A writer’s sentimental journey into the clubby world of stamp collecting.
By Jonathan Kandell
But my own excitement is no less intense. I am having Hilbertz look over a dozen of my most prized stamps. Wielding forceps as gingerly as if he were examining butterflies, Hilbertz views each stamp, front and back, from several angles. If anybody had suggested just two years ago that I would be smitten by rare stamps, I would have said I was likelier to try out for the U.S. national soccer team. But here I am, attempting to decipher Hilbertz’s every facial expression before he pronounces judgment. “Well…,” he begins.
Let me backpedal and admit I am not a complete novice. Our parents encouraged my brother and me to collect stamps—Franklin Roosevelt, we were repeatedly told, was an avid philatelist. My earliest stamp album had a frontispiece showing FDR leaning over his own collection, a magnifying glass in one hand and forceps holding a stamp in the other hand. I collected stamps that I considered beautiful and exotic. Most were from small countries or former colonies – Monaco, San Marino, Ifni and Sarawak. They inspired what turned out to be a lifelong passion to travel abroad: I am certain stamp collecting induced me to become a foreign correspondent. By early adolescence, though, I abandoned philately in favor of sports and dating.
Now, after a half-century hiatus, I have taken up stamp collecting again. The stock market collapse of 2008—which took half my personal worth—surely played a role. I decided to invest in something besides shares and bonds. I read reports that during the global crisis stamps held their value while financial instruments, real estate and most collectibles plummeted. And my thoughts turned back to my childhood stamp collection. Why not put some of my savings into something that was familiar, emotionally satisfying and intellectually appealing? Leaning on my journalistic experience, I set upon a journey of philatelic discovery.
Various sources suggested I start by consulting one of the world’s leading stamp experts, Richard Ashton, the London-based specialist for Sotheby’s. Like so many people I would encounter in the philatelic world, Ashton could not contain his enthusiasm for stamps or his generous impulse to share any helpful information. According to Ashton, the reason stamps keep their value even during economic crises has much to do with the psyche of philatelists. “Stamp collecting isn’t one of those emotional markets like contemporary art,” he says. “The investment side isn’t a collector’s primary concern because he knows the value of his stamps is going to rise over a reasonable time period.”
Dieter Michelson, managing director of Heinrich Köhler, points out that “stamp collecting is more of a science than the collecting of art and antiques.” A philatelist, he adds, must know about the quality of a stamp and its postal history, which demand a great deal of study. Take the case of Large Hermes heads. Issued in Greece between 1861 and 1886, these stamps depict the profile of the messenger of the Olympic gods—the ancient world’s equivalent of the postman. To the untrained eye, there seems little difference between Large Hermes heads, except for color variations. But careful examination reveals minute differences. Thus, a slightly off-center head can reduce a stamp’s value to less than $50, while the rarest Large Hermes, which has an unusual reddish tone, can sell for $200,000.
Nowadays, it strains belief to find an unknown Rembrandt or Dürer forgotten in an attic. But such happenstance isn’t unusual for stamps—even under the very nose of a longtime philatelist. Just last year, a leading German collector discovered he owned a first-day cover (an envelope with a cancelled postage stamp) of the very first stamp issued in Germany—the 1849 Bavaria #1. It is a rather plain-looking, black-and-white stamp with a large number 1 covering most of its surface. But according to Heinrich Köhler’s estimates, it would fetch over $500,000 at auction. The collector had inherited the stamp from his father, for whom it was mistakenly appraised as a more common issue. Its true identity remained hidden for decades until the collector had it re-appraised along with some of his other stamps.
Traditionally, the great stamp collectors have come from northern-hemisphere countries where there was little else to do when the thermometer dropped. According to a well-known anecdote quoted by Ashton: “In Norway during winter, you became religious, took up drink or collected stamps.” It seemed obvious to me that if I wanted to meet the stereotypical great philatelist I should search for a Norwegian. So, I called the Oslo Philatelic Society and was given the name of one of the world’s premier collectors, Jo Kvernberg.
Kvernberg, 57, is an actuary who owns a company that calculates insurance liabilities for pension funds. He began collecting as a 6-year-old and made what he considered his first significant purchase four years later, paying the equivalent of 50 cents for a 1930 U.S. airmail stamp. “That seemed a lot of money for me at the time,” he recalls. He has gone on to amass an eclectic collection of 19th-century Norwegian, early 20th-century British Commonwealth and late Czarist-era Russian stamps—the latter issued by provincial governments and known as Zemstvos. But his most expensive single-item purchase was the equivalent of $56,400 he paid in June for a cover with a famed Double Geneva, a rare Swiss stamp named for the two identical designs side-by-side on its face. The Double Geneva was first issued in 1843, only three years after the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, illustrated by the profile of a young Queen Victoria, was printed in Great Britain.
Kvernberg’s most exciting philatelic moment came in 2006 at Heinrich Köhler when he made the winning bid, equivalent to $130,000, for a Zemstvo collection belonging to the late, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. What Kvernberg found especially intriguing was that Wiesenthal was still adding to his collection after having reached the age of 90. “This is a hobby that can keep people young,” says the Norwegian.
