Philately Versus Stamp Collecting - Two Very Different Hobbies and The Appeal of Stamps

In normal parlance the term "philatelist" and "stamp collector" are used synonymously, with many non-collectors often saying "what is that fancy word used to describe stamp collecting? I know it is "phil-a something. I can't pronounce it". Most collectors will then tell the person that a stamp collector is a "philatelist" or will otherwise agree with the person who equates the two, as if the two were playing a game of Trivial Pursuit.

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

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.


Philately

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:


  1. The paper, and all physical aspects of that paper.
  2. The design, including any minute changes made to it, or imperfections.
  3. The ink used to print the stamp, and any minute differences.
  4. The perforation, including any minute difference in either the measurement, or the method used.
  5. The gum on the back of the stamp, including its physical characteristics.
Often, these attributes will involve very, very subtle differences that are nonetheless consistent across a very large number of identical stamps. Thus in unraveling the story, the philatelist studies individual stamps, and looks for these differences, then using these differences to form hypotheses about the story (i.e. the order of the printings for example), which if they are very disciplined, they will test statistically. 

In order to statistically test these hypotheses, one must then study a very large number of stamps from the overall population of stamps, in order to reach statistically valid conclusions. Very few philatelists actually take their interest this far, as most never really get past the study of the individual stamps. 

Thus philately is really a discipline, and while individual philatelists will choose the issue of their specialization, based on their personal interest level, generally speaking, budgetary considerations will force them to consider collecting issues that may not have been their first preference. In that sense, a true philatelist will be as open to collecting a stamp issue that was released five years ago, as they are to collecting Penny Blacks from 1840, provided that they find the actual stamps sufficiently interesting to want to tell the story behind them. 

So, because of this, philatelists are highly concerned with every significant variety they can find, and as a result, the notion of "completion" is neither important, nor necessarily desirable to them. I know several philatelists who have been involved in collecting the 1967-1973 Centennial Issue of Canada since 1967 when it came out, which is 50 years now. These collectors absolutely love the fact that even after 50 years and tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of stamps later, they are still able to make new discoveries. For this reason most philatelists are not generally concerned with whether an item fits into an album page, or whether it is listed in a catalogue in deciding whether or not they want it for their collection. That decision is usually driven only by the consideration of whether or not the stamp or cover adds to their telling of the story. If it does, then they want it, and if it doesn't, they they don't, unless they just like it and want it anyway. 

Finally, most philatelists, because they are trying to tell a story, will be happy to have any piece of the puzzle that they can find, even if it is damaged, or in otherwise poor condition. So they are much less picky about condition, through they will only pay in accordance with the actual condition of an item. However, because of all this, many philatelists are much more willing to pay more for a stamp or cover that they really need to complete one aspect of the story they are trying to tell, than a typical collector would be. 

The irony with philatelists is that because of the meticulous nature with which they approach their hobby, they often wind up discovering rare printings and varieties in their stamps that are worth far, far more than what they paid, even when they go to sell their collections. Often their collections, because of how unique and thorough they are, will sell for far, far more than a typical collection will, because other philatelists recognize that the sale might be their only opportunity to acquire specific stamps and covers for their collections. Thus most very serious philatelists wind up making money on their collections, even though such was not their goal. That is the ironic part. 

So hopefully you can now see that these two hobbies, while very closely related, are really completely different in their approach, and their focus. 


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:



This first stamp from Laos, issued in the 1960's has a beautiful contrast of colours that just "pop" out at me, and the design is intricate and was engraved entirely by hand after being sketched by a very skilled artist. 



This 1970 stamp from Czechoslovakia is a reproduction of a painting by a famous Czech artist. It is absolutely stunning to a person who appreciates this kind of art, though it may not be everyone's cup of tea. Again, someone had to draw this and then a skilled engraver, had to engrave it before it could be printed. It is part of a series of stamps that Czechoslovakia issued in the 1960's depicting famous paintings. 

I believe that few people would disagree that both of these are miniature works of art. It would surprise most people, I think, to realize that there are tens of thousands of stamps issued throughout the world that are as beautiful as these, if not more so. What will be even more surprising to many will be that 90% of these can be bought in mint condition for less than $1. The stamps above are both less expensive than this. 

From this, I would hope that you can clearly see, if you are not a collector, how it could be very rewarding to collect stamps like this and focus only on collecting stamps that you like and that you can comfortably afford. There is a lot of visual pleasure to be had just going through a number of these and really taking in the images and looking at the art. So I think many people can understand the rewarding nature of stamp collecting, once they become aware of how it is really just the collection of miniature art pieces. Other stamps bestow the collector with knowledge of people, places and cultures that they would not otherwise have. 

But, the case for philately is much, much harder for the average person to understand. When I try to explain to the average person the study of stamps, to the point of what I have described, I usually get a blank expression, followed by a "why?". Some have suggested that it would be like collecting string, or pencils, or matchbooklets, or any other mundane daily object. Many will say that they can understand collecting these items, but they can't understand why a person would care about all the intricate details. 

I believe that this is because most do not understand that it all stems from a desire to tell a story, and that if they understand that, it becomes much easier to understand, and thus respect. To tell the story involves solving a complex puzzle, and people love to solve puzzles. Yes, stamps are a mundane object, just like any other. But the story behind these objects, or any other mundane object that we as humans produce is the really the study of human ingenuity and human frailties, as every aspect of the human condition is replicated in the production, distribution, innovation and use of these objects. When you understand this, the hobby of philately takes on a much, much different appearance from what the average person thinks it is. I would expect that fewer people would see this as a hobby for losers or geeks if they really understood what it was all about, even if they weren't interested in it themselves. 



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