristine and always would be for generations to come. My only question was, "How do you get them out of those Lucite coffins without damaging them?"
He replied as if I didn't understand. "They're not meant to be removed, but will be treasured and admired for years to come!" A few years later, I participated as an on-air auctioneer for the local PBS television station. To my surprise, I was tickled to see that a portion of the man's Lucite collection had been donated. I had a chat with the collectibles chairman and informed her that the stamps had been essentially rendered useless and she agreed. We decided to describe them as "souvenir philatelic paper weights."
The ultimate irony about the Lucite stamp collection is that a friend bought one via the PBS auction and gave it to me as a Christmas present that year. I had it in my office for years as a philatelic object d'art and my kids used to play with it when they were younger. It's probably in a trunk with Hot Wheels cars and other toys that were rounded up years ago and put into storage.
I often wonder when I sell a quality item to someone if that person actually intends to preserve it for future generations. Then I ponder about the means of "preservation." Will that quality item be impaled or smothered with tender loving care?
If it hasn't occurred to you yet, no stamp collection will ever be permanent. Stamp collections come and go, as do their owners. Great collections are built up over decades and dismantled in a matter of days once they are sold. As I see it, we're all just passing time and keeping the love of philately alive for future generations. The secret to philately is not the money spent, but the enjoyment received from the romance of collecting. Hopefully, other people will enjoy their stamps without destroying them in the
process. © John L. Leszak. All rights reserved. Published on The Virtual Stamp Club by permission.
John L. Leszak is the editor of Mekeel's & Stamps Magazine. He began his editing career with Stamps Magazine in 1994 and became the editor of M&S when STAMPS merged with Mekeel's. An avid philatelist since 1963, Mr. Leszak has also been a full time dealer since 1975. He is a 25+ year member of the American Philatelic Society, a member of the American Stamp Dealers Association, a Life Member of the American First Day Cover Society and a 25+ year member of the Universal Ship Cancellation Society. His first book of collected philatelic essays and observations is due to be released in May 2006.