Chad Neighbor Philately

14 September 2018


20 January, 2019 (Sunday) 10am-4pm, the Glasgow Postcard Fair, Bellahouston Leisure Centre, 31 Bellahouston Drive, Glasgow G52 1HH. I will have lots of new items from a trip to the United States. This successful event again is in association with the Scotfairs Antiques Fair.

2 February, 2019 (Saturday) 10am-4pm, Motherwell stamp fair, St Mary’s Parish Church Hall, Avon Street, Motherwell ML1 3AA. This event, organised by the Lanarkshire Philatelic Society, (Scotland's largest stamp club) offers dealers from across Scotland and inexpensive catering.

16 February, 2019 (Saturday) 10am-3pm, Montrose stamp and postcard fair, Hillside Village Hall, Dubton Road, Hillside DD10 9HB. Again we will have coin specialists and a charity tea and coffee area. Wheelchair access is very easy. The hall is served by the 47 and 8/9 buses from the rail station or Laurencekirk and the Hillside Hotel does excellent lunches. 

9 March, 2019 (Saturday), the Grampian Postcard Club Fair, 10am-4pm, Garioch Heritage Centre, Loco Works Road (off Harlow Road), Inverurie AB51 4FY. I am organising this fair again with Grampian Postcard Club, at a fine new venue with excellent cafe. The lower gallery will be full of dealer tables. The fair will coincide with Inverurie market day.

27 April, 2019 (Saturday) Grampian Stamp and Postcard Fair, 10.30am-3.30pm, Aberdeen, Queen’s Cross Parish Church Halls, Albyn Place AB10 1YN. The inexpensive but professional cafe is an excellent addition to this event. 

28 March 2017


Even though we never lived on the same continent, my young nephew Eric and I kept in touch via e-mail and got on well when our paths crossed. We had quite a few things in common, just one of which was an interest in stamps.
            We both did a lot of cycling, played drums, had an irreverent sense of humour, liked writing and words, collected rubber bands in a large ball (when very young, of course), liked camper vans, often took the path less travelled and even carried the exact same type of shoulder bag at one point.
            We also liked watching and playing sport, although he was an ice hockey player and I always opted for tennis. It is a dangerous admission to make for a writer for a Canadian publication, but I had never been to an ice hockey game until I got the chance to see Eric play.
            He taught himself how to skate to he could compete at an advanced level and was a quiet but determined and resourceful player. One of the most exciting sporting contests I ever attended was one of his Richmond, Virginia, league games in which his severely undermanned team took on a much bigger squad in terms of the number and brawn of players.
            As well as I can remember, Eric’s much more skillful team ran up an 8-1 lead, partly thanks to a goal or two from him even though he was mainly on defense. But the other team’s coach substituted his players methodically to wear down the outgunned opponents. The strategy worked, for Eric’s team only had two spare players, one of whom was a plucky but small girl, and Eric played virtually the whole game. The other team gradually ground out the goals as Eric and the other players ran out of steam, taking a 9-8 lead. Then, against all odds, Eric’s exhausted team scored to level the contest. It looked like they might pull out a draw, but then the visitors scored the winning goal with seconds left. 
            It was, of course, a moral victory and one that Eric treasured. He went on to play for the Richmond travelling team and was philosophical about the fact that it was not very successful.
            Some of our common interests just had to be the result of genetics. That he collected stamps, for instance, was a source of wonder to me, for neither of his parents had any real interest in them, and no one in any branch of the family talked much about the hobby.
            At first, like many young collectors, he accumulated stamps of the world as he could find them. Then, to my astonishment and pleasure, and with no guidance from me, he switched to collecting hockey stamps and covers. I often found items for him but he was shy about showing me his collection or discussing it.
            Once when I went to Richmond for a travelling national show he came along. He expressed satisfaction with the visit but didn’t talk much about what the acquired. We were fortunate in that a good local stamp shop was not far from where he lived, and a couple of times he accompanied me there, although mainly in search of supplies. This once gave me an ideal and welcome chance to buy him a birthday present, for which he was grateful.
            When I occasionally took material to shows for vest-pocket dealing, he would ask me how I got on and was amazed that I could sell a decent amount of covers and cards in a few hours.
            He was a good student and well informed about current affairs, attributes that I would like to think were helped by stamp collecting.
            I tried to show an interest in his collecting, yet not shape it nor go on about what he should collect and not collect and how he should go about it.
            Our long-distance relationship was an example of how a hobby such as stamp collecting can help bridge geographical and age gaps and create unlikely alliances. Stamp collectors can travel the world and, if they so desire, meet like-minded people of all ages, nationalities, personalities and depths of pockets. Stamp collecting is often seen as a solitary hobby, but stamp collectors never have to be on their own if they don’t want to be.
            Now, however, I am very sad to say that Eric’s album is closed. The news that he passed away just a few weeks after his 19th birthday was among the heartbreaking I’ve ever received.
            Our friendship, while rarified, would have been much poorer without stamp collecting.
            I will forever miss him. I will never know which of his many interests might have taken him where.
            And I will never, ever look at a hockey stamp or envelope without thinking of him, and pausing at least for a few seconds in his memory.

            Eric Dylan Neighbor, 1997-2016

24 February 2015


            Robben Island, a windswept outcrop off the tip of South Africa, has a history of providing postal services long before it became notorious as a prison. The apartheid-era penal island where Nelson Mandela and a host of others were imprisoned still has a postal role to play even though,
thankfully, the former prison now exists just as a memorial.
            According to Peggy Mosupa, writing in South Africa Post’s excellent Setempe philatelic magazine, Robben Island became important in international postal communications not that long after it was “discovered” by Europeans in 1488.
            About 12 kilometres off Cape Town at the tip of South Africa, for Portuguese sailors the island became a place (as well as a place they could hunt seals and penguins for provisions) where letters could be dropped off, Mosupa explains: “The Europeans used the island as an informal mail
point, leaving letters and reports under specially marked ‘post office stones’ for allied ships that called.”
            By 1611 the island was being used as a mail station. Records confirm that John Saris, captain of Britain’s 1613 first voyage to Japan, was retrieving post from a rock on the island, as were many other voyagers.
            A few decades later the British placed a group of Khoikhoi tribal people on the island as mail workers, complementing the tents for trading set up there. They handled official mail there and in nearby locales by 1781.They also kept a lookout for hostile ships.
            And, Mosupa adds, “The British also used Robben Island as a prison,” becoming a place of seclusion and exile. “From 1845, it was mainly used for imprisonment, but also served as a post office, a hospital for mentally ill patients, a leper colony and a military base.”
            The post office became particularly strategic during World War II. The current post office building was built in 1943 and a private bag service was introduced in that year, with post being received every day unless the seas were too rough.
            In 1960 the island became an easily monitored maximum security prison. During the apartheid era prisoners such as Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were locked away on the now-notorious island. “Mail correspondence for these political prisoners was strictly monitored and limited. For example, in their first years, they were allowed to send or receive only two letters a year, but this gradually increased.”
            By the time the activist Ahmed Kathrada had completed his 25th year in prison, he was able to write 40 letters a year. A book he published after being released, Letters From Robben Island, contains 86 of 900-plus pieces of correspondence he sent or released during his time of incarceration,
often smuggled out with the help of sympathetic lawyers.
            Prisoners were barred from keeping copies of incoming or outgoing mail; many carbon copies of items in the Kathrada correspondence, a key one in the modern postal history of Robben Island, are missing because they were confiscated and never returned.
            “Interference with prisoners’ correspondence by the prison censors was a frequent and highly irritating feature of prison life, especially during the 1960s,” the Setempe articled noted. Kathrada’s letters show many examples of this, for instance being mutilated by scratching or the cutting out of passages deemed “undesirable.” Outgoing letters often had to be rewritten, often more than once, for the same reason.
            Surviving letters tend to centre on “noncontroversial” topics such as family and personal matters, non-political issues, recollections of events in previous years and, to a lesser extent, life in prison, as this was something the authorities wanted to suppress.
            But eventually the tide turned, with Mandela being released in 1990 and Robben Island becoming a symbol of freedom. The release of prisoners continued up to and after the arrival of democracy in 1994, and in 1996 the last prisoners were removed and the prison closed.
            The Robben Island Museum was officially opened on 1 January, 1997, and in 1999 the island became a World Heritage Site. The South African History Online website notes: “Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site because the buildings on the island are a reminder of its sad history
and because the same buildings also show the power of the human spirit, freedom and the victory of democracy over oppression.”
            A retail post office agency started operating on Robben Island from that year, but it mainly operates on line and has no permanent staff. The island of just 116 inhabitants sees relatively few postal transactions, although visitors do understand the importance of the island’s postal history and can visit the office on tours from the mainland.
            Travellers can visit the island on half-day tours, including a half-hour ferry trip each way, a bus tour on the island and a visit to the infamous former prison conducted by a former inmate or as part of day-long tours. And they can send a postcard or a letter containing their thoughts.
Editor's note: This article is based on one of my Commonwealth Communiqué columns for Canadian Stamp News.