Yet in fact, the overwhelming majority of philatelists are older males. Archival photos of Heinrich Köhler auctions dating back to the 1920s invariably display mainly white-thatched men. Even though philatelists often began as child collectors, they tended in early adulthood to spend their hard-earned money on houses, automobiles and their offspring’s education. “Then maybe in their mid-50s they go back to stamps and become serious collectors,” says Hilbertz. The mystery is why there are so few women collectors of any age, and despite my repeated queries to leading philatelists, I receive no credible explanation. The few exceptions are usually women who collect alongside their spouses or have inherited their fathers’ collections. Queen Elizabeth II became heir to one the world’s greatest collections, but nobody suggests that Her Majesty ever pores over her British and Commonwealth first-day covers with magnifier and forceps.
The aging male philatelic crowd enjoys a surprisingly active social life. They attend auctions in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland and the U.S. several times a year, remaining at locations for the better part of the week to renew friendships with other collectors. The MonacoPhil exhibition of the world’s leading private collections, held in Monte Carlo in early December every other year, has all the cachet of the Royal Ascot horse race in England. “I go there to get ideas for my own collection,” says Kvernberg. And every major city has its philatelic club where collectors gather to compare their holdings and broaden their knowledge of stamps.
Fortunately for me, one of the outstanding philatelic clubs is in New York, within walking distance of my Greenwich Village apartment. Known as the Collectors Club, it occupies a handsome Stanford White townhouse on East 35th Street, and it has become one of my regular haunts. Founded in 1896, the Collectors Club has counted among its members some of the legendary philatelists, including arguably the greatest of the postwar period, John Robert Boker Jr. (1913–2003).
Boker, a manufacturer of specialty cutlery, amassed an unparalleled collection of German States – 19th-century stamps issued by the individual states during the decades before Bismarck unified the country in 1871. Then, in a series of 18 auctions carried out between 1985 and 2000 at Heinrich Köhler, he sold the collection for the equivalent of $37.5 million. “Boker had items that hadn’t been seen for 60 or more years,” says Hilbertz, who participated in those auctions. “Never before had such a huge quantity of rare German States stamps become available and it was too much to sell all at once because it would have overwhelmed the market.” The Boker Catalogues from those sales are among the jewels of the Collectors Club’s vast reference library.
Today, the Collectors Club includes some 750 members, who in the words of the club charter “have come together for the study of philately, to promote the hobby and provide a social, educational and non-commercial setting for the enthusiastic enjoyment of our common passion.” Members split into subgroups that reflect their specific stamp interests, and meet once a month for show-and-tell sessions.
Intrigued by the Boker legend, I join the subgroup known as the Germany Philatelic Society or GPS. Our dozen members are from all walks of life. The current president, Ron Morgan, is a retired construction worker who collects only “German inflation” stamps and covers from the early 20th century, when Germany suffered through hyperinflation. Another member specializes in stamps and covers mailed home by German soldiers captured by the Japanese in China during the First World War and held in prison camps in Japan. For me, the most intriguing holdings of all belong to a collector of “catapult” stamps and covers used in the early 20th century for mail delivered by small planes that were catapulted from the decks of German transatlantic ships as they neared port, thus enabling some letters to reach their destinations a day or two before cheaper ship-borne mail was hauled ashore.
Thanks to my fellow GPS members, I learn to look closely at the conditions that make for a superb rare stamp: how well-centered the stamp is; how well it maintains its original color; whether the perforations on a stamp’s edges are perfect; how clearly the stamp has been postmarked; and if in mint condition, whether the gum on its back is the original. I gain the confidence to plunge into stamp collecting, specifically stamps from the 19th-century German states of Baden, Bavaria, Bremen, Hannover and Württemberg. These are classic, beautifully printed stamps. But they are costly and scarce, and people who collect them accept only stamps in superb condition that aren’t readily available on Ebay. This means that as an aspiring serious collector of “German States,” I have to buy them at reputable stamp dealers, mainly in Germany and Switzerland. (I am still too inexperienced and intimidated to join in bidding at the auction houses). Luckily, my journalistic assignments take me often to both those countries, and I always return home with a few more stamps for my collection. But of course, the ultimate test of my philatelic acumen comes when the best of my stamps are appraised by a leading auction house like Heinrich Köhler.
Hilbertz carefully slips my stamps back into their individual glassine pouches. He declares 11 of the 12 to be of “good quality.” He singles out for special praise the margins and olive-green hue of an 1861 Hannover, showing a profile of George V (1819–78), the last King of Hannover. Only one stamp—a black-violet 1851 Württemberg with a diamond-shape at its center—is judged, sub-par because of repairs made on its bottom and left side, where the postmark has also been inked over. “You should have stayed away from this stamp,” says Hilbertz.
True, by purchasing the stamps from a dealer, I paid considerably more than I would have at auction. But Hilbertz assures me that if I hold on to them for several years, I will recoup my investment. Strangely though, I no longer think of stamps as just an investment. I cannot imagine parting with them, except to trade up for better-quality stamps of the same genres. And searching for more and better stamps at dealers, auction houses and among fellow collectors around the world has become as alluring as the rising value of my collection.