Philately will get you nowhere

In May 2021, Alice wanted to buy some vintage champagne glasses to use in filming the video for her band’s new single, the way you do. She needed someone to take her to the local car boot sale. Car boot sales are definitely not my thing, and I was initially reluctant, until I realised that I lacked certain requisites for the Edward Lear trail. Where better?

So I scanned the tables and asked every stallholder for a set of fire irons (Alice swore she heard me asking for firearms) but for a long time all I could find were vinyl treasures from Anita Harris and Herp Alpert. The absence of fire irons was becoming frustrating and baffling, but relief and comprehension were at hand when I spotted a set for sale and made my purchase.

Perhaps the rush of adrenaline from completing this transaction got the better of me, but soon after I spotted an ancient stamp album, The Movaleaf Illustrated Stamp Album “spaces for 8,000 stamps”.

Like many other children (well, boys) of my generation, I collected stamps for a few years as a child, and a rush of nostalgia came over me as I leafed through the pages, with their educational country headings. This album, though, dated from an earlier period than my childhood, with many British and British Empire stamps from Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, and barely any after George VI , so I imagined it might be worth a bit.

In the 1960s my father gifted his collection, assembled in the 1920s and 1930s, to my brother and me, and (with their permission) I later sold it along with our own stamps using free ads in the local paper. I’ve since regretted selling his part of the collection, and long suspected that I sold them way too cheaply. The sturdy red binder in front of me offered some closure, and when the stallholder named his price at £35, I didn’t hesitate.

Debbie was amused that I, who abhor clutter, and who greet any new acquisition with the joyless question “where are we going to put it?”, had so wholeheartedly embraced the useless-crap-buying mood of the car boot sale.

If I’m honest, I imagined selling the collection for a small fortune. But early research suggested this wouldn’t be simple, and at the same time the album and its contents started to work its magic on me. Before even looking at the stamps, the album itself was a fascinating snapshot of history. Here are some of the more striking country descriptions from the album’s page headings:

  • Abyssinia – Until 1936 was an independent kingdom. Now conquered by Italy.
  • Austria – Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 when a Republic was proclaimed. Now part of the German Reich.
  • Bolivia – …named after the great liberator Bolivar.
  • China – a Manchu Empire founded in 1644, became a republic in 1912.
  • Cyprus – An island in the Mediterranean formerly belonging to Turkey. Acquired by Great Britain in 1878.
  • Czecho-slovakia – …now absorbed into the German Reich
  • Danzig – Formerly part of German West Prussia. Since 1919 an independent Free State. Has now reverted to German domination.
  • Dominican Republic – A Negro Republic in the West Indies.
  • Eire (Irish Free State) – Constituted a Free State of the British Empire in 1922.
  • Fiume – Formerly a Hungarian port, annexed by Italy in 1924.
  • Falkland Islands – A group of islands off the South East Coast of South America annexed by Great Britain in 1833.
  • Hawaii/Sandwich Islands – Annexed by the United States in 1898.
  • Germany – …Since 1933 Totalitarian State formed under Adolf Hitler, subsequently Austria, Czecho-Slovakia and part of Poland were added.
  • Hayti – A Negro Republic in the West Indies.
  • Hong Kong – A Naval Station of several islands.
  • Holland – A Kingdom of North-West Europe, formerly united to Belgium as the Netherlands.
  • Iraq – An Arab Kingdom under British protection.
  • Jamaica – …conquered by Great Britain in 1670.
  • Jugo-slavia- The Kingdom in Southern Europe of the Southern Slavs, formed in 1918 by the amalgamation of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovakia.
  • Latakia (Alaouites) – A portion of Syria administered by France.
  • Liberia – An Independent Negro Republic on the West Coast of Africa, proclaimed in 1847.
  • Newfoundland – …the oldest British Possession, discovered in 1497.
  • North Borneo – …placed under a British Protectorate in 1901.
  • Palestine – Capital – Jerusalem
  • Philippines – Formerly Spanish, ceded to United States in 1898.
  • Poland – …Conquered and partitioned by Germany and Russia, 1939.
  • Spain – …Became a Totalitarian State, March 1939, under General Franco.
  • United States of America – A Republic in North America comprising Forty-eight States.
  • Zanzibar – An island under British protection since 1890.

The entries for Germany and Poland place the publication date of the album squarely in World War 2. To a modern reader, these descriptions are heavy with educational purpose and colonial entitlement. The boys who filled these albums with stamps would be expected to defend the British Empire if called upon, as many would have been. The references to “Negro Republics” are especially jarring to modern ears. As for Jugo-Slavia, it might have been better if they hadn’t gone to that trouble in 1918. Curiously, the only individuals mentioned in the country descriptions are Bolivar, Adolf Hitler and General Franco.