06 December 2013


I continue to sell stamps and related items on eBay but, unlike a lot of people, am loathe to spend more than a day a week listing items. The main reason is that I don’t want to be chained to a computer, but the other is that I don’t want to place my fate in eBay’s hands.
This trans-national, largely unfathomable giant has a lot to offer, but in many ways is its own worst enemy. Currently it is on a charm offensive to keep annoyed vendors from decamping en masse to Delcampe and other such sites, and for me this has proved to be sufficient for the time being.
While the monthly fees for a basic shop have gone up a third to £20 a month, they include 200 free listings and so my total outlay on pre-sales fees has dropped. Auction fees have been simplified, with all listings over 99p a flat 15p, so it makes more sense to list dearer items.
Furthermore, additional photos are now free, making it worthwhile to add an extra one or two to accompany my extensive descriptions. I could list more items if I only put in basic information, but my experience is that keywords in descriptions attract viewers and, generally, bidding. Without modest bidding up of prices and the odd amazing result, I could not be bothered with the whole process.
I keep detailed figures on my eBay efforts, and these are instructive. In 2013, mainly because like a giant ship the economy is gradually turning around, I have set records for five of 11 months. With most of December to come (which is not a great period for stamps and postcards as they generally are not bought as presents), the 2013 total is another record.
Amazingly, my eBay sales have gone up every year since I started in 2005, with the exception of 2008, when the economy went south. That year saw a 25 per cent drop. My 2013 total will be the first to top 2007’s.
So why do I have such mixed feelings about eBay? The main reason is that the company goes off regularly on nonsensical tangents. It is important to remember, by the way, that stamps and postcards are not a typical market, as most buyers are quite specialised and new stock cannot be manufactured.
The latest example of this is extensive pressure to offer free postage. For some reason, eBay wants vendors to include the cost of postage in the price, but this I have refused to do, in common with most other sellers in the philatelic area.
For this sin, I have lost my top-rated seller icon (which was not exactly one of my most treasured possessions but probably did help a bit) and the 10 per cent discount in final value fees. My modest postage charges are the sole reason I will probably never be granted the replacement premium service icon as I could easily offer an express shipping option, pointless though it would be.
Most items I sell are in the £5-10 range, so covering postage out of that is a major cost. Some items that I have several of I list as low as 99p in my shop, and if I added on 90p domestic postage the price would become prohibitive.
However, because like almost all vendors I combine postage fees for multiple purchases and, as stamps and postcards are light, someone can buy four or five cheap items and perhaps one or two more expensive ones and still pay a maximum of just over £1 postage for domestic transactions.
But eBay, despite its much-publicised efforts to convince sellers to try to sell more material in the rest of the world, forgets that this postage load would have to be carried by overseas buyers even though they still have to pay postage. I list a lot of material on and more than half my sales do go overseas, chiefly to the US.
Furthermore, free postage encourages tiny purchases. To my amazement, people sometimes pay more than £2 to have a 99p items posted to them. Free postage would mean more of the unavoidable nuisance of spending more time packing an item than it is worth.
In fact I’ve had to raise some of my postage fees because eBay, infuriatingly, is taking a 10 per cent commission on them too. This it takes even on the rare occasions I hand an item over to a buyer I know at a stamp and postcard fair or club meeting.
Vendors forget this when they give less than top marks on postage rates that hardly cover expenses, let alone the time involved in the process.
In another annoying move that caused short-term disruption, eBay decided that vendors simply couldn’t set postage prices for each item but had to use one of the templates they had to create. If it had worked properly this would have been a minor annoyance, but I found the process quite abstract and the changes I made usually weren’t accepted, forcing me to start over. What’s more, one of my templates clearly states a domestic postage price of 90p but the customer only gets charged 80p. The system also means that making one small change is more effort than it’s worth.
Another example of eBay’s micro-management, despite its oft-repeated attacks on restrictions in on-line activity, is a rule that purchase prices for buy-it-now items have to be at least 30 per cent more than the basic bid price.
This is arbitrary and nonsensical, which is a pretty good description of eBay at its worst.

