Investors eye postage stamps

The postage stamp market was very hot before the 1997 Asian financial crisis and now it's heating up again. Experts advise what to watch for. Wang Jie describes the issue.

It's tantalizing to think that among those boxes of dusty old family papers and letters there might be a small fortune - a tiny, long-forgotten postage stamp.

Collectors crowd at a stamp show in Shanghai as the stamp market is heating up again

The Chinese postage stamp auction market has recently heated up again, but experts warn what's in the attic probably isn't worth very much. Unless it's from the "cultural revolution" period (1966-76) or the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Significance, rarity and condition determine value.

Thirteen years ago in 1997, the postage stamp market in China was booming, and several stamp exchange markets emerged. But then the 1997 Asian financial crisis canceled hopes of a new age of profitable stamp collecting.

But in the last couple of years, long-forgotten objects such as coins, chops, ancient mirrors and old Moutai spirit have been bringing in money.

Rare postage stamps too are selling and collectors hope the enthusiasm lasts.

In 2009, one stamp titled "All the Landscape of the Country is Red," issued during the "cultural revolution," was auctioned for HK$3.68 million (US$472,845 today) in Hong Kong.

It originally sold for - 0.08 yuan at the time, about 1 US cent. That set a record for "cultural revolution" postage stamps.

A year later, another stamp issued during the "cultural revolution" broke the record and sold for HK$6.67 million.

Starting in 2010, the postage stamp market has become very, very hot.

"Don't be too optimistic," says a veteran postage stamp investor, declining to be quoted by name. "From years of experience, I understand the nature of stamp collecting."

One of his friends used to be called "the big brother and winner" in the stamp collecting arena when it boomed in 1997. "But he lost badly. Guess what he's doing now? Selling lottery tickets."

What accounts for the recent increase in auction prices?

"Take a careful look," says the investor. "It's only the stamps issued in early periods or the 'cultural revolution' that sell for high figures, since rarity always decides the value."

According to him, the daunting inflation rate has pushed the market up, encouraging ordinary people to invest.

"I often blame my parents for not collecting those old things years ago," says Wu Wei, a 35-year-old professional. "Back then, the prices of everything were reasonable and affordable. But the best time is gone."

Fortunately, he found a set of fabled zodiac golden monkey stamps issued in February 1980. "I'm going to sell if the price keeps rising," says Wu.

China issued 5 million Monkey stamps to commemorate the Year of the Monkey on the Chinese lunar calendar.

They are not that rare but they are familiar to many people and are considered a weather vane in the stamp market.

In 1997, a single monkey stamp sold for 1,800 yuan (US$278). In 2010 a single stamp sold for 11,700 yuan.

Early this year a whole set of stamps, 80 individual stamps, was auctioned for 1.1 million yuan.

That might explain why many Chinese people stand in long queues to purchase special edition zodiac animal stamps during the Chinese lunar new year. Every year, new stamps are issued.

The 1980 monkey stamp, and by extension similar zodiac stamps, are rooted in the minds of many Chinese people as an investment - accessible and affordable.

For example, the price of the dragon stamp issued in 2000 has increased 30 times in value; the rabbit stamp from 1999 has increased five times; last year's tiger stamp has almost tripled in value, according to collectors.

"If you look at its original face value, then a 30-fold increase is no big deal. I don't think much of those stamps, especially those issued after 1990," says Ji Chongjian, the owner of Shanghai Chongyuan Auction House. "The huge circulation and the boring subject are the reasons. Some stamps have a circulation of 10 or 20 billion, I really don't see any investment value there."

Of course, special limited-edition stamps, especially canceled ones, are a different story.

Ji suggests ordinary people should not get excited about stamp collecting.

"If it's your hobby, it's okay," he says. "But be wary of treating it as an investment."

According to him, there are only two stamp categories with investment potential, those issued during the Qing Dynasty and those issued during the "cultural revolution."

The 100 single stamps issued to mark the ascent to the throne of Pu Yi (1908-1912), China's last emperor, have been valued at 100,000 yuan each.

The rarity of the stamps issued during the "cultural revolution" make them valuable.

The message in all this: The postage stamp market and the flow of capital are not easy to figure out and there's considerable uncertainty.


Two penny blue bought for £29,000 sells for £1m at auction

The elusive 'Post Office Mauritius' two penny blue stamp fetched just over £1 million to become the most valuable ever sold in the UK.

