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Stamp News    July  2007

                              Woodchip-free Zone 

'Once were a buck, buck and a half'

When I travelled to the U.S. on Philatelic business in the 'seventies, it appeared that whenever I showed a more learned fellow Trader a cover, for which I sought a valuation, the reply invariably came back that what I had was worth "a buck, buck and a hairf".

It's fair to say little appeared to change in the two decades subsequent, with savvy, sharp-eyed buyers regularly able to buy nice 'little gem' covers in Traders' 'Dollar' boxes and the like for very modest sums. Covers which to the uninformed had not much to recommend them. So, has much changed since, say, 2002, when I commenced this cover-dedicated column? Well, in a word, plenty.

But, firstly, let's go back a little in time, in order that I might provide an overview of developments in the Australian cover market since I got 'hooked' on 20th century covers back in the late 'eighties. Not that I need to explain, but for the record, I gravitated towards 'modern' covers when I did as I saw them as perhaps the last great frontier in Philately at a time when, frankly, I was becoming bored with stamps per se. Further, the outstanding value for money that 20th century covers generally then afforded (and in many instances still do) appealed to my commercial instincts.

In the late 'eighties, and indeed well in to the 'nineties, I couldn't believe that it was possible to regularly buy at major Philatelic auctions cover/stationery bulk lots which contained so many worthy items, often at 'give-away' prices. In 1994 and 1995 (Auctions #162 and 169), for example, we compiled 900+ lot sales entitled 'Postal History of the World', which consisted almost entirely of cover/stationery material derived from cartons, boxes, albums, etc, sourced from other auction houses. Even in the late 'nineties, one could to a lesser extent make advantageous 'bulk lot' purchases at auction, but by then auctioneer's were rapidly getting up to speed! Items which earlier would have remained in a 'bulk lot' were beginning to appear as single lot offerings at auction.

With the advent of eBay, particularly by 2000 by which time it was entrenched in Australia, 'every man and his dog' was diving in to auction cartons and the like in search of eBay-fodder. Covers/stationery which one nowadays regularly sees realising up to $100 and more on eBay are of a general type that was copiously found in 'bulk lots' at auction in the earlier time frame to which I refer. Of even greater surprise to me is the proliferation of illustrations in leading auction catalogues of cover/stationery items once rated 'bulk lot' quality, as recently as a decade ago (see Figure 4 below). If one needed adequate testament to the present day popularity of such material amongst auction bidders then one may need to look no further.

This is all very well for those astute collectors who bought their covers/stationery a decade or more ago, "but where does it leave me?", I hear you say. Which brings us back to what has changed in the five years of this column's existence. Hopefully, as you read on, you may be inspired to enter the market for covers, and in so doing add renewed zest to your collecting interests, and share in the financial rewards that cover collecting has delivered to those who ventured in earlier. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll provide eight pictures (is it then eight thousand words?) and commentary by way of explanation on how I see recent trends in cover collecting. My thanks to the Auction Houses mentioned for their kind permission to reproduce images from their respective catalogues.

Just before I commence, however, I note that in his investment column in The American Stamp Dealer & Collector, May 2007 edition, the influential Philatelic writer, Randy L. Neil, had the following to say on the subject of investing in 'modern' covers (read '20th century covers'). "Within the scope of modern-era covers are some of the greatest future classics of the stamp hobby. After all, back in the early 1900s, covers that went through the mails in the 1800s were still, for the most part, considered quite common. But people were acquiring those "future classics" then … and the smart philatelist today is beginning to recognize the importance of doing the same with our current modern-era material.". Couldn't have put it better myself, Randy. Incidentally, in the same issue of that journal, Percy Sloane, in his "Collection Starters" column (in which he recommends new ideas for stamp/cover collections) makes the comment "Modern postal history may not be "cheap" much longer".

                                     
                        
Figure 1. 1980s; when stamps on 'cover' fetched about the same as the 
                         equivalent off cover used stamps

I owned Figure 1 in 1988 when as Lot #887 (my Sale 130) it realised $396. A 1934 (1 Nov) parcel-wrapping from Ballarat (Vic) to London, it originally contained press photos of the 1934 Royal Visit of HRH The Duke of Gloucester. The franking included Kangaroo £1 grey (3rd wmk.) and Macarthur 2d and 9d, coincidentally FDI for these commems! The £1 in this wmk. is extremely rare on postal article, but back in 1988 that didn't help this item realise much more than would be the value of the same stamps used off cover. The premium attached to used on cover (over used off cover) has escalated in the interim, and 14 years later, as Lot #69 in Millennium's inaugural Rarity Sale (2002), this same item made $3450, far more than the used stamps off cover would realise at that time. If this item were to reappear on the market now, five years subsequent, I would expect it to fetch north of $7500, such is the present day demand for Exhibition-standard 'Kangaroo' material.