26 December 2012


As I approached the hardly dizzying heights of 2500 eBay feedbacks and the time for another eBay commentary, it seemed a look at the lyrics of the 1969 hit single "In the Year 2525" might prove enlightening.
And so it was. The Zager and Evans worldwide hit, which is chilling and cheesy in almost equal measure, is about a population that is only interested in short term gains and failing to look to the future. A lot of people will agree that this is a fair description of a lot of companies, including eBay. We just have to change a few words:
"In the year 2525, if eBay is still alive If PayPal can survive, they may find In the year 3535 Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie Everything you think, do and say Is in the listings you made today
In the year 4545 You ain't gonna need your site, won't need your eyes You won't find a thing to do Nobody's gonna look at you."
I could go on.
This of course is an exaggeration and a fanciful one at that, but we have a serious point here. I am no futurologist, but we cannot go on the way we are. EBay, likewise, could do a lot to improve its vendor satisfaction and loyalty and increase its chances of surviving a lot longer, although another 513 years seems a trifle optimistic.
To be sure, eBay has a lot to commend it. I get some staggering prices with it and quite a few good ones. Because my prices are reasonable I sell most of the covers, postcards and other paper items I list. Because some prices on eBay are quite low, I often find items for my fair stock on it. And I’m not so hard-boiled that I don’t get a kick out of sending a postcard of a tiny village to that village, or a card or envelope to someone for whom it has tremendous personal meaning.
However, In line with most, but not all, new media companies, the dash for the cash is single-minded and short-sighted at eBay. Its management has little time for little things like seller freedom of choice and economic restraint. It must be admitted here that eBay is far from the worst on this count.
(As for the worst, Google would be a strong nominee: witness its willingness to trample on freedom of expression in exchange for access to the huge and highly profitable Chinese market.)
The new media companies are all in favour of freedom of competition – until it might cost them a penny. In fact I’m sure Carnegie and other 19th-century industrial giants would be impressed by these firms’ ruthlessness in extracting the last possible penny from the people who rely on them for income.
We all know eBay would ban all payments by any means other than its subsidiary PayPal if it could get away with it. The message that eBay does not allow vendors to accept postal payments in cash is arrogant, anti-competitive, of dubious legality and, fortunately, impossible to enforce.
Another small example: on Turbo Lister you used to be able to slide your screen over to the fees column, and the fees would be displayed there once you pushed the right button. Now you are moved away when you ask for the fees to be calculated, so you cannot see the individual fees unless you start over. This makes it much easier to miss a listing mistake (which invariably means more money for eBay). Of course it could be just another computer cockup.
The occasional away-with-the-fairies nature of eBay can be seen by using the facility on the American site to find out what prices are being achieved for certain goods. I typed in "paper clip" and was informed (without examples given) that the average sales price was $5. For "toilet paper" it was $31 and for "rubber band" a mere $1. These presumably are for lots, but the site doesn’t say that.
The addition of adverts on just about every available space is unfortunate. Sellers, being sellers, are resorting to all kinds of distracting graphic devices. I make a point of never clicking on any of the adverts, even in the rare case of a charity one that is of interest, and yet somehow I seem to end up looking at full-screen sales pitches from time to time. eBay, meanwhile, is looking for more ways to display adverts.
I am a keen tennis player and fan, but I found the deluge of adverts inviting teenagers to apply to become ballkids at the 2013 Masters in London a bit off-putting. It was the girl’s look of ecstasy as she reached for the unpictured star’s sweaty towel.
Far worse are the gambling site come-ons, a perfect example if you need one that eBay and other new media companies will opt for more profits rather than social responsibility. Gambling is a big problem for a lot of people, and easy and ever-present availability via the internet proves to be an irresistible temptation for many vulnerable people – as charities who deal with debt and gambling addiction tell us.
Yes eBay helps raise a massive amount of money through its donation programme, and I have used it. EBay does not do this for free – as it says its charges are competitive -- and this has more to do with public relations and selling more goods than innate goodwill.
And eBay’s record on paying British taxes is a bit better than the shocking avoidance of taxpaying that Starbucks has brewed up. For the time being I will do without rather than even look at a Starbucks, not that one can be found anywhere near my small town in Scotland.
I probably will have to endure some revenge for daring to say what I believe, as I have after past commentaries – although eBay of course denied this. I, unlike eBay, am not always going to take the most profitable path.
Meanwhile, my small eBay shop continues to pay its way, although sales are somewhat lower than in the first year. The huge numbers of mistakes in its sales statistics have gone down somewhat, but they are still common enough to make them worthless unless you employ a calculator.
No doubt largely because of the reaction to its often cavalier attitude towards vendors and its ever-increasing costs, eBay went on a charm offensive a few months to try to reduce defections to Delcampe and other internet operations.
One thing that has long annoyed me about eBay is that, I – like all others – was no longer eligible for periodic free listings once I had registered as a business seller. It annoys me greatly to see "private sellers" with five times the feedback entries I have. I will shed no tears if the tax people finally catch up with them, as every sale I make, no matter how tiny, is declared to the tax authorities. (This day of reckoning will come because when push comes to shove from the Inland Revenue, eBay will print out the relevant lists of vendors faster than you can say "bid now.")
EBay has twice allowed business sellers to list up to 50,000 items free for five days each time. I took advantage of this to the full extent my allotted day a week on eBay would allow, and saved a fair bit. Of course so many items were listed that my sales dropped, but you win some and lose some. EBay US also has free offers for dealers, 50 free listings a month, which I generally snap up.
In addition eBay has suddenly started bending over backwards to tackle abusive and unfair actions by buyers towards sellers. And yet this only happened when eBay saw profits were being threatened.
A dealer friend who is a big seller on eBay is planning to switch to Delcampe for shop items, and he is far from alone. Meanwhile, I’m not interested in expanding my "on-line presence" so will stick with eBay for the time being, as long as I don’t get any serious shocks. Better the man with horns you know.

05 June 2012


April 2012 could well be seen as a turning point in the history of the Royal Mail.
A recent series of what could be calamitous events began with an announcement that first class postage rates would go up from 46p to 60p and second class stamps would rise from 36p to 50, nearly a 39 percent increase at a time when British inflation is about 3 percent.
Royal Mail officials went on TV to proclaim blandly that the increase, while it might on the surface seem large, was necessary to stem increasing losses and maintain universal postal deliveries. They added that as the "average" household only spends about 50p a week on postage, the increases would have little impact.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. The British public -- recently spooked by the threat of a petrol tanker drivers’ strike and government advice to stock up, resulting in massive queues for fuel – immediately went out and cleared the post offices of first and second class stamps. These will still be valid for the inscribed services after the increase.
The Royal Mail, in its infinite economic wisdom, of course, had no idea this would happen. Rather than increase supplies it sought to ration them. Businesses were told they could have only small increases in their usual purchases. My village post office has been told it will get more stamps soon, but even if the promised supplies do arrive, and I have doubts that they will, they will immediately vanish.
The philatelic bureau has been just as heavily affected. A month before the increase was due I sent in an order for a business roll of 100 second class stamps, which my wife uses, and for mini-sheets, which happened to contain a fair number of first class stamps. The order failed to materialize and the money wasn’t taken from my account.
Fearing that the philatelic bureau would wait until after the price increase to fill my order – I phoned up to say that either my order had to be filled at the prices valid at the time I made it, or cancelled. I should say I tried to phone the philatelic bureau, for twice I was cut off before I so much as reached a real human voice. I e-mailed the philatelic bureau with the same crushing news, and received an automatic response that my inquiry would be handled within a not exactly record-setting ten days – which is after the postal increase, as it happens.
Nearly a month later I received another e-mail saying: "Unfortunately due to a download problem only part of your message was received and as a result the nature of your enquiry is unclear. Only if the matter has not yet been resolved would I be grateful if you could resend the message directly to us …" I resent my original e-mail, which prompted an e-mail saying my message would be replied to within 14 days. At the time of writing 13 days have passed and I have not heard back.
The Royal Mail will presumably take another financial hit thanks to the logjam because it is one of the increasingly few postal authorities to take orders for first-day covers only up to the day of issue. Of course, I would not put it past executives to work out a way to handle first day cover orders while neglecting those for mint stamps.
However all of this is just the beginning. People will not accept the massive postage increases happily, but will accelerate their use of alternatives. Instead of 10 percent increases in postal volumes annually, the Royal Mail will likely suffer 20 or 30 percent declines, only increasing its deficits.
Long-suffering collectors, putting up with ever-increasing numbers of stamps with excessive face values not designed for postal usage, will see this as another blow and many will stop collecting mint stamps. Prestige booklets, a popular collecting area for some time, are facing a backlash because they now longer are sold at face value, and Stanley Gibbons says that if it followed its new issue guidelines to the letter these booklets would lose full catalogue status.
Many collectors stopped buying mint stamps at the dawn of the Millennium and so many more have stopped since that the Royal Mail has finally admitted it needs to listen to collectors and issue fewer values.
In a recent mailing, which of course cost thousands, to collectors to announce that the Royal Mail would issue "instant" stamps for British gold medallists in the upcoming London Olympic Games, postal authorities revealed that several other issues would be delayed so collectors’ pocketbooks wouldn’t be so hard hit.
Like a lot of collectors, I am annoyed and more than a bit worried about the financial impact of the postage rate increases, for I have a large postage bill. However, like many, to a large extent be shielded from the blows because I buy discount postage. The wholesale rate for mint stamps in Britain is 75 per cent, and falling, as ever more quantities of mint collections are coming on to the market. In a recent postal auction without buyers’ fees, for instance, I bought some £230 ($368) worth of unmounted mint sets for £150 ($240), and even a large postage fee failed to make much impact in my bargain of 63 per cent of face value.
Yet demand for postal services remains high. The queue in the post office in Montrose, the town in north-east Scotland near where I live, is always long – although this a lot to do with cutting of costs and staff. Furthermore, the Royal Mail does itself no service by only putting a small number of commemorative stamps on sale in post offices, and for limited periods.
The Royal Mail is, to be sure, between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as it has the massive costs of universal mail delivery to cover, even as its rivals cherry pick the most profitable postal services thanks to European laws designed to increase competition in the postal marketplace.
The Royal Mail, like virtually all national postal operators around the globe, has much higher labour and overhead costs than its ultra-slim competitors. Occasionally I receive a private parcel delivered by a local lady with her little girl in tow. Neither mum nor child is likely to be getting much in the way of fringe benefits.
The only good I can see coming out of all of the price rise fiasco is if the Royal Mail and the current government, which likes to wave the wand of market forces as a cure-all for evils, are forced to take a new tack. Not until they treat postal services for what they are – a necessary and expensive part of daily life that really can’t be expected to turn a profit – will they halt the current vicious cycle.
Update: In one small bit of evidence, my post halved the first week after the increases of nearly 50 percent in some categories, such as the basic second class rate, and his been running at about two-thirds of normal amounts since. Repeated across the country that would spell disaster for Royal Mail.
Despite a month’s notice of the new rates, brochures listing them did not arrive at my village post office until after they were in effect.
It now appears my order for plan-ahead order for stamps to beat the was lost, which does nothing to create a warm feeling about Royal Mail as I used a Philatelic Bureau prepaid envelope.
Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in a slightly different form as one of my Commonwealth Communiqué columns for Canadian Stamp News, an excellent publication of interest to all collectors in Canada and those who collect Canadian stamps.