The rare 'Post Office Mauritius' stamps sold for £1 million at auction in London

An unidentified telephone bidder beat off competition from six would-be buyers in the crowded sales room to pay twice as much as expected for one of the world's most famous stamps at Spink Auctioneers, London.

The stamp was one of the highlights of the Chartwell collection formed by businessman and philanthropist Sir Cyril Humphrey Cripps, expected to fetch more than £20million in nine sales over 18 months.

Collectors from around the world have descended on the auction house to bid for stamps currently held in 80 albums.

Another rarity going under the hammer is the finest known 'penny black', dating from the beginning of the Post Office in 1840.

It is expected to fetch between £150,000 and £200,000.

Auction house chairman Olivier Stocker said: 'The Chartwell Collection is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the biggest ''wow'' moments we have ever experienced.

'When the collection arrived in London it was amazing to watch as our specialists turned the pages of what may be one of the finest philatelic collections of our time to reveal treasure after treasure.'

Sir Humphrey was a passionate collector all his life. After his death in 2000, his children found a shoebox in the back of his wardrobe containing thousands of train tickets.

He had kept the ticket from every journey he had ever made.

Sir Humphrey began collecting stamps in the 1950s, encouraged by his son Robert, who had inherited a stamp album from an uncle.


Stanley Gibbons looks to put its stamp on the world

For stamps and autograph expert Stanley Gibbons (LON:SGI), 2011 is shaping up to be the year it truly begins to capitalise on its global brand thanks to a much more powerful online presence, growing interest in its offerings, most notably in China, and renewed focus on its core business, high quality collectibles.

Certainly there is considerable scope for expansion for the company worldwide: Despite its leading brand status, the company still has only 0.4% of a global market worth $10 billion per annum, according the international organisation for postal sector players, the Universal Postal Union. The body also estimates there are an estimated 60 million stamp collectors worldwide, of which 20 million are in China.

The long term, sustained growth in philatelic investment, furthermore, suggests stamps will remain an attractive alternative asset class going forward, further supporting the company’s prospects.

While Stanley has been mulling and planning its online strategy for several years, it is only now that it is coming to full fruition. There are good reasons for the slow pace, with chief executive Michael Hall pointing to too much emphasis on the company’s investment arm as a significant drag: “We focussed too much on short term opportunities to grow our investment and, perhaps, lost sight a little of our core objectives, core markets, core strengths.”

But there are other very good reasons for the delay in getting the online strategy up to speed. Not least among them is the sheer volume of work involved in creating databases for over 30 stamp catalogues, and comprising 1000s of pages has been enormously time consuming. Hall cites as an example Stanley’s “Stamps of The World’ catalogue, which stretches over 6,000 pages and features over a million stamps.

The time and effort should all be worthwhile though over the long term. The company’s retail website, launched last month should, for instance, enable the company to significantly boost earnings from its substantial holdings of lower value stamps. Previously those stamps, totalling over 400,000, were only available to purchase through visiting its retail premises on the Strand in London.

It is way too early to assess fully the performance of the retail site but Hall assures that its functionality is proving to be fine; with user feedback so far indicating just small tweaks are needed.

The retail site will be followed up, in the second half, with the launch of a trading platform. Similar in concept to trading on sites like eBay, it will allow stamp dealers and individuals to trade or auction their stock on a Stanley Gibbons platform.

The trading platform should generate new income streams for Stanley, including commission income and product authentication fees. There will also be a subscription stream thanks to its “innovative” online stamp collection tool and the site will boast access to online ‘real time’ pricing data for stamps too.

While the authentication service is not an obligation, sellers risk being kicked off on poor ratings – just as on Amazon and eBay.

Of its competitors in the online trading space eBay and Delcampe Auctions stand out but Stanley’s heavyweight brand status should help it, over time, become the default focus for online stamp trading worldwide, especially at the higher end of the market. As Hall stresses, the company only trades in catalogue quality product: “With us, you know you are going to get top quality.”

Turning to market penetration, China, home already to a third of philatelic collectors worldwide, and interest there continuing to grow fast, clearly represents a big opportunity for Stanley.

Already, with very minimal marketing to date, Stanley has managed to notch up sales last year £900,000. But the company is treading carefully: “What we are doing at the moment with China is building knowledge and presence. Hong Kong is particularly important in this respect – more dealers in China buy in Hong Kong than on the mainland.”

