Well, actually I don’t ‘love’ covers. Let’s just say I’m very fond of them. Covers have to offer not only what one finds in the used stamp off cover but worlds more. Let’s say by way of comparison that the used stamp is a dust jacket and the cover is a book. A cover is effectively a time capsule of information for the experienced eye. We have all seen for instance the Sherlock Holmes’ of the world in books and movies solve crime by resorting to the study of postal markings or forensic evidence contained within an envelope. In reality this is of course possible. Scotland Yard for example has extracted viable DNA from the entrapped saliva-remnants on stamped covers which contained ‘Jack the Ripper’ letters (I reckon James Maybrick done it, if only because of what the 'Ja' from 'James' and the 'ck' from 'Maybrick' spell!).
For we philatelists the research value within covers is usually somewhat more tame. However, when one is able to prove from postal markings that a given cover was carried by a ship, plane or train in an incident of minor or major proportions, or those markings confirm that cover was at a particular place at a time of significance (eg in a Theatre of War such as Gallipoli), and such deductions can often be made, that discovery can be rather stimulating. In comparison, a used stamp off cover can tell us very little about its journey, and a mint stamp usually cannot tell us much beyond what we see before us, unless say it is a recognisable item in an auction catalogue or the like and we can proclaim that our stamp is ex the whatsisname collection. Nothing wrong with that of course, but this is my article and I’m permitted to comment that in my opinion Philately has much, much more diversity to offer the demanding collector!
Here then in no particular order are ten reasons why I prefer my stamps on cover, and why I believe that not to embrace covers in a collection is to deprive oneself of much of the pleasure and profit that Philately has to offer.
Figure 1. Queen Vic eyes the new fangled Red and Grey Kangaroos
1. A cover optimally presents the used stamp
We have already said that a cover has to offer not only what one finds in the equivalent used stamp off cover but worlds more. Take for example the trio of stamps on the cover in Figure 1. Here we have attractively cancelled Australian Kangaroo 1d and 2d (also First wmk.) and N.S.W. ½d. in a neat and colourful combination. Worth perhaps $12 as used stamps off cover, this item sold at auction in Melbourne a few years ago for $790. Why? Covers bearing combination franking of the out-going State stamps and the then new issue Commonwealth Kangaroo issue are very sought after by specialists. Post Offices at the time were instructed to use up any State stamps in stock before requisitioning the new issues. For philatelists this ushered in the possibility of obtaining a highly collectable item illustrating combination use of the stamps of two philatelically different ‘countries’, an item wanted by both State period and Commonwealth collectors. Such items are quite scarce (with the possible exception of some postcard combinations) and accordingly command high prices when serious collectors compete for them. Further, the Figure 1 item is quite unusual in being an example of the low-surviving Foreign commercial papers rate, which was 3d for the first 2oz. and ½d for each additional 2oz. (ie our item must have weighed 2oz. plus). But we wouldn’t know any of this if the three stamps from our subject cover had been floated-off by great grandpa, would we?
Figure 2. Little Sophie has her 15 minutes of fame
2. Covers often tell an interesting story
Postcards too! From Figure 2 we can speculate that on a day in July of 1930 little Sophie Schrapel of Presbyterian Girls College in Glen Osmond (S.A.) would have been the talk of her classmates. On that day (with no arrival datestamp we can’t be more precise about a date) she would excitedly have shown off her newly arrived postcard from overseas carried on board a fabulous and famous Airship. On 22 June 1930 her father had written “My darling Sophie, I am writing on board the Airship “Graf Zeppelin”. We had booked for Berlin but have been several trips over Hamburg. Think we are going to land again as we left Captain and (two) Officers behind (!)”. Fortunately Sophie, by choice, had the foresight to resist the temptation to tear off the German 1 Reichsmark stamp (which would have been uncommon in Australia at the time) and we have her and “Daddy” to thank for the survival of a wonderful and extremely rare Zeppelin item to Australia. The postcard rate for the Airship service was 1rm (letters were 2rm) and of course the item was carried by air only in Europe, and thereafter by sea to Australia. Had Sir Richard Branson been alive in those days we no doubt would have seen an attempt to fly the Airship all the way to Australia. German collectors would not be rushing to pay even 5 euros for a used 1rm stamp, but at several hundred times that sum they could not tempt the present owner to part with this marvellous item.
