Bonus: The Exquisite Pleasure of Filling Out Sets

Please come along as I return briefly to a beloved topic in stamp collecting — the exquisite pleasure of “completing sets.” Internet stamp shopping has made it easier than ever to fill your “wish lists” with the stamps missing from your key sets — that is, if you can afford to spend the money! (“But it’s an investment!” I tell my wife, who rolls her eyes, gives me the cold shoulder, puts her foot down and closes the books.) The accompanying illustrations show how several of my recent online purchases — within my budget — allowed me to fill out two favorite sets in my British Commonwealth collection: the Ascension Queen Elizabeth definitive series of  1963; and the Jubilee Issue of 1897 from Canada, commemorating the sexagenary (60th year) of Queen Victoria’s rule. Each stamp in that latter series features side-by-side portraits of the queen as a swan-necked beauty in 1837 and a doughty dowager in 1897.

Admittedly, I have not “completed” the Jubilee set. Its values run from a half-cent to $5, including $1, $2, $3  and $4 stamps. The high values are hideously expensive. Some of the lower values cost more than I normally would want or be able to spend. But recently I got the bug, so I’ve been marshaling my resources and trolling the Internet for bargains, just to see how many from the set I could gather  …

fullsizeoutput_1448But before more words about  Canada, a few words  about Ascension.  The attractive bird issue of 1963 followed the first Queen Elizabeth definitive set of 1953 — a gorgeous and valuable  series that I have described elsewhere (see my  Ascension blog post). The 1963 set is not cheap — I had to shop around and finally bought the top two values, from separate dealers, for a combined $22.30.   I hope the images here and below help to  explain the appeal of stamp collecting in a visual way — notice the designs and the colors, also the way the completed set (below) moves smoothly from 1 penny through 1 pound, each stamp linked to the other by a common design template, each one its own handsome object, with original art, vivid color and the unifying portrait of the queen. The complete mint set sells online for $33, so I don’t know how well I did — particularly since my 1/6 stamp is cancelled. I may decide to pick up a mint 1/6 some day  — it’s not expensive. Meanwhile, I indulge my  predilection for  complete sets, even if they do include a mix of mint and cancelled stamps.



Now, on to the Canadian set, and my bold bid for the 15-cent and 20-cent stamps in the series. This set is a particular favorite of mine, and seems to be popular with many collectors. The stamps,  as mentioned earlier, are pricey! It took me  years of stop-and-go collecting to begin building my set. IMG_2190My first big move was to buying the 1/2 cent. Oddly, its price seemed to be rising sharply a few years ago. When I finally jumped in and picked up a mint copy in 2014, it cost me $22.49 — a 4,400 percent increase over face value, right? Imagine: If  your ancestors had been in Canada in 1897, they could have picked up a full sheet of these black beauties for a quarter, the face value! (Why is this low-value stamp so expensive? Why so rare? Uh, sorry, I haven’t gotten around to researching that particular subject yet; maybe later …)

Some of the mid-range values are not outrageously expensive — I got a mint 1-cent for $2.25, a mint 5-cent for $4.35. Others cost a bit more. I scored a coup, I think, when I found the 50-cent, used, offered for $39.

A word on the condition of stamps like these in relation to their value. Mint, never-hinged examples from this set command sky-high prices. Hinged mint copies go for considerably less. Used copies may cost slightly less than that. Then comes the matter of centering. A stamp may be sound in every other respect — no tears or thins, scuffs, short or missing perforations — yet still be a relative IMG_2198bargain if the design is noticeably off-center. You will notice in my set, pictured here and again below, a number of  pretty dramatically off-center values — look particularly at the 1/2-cent (skewed high), the 15-cent (low) and the 20-cent (skewed left). At least the stamps themselves are sound. And remember my urge toward “completeness,” which overcomes key considerations like mint or used — or in this case, centering. I stand by my Jubilee set, noting that each stamp is intact, if not the most elegant example you will find.

The mint 20-cent cost me a whopping $38.39 from one dealer; the used 15-cent a still-considerable $33.94 from another.  It was a thrill to insert these two rarities into their protective, black-backed sleeves (using stamp tongs, of course!), custom-cut and mount them in my British America album. Wow! The set is filling out nicely! Of course I should not expect to pick up the $1 or higher values anytime soon — unless I come into some serious money. (I saw a $2 nearly obliterated by a heavy cancel, on sale for something like $90 …)  But just having the set complete to the 50-cent would be a feat I never thought  I would accomplish;  if only I could find an affordable 6-cent! The pressure is on: Just look at that page (pictured above). The white hole in the middle cries out to be filled! Copies of the 6-cent  were available on Internet sites, all right, but the cost was daunting — $30, $40 or more. I could pick up a damaged “space filler” for much less, but that’s not my way. I insist on intact stamps, with only the rarest of exceptions.