16 January 2012


Whenever the winds blow me into Washington DC I make sure I visit the excellent U.S. National Postal Museum, conveniently located across the street from the cavernous Union Station and its handy Metro stop.
I was particularly glad I made it in November (2011) as a new display had just opened on military mail, and the recent release of the US Postal Service stamp honouring Owney the wandering postal dog has prompted the museum to expand its displays about this remarkable creature.
Owney was a mutt who lived the life of Riley, travelling about in rail post office carriages and picking up tags from postal clerks to document his comings and goings in the late 1800s. His presence delighted these hard-working clerks for, as well as breaking up the daily grind, he was seen as a good luck charm as no train he was on ever crashed, even though this was a common occurrence at the time.
Like many people I took a new look at the continuing displays, plus a new one about the creation of the recent Owney stamp, and marvelled at the map show the diverse places the nomad canine reached. I hadn’t realized, for instance, that he crossed the border into Canada quite a few times, from Quebec to British Columbia.
Perhaps best of all, if a bit macabre, is the fact that Owney still lives on in the flesh, so to speak. He was so popular that his remains were preserved by taxidermists – and so he sits in a glass case in the museum, as if waiting for his next train.
Anyone interested in Owney’s story or the new stamp should take a look at the preparatory work on the stamp that is displayed in the foyer, around the corner from the main display. The process was a quite involved one, with the main problem how to do justice to both Owney and the medals attached to his vest. I don’t think the stamp, by artist Bill Bonds, quite does justice to Owney’s striking appearance and I preferred some earlier versions of the issue that showed him full figure.
The museum has also created an "augmented-reality experience that brings to life ‘Owney the Dog,’ mascot of the Railway Mail Service. The experience, offered via iPhone and Web applications, is the first multidimensional, augmented-reality experience triggered by a U.S. postage stamp," according to the museum web site.
"A multidimensional virtual Owney appears above the stamp. Owney barks, trots, sits and listens to postal train whistles in full 3-D. When the stamp is moved closer to the camera, details of Owney’s collar and some of the tags he received from his many travels can be seen. When viewed from a slight distance, the stamp can be moved around to see Owney from any side or angle."
While I failed to spot this opportunity during my brief, end-of-the-day visit to the museum, I did purchase a small booklet, at just $US4, about the postal pooch.
I also had a good look at the new "Mail Call" exhibit, which documents the delivery of mail to service personnel over the ages and has a moving film in which letters are read out. The exhibit was of particular interest to me as my father is a D-Day veteran.
One of the most fascinating postal items on display is a WWII-era coconut shell from Hawaii to which a label bearing 37 cents worth of presidential series stamps has been attached. The unusual piece of post was checked by the US Department of Agriculture as well as censored.
Another key WWII item is a Dec. 6, 1941 postal handstamp from the USS Oklahoma recovered after the battleship was sunk by the Japanese air force at Pearl Harbor.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Canadian Stamp News as one of my Commonwealth Communique articles for this excellent publication.

14 September 2011


Now that I have 2001 eBay feedbacks (it has taken me more than ten years to reach this figure, a mere busy afternoon for some vendors) it is time for one of my regular eBay commentaries. I do these not because I live and breathe eBay, but because I hope they might benefit someone else down the line.
I usually have a disaster to report, but this time the main feature of the last year or so has been a marked success. I opened an eBay shop in December 2010, and have been pleased with the results. The setting-up process was surprisingly easy, and eBay has done its groundwork well. Setting up the shop probably took less time than registering as a seller in the first place.
It is all neatly and logically laid out and easy to do. New shop operators have several decisions to make, but they can see a preview of the result. Any wrong decisions can always be corrected down the line.
I got it all set up surprisingly quickly and put in some lots – not without a few unwelcome surprises. For instance, putting a second photo on the listing costs about triple the fee for an auction item photo, which I suppose eBay feels is justified because a shop listing lasts up to 30 days. In addition, it is much more expensive to list on eBay US. The GB fee was 20p when I started, now thankfully reduced to 10p. A US listing is 50 cents, and this same amount is levied if you want "North American exposure" for your shop item.
As a result I do most of my shop listings, even for American material, on the GB site. Judging by where the GB items go, a lot of eBay shoppers know to do the widest possible search. Even when I put an unsold US item in my shop I generally put it on the GB site because of the considerable cost savings. The one exception is when the lot needs extra pictures, as these are only 15 cents for US listings.
Anyway, I waited for something to happen … and waited … and waited. I wasn’t exactly panicking, as the extra figures eBay provides to shop managers showed lots of people were looking.
Perhaps it was the holiday rush, as suddenly after ten days, a few days before Christmas, the first sale came. To my surprise, I had about one a day for the rest of the month, and the cost of £14.99 was quickly covered. In the nine months of operation the shop has more or less paid for itself each month, with the only exception being in May for some reason. Even in the notoriously slow month of August shop sales amounted to more than three times the shop fee. They also topped the auction sales, for the first and only time.
To be sure, an eBay shop is not cheap. As well as the 10p per listing and £14.99 a month – and this is only for the basic shop – sellers have to pay a 10 percent commission on all sales. And of course the PayPal fee also has to be factored in. This mounts up quickly.
One thing I find particularly annoying is the eBay money-grubbing move to charge 10 percent on postage fees as well. This was disingenuously described as a move to motivate vendors to charge low postage fees, but of course all those charging a break-even amount have to raise their charges as a result. So in effect it penalises the people who do charge a low rate.
At any rate, I find the shop is useful for listing unsold auction lots. I do auction listings twice, the second time at a reduced starting price, and then as time (always in short supply) allows I convert the listing to a shop one. Experience has taught me that some items are likely to sell but will never get bid up much, and these go straight to the shop.
A third category for good shop items is duplicated but highly saleable material. Vendors can list several identical items for the same 10p and the listing remains in effect until all are sold. This saves a lot of money and time. I find it worthwhile to list item as low as 99p if I have enough of them, and often people will order more than one.
Something that does happen, but less than expected, is that people will buy one item and keep shopping. I don’t charge extra postage for additional items so people can save quite a bit this way. In addition, sometimes people buy an auction lot and then go to the shop to see if they can get more money for their postage pound. Only occasionally do I have to retire shop items, ideally if they will fit into my stamp and postcard fair stock.
When I started my shop I was advised by an experienced seller that it would pay to upgrade the shop quickly, even at £50, but with the reduction of the 20p fee to 10p, I would need to have some 400 listings to save money, and do not envisage spending this much time chained to my computer.
The one non-price complaint I have about the shop is that most of the sales figure percentages are wildly wrong. To give a random example, for one recent week the report said I had 36 listings end and eight sales. This is clearly a sales rate of 22.2 percent, but it was listed on my report as 40 percent. All the other five weeks in that particularly report were all wrong – and I don’t suppose anyone will be surprised to hear that the error always inflated the sales percentage. The same is generally true for monthly reports. I’ve complained about this but had no response from eBay.
But of course eBay would not be eBay without disasters, and I have had one annoying experience. A repeat customer in the States was unhappy with the condition of a postcard, which cost the princely sum of $7. The US card was sent to the Scottish island of Orkney some 100 years ago and the layers were starting to come apart because the card had got quite wet at some point, which I failed to notice when scanning the card as the separation was not instantly obviously to anyone not looking for it.
He immediately gave me negative feedback, without contacting me. I of course immediately offered a refund, plus postage, and even paid to have the card sent back, but he would not budge on the negative feedback.. I learned that he was a serial filer of negative feedback, in fact doing this in about 5% of his purchases, but I soon forgot about it. I have since learned that eBay might well have reversed the negative feedback as it was counter to my otherwise excellent record – I am always at 5.0 or 4.9 on the four categories for customer satisfaction – but it was too late by the time I contacted eBay about this.
In another case I had some revenge low ratings. I gave someone a rating of 4 on one or two categories for a postcard I bought, which obviously enraged the seller. He then bought something from me that was a snip at £1.04 and claimed he had not received the item. After 10 days he said it had arrived, then gave me a 1 rating for speed of posting, even though I had a certificate of posting for the item dated the day after he paid for it. I got a totally unjustified low rating in another area as well, which meant my 5 score dropped to 4.9. All this effort and need to exact revenge all strikes me as incredibly pathetic.
But of course, if you always expect smooth sailing on eBay you will be doomed to disappointment.
Finally, I am sure I am not the only person on eBay who is annoyed about the adverts on the pages, especially at the top. They take up room, move around and so distract you (which I am sure they are designed to do) and slow downloading. I make a point of never clicking on the advert for more information, as this only encourages them.
The annoying effect can be minimalised, I discovered, if I set up the My eBay page with the advert moved up out of sight -- on my setup this is exactly four clicks of the mouse on the down arrow -- and then when I refresh the page the advert stays satisfyingly out of view.

