Alain de Cadenet writes about… stamp collecting
What is it about racing drivers and unusual hobbies? Fernando Alonso is a keen amateur magician; James Hunt famously bred budgerigars (he had 250 of them); and Alain de Cadenet, TV presenter, racing driver and race car constructor, is also a renowned… stamp collector. So when we wanted a feature on the market for rare stamps, who better to ask?
The term ‘stamp collector’ describes anyone who collects stamps; but take it further, learning about the designers, the printers and the quantities produced, and the humble stamp collector has become a philatelist.
The joy of philately lies in the discovery of rarity, preciousness, unusual cancellations, errors and varieties. These are the factors that determine the desirability and hence the value of each and every stamp, cover (envelope) or – for very early issues – folded letter sheets.
Anyone contemplating philately needs to have a very clear idea of what, exactly, they hope to achieve. Ideally, the first dividend will be the pleasure of involvement and discovery. Rarity can usually be checked via an established price catalogue. It’s only a guide, just as any auction prices can only be a guide, but there are certain ‘diamond’ items in philately that have always been in more demand than supply.
The very first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was printed and sold on 6 May 1840. Of the 1840/41 Penny Blacks, the rarest are stamps from the 11th printing plate and also a special plate that contained the letters V and R (Victoria Regina, pictured above. left) in the upper corners. (Neither of these stamps should ever be considered without a certificate of authenticity from the Royal Philately Society.)
The 1851 Canadian 12 pence black (above, right), showing the Chalon portrait of Queen Victoria, is also a magnificent item. Desirable in mint condition or nicely cancelled on a letter, it harks back to the days before the Dominion of Canada when pounds and pence were the denomination.
Collecting errors and varieties is another fun way of theming your collection. Blatant faults such as the missing Post Office Tower 3d. commemorative stamp, issued in 1965, are spectacular, and some 30 mint and 15 used copies are known. Personally, my favourite is the ‘Missing Minis’ from the 1966 British Technology 6d. stamp that featured an E-type Jaguar in black and three red Minis (pictured, bottom). In the ‘Missing Minis’ variety, the red colour failed to print. All these varieties are best collected in at least a pair, to show the normal as well as the error.
Another of my favourites is the 1918 Inverted Jenny US 24 cents airmail stamp (pictured, above), in which the image of the aeroplane appears upside-down. Of the 100 that made up the original sheet, there are now only five that haven’t been seen or placed. Chances of finding one? Probably less than zero, but buying one of the certified examples (they all have their sheet position number on the gummed side) is akin to owning a GTO Ferrari. It gives you membership of a very exclusive club.
The virgin collector could buy enough of the above ‘serious’ stamps to create an excellent starter collection of tasty gems – probably for around the same price as, say, an AC Cobra or Porsche 918. On the other hand, armed with sufficient funds, there’s nothing to stop a neo-philatelist from snapping up one or two of the hobby’s holy grails, such as the earliest stamps from the island of Mauritius – the 1d. red and 2d. blue with the words POST OFFICE in the left margin being crude copies of the Penny Black and Twopenny Blues from the UK.
Arguably the most valuable philatelic item in the world, however, is the famous ‘Bordeaux’ cover (pictured, bottom) with both the 1d. and the 2d. stamps neatly postmarked: think Ferrari SWB money. Oh all right, maybe only a steel-bodied one.
But the finest way to be a true philatelist is to establish your own collection of whatever most appeals to you. By investing hundreds of man or woman hours of research and discovery, you could end up a world expert in the field and the author of a seminal work on the subject. Intensely satisfying, and as likely as anything to return a pecuniary reward in the long term.