Personal Finance

The stamp of a collector

Arvind Jayaram | Updated on November 19, 2014

Perseverence pays: G Balakrishna Das, President of South India Philatelists Association - BIJOY GHOSH




To be a serious hobbyist, you must accumulate knowledge on the stamps you’ve collected

It’s the secret pastime of financial gurus Warren Buffett and Bill Gross, musicians John Lennon, Freddy Mercury and Ron Wood, and even the Queen of England. Former US President Franklin Roosevelt and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy were enthusiasts as well.

Stamp collecting, known as philately, is one of the world’s most popular hobbies and could be a store of value for the meticulous collector.

Recently, a rare stamp from British Guiana was auctioned for $9.5 million by Sotheby’s. This was purchased in 1980 for $9,35,000 and its current price translates into a near ten-fold return on the purchase price. The hefty price makes the one-inch by one-and-a-quarter-inch stamp printed in black on magenta paper the most expensive stamp sold at an auction.

It’s also the world’s most valuable object in terms of weight and size, according to the auction house. The previous record for a stamp was the $2.2-million Treskilling Yellow, a Swedish stamp that is a misprint of an 1855 shilling stamp in the wrong colour.

“Philately is a hobby of kings and king of hobbies,” says Dhirubhai Mehta, President of the Mumbai-based Philatelic Society of India.

“Anybody can collect stamps. G Balakrishna Das, President of the South India Philatelists’ Association (SIPA) has a similar opinion on the hobby: “Making a collection need not require money; you must have patience and perseverance, which makes it perfect. You need not be rich, even a middle class person can do it.”

“A stamp collection gives personal satisfaction if it is pursued properly. You must have a taste for it. We are trying to teach this to whoever is interested,” continues Das, who was recently conferred with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indo-French Philatelic & Numismatic Association (IFPNA), Puducherry.

J Rolands Nelson, the Secretary of SIPA, says, “Stamps are a visual thing. It’s miniature art.”

Despite the fade-out of postal mail, the interest in stamps remains as avid today as it was decades ago.

Philatelic investment — a popular option in the 1970s — is making a comeback and there are even mutual funds focused on buying stamps with the aim of turning a profit.

“Stanley Gibbons (a collectibles and alternative investment firm listed in London) has a mutual fund for philately,” says Mayank Parekh, an optician and avid stamp enthusiast, adding that it delivers annual returns of about 8-10 per cent.

How to approach it

There’s more to stamp collecting than merely owning them, according to experts. Indeed, philatelists rank each other on the basis of their knowledge about stamps as well. So, if you want to be acknowledged as a serious hobbyist, it’s important to accumulate knowledge of the stamps you collect, trade and purchase.

“My dad had a lot of great friends from the philatelic field. That’s how I got interested in collecting stamps,” says Parekh.

Some people collect theme-based stamps. For example, one may collect stamps with politicians on them or birds or fauna. “In thematics, you collect a variety of stamps, some of which are rare,” says Mehta. Some collect stamps that celebrate major sporting events, such as the Fifa Football World Cup.

Nelson, for example, has a reputable collection of stamps featuring bridges.

“I have been collecting stamps from the 1950s; I developed a taste for good stamps. I’m not so keen on thematic stamps,” says Das.

Philatelists warn that there are certain rules to being a perfect collector. First comes the handling of the stamps. You’re not supposed to handle them with your fingers; you must use a tweezer to ensure they are not damaged.

Collectors use magnifying glasses to study stamps. Then there’s a stock book, where you can keep your stamps intact and safe.

“Most important of all is the catalogue. These document stamps date back to 1854. Without the catalogue, you can’t move forward,” says Parekh.

Das says he hasn’t seen many stamps in India that are valued as highly as the British Guiana stamp that was recently auctioned.

There is the exception of one stamp issued in 1948 with the picture of Mahatma Gandhi, of which few copies exist. “It was made for the usage of then Governor General C Rajagopalachari. Only two sheets of ₹10 stamps exist,” says Das.

The value of these stamps depends on whether they have an overprint, which refers to an additional layer of text or graphics on a stamp. “The ones without overprint cost about ₹1,500, but the ones with overprint, are worth ₹2 lakh,” says Das.

That’s a handsome return on an investment of one-and-a-half annas for local postage, three-and-a-half annas for remote stations, 12 annas for overseas delivery or ₹10 for a full sheet when the stamp was originally issued.

To be considered a serious collector, “in presentation, your own knowledge, what you write about the stamps, you have to demonstrate your knowledge and study,” he says.

“Design, printing and paper are all important,” the Philately Society of India President says.

Recognising value

How do you determine whether the stamps you are collecting are valuable? Philately is a recognised hobby and there are professional catalogues available around the world that document and value individual stamps, based on their rarity and unique features.

Parekh says that while the recognised catalogue for India is Phila India, in France it is YNT.

“There are many catalogues with values mentioned. In London, Gibbons catalogues are available on a series of subjects. In the US, there are Scotts catalogues. Similarly, you’ll find catalogues for Europe,” says Mehta. “They give the value of the stamp also. Usually, you don’t realise the same value, but it serves as a guideline.”

Mehta recalls that he has seen the world’s most valuable stamp when it was showcased in India.

“It was shown in Delhi in 1954 under very strict security. It arrived at night so nobody could steal it,” he reminisces.

He says the value of the stamp ultimately depends on how much someone would be willing to pay. “It depends on the purchaser — how badly he is in need of it. That might be not only for his own collection, but for participating in exhibitions,” concludes Mehta.

Published on November 15, 2014

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