Figure 3. ‘Mardi gras’ philatelic style
3. Covers can represent ‘Philately as art’
Many stamps might be described as miniature ‘works of art’. However, if one accepts that true art cannot be contrived then we need to look further afield for the representation of ‘Philately as art’. Opinions as to what that constitutes will be as diverse amongst philatelists as art itself is amongst art enthusiasts. I nominate the item in Figure 3 as an example of ‘Philately as art’ for my taste. In this item we have an unintentional symphony of colour and character contributed by a cast of participants from the Americas, Asia and Australia. The sender in Guatemala on 24 August 1940 needed to frank his or her letter for a rate of 1 peso 26 centavos in order to send the article to Australia via San Francisco, Hong Kong, Bangkok and finally by Flying boat to Sydney. The awkward although rather striking franking composition (there are a further seven of the 15c blue and rose stamp on reverse) apparently reflects the inadequate stock of postage stamps held at San Antonio Suchitepequez (I confess I have a weak spot for many of the stamps of Latin America, the designs of which I can perhaps best describe as philatelic ‘Mardi gras’). The unusual cancellation has been hand-applied horizontally and vertically, and adding to the riotous overall appearance are Post office airmail and wartime censor handstamps (and tape) applied in Central and North America, at Hong Kong and upon arrival in Australia. I find this an appealing albeit not particularly valuable item (it would fetch around $150 at auction – the stamps off cover perhaps 20c each). Let’s say a good example of philatelic ‘cheap and cheerful’, but a delight to own.
Figure 4. Many ‘Ten bob’ dark blues paid postage to Australia. Not many survive in the glory in which they originally arrived .
4. Condition of stamps on cover is less significant
Personally I derive little pleasure from turning stamps over to check for (a) the state of gum for mint stamps and (b) thins, creases and other faults for used (and yes, I do check for rare wmk. inverteds!). Perhaps it was these chores which assisted to steer me towards the World of Covers? Fortunately, faults which to some may be intolerable in a used stamp off cover are usually of little or no concern when the stamp is still on cover. Firstly, such faults are less obvious on cover, and in the overall scheme at hand may be irrelevant. The stamps in Figure 4 if soaked off cover (heaven forbid! – this cover was another nominee for ‘Philately as art’) would no doubt not please all connoisseurs of fine used stamps. There is for example the odd wrinkle, blunt perforation, one of the 10/- dark blue has a little toning, and the cancellations may not be acceptable. I contend however that these ‘deficiencies’ would not deter a specialist philatelist from actively seeking to acquire this item. The 10/- dark blue was plentiful used in my youth in the ’fifties, probably easier to find in Australia than in the U.K.; it was heavily employed for the very high wartime airmail rates to this part of the world. In fact, its abundance used was testimony to the widespread ‘soakaholic’ practices of that and earlier times (yes, I’ve been guilty of such transgressions in my less enlightened youth). Consequently, the 10/- in particular is scarce on cover and this 18 October 1941 franking at 27/6d sterling was a considerable sum of money at the time. The North Atlantic / Trans Pacific airmail service was 4/6d per ½oz (Figure 4 is for 4/6d x 6 plus 6d Express delivery) when a letter from U.K. to Australia by the cheapest means cost just 2½d. Clearly the faster, expensive service was used almost exclusively by commerce, such as by the media as in this instance where fastest possible access to photographs was essential. These stamps off cover would be unlikely to fetch $20 (arguably who would want them), whereas the cover you see sold at auction for $525. Used stamps on cover are kinder on the eyes (and stress levels!), and are often worth considerably more than their relatives used off cover. And watch that gap steadily widen.
Figure 5. A ’sixties ‘glamour’ stamp in comeback mode
5. Covers are for those who enjoy a challenge
The vast majority of stamps of the world are too easy (for my liking at least) to obtain mint or used (off cover). This can be said even of some stamps which come with high price tags. I’ll be charitable here to ‘our’ Industry and provide instead an example of value as it relates to rarity from an allied field of collecting, Numismatics (thereby risking the wrath only of my fewer friends therein!). In the Numismatic world the Australian 1930 Penny would be known to most readers as one of our more desirable and expensive coins. It consistently fetches over $20,000 at auction but is it hard-to-get? Only if you don’t have the twenty grand. The fact is there are dozens of this coin available at auction or privately at most given times. I know of one Auction House for example which had 13 available for sale at one time. From within the Numismatic industry I have heard of the 1930 Penny being referred to as ‘the world’s most highly priced common coin’, an exaggeration certainly, although a sobering comment. Still, demand for this coin must outweigh the supply, or is this yet another good example of obsessive, compulsive collecting? Conversely, there are many stamps of the world which are almost impossible to obtain used commercially on cover, and yet if and when they do turn up will often sell for a comparative ‘song’. It is a challenge, and fun, learning what to look out for and sleuthing around every philatelic nook and cranny seeking out such anomalies, and the possibilities abound let me assure the reader. This knowledge can also be very rewarding from the financial viewpoint, for when others ‘wake up’ to the exciting world you have already discovered, and eventually they will, you will have stolen a march.