fullsizeoutput_1472Eventually I did settle on a 6-cent, offered on an Internet site for a very reasonable $15.50. What’s wrong with it? It looked fine, though the cancellation was ugly. It seemed to have all its perforations, and the centering was even decent, so. I snapped it up. When it arrived in the mail a few days later, it fulfilled my expectations. Yes, one corner is a little greasy; the cancellation makes it look like it’s missing some perfs, even though it isn’t. It’s a sound stamp, listed as “fine.”  And the price sure was right! Plus, I got the pleasure of adding the missing piece to “fill out” this desirable set from the 1/2-cent through the 50-cent. (See below, enlarged.)


Altogether, I figure I spent a little over $185 over a period of five or more years to acquire this “partial set.” Now, let’s check online to see what this set is going for today.  According to the widely used online site Zillions of Stamps, using the middle range of prices, my partial set would cost an encouraging $296.50 — 62.5 percent more than I paid.  An all-mint partial set, 1/2-cent through 50-cent, was selling for $400 …

What a handsome series it is! Though I can’t help but wonder how many Canadian stamp collectors in the turbulent economy of the 1890s were able to buy those $1, $2, $3, $4 and $5 stamps —  any more than most collectors today can afford the inflated prices of these rare, high-value beauties  …

Photo gallery: The top values
Well, at least we can feast our eyes. Here they are, the top values of the Jubilee Issue, all lined up, like a wish list for my fantasy stamp collection.  (See below.) These images are from the Internet, of course, not  my collection. They are, so to speak, for illustrative purposes only. And what illustrations! Notice the exquisite engraving: the delicate portraits, the emblems, the stylized maple leaf border; the vivid color; the fine centering — and the high prices!  I will supply brief captions with a few details.


The $1 (color: lake) is offered for $375. It is a mint, never-hinged example, very well-centered.



The $2 (dark purple) is offered for $2,900. It is a superb example, accompanied by certificate. Notice the near-perfect centering.


The $3 (yellow bistre) is also a beautiful example. It is offered for $1,395.

fullsizeoutput_1478This example of the $4 value (purple) is marred by a heavy “railroad cancel.” The centering also is skewed toward the top. Price: $190.


This beautiful example of the $5 value (olive green) is offered at $1,035. What color! What centering!




The British Empire’s Fourth Dimension

The British Empire’s Fourth Dimension

A Top-60 Blog!

The other day I got what seemed to be a piece of unsolicited good news: My FMF Stamp Project had been selected as one of the “Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs” on the Internet.  Cool!

What exactly does this mean? Well, first take a look at the message the popped up on my email server:

“Hi Frederick,

My name is Anuj Agarwal. I’m Founder of Feedspot.

I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog FMF STAMP PROJECT has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs on the web.   (Ed: Anuj supplied a link further into his Feedspot site: )

I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 60 Stamp Collecting Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

fullsizeoutput_1471Also, you have the honor of displaying the following badge on your blog. Use the below code to display this badge proudly on your blog.”

Opening the link, I found a listing of the other 59 stamp-collecting blogs that have received this special recognitions. And more text, starting with a sentence fragment:

“The Best Stamp Collecting blogs from thousands of top Stamp Collecting blogs in our index using search and social metrics. Data will be refreshed once a week.

These blogs are ranked based on following criteria

•Google reputation and Google search ranking

•Influence and popularity on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites

•Quality and consistency of posts.

•Feedspot’s editorial team and expert review

CONGRATULATIONS to every blogger that has made this Top Stamp Collecting Blogs list! This is the most comprehensive list of best Stamp Collecting blogs on the internet and I’m honoured to have you as part of this! … If your blog is one of the Top 60 Stamp Collecting blogs, you have the honour of displaying the following badge on your site. Use the below code to display this badge proudly on your blog. You deserve it!”

It doesn’t seem to me that my FMF Stamp Project has attracted much attention — yet anyway. But the “medal” looks totally cool, so I figured out a way to display it as a logo at the top of my home page and FMF Stamp Project blog posts. I also did a little research on and Anuj Agarwal.  According to social media, he already has had a successful career in international insurance, both in India and Great Britain and probably beyond. I imagined him being an enthusiastic stamp collector with considerable resources and free time on his hands (or else building a new fortune with this site, which seems to be an info aggregation service for its subscribers).



All this, notwithstanding that the photo he included with his email message makes Anuj Agarwal look, according to my friend George whom I shared the message with, like he’s still in junior high. (Sorry Anuj — that was George talking, not me.)

