It’s always exciting for a collector when the next envelope comes in containing stamps purchased for the collection, whether from an auction, a stamp dealer or even the U.S. postal service. When the mail is from a foreign land (and in the era of eBay auctions and global internet sales, this is common), it’s particularly fun to find an envelope in the mail festooned with exotic philately. Stamp dealers tend to use interesting postage on their shipping envelopes. (They are using up some of their extra stock.) Some stamps used for postage turn out to be worth collecting — which helps to ease the pain of the “shipping and handling” charge added to the internet order price.
So it was an added thrill the other day to receive a packet with an array of interesting stamps on the cover — including the $2.90 priority mail stamp from the 1990s that has a catalog value of more than $6, cancelled. (The reason for the extra postage was that the seller, embarrassed because he got my address wrong, re-sent the envelope via express mail; not necessary, but appreciated!)
Inside the envelope were three gorgeous engraved stamps I had ordered from a dealer through his online site. The bill for all three stamps was $50, plus postage and handling, but since there was a 15 percent discount for orders of $50 or more, I felt quite set up. The 3d. blue from St. Helena, picturing the badge of the colony, completes my long set of the George VI definitives from the 1930s (see illustration).
The one-pound stamp from Cyprus completes my George VI set from that country, same era. For a description of the pleasure that awaits in adding these two stamps to complete the sets on the pages of my British Africa and British America albums, please refer to a post in January 2017 on the joys of “filling spaces.”
The third stamp from the envelope, the handsome five shilling engraving of the entrance to Government House in Gibraltar, is an incremental addition to my Elizabeth II set from 1953. — I’m still missing the 10 shilling and L1 stamps from the set, which are quite dear. Back in 1961, as a foresighted 13-year-old, I gathered my meager resources and sent a money order to Gibraltar, hoping to purchase most of that early set, which today is selling for $100 or more. As it happened, my letter arrived just months
after a new and rather garish set of definitives was released, replacing the stamps I had hoped to buy, so I got those instead. The garish set hasn’t done too badly, increasing nicely in catalog value. Still, I miss having a mint, never-hinged, post office-fresh 1953 set.
One other comment about the 1953 Gibraltar set — and the aforementioned Cyprus set from the 1930s as well. Unlike the all-mint set from St. Helena pictured up top, these two other sets contain both mint and postally used stamps. This may seem unremarkable, until you learn that such sets have considerably less market value, and perhaps less collector appeal. Catalogues list prices for sets that are all-mint, or all-used. Mixed mint and used sets are a philatelic mongrel to the traditional collector: neither phish nor phowl.
You may ask: If mixed sets are worth less than all-mint sets, and maybe even some all-used sets, why collect such mishmashes? Why not hold out for the more marketable commodity? Besides, don’t all-mint sets look prettier than sets with some stamps mint, others cancelled?
Good questions, to be sure. The prettiness argument is tough to counter, because it’s true. Mint and used stamps mounted together can look like a jumble — particularly in my albums, where I use black plastic strips to guard my mint stamps and plain stamp hinges to mount my used stamps. Indeed, you may not be convinced by my response in defense of mixed sets that follows. Please believe, however, that it is heart-felt. You see, I have decided to strive for philatelic completeness over philatelic correctness. I abhor those empty spaces in my album pages, and get pleasure from having entire sets assembled — mint, cancelled, even mixed. If I had a choice, I would go for the all-mint set, of which I have many. I also believe that a mixed set — with good mint stamps mingled among the used varieties — generally will be worth more than an all-used set. If I am looking for an elusive stamp to complete my mint set, I might go for a cancelled version. The mint one might be hard to find, or overpriced. Or I’m just too cheap to shell out the bucks. Or impatient. I dunno.
I have accumulated a considerable number of complete sets with mint and used stamps together. For early sets — George V and before — such mixed sets are not as big a deal. Older stamps are harder to find, and complete sets are rather rare. But I love all my mixed sets, old and newer. My basic motive in accumulating these mixed sets is that I am not willing to wait around for the exact stamp I need to pop up at the right price. Life is too short. Complete sets are more interesting than incomplete sets, even if the stamps are mixed. (They all must be in good condition, however!) If the coveted mint stamp appears and is affordable, of course I will pounce on it. If I can only find (or afford) a cancelled copy that fills out my otherwise mostly mint set, I’ll be tempted.
Part of me says: Fred, why are you doing this? Where are your standards? Don’t you realize you are settling for a mixed set, whose value is tainted? Then I also figure: Who knows? Maybe mixed sets won’t always be the pariah of the philatelic world.
There, I said it. I’ll stick to my story that collecting mixed sets is OK. One, you get the pleasure of completeness, now. Two, it’s still a solid investment, and could turn out even better. The future of stamp collecting is so dicey that in a few years the difference between mint and cancelled may grow less significant than the stamps themselves. Then it will be complete sets that collectors of the future will want … that is, if the whole hobby doesn’t turn to dust with the last generation of true stamp collectors …
Just one more point to discuss here. There must be thousands of stamps in my British Africa collection alone, plus thousands more from British America, British Europe, the Congo, my American and European collections, and so on. I have accumulated enough stamps over the decades to fill three shelves of a small bookcase to overflowing with my albums, stockbooks, binders and catalogues. How much is my collection worth? Certainly not its weight in gold. I imagine if instead of my giant, “magpie” collection (from here and there, including this and that), I had focused on buying several choice items, I probably would have been making a better investment. Stamps that already are rare are getting rarer, and their prices are strong and getting stronger. (Even though stamp collecting as a hobby is dying, etc., etc. Go figure.) I did not choose to be that kind of collector — probably because I started young, when it was easiest and most rewarding to accumulate large quantities of cheap stamps. The stamps I acquire now usually are not as cheap. They allow me to fill out sets, some of which I started collecting in my youth. There’s satisfaction in that. Years go by, and the albums grow richer with complete sets — and continue to grow more valuable. It is ever-more-entertaining to leaf through pages of philatelic history, bedecked with more and more orderly rows of these colorful, artistic, revealing postal artifacts …