I was struck especially by the word “protectorate”, which brought to mind Yul Brynner’s lines as the King of Siam in The King and I:

If allies are strong with power to protect me,
Might they not protect me out of all I own?

“…under British protection”

Looking more closely at the stamps, they dated from Victorian Penny Reds to a handful from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, one of which carried a 1957 date. The great bulk seem to have been assembled before about 1950, which pointed to an active collection period of ten years or less. That suggested a schoolboy collection, which was not promising for their value. Strangely, the pages for France and Germany looked unused – there were no stamps at all from those countries, and it appeared there never had been.

When I assembled my own collection as a child, I referred constantly to Stanley Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue. (Or, as I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again had it, Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Catalogue). So I naturally thought of Stanley Gibbons as the people to go to for a valuation, and their website did indeed offer a walk-in valuation service at their Strand premises, for two hours a day, five days a week. But they also offered a caveat about the likely value of some collections:

Schoolboy collections: While some became a starting point for more serious collections, typical childhood collections were understandably built with quantity rather than value in mind and this is often reflected in their value today.

I suspected this description fitted my album perfectly. Still, you never know, right? Seventy odd years must have made some of these stamps valuable, surely. So one hot July morning I took the train into London, and laid out my album before the Gibbons man.

He leafed briskly but carefully through the album from the back, offering no comment until he had finished. His conclusion, when it came, was the one I had expected and feared: that it was indeed a schoolboy collection (most collectors were indeed boys), assembled, as I had reckoned, in the 1940s. He confirmed that Stanley Gibbons would not be making an offer for the collection, but advised that I might be able to sell it on eBay for £20 or so. Well, car boot sale man certainly saw me coming.

Adding insult to injury, the Stanley Gibbons assessor asked whether it was my collection. Mate! The album had been meticulously filled, with spaces left for gaps in the sets.

I reckon the collector was born no later than 1932. Do I look like I’m 90? I guess he wanted to assess my emotional investment in the collection before making any disparaging remarks. I was reluctant to admit that I had actually paid money, so I muttered something about having inherited it. He remarked that although not valuable, it was an interesting collection, best preserved as it was.

Fashions and demographics have not favoured stamp prices. Philately was a very popular hobby when my father was growing up in the 1930s – George V was famously a keen collector – and was still a major pastime when I grew up in the 1960s. But most forms of collecting subsequently fell from favour as boys took to gaming, then to other diversions offered by the internet. Thin demand has been met by ample supply, as collections come on offer from inheritances and house clearances. Certain stamps can still achieve sky-high prices but these are unlikely to be found in schoolboy collections.

I thought about offering selected pages for sale on eBay, but a quick browse through current listings suggested that to do so would involve much hassle and little reward. Anyway, it would be a shame to break up the collection. It’s a historical document, a veritable time capsule. I’ve decided to keep it. Or possibly try to flog it at a car boot sale. Do I hear £36, anyone?

7 thoughts on “Philately will get you nowhere

  1. I am beginning to be concerned at how similar our childhoods were! I also inherited a stamp collection from my father. He ran a coach firm and travel agency which meant lots of stamps from foreign countries as no internet and email in the 1950s. I used the Swiftsure Expanding Stamp Album which soon spread to 3 sizable albums with some of the fascinating descriptions you have mentioned. I even subscribed to first day issues so have lots of envelopes with “used” stamps and then the presentation cases of “unused” ones.
    The collection then went into abeyance as I concentrated on career, houses and children but recently my wife saw a dealer in Elstree as she was keen to shift this big box. I asked if I could go and see him but he said “just send me a picture of a few of your best stamps”. I did this with some really old, and I thought valuable, rarities from my Dad’s collection and received a perfunctory “not interested”!
    My only hope now is that my 5 year old grandson has shown some interest (probably just likes the colours and makes a change from collecting football cards) so he might take the collection at some future point. It would be such a shame to sell this magnus opus for £36 at a car boot sale but it may come to that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, the similarities are spooky! Next you’ll be telling me that you used to listen to the Beatles and the Stones, and that you remember England winning the World Cup, and the moon landing…

      Like

  2. I have an impressive array of first day covers – the proper special issue ones you understand – all the way through from the start of decimalisation in 1971 through to 2004, when my Mum finally stopped sending them to me. A magnificent collection, which has produced a maybe not quite so magnificent an investment, with the majority of sets now covered by that delightful little phrase “two a penny”. But there are some real corkers in there… and I can tell you are now a serious collector, so perhaps I could do you a great deal for some of them, for shall we say, £35?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clive, I have a plan which will enable us both to sell our collections at a handsome profit. All we have to do is buy each other’s collection for £10,000. You buy mine first…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wicked plan. if you send me your online bank account details and send a reserve payment of £500, my cousin in Nigeria will arrange the transfers…

        Liked by 1 person

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