Inspired by the sheer serendipity of the whole thing — after all, the FMF Stamp Project is just a lark, and I have only just managed to clamber aboard this Internet platform — I sent Anuj (I hope I may call you Anuj) a cheery email in reply:

“It was a pleasure to get your message and notification today. I don’t know exactly what it means yet, but it sure seems like it can’t be bad. (I’m already displaying my “medal” as logo on my blog!)  It is a thrill to have my FMF Stamp Project noticed in any way. This labor of love has been going on for a year or more. I am putting up more blog posts all the time, because I have a story to tell on just about every page of my large stamp collection. I looked you up via social media and see you have had a successful career already. And your Web site looks intriguing — something that could be very useful for curious and discriminating readers. Perhaps I will learn to use it one day.

“I am a retired journalist and editor in Syracuse, NY, age 68. Now I continue to pursue my lifelong interests in music composition** and performance, as well as writing projects like the FMF Stamp Project. My stamp commentaries began as essays shared with family and loved ones. I was encouraged to put them on a blog, and with help from my stepson was able to scramble onto the platform, where I am hanging on for dear life. Having lots of fun, though!

“FYI, I lived on the subcontinent in the 1950s — in Dhaka, where my father was a diplomat. We traveled several times by train from Calcutta (Kolkata?) to Delhi and beyond, to visit my brother and sister who were studying in Woodstock. What memories …

“It is also a pleasure to make your acquaintance via the Internet— which Dan Rather calls the most significant innovation since the steam engine. I wish you every success. — Fred M. Fiske, Minoa (Syracuse), NY

** p.s. I also have a site where I have posted a half-dozen of my songs so far. Go to and search for fred fiske.”

It wasn’t long before Anuj sent me a reply:

“Hi Fred,

Thanks for adding the Badge on your Blog.

If you can add a link back to the post, we’d greatly appreciate it.

Best, Anuj

So now I need to figure out how to embed a link in the logo? Or elsewhere on my blog? Why a link to Am I opening myself up to some kind of scam? I hope not! Will this end up with my bank accounts drained, all my assets confiscated, leaving me a homeless panhandler in the snow on a street corner? Heaven forbid!

Get a grip. Don’t be so morbid. Maybe it’s just a chance to expand your audience. Enjoy the (limited) celebrity. And limited is right. When I told my wife about my new “medal,” she snickered. That’s how much of the world thinks about stamp collecting in general. And with some reason. We tend to attract geeks and nerds, like me — and not the high-tech kind. I may be a celebrity in Syracuse Stamp Club circles, but I still need $1.50 to buy a cup of coffee.

And yet … my starry eyes are starting to focus on future prizes in the sky: more readers for the FMF Stamp Project; more open-minded folks  taking an interest in stamps; renewed interest in the hobby in general — and improved prospects that my collection won’t lose value as fast as I build it up.

My daughter Molly, who is Mideast bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, heard the news (from me, via email) and responded with words of encouragement:

“Way to go YOD (Ye Olde Dad)! I KNEW you needed an online presence, and would get a kick out of it. Look at all you’ve been doing, between the stamp blog and your music. Am really excited for you. What a great outlet, and — as I predicted — you have an audience. Now, if you could only monetize it…  love from Cairo, where the weather is fantastically cool.”

Encouraging words, indeed. But forget about the push to monetize. We stamp collectors generally have a pretty modest and realistic assessment of our beloved pastime. While we can’t get enough of it ourselves, we all too readily accept that most of the world doesn’t care a hoot about stamps.

Nevertheless, through the FMF Stamp Project, I think I have managed to open a conversation about stamps aimed at a general audience, using the resources of the Internet to enrich my commentaries with glorious illustrations of enlarged stamps from my collection and elsewhere. Now, being selected as one of the 60 best stamp blogs —  “from thousands” (really?) — I am (modestly) thrilled. Perhaps it is slightly ridiculous. And so, I offer a bit of silliness to celebrate this new distinction: **

Let me collect my thoughts before I become unhinged by the thrill of having my FMF Stamp Project selected as one of the 60 best stamp blogs on the Internet. I know skeptics may suspect an ulterior motive behind this “medal,” and wouldn’t touch it with 10-foot tongs. They’d demand that the whole thing be canceled. Nevertheless, I am inclined to commemorate this happy event as a definitive comment on the good quality my work, and hope my commentaries will be engraved in the minds and hearts of a growing audience. My aim, of course, is to promote stamp collecting, a hobby whose popularity seems to have worn thin.  Yielding to despair and admitting I am licked would mean being stuck in a declining market that could only mean damage for my own collection. My focus is on encouraging more and more people to consider stamp collecting, in hopes that committing philately together will improve the condition of my beloved hobby.

** The italicized words all refer to stamp-collecting; if you can’t figure out how, ask a stamp collector!