Figure 5 is a good example of a stamp which is readily available mint or used but scarce on commercial cover. Don’t confuse this cover with 1/7d’s on contrived covers produced for members by the Papuan Philatelic Society. These often have ‘Relief’ postmarks, and whilst highly collectable in their own right are from a very different category in scarcity terms to this stamp commercially used on cover. The 1/7d Cattle appears in price lists at around $50 mint and $30 used, and if so inclined you can have quite a few, believe me. A cover such as in Figure 5 would have fetched around only $50 even just five years ago, but more collectors are now seeking their used stamps this way and you are unlikely to be so lucky now. A similar cover sold at a Sydney auction earlier this year for $530.
Figure 6. New issue collecting ‘rap style’
6. Cover collecting need not impose what you ‘must’ have as in collecting basic stamps
We had a client in the ’seventies who was obsessed with collecting a mint unhinged example of every New Guinea stamp issued between 1925 and 1941. This was the period which produced (unnecessarily some would say) seven sets with denominations to £1, and in addition £2 and £5 denominations and various issues overprinted for Official use. Not an easy task, his quest, although doable. We recommended to our client that rather than buying odd values in the grade he sought, which is how he was doing it, he ought to buy mint unhinged sets as and when they came up at auction or elsewhere. We suggested that buying odd values at retail prices was about as cost-effective as buying a new car from components sourced from the spare parts division. He didn’t warm to that suggestion as he had too many odds and ends and to buy a complete set would, as he explained, result in duplication. I should add that our client was a professional in an industry where incomes (in today’s money) are measured in the mid six-figure bracket.
I lost contact with this chap (perhaps because he didn’t warm to my suggested collecting m.o.) and years later in the ’nineties ran in to him viewing lots at a rival Auction House. There were a number of dealers present at viewing and to my amazement he asked them if they had a stock of mint unhinged New Guinea stamps as he had a number of ‘gaps’ in his sets to fill. I thought, uncharitably, what a superb example of ‘how not to do it’; all those years and he simply had not expanded his philatelic horizons. Simply put, he was a victim of the ‘must have it’ syndrome. With his enviable resources this chap could have formed a memorable collection – perhaps a ‘best of its kind’. Say, for example, of the stamps he so obviously loved, not only in mint unhinged, but also commercially used on cover. This additional aspect would have been a challenge indeed, and he certainly would have finished his collecting life with an ‘incomplete’ cover collection. But what a collection! As it sadly now is I can see the auction catalogue descriptions when our friend comes to sell, and a pretty sight they are not (eg New Guinea 1931 Bird Airmail overprints complete mint unhinged to £1 (no 4d and 9d), etc, etc). What a lost opportunity. Yet this is a trap that many of today’s collectors still fall in to.
The obsession to keep up-to-date with new issues is a similar disorder. I have a remedy for that affliction. Try collecting your new issues on commercial cover as in the example shown in Figure 6. As a ‘best possible’ commercial use on cover of the 1995 $2.50 Florey this one is hard to beat, particularly as the stamp is quite scarce on any commercial cover (it was intended primarily for certain overweight air mail services). The $20 TaxpackExpress service was an initiative by Australia Post and the Australian Taxation Office whereby ‘express’ service was extended to your enclosed Tax return (presumably only those expecting a refund applied!), and the Post office from which this item was despatched (Hunter Region Boxes cancel) did not have a $20 or other higher denomination stamps to make up the required rate, hence the 8 x $2.50 stamps. Not for sale, but $100 would not tempt the present owner (the stamp used retails for around $4 alone)
Figure 7. An Aussie Doctor working for the Colonial Service abroad. Who else could we thank for this 1950 item from exotic Somaliland Protectorate to Australia?
7. Individuality – your cover collection can be like no other
Given that no two commercial covers are ever exactly alike, unlike say ‘cloned’ mint stamps, it is possible to select a subject for cover collecting and commence to build a collection quite unlike any other, and for not necessarily a daunting sum one which may be ‘best of its kind’. The number of suitable subjects for such a pursuit are limited only by the imagination. However, I am always happy to suggest possible subjects, or comment upon your preferred subject, to any reader who cares to contact me (by email at email@example.com preferably). Of the 1001 suggestions that could be made for this article let’s try airmail labels (often referred to as vignettes or etiquettes), on cover of course. One could select just a single country, geographical group of countries or, what the heck, the whole world. What a wonderful excuse for collecting the world with a common denominator, and what a colourful and cheerful collection this would make. Figure 7 shows one of the scarcer and more interesting airmail labels to be found. Many are quite inexpensive (hundreds will be found across a variety of dealer’s $1 boxes for example). This one is not. A combination of scarcity factors (besides this particular airmail label, notably the exotic origin/destination) elevate this to being a $300 item (stamps off cover are worth 60c).