The Chinese are particularly keen on British stamps – items like the penny black and tuppeny blue, for instance are a big hit.

A good illustration of the fantastic growth in the China stamp market is the performance “1980 Year of the Monkey 8f”, the most famous stamp from China. It is, says Hall, the Penny Black of China - everyone there knows the stamp, reveres it and wants to own one.

In November 2006, Monkey 8fs were selling for £275 each on average. Today, they can sell at auction for £1,300, an increase of 373%.

Not surprising then that Stanley is also buying rare Chinese stamps to sell on. Hall explains that with stamp collecting having been illegal under former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, since his death in 1976 there has been an explosion in collecting. “A lot of Chinese stamps went overseas during the period when collecting was illegal but there is great interest there in repatriation.”

Hall believes the company has much to offer collectors and traders of Chinese stamps, both inside and outside the country as many westerners are also buying Chinese stamps as a means of diversifying and buying into China.

He adds: “Our perception at the moment is that the Chinese themselves do not differentiate on quality whereas we only buy top quality. Indeed we are buying top quality at the same price as the Chinese are paying for poor quality.”

There are growing concerns that the Chinese stamp market is now a bubble but Hall disagrees. “I think the term "bubble" is widely misused by financial commentators when referring to anything that represents a high growth market. There is validity in the concept though, that things can't go up at such high rates forever...

“My view is that, sure, the Chinese stamp market will become a bubble eventually but at the moment it is just a fast growing market supported by huge and rising demand against severe supply restrictions.” And Stanley is keen to ride it while the going is good.

The appetite of the Chinese for stamps is impressive, with Hall pointing out he has personally been to auctions in Hong Kong, for instance, where more than a dozen people will still be bidding for product over £100,000. By comparison, in the UK, he has never come across more than two or three bidders when prices rise above £100,000.

While the online ventures and growing demand overall augur well for the stamp side of its business, the company is also keen to move into other collectibles, niches that have similar characteristics to the world of stamps.

“We are definitely planning to diversify more into the collectibles universe in general. They are and will be extremely carefully chosen, however, not just in terms of product but the kind of partnerships we can forge with companies operating in the areas of interest to us. Quality in all respects is key.”

In recent months the company has added rare coins and war medals to its range of currently core stamps and autograph offerings. Other collectibles of growing interest to the group include historical documents and antique watches.

“We are very much focused on the long-term and not interested in chasing short term targets, that has to be the foundation for Stanley. But yes, it would be fair to say we feel very much that we are in the process of going through a step change in our development’.

Hall’s confidence about the company’s strategy and prospects is certainly backed up by recent trading. An update in April revealed it had made a strong start to its new year, with first quarter underlying revenues ahead 24%.

With the company having begun the year with high level of product, analysts are anticipating a healthy increase in sales over the current year.

House broker Peel Hunt is upbeat on Stanley Gibbons highlighting in recent research significant growth opportunities for the company through the internet sites, growth in emerging markets and in other collectibles.

It believes growing global interest should ensure that stamps continue to be an attractive alternative asset class, with “the strength of the brand providing a key competitive advantage”.

The broker estimates the asset value for Stanley Gibbons at £45.5m or 181p per share, including its stamps and memorabilia at market value rather than book value, underlining its confidence in the stock and prospects for the company.

Peel Hunt rates the stock a ‘buy’ with a price target of 215p.

Stanley Gibbons shares opened this morning on 184p.


Oregon artist to create stamp of personal favorite Mark Twain

COLUMBIA — Never in Greg Manchess’ wildest dreams did he think he would one day be chosen as the artist for a stamp honoring one of his all-time favorite subjects: Mark Twain.

“His face is so distinctive; I could even draw it in my sleep,” said Manchess, a self-taught artist from Portland, Ore.

Mark Twain's face, a riverboat, foliage and typography were key elements for Manchess as he designed this stamp.

The Twain stamp is the 27th installment in the U.S. Postal Service's Literary Arts series honoring famous American authors. Twain, whose given name was Samuel Clemens, is the author of American literary works such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

This will be the fifth Mark Twain stamp available from the Postal Service. The first came out in 1940 in the Famous Americans series. In 1972, the Postal Service released Norman Rockwell’s rendition of a scene titled “Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence.”

The third stamp came out in 1985, commemorating the return of Halley’s comet and its unusual connection with Twain, as it appeared in both his birth year, 1835, and his year of death, 1910.

