Stamp Collecting as an Investment

[This is taken from Edward J. Nankivell's Stamp Collecting As a Pastime, originally published in 1902.  This work from 1902 is republished here for its historical interest. It's fascinating reading, but it is from 1902; thus, readers are cautioned to consider that the advice offered by Mr. Nankivell is outdated. Furthermore, nothing reprinted here should be considered as any form or manner of actual financial or investing advice. The reader is cautioned to never make financial decisions or take financial actions without first seeking advice and guidance from a qualified financial professional.]


When a stamp collector is charged with being extravagant, with spending money lavishly and foolishly on a mere hobby, he may very justifiably reply that even his most extravagant spendings may be regarded as an investment.

The ordinary investor in, say, industrial securities is fairly content if he can, with a little risk, secure a steady six or seven per cent. If he launches out into more speculative shares, yielding higher rates of interest, he must be content to face a much greater risk of the capital invested. Now, the severest test of an investment is the yield of interest over a series of years covering periods of depression as well as periods of prosperity. The stamp collector who has used ordinary discretion in his purchases may confidently submit his investment to this test.

Some years ago, when I was writing in defense of stamp collecting as an investment, I received a very indignant letter from a collector who had made a large collection, complaining that he had then recently endeavored to sell, but could get only a very small percentage of his outlay back, and that the very firms from whom he had bought most of his stamps scouted the idea of paying him anything like what they had cost him. He therefore ridiculed the idea that stamp collecting could be regarded as a safe investment, as in his case it had been a delusion and a snare. He was quite right, and it is still possible to make big collections—of, say, five thousand, ten thousand, and even larger—of stamps that are never likely to appreciate, and it is possible to buy those stamps at such a price that any attempt to realize even a small percentage of the original outlay must result in a woeful eye-opener.

Let me explain. In the stamp business, as in all other branches of commerce, there are wholesale and retail dealers. The wholesaler buys by the thousand stamps that are printed by the million. I refer, of course, to used stamps. In some cases the price paid per thousand is only a few pence for large quantities that run into millions. The wholesaler sells to the retail dealer at a small advance per thousand. Those stamps the ordinary dealer makes up into packets at a further profit, but still at a comparatively low price. Good copies he picks out for sale in sets and separately. Those have to be catalogued. Therefore, the catalogue price of common stamps bought and sold by the million eventually comes before the general collector at "one penny each," and the man who makes a collection of common stamps of the "one penny each" class can scarcely be expected to realize a fortune out of his stamp collecting. When he offers his gatherings of years to the self-same dealer, and asks, say, only the half of what he paid, he is astounded when the dealer has the audacity to tell him frankly, "I can buy most of those stamps at a few shillings per thousand, and you want an average of a halfpenny each for them!" "But," retorts the collector, "I paid you one penny each for them years ago, and now you won't give me half that amount. A pretty thing investing money in stamps!" The reply of the dealer will be, "My dear fellow, you have put your money into the wrong stamps. I bought, and can still buy, those stamps wholesale at a few shillings per thousand, some of them at a few pence per thousand; but I have to pay clerks for handling them and sorting them out, other assistants for cataloguing them, and the printers for printing the catalogue, so that in the end I cannot afford to sell them separately for less than about one penny each, but if you want a few thousand of any value I can sell them to you at a price enormously below what you ask for your collection." The collector's eyes are opened.

It is impossible to get away from the necessity of regarding stamps as an investment. Even the schoolboy cannot afford to put his shilling into stamps unless he can be fairly assured that he may get his money back at critical periods, which will crop up even in school life. Indeed, it may be said that there are few, if any, stamp collectors nowadays who do not put more money into stamps than they could afford to do if there were not some element of investment in view. In some instances large fortunes are actually invested in stamps, and I was only recently told of a collector who had taken his money out of a very profitable business and put it into stamps, and had netted very much larger profits than he ever realized in his regular business. But to do that sort of thing requires a profound knowledge of stamps and a ready command of a very large banking account.

Generally speaking, the best countries from an investment point of view are British Colonials, especially those of the small colonies that have small populations, and therefore very small printings of stamps. Obviously, countries that put stamps into circulation by the million can never be a very good investment, so far as their common values are concerned. Those who buy with a keen eye on the investment purpose, always buy unused copies of uncommon values. Unused are not likely to depreciate, and they may appreciate.

In fact, it may be safely said that, all round, the thing to do in stamps is to buy unused for investment. When stamps are printed by the million, used supplies will be available for no one knows how long; but in the case of unused, when a new issue is made, the obsolete stamp is on the road to an advance in value. It is true dealers stock large quantities of all stamps, but there are so many countries to be stocked now that no dealer can afford to hoard unused to any great extent, and even if he did, the dead capital would be an item which would compel him to advance the price of unused to protect himself from loss. Let us say a stamp becomes obsolete this year, and a dealer buys £100 worth. It would be a moderate estimate to place the earning power of stamps at 10 per cent. In seven years that £100 hoard would, reckoning compound interest, represent £200, or double face. Of course, no dealer would hoard up £100 worth of a common stamp, but from the day that it becomes obsolete it must be hoarded up by someone, and interest must be accruing on the investment which will have to be added to the value of the stamp, unless someone is to stand the loss. It will, therefore, be obvious that unused stamps must appreciate while used may remain stationary, for the simple reason that the limit of supply has been reached in one case but not in the other.

