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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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Scarcity of Nigerian Stamps Part 2

In my last post I discussed the relative scarcity of selected Nigerian stamps from the pre-1914 period. But I did not discuss the scarcity of Nigerian stamps and postal history in general. What I would like to do now is to address the general scarcity of Nigeria and then to talk about overall trends affecting the scarcity of certain issues or collecting fields.

To illustrate the relative scarcity of Nigerian stamps, I would like to tell the story of how I came to choose this country. It was 2008 and I had just sold my Canada collection. I had been yearning to find an area which was rich in varieties and could offer lots of scope for the specialist, but not be so overwhelming as to be unmanageable. I wanted the material from the area to be genuinely scarce, and not merely expensive due to popularity, and yet affordable. Above all, I wanted to choose an area that had future growth potential - one in which the possibility of expansion in demand was possible, but by no means certain. I wanted to collect a country in all its aspects - stamps, proofs, cancels, different printings, covers - everything.

So rather than jump into one of the popular countries that sprung to mind - i.e. Great Britain, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Western Europe, etc, I decided to do some research. To begin with I googled a list of countries with a population of over 50 million. My thinking was that although there are some cultural differences that make collecting stamps more popular in some countries and not others, the personality profile of most philatelists is fairly similar accross most cultures. Over the years it has been my observation that most philatelists will collect the country they are from. Many will venture out into other collecting fields, but a particular country's material is almost always most popular in the home country. Thus, the population  of one country relative to all others will to some extent also dictate the relative size of the collector market. We have seen this happen with People's Republic of China, where prices for stamps are continuing to grow exponentially, as demand outstrips supply. We are also beginning to see it with India.

Once I had the list of countries, I started looking to narrow it down. I eliminated China right off the bat because it is too expensive, and I know nothing about Chinese philately, so the risk of being taken in by bogus material was just too high in my opinion. Then I considered India, but eliminated it because the scope of that country is just too vast to be able to cover it in all its aspects, and I wasn't that interested in the designs of their stamps.

Then I started looking at auction catalogues for the next year and a half to see how many large collections were offered. My thinking was that if I could spend myself broke on a particular country in nearly every auction I looked at, then I could safely conclude that while that country may have some genuinely scarce stamps, that the material for the country as a whole could not be said to be scarce, since I could buy it all the time. I also took abundance of material as an indication that it might be too overwhelming a task to try and specialize in all aspects of that country. On this basis, I discovered that I could pretty well eliminate every popular country out there - Great Britain, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, USA.

Then I was left with a handful of countries where the depth and range of material offered for sale was much more limited:

1. Pakistan
2. Indonesia
3. Mexico
4. Nigeria
5. Brazil

I found that I liked the stamps produced by all these countries, and the populations are such that all of them could become very much in demand if a strong collector base were to develop. Pakistan was the least appealing to me merely because it does not start until 1947, and I wanted a country that had some classics. All the others have a classic period and the stamps are all very attractive. Brazil is actually quite expensive, and so I eliminated it on this basis.

With the last three countries, I noticed that while I did ocasionally come accross dealer stocks of Indonesia and Mexico, as well as large collections, I almost never saw large accumulations of Nigeria. I would see the occasional set or single stamps, but generally no collections. When I considered that the population of Nigeria is larger than Mexico and the economic prospects for Nigeria are better than Indonesia, my decision was made.

So that illustrates the process that I went through to conclude that Nigerian material as a whole is scarce.

Next I will discuss trends that affect the scarcity of specific Nigerian stamps and postal history.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Scarcity of Nigerian Stamps

It feels like it has been months since my last post. I have been taking a break from posting in order to concentrate on sorting out my stamps and organizing them into some kind of order. I have been trying to sort the multiple copies that I have of most issues into different printings, papers, shades, perforation types, and so on. As part of my study, I have sought out and acquired the only literature that I can find on the subject, which has turned out to be a few journal articles, written by my fellow study circle members. In the process of reading these articles, I have come across data regarding the issue quantities of many of Nigeria's classic stamps that illustrates why this country has so much upward potential to philatelists looking to get into a collecting area that simultaneously offers breadth, depth and scarcity.