The fourth stamp, released in 1993 as part of the Postal Service's Classic Books series, featured an illustration from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

As a child, Manchess always enjoyed Twain’s books. His fascination with Twain grew in art school, where he painted portraits and did a sculpted head study of Twain.

Little did Manchess know that one day the Postal Service would come knocking on his door asking him to paint the newest Mark Twain stamp, which will be a 44-cent commemorative first-class Forever Stamp.

“We got to talking, and (they) asked if I was ever interested in doing stamps, Manchess said. "And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I would love to!’”

With 34 years of experience as a professional artist and illustrator, Manchess’s distinct style of thick brush strokes with oil paint earned him national recognition. His has collaborated with Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Disney to create movie posters and conceptual work for "The Chronicles of Narnia" series.

Manchess's fondness of history is exhibited in his book covers, magazine spreads and murals for a variety of clients such as Time magazine, National Geographic magazine and the Smithsonian.

“Greg has a marvelous reputation for his art,” said Phil Jordan, who has been an art director and stamp designer with the Postal Service since 1991. Jordan managed the entire Twain stamp project, and he hired Manchess.

Manchess said designing a stamp can be tricky.

“There is always a challenge with the format of a painting,” Manchess said. “For instance, going from a semi-size mural to a book cover to a stamp sounds like a problem.”

The key, he said, is to start with a small design then work upward so that everything in the picture balances out.

“Whenever I’m doing a painting, I start with a small thumbnail, usually the size of a — coincidentally — stamp,” Manchess said.

He said the real challenge was to get four key elements in the finished product: Twain’s head, a riverboat, foliage and the typography.

“The type is important, so there is no way around that,” he said. Jordan dictated the typography.

The real trick with the stamp was to be able to design it without losing too much of Manchess’ signature style of thick, expressive brush strokes.

“It had to be small enough but large enough to see,” he said “so I had to downsize my brushes.”

The original painting of the stamp is only 6 inches across, and it was inspired by a 1907 photograph of Twain. Jordan went through many photographs and pictures of the writer and picked those that were most recognizable and that would exude a classic sense of American illustration. Manchess got the last say on which photograph to use.

“It was an old black-and-white shot,” Manchess said. “But the lighting was nice, so I added the color and made up the skin tone and all that stuff.”

Denny Donnell, 76, is an avid stamp collector and a member of the Columbia Philatelic Society. He enjoys collecting stamps that are issued in Missouri.

A first-day-of-issue ceremony for the Twain stamp will be held Saturday in Hannibal, where Twain grew up. Donnell said some serious collectors will have the stamps placed on special cachet envelopes.

“Some people will carry them over to Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Mark Twain, and get them canceled over there,” Donnell said.

The stamp will be available for sale in Columbia on Monday, said Cheryl Hudson of the local post office.

Donnell said he always is happy to see another Missouri stamp or a stamp related to a Missourian.

“As far as Missouri goes, he is one of the most famous authors, and he is well-known worldwide,” Donnell said.

Jordan said the commemorative stamp will appeal to most of the general public, especially those who are interested in literary history.

“Mark Twain remains one of the most respectable and readable authors in American history,” he said.


The world on paper

Stamp collecting (also known as philately) remains one of the most popular hobbies in the world, and still largely affordable if one chooses to stay away from the truly scarce material.

One of the reasons perhaps is the overall availability of stamps. They come on envelopes in the mail. New releases can be picked up at the local post office. Social networking sites on the internet, such as Facebook, provide ample opportunities to trade stamps with foreign collectors.

At first, a new collector can be readily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of stamps that have been released by various countries, starting with Great Britain who released the world’s first stamp in 1840, with the United States following suit in 1847.

Tools of the trade

The basic necessity for collecting stamps is an album. Without a means to properly organize and mount one’s stamps, it wouldn’t be a collection, but just a mess of stamps in a box.

There are albums available for almost any country, world albums, specialty albums, albums for covers (envelopes with stamps on them), or albums or binders for blank pages. A collector can even make his or her own album by simply buying a binder and hole-punching pages for it.

Albums can range in price for basic, beginner world albums for around $10, to advanced collector albums costing hundreds of dollars a set. If one is just beginning to collect stamps, start simple and start cheap.