Figure 8. Ah, a more quaint Bribie Island (Qld) in 1935
Figure 9. Petrolhead, Edwardian style
8. Covers can indulge one in sentimentality/nostalgia
One of many interesting sideline collections that covers are highly suitable for is the study of local history of a given region as seen through surviving philatelic material. This might be for a region of family association, present living area or just a place or places that invoke fond memories. For example I know of a few ‘southerners’ who have migrated to Queensland and are collecting covers and postcards relating to the Gold and Sunshine Coast regions. Such material would include souvenir and advertising (local enterprises) covers, the various postmarks and other postal markings (past and present) in use at Post offices in those regions, picture postcards, etc, etc. Such collections can hold fascination well beyond philatelic confinements, and can be genuinely well received by other ‘locals’ (not necessarily philatelically inclined) with whom such a collection might be shared. Figure 8 would be well suited to those who select Queensland seaside as a region. This is one of the more attractive items of its kind and is worth $120 (the stamp off cover, well, 20c), but many items suitable for inclusion in a regional collection cost only a few dollars or less. Alternatively, a favourite topic can similarly be collected utilising suitable covers/postcards. One of my ‘topical’ collections is automobiles and Figure 9 shows what can be found for those prepared to seek out material. Again, this is a cut above the average (where there is plenty of material available at a few dollars or less) and might cost $100 (stamp off cover $1). Why not try a collection of your favourite region (it doesn’t have to be restricted to Australia) or topic?
Figure 10. Daydreaming on the Mediterranean
9. Stamps on cover have ‘soul’
Without wishing to wax lyrical about this aspect of covers, suffice it is I trust to make comparison between the three principal grades of stamps, being mint, used and commercially used on cover, in a rather simplistic manner. If one says mint stamps are ‘sterile’, used off cover are ‘spiritless’ – and these terms are not intended to be unduly derogatory – then a stamp commercially used on cover is more likely amongst the three grades to have ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, or let’s just call it ‘character’. For example, take Figure 10 where a rather nondescript 15 mills stamp of Egypt has been used to send a letter to Perth (W.A.) on 26 August 1938. In mint or used (off cover) grade this stamp is next to valueless. In the format as we see it here however it has something to redeem it. For openers this cover was carried under the Empire ‘all-up’ airmail service which had recently been introduced to and from a number of British Empire countries. Egypt had since ceased to be within the Empire but the service was nevertheless extended to include it, and the ‘all-up’ rate was reduced from 135 mills (for the airmail service which preceded it) to just 15 mills. This is one of just a few items I have seen carried to Australia under this scheme. And what a lovely example it is. The sender, perhaps a relative or friend of Mrs Martin, the addressee, has gone to the trouble to depict on the cover a scene (real or imagined) reminiscent of a voyage by sea (albeit in this instance apparently by warship), and in so doing has transmitted a certain ‘spirit’ from sender to recipient. A $150 cover when the ‘spiritless’ used stamp off cover doesn’t rate.
Figure 11. Jamaica: Down the way where the nights are gay, especially when a drop of “Coruba” is at hand
10. Investment potential for covers will outperform
When we commenced building our worldwide cover/postal stationery stock 15 years ago covers such as that shown in Figure 11 and countless thousands like them were found in consignment remainders, often referred to as ‘junk’ lots, in cartons in auctions in Australia and overseas. Nowadays, covers such as this appear as single lots in auctions, replete with colour photo (or at the very least a scan on the Auction House website), and would realise around $250. Meanwhile, similar stamps to those used but off cover languish unloved in dealers stockbooks (or ‘20c boxes’). Years ago I would have thought the transformation from ‘junk’ to single auction lot status in the time-frame involved was improbable, nay impossible, but I’m pleased to have been proven wrong. Why has it happened this way? I think we need to go back to ‘Reason 1’ above – ‘A cover optimally presents the used stamp’ – for the explanation to this phenomenon.
Figure 11 comprises a very colourful 26 Jan 1942 example of the 4/- rate for ‘Clipper’ Flying boat service in transpacific use to Australia, the demand for which was greatest during wartime when other air services were necessarily restricted. The “Coruba” label (there is another on reverse) adds to visual appeal if not greatly to value. During the past few years more serious collectors have begun collecting covers for the purpose of the study of the various airmail routes around the world, the airlines which carried the mails (this was by Pan Am), and the airmail rates, these factors being in addition to this particular cover obviously having appeal to collectors of Jamaica, or the KGVI definitive series per se. The cover encompasses ‘optimal use’ of the stamps; the used stamps off cover in comparison have little to offer the more demanding collector. For this reason stamps commercially used on cover will increasingly outperform values for the stamps off cover. Despite the gradual, steady appreciation amongst philatelists that commercial covers do indeed present the used stamp in its ‘optimal’ form, to this day commercial covers in general continue to represent the best value for money in Philately. Will that situation alter? Watch this space!