But as a dealer and professional philatelic blogger, it has occurred to me that philately and stamp collecting, though very close to one another, are not, in fact, the same thing. In the rest of this post, I will explain the difference between the two, and then I will conclude with some more reasons why I believe that both are the most rewarding of hobbies, and why I believe they are misunderstood by most people in general.
Stamp collecting involves the pursuit and accumulation of stamps for their pure artistic and overall historic merit only. Most collectors love to look at the design and workmanship that went into the stamps, the pretty pictures, the portrayal of cultures from far away lands, and to see a slice of history captured in long-dead countries and colonies that no longer exist as what they once were. The vast majority of collectors are in the hobby for the pure enjoyment of collecting, while some are in it for both the enjoyment and the possibility of financial gain through the appreciation in value of their stamps. Still others are in it only for the financial aspect. I tend to regard this later group as not really being involved in a hobby at this point, but really only another form of investment.
Collectors can be interested in collecting the entire world, which is much less common now because of the proliferation of modern stamp issues in the last 60+ years, or they tend to limit themselves to a single country, or group of countries that they find most interesting.
Because the emphasis is on the overall appearance of the stamps, most collectors are not concerned with differences in paper, shade, perforation, or printing that are not extremely obvious to the naked eye, and are not listed in major catalogues as basic "numbers". Perforation differences, which are not obvious is about as detailed as most collectors are willing to get. Many will collect basic differences in watermarks and in very significant colour differences, but will not be interested in all of the subtle varieties that can be found in all the attributes of that stamp.
Also, collecting is highly personal, and so a collector can be very passionate about classic stamps from before 1940, while having no interest whatsoever in the stamps issued in the modern era.
Condition and value are very important to collectors. I have noticed that most collectors can be extremely fussy about condition to the point of being perfectionists, and that can often limit what they chose to collect. These collectors tend to be more concerned with the financial aspect of the hobby than the pure artistic aspect, but even casual collectors will often insist on a minimum standard of condition with the stamps in their collection. Most collectors are very concerned about not paying too much for their stamps relative to what they perceive the value of their stamps to be. The only collectors who tend not to be concerned at all about this are those who are completely uninterested in the financial aspect and who view collecting as only a hobby and nothing more. The sad irony that I see as a professional dealer is that most collectors who focus too much on the financial aspect of collecting tend to be disappointed when the time comes to sell their collections, as they do not understand the economics of the hobby, and their stamps when sold all at once, are worth much less than they think.
Finally, the notion of "completion" figures very highly into stamp collecting, with most collectors pursuing the goal of acquiring one of each stamp from their chosen area in either mint or used condition, depending on their preference, and stopping when they have reached it. Then, generally, most collectors will start up on a new collection, doing the exact same thing again.
Although there may be some passing interest expressed in the backstory of the stamps they collect, most collectors do not get heavily into the study of this backstory at all.
I can best describe philatelists as forensic historians.
They are historians in the sense that they tend to be interested in learning as much of the story behind the stamp issue as they can, from the very first conception of the issue, through the rejected designs, through the final acceptance of the design to be used, through the production, including all the printings made, and finally the actual use of those stamps throughout their lives. This final branch of philately is often completely separate from the others, and these philatelists are generally known as postal historians. Philatelists use their stamps and covers to tell the story. They further recognize, as they gain more and more experience that the official records of a typical stamp issue only tell half the story. The reason for this is that stamps are a product of human endeavour. They are designed and printed and distributed by organizations, and organizations by their nature are not perfect. Problems occur. Mistakes are made. Then these problems and mistakes are corrected. Sometimes, but not often, these corrections will be documented. More often than not, though, they will not be because reputations are at stake, careers can be affected and these solved problems are often swept under the rug in these organizations.
This is where the element of forensics comes in. A philatelist can unravel the remainder of the story by carefully studying the physical attributes of the stamps themselves, which include:
- The paper, and all physical aspects of that paper.
- The design, including any minute changes made to it, or imperfections.
- The ink used to print the stamp, and any minute differences.
- The perforation, including any minute difference in either the measurement, or the method used.
- The gum on the back of the stamp, including its physical characteristics.
Why Stamp Collecting and Philately Are So Rewarding as Hobbies And Are Not For Losers
Most people can barely wrap their heads around the idea of stamp collecting. If they think about it, they can just comprehend why someone might be interested in collecting little pieces of paper with cool designs on them. But most will freely concede that they possess no interest in doing so themselves. Part of the reason why I believe that collecting is not more popular today than it used to be is that stamp designs of many countries have gotten less artistically pleasing than they once were. Most people are not exposed on a day to day basis to truly beautiful stamps, and so they do not have a good idea of just how beautiful stamps can be, and many beautiful stamps there are in the world to collect.
For instance, here are two stamps from my worldwide collection of beautiful stamps that I think are just gorgeous: