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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Scarcity of Nigerian Stamps and Postal History Part 3

In my last post, I discussed how I came to decide to collect Nigeria. Now I want to talk a little bit about how several factors influence the scarcity of Nigerian stamps and postal history.

In addition to the numbers printed, there are other factors that greatly contribute to the scarcity of a particular stamp issue, or item of postal history. Such factors include:

1. Whether or not a strong local collector base exists for the material at the time of issue.
2. What the climactic and other conditions are affecting the storage and preservation of the material are.
3. What local attitudes towards the preservation of historic artifacts are, at the time of issue.
4. What the retention habits are for commercial documents and correspondence.

I will discuss how each of these factors appears to play out and affect the scarcity of Nigerian Stamps and postal history and contrast it to the manner in which those factors affect the scarcity of material in North American and European countries.

The Size of the Local Collector Base

Nigeria's collector base up until the 1960's has consisted mainly of British Commonwealth collectors, who were interested in the country because of its membership in the Commonwealth. Many of these collectors were only interested in obtaining one of each basic stamp to complete their sets, since they were collecting the entire Commonwealth. Nigeria does not, even today have a large middle-class, as such, although that is slowly beginning to change. The distribution of wealth is very uneven, with a very tiny percentage being very wealthy and the majority of Nigerians living on subsistence incomes. The result is that very few people could afford to buy stamps that they were not going to use for postage. In addition, many of the British Commonwealth Collectors tend to lose interest in the material once the countries become independent, or due to the very loose new issue policies of all the neighboring countries such as Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana, which have issued so many stamps that have little of nothing to do with the country.

In contrast, western countries have had a very large middle class for most of the 20th century, which has permitted the growth of personal hobbies. People have had the disposable income to collect stamps issued by the post office, as they are issued, often in quantity. So local collectors have in addition to the basic stamps demanded other specialty items, such as plate-blocks, sheets, souvenir collections and first day covers. To satisfy the demand, postal authorities have issued quantities sufficient to supply all the collectors who could want the material, which has resulted in depressed prices for much of the modern output.

Because the local collector base for Nigeria has never been strong, and most non-Nigerian collectors tend to lose interest in the post 1960 material, most of the definitive issues printed after 1960 are very hard to find in mint condition, while being very abundant in used condition. Plate blocks and sheets from all periods are very scarce, and in some cases almost non-existent, as there was no reason to preserve them. So many of the blocks and sheets that exist now, are only found thus by happenstance, not because there was a loyal base of collectors who bought them up and preserved them. There are no specialized catalogues for Nigeria that list these items either.  Of course  the above  also means that condition is often less than pristine on these items, with selvedge creases, perforation separations and toning spots here and there, being the norm, rather than the exception. As a case in point, I have yet to find any blocks of the first Queen Victoria issues of Lagos. The earliest ones I have date from the mid 1880's, but I have never seen any from 1874.

Climate and Other Factors Affecting Preservation

The climate of Nigeria is tropical and very humid. Paper does not do very well in this climate, with acidifying and yellowing being a fairly common occurrence. While there are some buildings that are air-conditioned, most Nigerians still live without this luxury. The consequence is that most stamps that have survived in fresh, NH condition will be those that were saved by collectors based outside Nigeria. Most postal history from the area is stained or aged, with fresh, pristine covers being a rarity.

In contrast, the air quality in western countries is much more conducive to the preservation of paper artifacts, with the result that it is possible to find stamps from before 1874 from these countries that are in a perfect state of preservation.

The manner in which stamps are stored greatly affects their condition, and most philatelists have had to learn from trial ane error what works and what doesn't. The hobby has been much more mainstream in western society for much longer, so storage practices have improved to the point that the percentage of material lost to poor storage is much, much less than what is lost in Africa. Collectors here have access to a range of stockbooks and albums that are made from acid-free papers and other quality materials that are inert and do not react with the stamps.

Local Attitudes Toward Historic Preservation

Generally speaking, my observation has been that Nigerian society is not nearly as concerned with the preservation of history as western societies are. There is a widespead interest in advancement, progress and technology, with most Nigerians that I have had dealings with desiring "new" things, as opposed to antiques. Most western countries have a postal museum that preserves some of that country's rarest and most prized stamps. Nigeria, on the other hand does not have a postal museum that I am aware of. I think it is merely a reflection of the fact that preservation of history requires an investment of time and money - time and money that most people simply do not have to spare. However, as Nigeria's ecomony continues to grow and propsper, and the political situation becomes more stable, we should see this trend begin to change, with more people interested in preserving individual items showing Nigeria's history. This should, of course, include Nigeria's stamps and postal history.

Again, the consequence of this lack of preservation is that many of the plate proofs, die proofs, printing records, essays and artwork for stamps printed outside of the UK are rare to non-existent.

Retention Habits for Commercial Documents

In western societies, many organizations have retained information on their members. Often when files are started for members, the original envelope containing their applications are attached to the file. This is one of sources of commercial covers in our society. Although letter writing is uncommon now, it was a very common means of staying in touch as recently as 30 years ago. Furthermore it was common for people to keep the letters that they received from those close to them. Correspondence has indeed supplied philatelists from western countries with many of the covers that are available on the market today. Local covers from western countries are usually quite common, with only those going to exotic foreign destinations being scarce.

In contrast, most Nigerian businesses and people did not generally retain letters and correspondence, so local mail from Nigeria is very hard to come by. Indeed the vast majority of covers that one comes accross come from religious or commercial organizations in the US and UK, that retained the correspondence from their members. Because local mail is hard to find, so too are fine used examples of the lower value commemorative stamps.

The above factors all contribute to the scarcity of many of Nigeria's stamps and covers. To begin with, Nigeria does not issue an outrageous number of stamps. As of the time I write this, there are fewer than 1000 basic Scott numbers for Nigeria and perhaps 200 or so for all of the pre-1914 colonies and territories, which is not a very large number considering that Canada has issued twice as many stamps now, and countries like Australia, Great Britain and the USA have in some cases issued more than 2000 or 3000 stamps. When stamps are issued, except for the common definitives, which are issued in the tens of millions, the modern commemoratives are issued in quantities of between 200,000 and 750,000 usually. This is not a large number at all, when you compare to what the issue quantities have been for the other countries mentioned above. The upshot is that even for modern stamps that most collectors would think of as common and not worth collecting, there is actually quite a challenge to be had from putting togther a collection of town cancels on modern commemoratives. Especially since probably 90% of the mail from Nigeria comes from Lagos, and only 10% from outlying areas. It is a challenge that can be met without breaking the bank, as the catalogue values of most post 1953 stamps are less than $1 each.

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