02 June 2010


Having your financial or on-line identity stolen or compromised is one of the greatest fears of modern life, so for my eBay 1500 feedback article I’ll give an account of how my eBay ID was compromised and what I did to keep the damage to a minimum.
I was part of the way through breakfast on a Monday when the phone went. A woman wanted to know more about the car I was selling on eBay. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I was quite sure I was not selling a vehicle, let alone on eBay. The woman sensed my hesitation and suggested that if I was not selling a car I’d better sign in to my account as it was highly likely someone had hacked into it.
Being a breakfast sort of person, I finished it and then logged on. There, as clear as day despite efforts of the cyber criminal to hide it, was a listing for a BMW X5 3.0D Sport Auto, a spiffing people carrier worth in the region of £30,000-40,000. The 24-hour listing had a starting price of £1 but after an hour and a half had attracted several bids and was up to £3,100.
I knew full well that the car did not exist and that the perpetrator had simply scanned in some photos, but clearly several people were taken in, their judgment clouded perhaps by greedy thoughts of acquiring this posh vehicle for a snip. Our cyber thief had attempted to fuel these hopes of a wild bargain by saying he (or she) only needed £5,000 for the car. Wow, what a nice person. Anyone who was paying any attention at all could have seen that this note, small as it was, was not my work as it was very sloppily written, and I try to avoid this sort of thing as I am a journalist by profession.
Despite the fact that my blood was nearing boiling point, I quickly e-mailed the top bidder to say that the bid should be cancelled and that the car didn’t exist. (That person quickly wrote a note to thank me.) I then cancelled the listing and notified eBay.
Then I had a good look at the listing, which by the way had cost me £8.50. All my details were as normal except for the e-mail address, which had been changed to a Hotmail one. This offered a clue as to how the person hoped to get away with the crime. I guessed that the winning bidder would have been messed around in terms of collecting the car and would have eventually been encouraged to pay by PayPal or another electronic alternative, quite possibly with a nice discount as a sweetener. Or perhaps they would have been asked to make an advance payment. The money, of course, would quickly have vanished and I would have been left with an irate buyer with nothing but a couple of scans to show for their cash.
Fortunately the brigand had not made any attempts, at least successful, to hack into my PayPal account, but I quickly changed my password into something much more difficult to type.
EBay takes this sort of thing very seriously, of course, and when I logged on the next morning my account had been frozen. I had received several e-mails about the matter and was invited to contact eBay via a real-time electronic linkup to tackle the mess. First, as eBay’s behest, however, I thought up a new, much more complicated, password and changed my e-mail password as well.
The person at the other end was obviously highly experienced, not a cut-and-paste artist, and very helpful. She made me jump through various hoops to prove my identity and took me through various steps, including verifying that I had changed the three key passwords, and arranged for a refund of the £8.50. The various necessary actions took several hours, and it took several more hours over the rest of the week to undo the damage the miscreant had done by moving parts of my My eBay page to try to disguise the scam and putting information about the car and the bogus e-mail address in one of my templates.
For weeks afterward it seemed I had to sign in using my new password several times a day, including on Turbo Lister, but now things are pretty much back to normal.
I wondered why the cyber thief had picked on me, as I am a registered business user and so presumably check my eBay listings frequently (which I do.) However my feedback is, I say modestly, about as good as it gets – 5.0 for promptness of dispatch, communications and accuracy of listings and 4.9 for postage – and I imagine this was why I was selected.
I still have no idea how the sneak seller managed to get into my eBay account, especially given the confirmation questions that are supposed to be asked when a computer other than my home one is used to do eBay work.
I am grateful that I happened to be home on the day of the attack. Otherwise things could have been much, much worse.
As for avoiding such incidents, I can only suggest considering a complicated eBay password and checking the site at least daily. Otherwise you could get a phone call one day from an angry person wanting to know what has happened to their expensive BMW.

02 March 2010


I go to my local stamp club meetings whenever possible, no matter what is on offer, and so it was I found myself at the Arbroath public library on an uncharacteristically warm Scottish evening recently. However I and the other members were quickly transported to the exotic locale of Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia, by a fascinating display of the country’s stamps and postal history.
Our guide was the Rev. Alan Roy, who lived and worked in Zambia for many years. He presented many aspects of a Zambian collection and I soon realized it would be a good idea to take website visitors on a brief tour as well, even if it never could be as vivid.
The Rev. Roy explained that Zambia, while a poor country suffering from the ravages of HIV/AIDS, has had much better leadership in recent years than neighbouring Zimbabwe and has stable prices after a period of serious inflation. Likewise its stamp policy has generally been sound, notwithstanding a tie-up with a United States philatelic agency at one point.
Sets of stamps are generally issued in modest numbers and typically portray the country’s culture, history and wildlife, although subjects of international importance also crop up. A good example is relatively recent stamps picturing Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader and proponent of non-violent resistance. These are popular with the many Gandhi collectors worldwide
The stamps are generally attractive and well produced, largely thanks to a veteran Zambian artist and stamp designer, Gabriel Ellison, who designs many of its issues. She quickly made her mark on the issues of Zambia as she designed its excellent first definitive set, which pictured current and past facets of life in the country.
The Rev. Roy noted that Zambia is a large nation, some 1,200 miles from end to end, and for those of its 13 million people living in outlying areas the postal services are sketchy. The district where he lived, for instance, was the size of a British county but had just two post offices.
As I know next to nothing about Zambian stamps virtually everything that the Rev. Roy presented was new to me, but I did take particular interest in a few particular points he illustrated with material from his collection:
¨ The 1953 Northern Rhodesia Queen’s head stamps while very familiar looking, are hard to find used on cover because they came out not long before the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was created and were not in use for a long time.
¨ The final Northern Rhodesian definitive set picturing the country’s arms and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II can be found with a variety of errors, chiefly the lack of a value.
¨ Postage due stamps are also hard to find properly used on cover, and because of sketchy supplies in post offices some real rarities can be found. The Rev. Roy showed a fascinating cover to himself from an acquaintance of limited means that was underpaid and had Northern Rhodesian due stamps overprinted Southern Rhodesia.
¨ Zambia suffered such horrific inflation in the mid-1990s that ordinary people could not afford to send letters and so covers from the period are scarce. Much of the display was on Zambian air mail rates and even before this period it took a large group of stamps to pay for postage to overseas destinations.
As is the case with many poor African countries, covers are often found with markings noting that an item has been forwarded by surface mail because of insufficient postage for airmail. Quite a few Zambian stamps have been overprinted with new values, creating interesting issues and envelopes for the many collectors of such stamps.
More details on Zambian stamps are available from: Philatelic Bureau, Zambia Posts and Telecommunications Ltd, PO Box 71857, Ndola, Zambia. However, if you go to Zambia Post’s web site at you will find nothing other than an optimistic message: "Website to be restored soon!"


