I collected stamps for decades. I started when I was 10 and was fascinated by the hobby. I started where most kids did – collecting canceled stamps from foreign countries. As I grew older I realized that uncirculated or new stamps had greater value. I also began to focus on U.S. issues and as an adult would buy plate blocks of commemoratives on a weekly basis at the post office. I always believed that someday they would be of great value to my children, not only financially but historically. I was wrong.
As my collection grew I became concerned about the fragility of the stamps and the loss of the collection. I was determined to insure them in the event of a fire or theft. As a result, I planned to take the entire collection to 3 dealers to see if I could get an accurate appraisal.
The uncirculated collection included a complete set of most U.S. issues dating back to the early 1900’s, A near complete uncirculated collection of plate blocks to the same time period; full sheets, hundreds of first-day covers and special releases like the holographic moon-landing stamps. I put on a suit and walked into the first dealer cocky and confident. What he told me left me both angry and speechless.
I went to the second dealer a bit concerned, but convinced the first dealer was a crook. He wasn’t. The second dealer told me the same thing and so did the third. What they had essentially told me was that my collection was essentially worthless. In fact, none of them wanted to buy it -not even for the face-value of the stamps! I couldn’t figure how this could have happened. So I did some research. Here’s what I learned:
1. There’s no market for 99.9% of stamps in the U.S.
The few that still have real value are either error stamps or issues that are very old and very rare in surviving numbers. Those very rare stamps are bought and sold among a small group of investors who are highly specialized. The original market defined by everyday collectors has dwindled so significantly that it’s almost non-existent.
2. The disappearance of gummed stamps in the U.S.
“Gummed” stamps defined the original spirit of stamp collecting. You had to lick the stamp to affix it to the envelope. When the U.S. Postal Service transitioned to self-adhesive stamps the gummed stamps were gone. It’s hard to display a self-adhesive stamp and no recent efforts have tried to accommodate the need.
3. No one is collecting.
Stamp collecting, like many hobbies, begins in childhood. As you mature the hobby and the youthful passion sticks with you. Young people are simply not collecting stamps. None of their friends are doing it, fewer companies sell them as collectibles, and there is little encouragement from parents to pursue it.
4. Out of sight out of mind.
We just don’t use stamps in the U.S. like we used to. They cost more and there are Internet options for paying bills, correspondence and other communication we used to do through the mail. When we do buy stamps for postage it’s usually the forever stamps with their generic flags, Christmas wreaths and flowers.
5. Stamps don’t look that valuable.
Blame it again on the self-adhesives but there’s also something to be said about the designs and the printing of U.S. stamps. Older stamps had a “certificate” quality about them. They actually looked valuable like a stock certificate or paper currency. Now they look and function like stickers you would put on a kid’s lunch bag.
6. Internet auction sites.
When whole collections are offered on EBay and Craigslist with starting prices below face value, the value of any collection plummets. The advice I received from one of the dealers I visited was, “Use your collection as postage. It’s the best value you’ll get.”
I’m sorry to say it, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Ironically, I’ve often used stamps from my collection to ship boxes of other merchandise I’ve sold on EBay, although I did manage to make some modest money selling some stamps on EBay. I think I averaged about 10% over face value, but the total income barely paid a few utility bills. I tried to get my kids interested and asked if they wanted them. They looked at the stamps with polite impatience. They had better things to do and stamp collecting just didn’t make sense.
In some ways, the biggest reason for the decline of stamp collecting is that we simply don’t have time for it anymore. It seems we’re busier than ever and stamp collecting has always been a hobby that required patience and time. Those things are in short supply these days and so is the interest in stamp collecting. All of which is very sad for me. I really thought they would be worth something someday and that I was leaving some kind of legacy to my kids. Instead all I can give them is postage that they rarely use.