                                  
                                   
Figure 2. This Kookaburra not about to fall off it's perch

Despite lying on it's side, the Kookaburra in Figure 2 was alive and well when it realised $2645 at Millennium's Sale 11 (Lot #238) in 2004. This stamp is rarely seen on cover, and although I had Chris Buckman's four covers in my 'Australia 1999' auction (they fetched an average of around $325), I have seen the equivalent of about three covers only per decade during the past 40-odd years; most of them overpaid, and therefore likely to have Philatelic inspiration. The subject cover changed hands twice in 2004, the first occasion as Lot #1121 (Sale 73) at Stanley Gibbons' Melbourne. There it had been estimated at $320, a reasonable estimate I felt given it is an overpaid cover (correct rate should have been 5d), and I pencilled my bid price in the catalogue at $450. I was suitably stunned when two well-known Traders pushed the price to $1840! The fundamentals are not necessarily relevant when someone really wants a given item in Philately!

                            
                                   
Figure 3. Famous stamp, famous Philatelist

To demonstrate that it is not only commercially used covers that can appreciate considerably, Figure 3 gives an indication of what can happen with rare Philatelically inspired covers. There are said to be "at least eleven" 1d Kangaroo FDC's (ACSC 'Kangaroos' 2004), and Figure 3, although a cover-front only, is the only registered item amongst the headcount. This cover was prepared for H.L. White by prominent Sydney Traders, Fred Hagen Ltd, who were responsible for all known 1d FDC's. White donated his remarkable collection to the Mitchell Library, but obviously had parted company with this particular item prior. The item was Lot #814 in my Sale 133 (1989), and realised $660. 15 years later, in the Prestige Rarities Auction (2004), as Lot #108, it made $13440.

                               
                                                 
Figure 4. Once was a buck

I can confirm that Figure 4 was bought in the mid-'nineties from a Trader's 'Dollar box'. Covers sent by airmail, particularly pre-1945, have in recent years become widely sought-after by serious Philatelists the world over. This is true not only for 1st flight covers (which have been popular since as early as the 1930s), but even more so for covers sent by air in the general course of everyday life; ie commercial covers. Of considerable desirability are items where origin and destination juxtaposed are regarded as 'exotic' by Philatelic standards. Figure 4 is certainly that, a 1938 cover from Latvia to Australia, at a time when correspondence between these countries was infrequent in the extreme. Lot #23 in Millennium's Rarity Sale (2004) it realised $1095, a long way in value in just a decade.

                             
                                                       F
igure 5. Philately as Art

When I first saw Figure 5 in Premier Sale 104 (2003) as Lot #585, despite it being most attractive, I thought the estimate of $1000 a bit steep. With a combined franking of £6.14.2d, it was described as "The highest franked item of the era recorded by us". Of course this is a true statement, and it may have influenced the eventual realisation (read on). My aforementioned Sale 130 (1988), as Lot #724, had a 1941 cover rated at £9.6.11d, which included an irregular block of nine of the £1 Robes. That remarkable cover, which I then owned, fetched $319, further confirming that my Sale 130 afforded a memorable day for cover buyers. As Figure 5 went on to realise a whopping $5290, I was left to ponder yet again why I make it a habit to sell my great covers at prices which so endear me to the buyers.

As a footnote, I know the vendor of Figure 5 and he recently confided in me that he regretted having sold it. I can add I now regret not having bought it. On reflection, whenever I regret something in Philately (and it's not that often) it usually comes down to not having bought a given item when the opportunity arose. (And, yes, I confess, I also have the odd pang of regret when I learn I've sold something way too cheap!).

Figures 1 to 5 comprise items which the market rightly has come to recognise have much going for them, and accordingly solid values are now attached. It could be said the horse has bolted in these instances. If, however, you prefer your horse whilst still in the corral, items of the types in Figures 6 to 8 are worth noting. They are not dissimilar to countless other 'little gems' which I have featured and recommended in this column during the past five years. 'Little gems' with great blue sky potential.