New Zealand is leading the world in privatization of postal operations, and what seems to be another serious competitor to New Zealand Post has entered the field. That competitor is Croxley, a well-known stationer manufacturer and subsidiary of the US-based international stationery giant Max. It says it aims to win 10% of the market within three years.
What makes the Croxley initiative so interesting is that it will provide prepaid postal stationery items, a logical step for a firm that makes envelopes. It will also offer a variety of boxes, mailing bags and other products. The new Croxley Mail service started with six stamps with a face value of 50 cents to $1.50 as well as the prepaid envelopes. The firm already supplies New Zealand Post stamps and envelopes through many firms, some of them owned by Max, and it expects many outlets to switch to the new product. These envelopes and covers with the Croxley Mail stamps can be posted in New Zealand Post mailboxes or postal centres.
The first stamps are attractive, featuring photos of idyllic New Zealand scenes. These were shot at night under full moonlight at Muriwai Beach at Auckland, giving them an ethereal quality. As with other New Zealand private post stamps, they are never likely to be common, especially on cover.
Editor's note: These articles are adapted from my long-running Commonwealth collecting column in Canadian Stamp News. For more details on this excellent publication, including how to subscribe, go to

05 January 2010


The British Isles are well known for their penny posts, a part of the postal revolution that made sending a letter affordable for everyone in the middle of the 19th century, but another groundbreaking one took place much later, in January 1984.
On Jan 3, 1984, Irish postal users could send a basic rate letter or postcard within the country for just one Irish penny, a true money-saving opportunity. This massive discount was designed to catch people’s attention, and the reason was the inauguration that day of a commercial state postal company called An Post, an Irish Gaelic name that translates roughly as … The Post. Items posted on the day received a special slogan postmark proclaiming "Penny Post Day 1984, an example of which can be found illustrated elsewhere on this page.
The Irish Post Office was very busy that day, even if it ran at a loss, and its publicity aims were achieved as four million 1p Irish architecture definitive stamps were sold that day and millions of people were prompted to reflect on why they could send a postcard to Auntie Colleen.
As The Collector, the An Post philatelic bulletin, notes: "From its first day of business, when it reintroduced penny postage for one day, An Post signalled its intention to be innovative in its approach to marketing … the company strove, though new products, to stimulate demand."
An Post set out on a potentially perilous course that day, although it was a course many if not most nations had to embark on to bring their postal operations into the modern era. And now, in 2009, the Irish experiment has proved successful, if not without problems, and An Post is a robust, flexible and carefully run enterprise of the sort that a modern small nation needs to survive in the European and global markets.
So it is not surprising that An Post has released a set of ten stamps commemorating its 25th birthday, although it does make a statement in that all of the images are up-to-date ones of postal employees doing their jobs with modern equipment and facilities, of postal patrons enjoying world-class facilities and even of the Sean Kelly Cycling Team, which it sponsors.
Given this focus on new products, the two strips of ten self-adhesive stamps – all 55c issues that everyone uses for domestic mailings -- are accompanied by a first day cover, a booklet containing all the stamps, a box containing 100 of the stamps and a set of five An Post vans from throughout its history attractively packaged in a box. Now some of these items are not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, but no-one is forced to buy them, and a collector wanting just a basic set of stamps can acquire them for a modest outlay.
A very cheap but tricky challenge also presents itself: trying to collect all of the stamps postally used. Even tougher, as I put my postal history thinking cap on briefly, would be collecting each of the stamps properly used on cover or postcard.
I’m fortunate in that I don’t live all that far from Ireland and can occasionally take the ferry over the Irish Sea to visit friends, have a chat with Irish collectors and perhaps do some buying and selling. I’ve found An Post issues to be attractive and varied, if a bit too cutesy at times, and I’ve always been impressed by the stamps and the service when I call in at the philatelic counter in the famous and imposing General Post Office building on O’Connell Street in Dublin.
As The Collector also reports, An Post has seen many milestones in its busy first 25 years:
-- It has produced 12 joint issues with other nations, including Canada of course.
-- Its single European currency issue showed the stamp value for euro and Irish punt (or pound) for the first time.
-- The Christmas 2001 issues were the last to have a punt value.
-- Ireland’s first lenticular (moving image) stamps were issued in 2006 to mark the hosting of the Ryder Cup US vs Europe golf match.
-- An Post has issued two stamps featuring Braille: its 2006 30th anniversary of Irish guide dogs stamp and 2009 Louis Braille issue.
-- The web site was launched in March of 2002.
No doubt we can look forward to a few more.
One thing An Post has not brought in is a postcode system, making Ireland the only country in Europe not to have one, although two-digit basic alphanumeric codes have been used in Dublin and Cork. I’ve long wondered why some Irish envelopes have orange postal mechanisation code bars on the back of them, and perhaps they relate to this partial code.
At any rate, that is all changing. The country’s communications minister, Eamon Ryan, announced in September that tenders for the design and implementation of the coding system would be issued shortly and that a system is expected to be in place in 2011 for the country’s 1.75 million addresses. The current economic woes, with Ireland having been hit particularly hard, are likely to be a factor as the once-booming "Celtic Tiger" seeks ways to improve competitiveness and stop multinationals moving work to lower cost countries.
"We're the only country in Europe which doesn't have a postal code ... and we like that in a nostalgic way," Ryan told public radio RTE. "But the reality is it's not efficient and it doesn't work well. We need to move to a new digital economy, postcodes are part of that."
Postcodes would not only make mail delivery more efficient but would also help other businesses that rely on the exact tracing of goods in the export-reliant Irish economy. "There are a lot of corporations internationally who would be very anxious to piggyback on the back of the new system once it's in," John Whelan, chief executive of the Irish Exporters Association, told the Reuters news agency.
No doubt the satellite navigation industry will be pleased too. Anyone running an event in Britain has become accustomed to giving the postcode of the venue so people can tap the code into their system and put away the map.
Editor's note: This is one of my Commonwealth Communique columns for Canadian Stamp News. For more details on this excellent publication, including how to subscribe, go to