For example, most of the stamps issued prior to 1914 were printed in quantities of less than 50,000 for each stamp, with the 10/- purple brown Queen Victoria of Lagos being the rarest regular issue, with only 420 printed. Within this period, there are scores of higher value stamps above 1/-, that had issue quantities of 5,000 or less. Even more interestingly, the order quantities of the post offices during the period prior to 1914 were quite low, being often just few thousand stamps. So the total issue quantities were often spread over a very large number of small printings. This is a boon for the shade, paper and perforation enthusiast, who can embark on the challenge of obtaining all known printings. Because the quantity of each printing is small, obtaining a full set of all printing types is quite a challenge. It is all the more challenging because there is no comprehensive reference source that lists and describes all the printings and explains how to identify them.

Even stamps that seem to be comparatively common, such as the halfpenny green and one penny carmine Queen Victoria stamps of Lagos, whose total issue quantities were around 800,000 to 1,000,000 were spread out over a massive 35-42 printings each, between 1885-1903. As one begins to study these stamps, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of the stamps on the market date from after 1897, and very few examples seem to be printed before 1890. This means of course, that the original 1884-1885 printings are in actual fact, every bit as scarce and elusive as the earlier 1d stamps from the earlier Crown CA or Crown CC issues. However, the standard stamp catalogues do not make this clear.

You would think that a stamp that had a quantity of less than 5,000 stamps would be worth thousands of dollars, since it is difficult to imagine more than 10-20% of the original quantity surviving. Yet, many of these stamps can still be had for as little as $100, and in some cases, even less than that.

To put in perspective, how ridiculously inexpensive these stamps are, it is useful to get some perspective by looking at what more common stamps from popular countries such as Great Britain, Canada, USA sell for.

From the USA, a $5 stamp from the 1893 Columbian Exposition Issue, was issued in a quantity of 27,350 stamps and sells for anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars for a single mint stamp. Then there is this stamp from Great Britain:

It is the beautiful 1929 PUC pound. 61,000 of these stamps were issued in 1929. An average mint or used example will likely set you back at least $500 and a superb example will cost upwards of $1,000.

Or how about this stamp from Australia?

Type O3

This is the 1932 5/- Sydney Harbour Bridge stamp. 72,800 of these were issued. A canceled-to-order example will cost around $250 and a superb mint NH example will set you back about $1,000.

And lastly, this well known stamp from Canada:

This is the $5 Diamond Jubilee stamp from 1897. 15,500 were printed and while a poor used copy can be had for as little as $200, superb NH mint examples are now selling for well over $10,000.

Now let us look at similar Nigerian stamps from the same period.

First up, we have the two highest values in the Queen Victoria set from Northern Nigeria, which was issued in 1900. The total issue quantity of the 2/6d and 10/- was about the same at around approximately 8,000 stamps each - less than half of the quantity issued of the $5 Jubilee above. Yet the 2/6d can be obtained for around $100-$125 in mint condition and the 10/- is about $300-$500, which is curious given that they are both equally scarce.

Then we have this 10/- stamp from Niger Coast Protectorate. Again the total print quantity was just 5,000 stamps, which was spread out over at least three printings and three different perforations. Again, this stamp can be purchased in mint condition for $100-$200 and $200-$300 in used condition.

Last, but not least, there is the 10/- purple brown Queen Victoria stamp of Lagos:

420 of these were issued and a mint example can be purchased for between $1,000 and $2,000.

As you can see, these issues are way scarcer than any of the more famous stamps that have been issued by the more popular Western nations. However, what is also very promising about Nigeria is that it has a population base that is comparable to the USA, and its ecomomy is growing very rapidly. In addition, the restoration of democracy and the fight against corruption, are paving the way for the emergence of a middle class. With this comes the growth of popularity in hobbies involving various collectibles. It is not at all difficult to imagine what will happen to the value of these stamps if Nigeria develops a base of collectors similar to the USA, Australia, Great Britain or Canada.

Canada's 12 Pence Black, one of the 'top 13 most valuable postage stamps in the world' by

For example, one of Canada's rarest stamps the 12d black above sold in New York in 2011 for $488,900 US. In 1851 51,000 stamps were printed, but only 1,450 were sold, with the rest being destroyed in 1857. Approximately 100 are thought to exist, in various states of condition today. This represents a survival rate of just under 7%. So with an issue quantity of 420 stamps, the 10/- purple brown of Lagos could easily be just as rare as the above stamp, if just under 25% of the stamps survived.

This is just a few of the scarce stamps that this country has to offer. There are also scores of scarce varieties, specimen stamps, multiples and covers that are rarities by world standards. This is a country that I believe has nearly unlimited potential for the forward looking philatelist.