                        
                       
Figure 6. Tasmanian auction house achieves World record

Ross Ewington, Proprietor of Tasmanian Stamp Auctions, has long been a promoter in his auctions of covers in that 'little gem' category. Ross, in taking the time to individually catalogue modestly estimated, although Philatelically worthy covers, has developed a following for this type of material, and in so doing has assisted in establishing the thriving market, and valuations, which now exists for 'affordable' covers. Figure 6 is an example of this enterprise, and proof that location is no impediment in Philately! The 1962 1/2d Tasmanian Tiger as a solo franking has been featured in this column previously, as the airmail Postcard rate to Zone 5 countries. It's rather scarce; examples I've valued at $75. The stamp can also be used solo for the Greetings card rate to the same regions, and is even scarcer for that purpose. In Ross' May 2007 sale Figure 6, a good example of this latter usage, estimated at $75, went on to realise $170. A new 'World record' for a solo franking of 1/2d Tasmanian Tiger, appropriately achieved in Tasmania.

                                    
                       Figure 7. PNG commercial covers like this have a big future

It seems just like yesterday, but was nearly 50 years ago when as a pubescent teenager I marvelled at the booming price for mint of PNG's 1958 1/7d Cattle. Soon after the stamp became obsolete in 1960 the retail price spiralled to around £1. Quite dizzying for those times, and whet my appetite for a career in Commercial Philately! Nowadays, for my taste, the mint stamp is somewhat passé, my enthusiasm for the stamp in that condition replaced by examples postally used on commercial cover. Compared with mint, which are readily available, commercial covers bearing this stamp are very hard to find. Prestige had a nice example in Sale 109 (2004), Lot #1393, which I have featured as Figure 7. A 1959 use together with contemporary 5d to make up the 2/- airmail rate to U.S., Prestige described the 1/7d as "common on philatelic covers but rare on commercial mail", which I readily second.

A cover like this would have been lucky to have fetched more than a few tens of Dollars as recently as the 'nineties, but Figure 7 indicated how much opinions have changed since, selling for $291. PNG is a terrific country for study of commercial usage of stamps, and I expect in the near future prices for many issues on cover to continue to surprise. 

                     
                              
Figure 8. First I've seen in 18 years of record keeping

Many of the items I feature in this column are so scarce that the meagre price tags attached to them appear farcical. At least that's what a few seasoned 'traditional' collectors have said to me over the years that I've been contributing this column. In traditional stamp collecting, when very few examples of a given item might be known, one is accustomed to associating that item with a four, or even five figure price tag. Generally not so with rare usage items, not yet. A good example of a rare usage item, with a price tag not matching its rarity, is shown as Figure 8. This 24 Jun 1975 use of the 1975 Scientific Achievements 11c for the airmail Postcard rate to N.Z. is the first such usage I've seen. The stamp as a solo franking for any purpose is rare; another such possibility is the non-standard letter rate within Australia, a low surviving use. I priced the 11c on cover at $30 in the current (2002) ACSC, that price intended for a combination use with another contemporary stamp or stamps; which use is in itself quite uncommon. However, this solo use I value at $100.

Expect to see items such as this emerge as single items in public auctions in the near future. When that happens, I anticipate some realisations will surprise those who haven't been following developments in the 'affordable' cover (card in this instance) market during the past few years. My $100 valuation may be made to look mean. Covers that once were a buck, buck and a half, nowadays can often be sighted proudly displayed in Exhibition collections!

Before closing, on a quite different note, in the days before I sent copy for this issue there were rumours in the Media that Australia Post may be privatised in the foreseeable future. This was always a possibility given the initial sale of a portion of Telstra, and probably isn't all that much of a surprise. Consider also, 'Posts' of Germany, Japan and Switzerland have been privatised in recent times. If the sale does progress it will be interesting to follow how the aftermath impacts upon Australia Post Philatelic Group marketing, assuming that would be an integral part of the sale of the whole concern. I suspect that Archival material, again assuming it would be included in the asset sale, would be tempting for Shareholders to dip into, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The last series of Archival sales, nearly 20 years ago, were a great stimulus for the market, and present market conditions are ideal for the launching of a limited series of Archival sales. That should be considered even without privatisation. If the deal does go ahead, there is one thing of which we can all be fairly certain. Mountains more of value-added product!

Rod Perry has been a philatelic trader since 1962. He founded Rodney A Perry Auction Galleries (now Millennium Philatelic Auctions) in 1971. As a collector he has exhibited    nationally and internationally. Rod prefers his used stamps on cover and likens taking a stamp off its original cover to converting a tree to woodchips.