30 September 2009


As postcards were a prime medium a hundred years ago for publicising local and national events, it is reassuring to see one of the major events of 2009 being reasonably well represented in cards. That event was a truly global happening, capturing the public imagination across the world as the first black US president was sworn in.
Asians stayed up late, Eastern Europeans watched at dinner time, Brits had tea in front of the telly, east coast Americans paused in late morning and west coasters turned on the TV during breakfast – all to watch the son of a Kenyan exchange student assume the most powerful position on the globe, so publishers were hardly taking a big gamble when they marked the event.
Strong images of Barack Hussein Obama juxtaposed before the White House, and the First Family, who it must be said are more than highly photogenic, went on sale before the event in Washington DC as postcard producers rushed to take advantage of the unprecedented worldwide interest and the massive crowds descending on the capital.
While a long-planned family trip saw me arriving in Washington the day after the inauguration, I was quickly caught up in the electric and highly positive, if cautious, atmosphere across the country -- but most definitely centred in Washington. I knew I wanted to acquire as many different cards as possible, but I did not know if it would be an easy task.
Perhaps I became overconfident as I attended a major Washington-area stamp event, the Washington Metro Fair, conveniently located in the outer suburb where one of my brothers lives, and found a huge array of election and inaugural day commemorative envelopes (but no postcards) at the table of an enterprising and experienced cover producer. I bought one set of inaugural envelopes but no election day ones, and by the time I got back to Scotland was wishing I’d purchased more. One of the partners of the enterprise happened to mention that they had sold more than £1,000 worth on the first day of the three-day fair, which should have told me something.
And so it was, a bit later, that I ventured to the city centre to scoop up what I imagined would be scores of different cards. Arriving at Union Station not long after dawn, having taken advantage of a lift to the wonderful Metro system from my civil servant brother. I knew that Union Station has many shops selling cards, but was hardly surprised to find them closed at 7.45am. I consoled myself, somehow, with a fine breakfast of "baked French toast," which was a bit like bread pudding, and muesli yoghurt and tea.
By 8.30 the shopkeepers were arriving and I began my quest at a newsagents called Hudson News. This is a large regional outfit that stocks a modest but well-chosen selection of topographical and other postcards. Three fine Obama cards were on the slightly hidden racks, although I dithered over one because it was so large. In the end I bought one of each (60 cents plus sales tax, or a bit more than 40p) and some Washington Metro map, National Zoo panda and John Kennedy cards for my map, bear and presidential friends in Scotland.
My purchases were modest, for I imagined I would do much better at the many political and current affairs shops that lined the retail concourses of the magnificently restored station (which still sees many trains, by the way). Little did I know that I had already seen the best selection and lowest prices.
The only problem with the Hudson News cards was a certain sameness. Each pictures a beaming and confident-looking Obama and the White House. The largest one, with Obama on the left, was printed by a firm called Capital Noveltees (sic) – perhaps they do a line of tee-shirts as well. The smaller one was by the same firm and featured the same photographs but with Obama on the right – a less satisfactory arrangement even if the president is looking almost straight ahead. Both have the text: "Barack Obama/ 44th President of the United States / Washington D.C.", and the larger one also sports the presidential seal.
The third card, by the Postcard Factory, has different views of Obama and his residence, plus the US flag. It states simply: "President Barack Obama / Washington, D.C." and, ironically, states on the back that it was printed in Canada.
Only one of the other promising-looking shops was open my this time and I was disappointed to find that the array of fine and not-so-fine political artifacts did not include postcards. However, the helpful clerk explained that a shop on the lower floor did sell Obama cards.
I found this shop eventually, just inside an entrance from the Metro station, but was disappointed to find its "postcards" were really mini-posters. (This shop was so new, by the way, that the name of the previous occupant was simply covered over and the emporium remained nameless. Probably eventually they will call it Obamarama.) To a soundtrack of an Obama speech, and realising my quest was not going to be quite as easy as I had imagined, I purchased two of the smaller cards and a larger one, each for $1 plus tax. I took care, by the way, to explain to the helpful and friendly sales assistant that postcard collectors like a postcard back. By the way, the most reserved clerks were soon beaming when I said I had come from Scotland to look for Obama cards (among other things).
These cards, to be sure, are nicely produced and attractive. The smaller one, of the First Family, and the presidential seal, is exactly the same front and back. On one side of the larger one, titled "Family Roots", Obama is surrounded by family photos, while on the flip side Obama and the seal are pictured with the words "The President of the United States of America / Barack H. Obama". This image is not quite as successful as it has no border on the top and the president has been given a bit of a haircut. No details of a publisher are given.
By this time it was clear most of the shops (as well as the National Postal Museum across the street) were not opening until 10, so nothing remained but to walk the short distance to the Mall, the scene of so many historic events and the 44th president’s inaugural speech. There in front of the Capitol building the scaffolding was still being taken down. I paused to look over the vast expanse, which so recently had been a gathering place for nearly two million people. Somehow I found it easier to visualise the vast civil rights and antiwar protests that had filled the Mall rather than the recent inauguration. The bitter cold, which the celebrants also had experienced, did nothing to dampen the almost overwhelming feeling of history and past and present changes.
Back at Union Station, after an impromptu but fascinating demonstration by a canine operator and his charge on how to check a lorry for explosives, I stepped into a shop called America! that had another large selection of memorabilia. One of the postcards was one I already had, but wisely I purchased a second copy, and one was a new find with Obama in front of Old Glory and the words: "Barack Obama / 44th President of the United States." The reverse includes the text of his oath of office, but no details of the publisher. I assuaged my disappointment at not being named Obama’s postmaster general by buying a White House Presidential Staff mug and a bookmark picturing all the U.S. presidents for the friend with a collection on that theme.
A highly-promising, long-established kiosk featuring Washington memorabilia was the next stop. While this establishment had just one "new" if quite fine card featuring the First Family, the assistant did shed light on why I was having trouble finding a variety of cards. "Oh we had lots of different ones, but they’re all sold out now. We’ll be getting some more." This anonymous card (Made in U.S.A.) shows a waving Obama and "Sasha, Malia, and First Lady Michelle." Now realising the problem I faced, I asked for three.
I got much the same story over at the wonderful National Postal Museum, whose shelves had been stripped bare of a large stock of Obama cards. I did buy three of the last few Inauguration Day envelopes out of the hundreds that I was told had been in stock at this outpost of the Smithsonian Institution. Postcard collectors will find plenty of interest here, but will have to be patient as the emphasis is on stamps and carriage of the mail.
My search for postcards was not entirely in vain, however, as I purchased two at 75 cents each featuring the Wright Brothers’ 1903 aircraft and Owney, a postal mascot dog who travelled the US in railway post office cars. Even a better bargain were two cards advertising current displays at the museum, on "Alphabetilately" (an A-Z of stamp collecting terms) and World War II Victory Mail, the weight-saving microfilm letters.
These latter cards are the latest in a long series dispensed from machines and that visitors are invited to post straightaway with an illustrated Pitney Bowes meter mark cancellation. It takes a bit of effort and a wee while to get your card as you have to type in the address of the intended recipient. One the machine spits out the card, you can simply pocket it or take it to another machine where you can pay for the meter postage and have it printed on the spot.
At this point I had to head off to the heart of the business section to meet old journalistic colleagues, and as I was flying home the next day did not get another chance to hunt for postcards.
Well, that is not exactly true. For I was delighted to see near my departure gate at Dulles Airport a Smithsonian shop. Did I dare hope it might have the cards the postal museum had sold out of?
Yes and no. It did have one by now familiar card, of Obama in front of Old Glory. I bought another copy. I wish I’d taken half a dozen.
Editor's note: This article, by yours truly, originally appeared in Picture Postcard Monthly, a magazine I can heartily recommend for anyone with even a passing interest in postcards.