Taking almost haphazard a few stamps, most of which have been within the reach of all collectors during the last fifteen years, the following table will give some idea of the appreciation in prices which has been steadily going on in good stamps:—

  1875 1880 1886 1890 1893 1897 1902
  s. d. s. d. s. d. s. d. s. d. s. d. s. d.
Bremen, 1867, 5 sgr., green, unused 1 0 1 6 2 6 4 0 5 0 25 0 17 6
Bechuanaland, 1886, 1s., used. 2 6 2 6 6 6 30 0
             "           1888-9, 4d., unused 1 0 2 0 2 0 3 0
British Guiana, 1860, 1 c, brown. perf., used 3 6 4 0 12 6 30 0 32 6 80 0 80 0
Cape of Good Hope, 1d., ∆ unused 0 4 0 6 1 6 2 0 4 0 8 0 15 0
Cape of Good Hope, 1d., ∆ Woodblock, used 2 6 3 6 15 0 25 0 45 0 90 0 95 0
Cyprus, 1880, 6d., unused 1 6 7 6 12 0 30 0 25 0
    "              "         1s., unused 2 6 10 0 15 0 40 0 55 0
Danish West Indies, 1872, 4 c., blue, unused. 0 6 0 6 1 6 3 6 5 0 17 6 25 0
Danish West Indies, 1873, 14 c., unused 1 0 1 0 2 6 3 6 5 6 24 0 32 0
Egypt, 1866, 5 piastres, unused 2 0 2 0 5 0 8 6 16 0 22 6 25 0
    "         "      10   " 2 6 1 6 6 0 12 0 20 0 26 0 27 6
Gambia, 4d., imperf., unused 0 8 0 8 2 6 5 0 6 0 20 0 32 0
Gibraltar, 1886, 1s. 1 9 3 6 7 6 70 0 75 0
Hayti, 1881, 20 c., unused 2 0 2 0 2 6 7 6 20 0
Hungary, 1871, 3 k., litho., used 0 2 0 2 1 6 3 6 6 6 30 0 40 0
Newfoundland, 1866, 5 c., brown, used. 1 0 2 6 3 6 7 6 12 6 28 0 25 0
New South Wales, 1d., Sydney Views, used. 2 6 4 0 17 6 30 0 35 0 40 0 40 0
Orange River Colony, 1877, 4 on 6d., unused 1 0 1 0 3 0 3 0 5 0 30 0
Tonga, 1892, 8d. 2 0 5 0 10 0
    "        "       1s. 3 0 4 0 15 0
Transvaal, 1878-9, 4d., unused 0 8 1 0 1 0 0 9 1 6 20 0
     "              "        1s.         " 1 9 2 0 2 0 4 6 15 0 40 0
Trinidad, 1896, 10s. 14 0 70 0
Turks Islands, 1879, 1s., blue, unused 1 9 2 6 3 0 5 0 20 0 25 0
Zululand, 1888, 9d. 1 6 1 6 12 0 17 6


Of foolish investors there will always be a generous supply, who will ever be ready to offer themselves as evidence of the worthlessness of any and every form of investment, forgetful of the fact that the shoe is more often on the other foot. In stamps, as in every other class of investment, the foolish may buy what is worthless instead of what is valuable. There are stamps specially manufactured and issued to catch such flats, and they are easily hooked by the thousand every year, despite the continual warnings of experienced collectors.

But if we turn to the result of experienced collecting we find abundant evidence of the fact that the stamp collector may enjoy his stamps and, when the force of circumstances compels him to abandon them, he may retire without regret for having put so much money into a mere hobby.

Mr. W. Hughes Hughes, B.L., started his collection in 1859, and kept a strict account of all his expenditure on his hobby, and in 1896 he sold to our publishers for close on £3,000 what had cost him only £69.

In 1870 a stamp dealer in London, as a novelty and an advertisement, papered his shop windows, walls, and ceiling with unused Ionian Islands stamps, which were then a drug in the market. The same stamps would now readily sell at 10s. per set of three; in other words, the materials of that wall-paper would now be worth at least £5,000.

The late Mr. Pauwels, of Torquay, made a collection which cost him £360 up to 1871, when it was put on one side and left untouched until 1898. It was then purchased by our publishers for the sum of £4,000, and yielded them a very fair return on their investment.

In the International Philatelic Exhibition, held in the Galleries of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in Piccadilly, London, in 1897, one collector marked over each stamp of his exhibit the price which he had paid for it, and the market price of the day. The collection had been got together during the previous fifteen years, and had cost its owner £25 2s., while by the then latest catalogue value it totaled up to £368 1s. 3d.

Shrewd businessmen are those who frequently invest large sums in stamps. The amounts spent annually by some wealthy collectors range from £1,000 to £10,000. One well-known Parisian collector, whose life has been largely devoted to his philatelic treasures, and who employs two secretaries to look after his collection, has, it is estimated, spent at least £200,000 on his stamps since 1870.

If investment were the Alpha and Omega of stamp collecting, every collector of standing would bemoan lost opportunities. Many a great rarity of today could have been had for a few shillings a few years ago. The Cape errors were sold by Stanley Gibbons at 2s. 6d. each. The "Transvral" error was sold by the same generous firm at 4s., and others in similar proportion in the day of opportunity.

Today it is the fashion to look back with regret on those lost opportunities, and to nurse the belief that such opportunities are never likely to return. But experience shows that in every decade of stamp collecting the common stamp of to-day may be the rarity of to-morrow. In many a series of stamps some one of the lot from some cause or another gets scarce, and the price appreciates from year to year till the original price paid for the stamp in pence is represented by pounds.



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