Stamps are generally mounted using a gummed “hinge,” for used stamps. or a special mount for stamps that have never been used, to protect the gum. A pack of 1,000 hinges can generally be had for around $8 or less. Mounts are used to affix the stamp to the album page. Never glue a stamp to a page nor lick the gum to attach it as these will ruin the value of any stamp.

Several other inexpensive “tools” will also come in handy: tweezers, a magnifying glass, and envelopes to sort and store stamps in. With these, a new collector is good to go.

As the collector soon advances, other “tools” needed might include a perforation gauge (a means to count the numbers of perforations along the edges of the stamps where they are torn or cut apart from a sheet) and watermark fluid and tray (many countries use secret marks – or watermarks – to avert counterfeiting which can only been seen by using a watermark detector).

Sources of information are also a must in order to know what stamps a country issued and in what order they were released, as well as a means to attribute difficult to identify stamps. Generally, collectors use Scots Standard Catalog for all of the above purposes. They can be expensive. Also helpful for the beginner are any of the various basic guides to stamp collecting. Buy used copies or see if the local library has them.

Start simple - go ‘Topical’

There must be hundreds of thousands of different stamps in existence, with more being produced by one country or another almost every day. Accept that a complete collection of world stamps probably has never been achieved by anyone, mainly because there are several examples of which only one is known to exist.

Rather than become overwhelmed and frustrated from the get-go, many collectors start off by building a collection that may be more reasonably achievable, and the variants are endless. Themed collections are generally referred to as topical collections, because they are built around a specific topic.

Here are some examples: stamps bearing a given theme (cats, trains, ethnic heroes and heroines, sports, American Civil War-themed, stamps, Christmas, World Fairs-themed, etcetera); stamps produced during a given period (U.S. stamps of the 1930s, World War II era stamps, etcetera); and stamps demonstrating a certain type of production (embossed stamps that have been actually printed on an envelope, coil stamps developed for use in vending machines, imperforated stamps, straight edged stamps produced without the perforations along the sides, triangular stamps).

Also consider condition. Stamps that have never been used more often than not are gummed, and called mint in condition. They require special mounts, which are generally not expensive, to protect the gum. Stamps that have been cancelled are called used. Some collectors only collect used stamps because they have performed the task they were printed to do. Others collect only mint stamps because they are showier and tend to have more value in general.

Thrown in the mire are stamps called “cancelled to order,” or CTOs. These are stamps that are immediately cancelled as soon as a post office receives an order for them, and they are mainly produced only for collectors by countries who rely on hobby stamp sales to actually contribute money to their national budgets.

CTOs are usually cheap and can make for a truly showy collection, although some “purists” frown on them because many were never really printed with actual postal use in mind.

Whatever the new collector decides, it is his or her collection and he or she is in control. Set achievable goals and keep in mind this is supposed to be fun, not bank account busting.

Other resources

Rather than remain an island adrift in a sea of stamps, there are opportunities for most collectors to associate with others and learn more about the hobby, or to find other collectors to trade with.

In Gettysburg, there is the Blue and Gray Stamp Club, consisting of a mixed age group. The club meets on the third Monday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at Saint James Lutheran Church, 109 York St., Gettysburg (see “Blue and Gray Club still going strong,” right).

Schools sometimes have stamp clubs, and if none exist, start one.

For the internet savvy, social networking sites provide a chance to meet other collectors around the world ranging from beginners to advanced collectors themselves. Other groups have web sites, blogs or discussion boards. A search on the internet for “stamp clubs” or “stamp collectors” should provide an ample array of associations where a collector might consider becoming a member or frequent visitor.

Many collectors begin by subscribing to an approval service offered by stamp dealers. This service involves dealers mailing stamps in packets to a collector, who then select which ones he or she would like to keep, returning the unwanted ones with payment for those kept.

However, with the prices of stamps generally tumbling courtesy of the internet (as is the case with most collectibles), better prices are likely to be found on the web at on-line auction or store sites (such as Albums and supplies can also be found in the same manner.

As far as online auctions, refrain from becoming frustrated at being outbid. Persistence can pay off and there will always be another lot posted like the one sought. This reporter kept dogging listings seeking to buy an 1860, 10 cent U.S. stamp depicting George Washington. After losing bid after bid, one night the writer nailed one for $3. Assessed value: $275.

No matter how new or advanced a collector is, two basic principles remain the same, control and focus. Always look for the best deal no matter how long it may seem to take, and stick to one’s collection objectives.

And have fun!