17 January 2009


Surely all stamp collectors should always look for and pay the lowest possible price. And when choosing between similar copies of a stamp or cover, a buyer should always opt for the cheapest one, especially if it is nicer looking.
Not necessarily. In fact, while cost is always a factor in any purchase, always insisting on a rock-bottom price is one of the worst ways to put together a good collection. Indeed, it can result in throwing away a lot of money and cause frustration and disappointment.
Quite apart from the well-known fact that a high-quality item always holds its value better than a poor-quality one, several compelling reasons exist for considering a range of prices for any purchase.
A story told by an experienced stamp auctioneer illustrates the point well. At one of the excellent annual American Philatelic Society summer seminars in Pennsylvania, the teacher of my course on the economics of the stamp market told how two boys offered one wintry day to shovel the snow off his drive. They wanted $25 for the large job but after some discussion reluctantly agreed to $20.
The hard bargainer settled down smugly to watch TV, but later was astonished to find his snow intact and the boys working away industriously on his neighbour’s. "Why are you doing his driveway?" the auctioneer asked.
"He is paying $25," one of the boys said.
Anyone who believes this cannot happen in the stamp world is sadly mistaken. I was once contacted by a collector in a popular postal history area who had seen my advert in a club magazine. He asked me to send a list of covers for sale, which I went to some effort to do. Then he made a large order of these reasonably priced covers, but said he had to see them before paying. I bundled them up with some annoyance, for this was a second job I’d had to do without receiving any money.
The collector then wrote back to say the covers were the sort of thing he wanted, but made a counter-offer for them. As I had gone to a fair bit of work and did not want to lose the sale, I gritted my teeth and accepted the offer, but resolved never to have anything to do with the person again.
A few months later the collector phoned, wondering why I hadn’t sent any more lists. He was quite anxious to acquire more items, but he wasn’t having much luck for some reason. I said I didn’t have anything suitable to offer, but the fact is I’d rather donate stock to charity than deal with him.
Just in case you’re thinking that this is a self-serving plot by a dealer to get more money from collectors, the same is just as true for the dealer making purchases. A fair offer is not only more likely to result in a transaction, but is more likely to result in a long-term relationship. I sometimes pay a bit more than I’d like just to keep a seller from looking for other pastures, and anyway I often then realise the vendor was justified in asking for the price. Occasionally I find I’ve seriously underestimated the value of an item and make a second payment, confident the value of the seller’s future offers will far exceed the modest sum involved.
The collector should be wary of the lowest price for several other reasons. While dealers have genuine sales, and true bargains are often found for many good reasons, a very low price is often too good to be true. The item might be a forgery, have a faked watermark or postmark, be repaired, regummed or reperforated or have a hard-to-spot flaw. Anthony Duda, of the Scottish stamp dealers Stenlake and McCourt, explains that forgeries abound on many early stamps. "The reasons that these forgeries were produced is that the originals are rare. People wanted copies to fill up their printed albums."
I have a highly experienced friend who gave up stamps in favour of postal history because he was so disillusioned about some purchases. When he tried to sell a group of stamps from one seller he was horrified to find virtually all had been "improved". "I knew the prices were low when I bought them," he explained, "but I thought it was because he liked me."
Another way that paying a bit more can result in a better bargain is having an expensive or tricky item examined by experts. While this will cost a few pounds it will almost certainly insure you are receiving what you are paying for. And the certificate will make the item much easier to sell if you decide to part with it, and a satisfactory price is more likely.
Collectors should be especially wary of very fine looking stamps or covers at a price well below market values. Forgers who go to the trouble of producing an item might as well make it a superb copy. The collector who has long been searching for a key item at an affordable price and finds one whose vendor admits the price takes into account a slightly blurred postmark or a bit of a crayon marking is far more likely to get the real McCoy than by buying a fabulous looking item an internet seller "just found in his grandfather’s loft." Of course the buyer should understand that the potential price for the item in the event of resale will be similarly affected.
Collectors who insist on paying the lowest price possible also run another risk. Anyone who offers material at prices well below market value could have another secret to hide. The goods could be a hot bargain of another sort: stolen goods. Collectors who buy heavily discounted high-quality material without asking any questions could well get an unwelcome knock on the door one day and find their prized item is not mounted in an album but entered as evidence.

17 December 2008


19 November 2008


Now that my eBay feedback rating has passed the nice round figure of 1,000 – dare I say it with no negative or neutral ratings -- it seems like a good time to do another eBay commentary. One reason for taking the time to do this is that I received several positive and appreciate comments about my eBay 500 article and it seems people are interested in commentary somewhere in between the official eBay line and the rantings of those with a vendetta against the super cyber salespeople.
Of course I realise 1,000 is a highly modest number, which some people seem to manage in a busy afternoon, but it’s not bad considering that I rarely list more than about 10 lots a week, as I have no wish to be chained to a computer once more after a career as a newspaper editor. My first 500 took almost exactly five years, with only sporadic buying and no selling for the first few years, while the second 500 took 16 months. Of course changes in feedback rules that took into account repeat sales speeded this up.
One unfortunate trend that seems to be more prevalent now is taking a photo of postcards (but, thankfully, usually not better postal history, first-day covers and the like) rather than scanning them. The result at the worst is a crooked, out-of-perspective image with a flash area and looking like it’s six inches under water. The best is still far inferior to a half-decent scan. I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing postcards that simply cannot be viewed well enough to make an informed decision, especially when the vendor does not bother to tackle the thorny issue of condition. Time to hit the X button and move on.
Of course scanning is not without its pitfalls. Some vendors think nothing of trimming the faults off a scan to make a card look better – although one claimed to me this was not intentional but was the way his scanner worked. To this I replied that vendors are responsible for the accuracy of what they post, and what sort of vendor puts things on eBay without checking it first? I feel quite justified to send a card back that has been misrepresented this way.
Meanwhile, I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about the lengths eBay seems to be prepared to go to in pushing PayPal. PayPal is a very convenient way to send and receive money, especially across national boundaries, but hardly without faults and it can be quite slow in the case of eCheques. I am happy to offer PayPal as an option but I do resent attempts to make it the only way to pay. I firmly believe that cheques, money order and -- gasp! -- even cash have roles to play, even in today’s high-tech society. My eBay US listings are going in with the cheque and money order option deleted by eBay, but my statements still make it clear that I accept these options and others by mutual agreement, and so vendors generally realise they can indeed pay with a cheque or the euros they brought home from Spain. PayPal’s splutterings about the mortal danger to anyone who touches a cheque or banknote are entirely self-serving. It’s interesting to see how the new-economy and cyber firms are all for freedom of expression and unfettered economic movements – until it looks like it might cost them a few pennies. I think this is a highly dangerous game in today’s credit crunch economic times and given the volatility of the international on-line economy. One long-time stamp friend and eBay dealer told me recently: "They [eBay] have really soured me on their system, due to the heavy handed way they shoved PayPal down our throats. Seems they would like all of us ‘small’ dealers to just go away." Today’s big player can easily turn out to be tomorrow’s bit player.
On the subject of inflexibility, for the first time I’ve had bids on the US site rejected simply because I don’t live in the States. While some vendors – a bit foolishly, in my opinion – say they don’t accept bids from overseas (if you’re stung by a bad buyer from Pennsylvania, do you stop taking bids from that state?), almost all will accept them once I explain I can pay any way they choose and can even offer a US delivery address. However my bids for interesting flood postcards from Abilene, Kansas (I was born during a flood in that historic town) were rejected, and it was only through last-minute arrangements with my brother that I was able to bid on and win the cards. I think the problem was that the vendor didn’t accept PayPal (but presumably he has "seen the light" or defected to one of eBay’s competitors in the meantime) and he wasn’t allowed to accept other forms of payments from abroad. In the end I paid him with a dollar cheque from a US-based account.
Of course everyone is watching the economic winds uneasily. I found that the autumn listing season started well, but quickly went off the boil and then all but collapsed when the worst news of the credit crunch hit. Strangely postcards seem to be less affected than postal history. Now people seem to be drifting back, but a small loss of bidders can make a big difference in realisations. As in a room auction, the loss of 5 per cent of serious bidders can easily cause prices to fall by 25 per cent or more.
Finally, I would like to fill up a bit more space on the expensive failure I experienced with Turbo Lister. This is a helpful tool, although it’s not suited for beginners for various reasons. However it has a serious flaw: When you start to hit roughly 1,000 lots, it can freeze up. I’d been warned by an experienced dealer about this, but expected to have some sort of foreshadowing. Instead, one afternoon I simply couldn’t get into Turbo Lister anymore.
Unfortunately, as it was a cheap listings day and I’d done a lot of listings for once, I over-reacted. I started deleting other versions of my listings that had been inadvertently created when I had trouble switching over to Turbo Lister II. When this didn’t work I reverted to the old "sell your item" form, and managed to get everything listed before the midnight deadline.
However, worse was to come. A few days later I decided to re-import all my eBay listings to build a new data base on which to expand for future lots. I also, unfortunately, hit the "synchronise" button, which I assumed would make this process more complete. Instead, every one of my active lots was taken off eBay and the bids tossed out. If someone looked at the newly deleted listing, they saw a notice to the effect that the vendor had withdrawn the lot and the item was no longer available, neither of which was true.
Of course I immediately complained to eBay and asked them to look into the matter, restore my lots and so forth, but they asked for lots of documentation first. However, because I had deleted so much material to try to free up Turbo Lister, or Turbo Delister as I was calling it at the time, I had somehow deleted information from the crucial period. This was despite the fact that I regularly back up my Turbo Lister files as recommended. eBay of course washed its hands of the matter, and I was out all the fees I had paid to list the lots, and didn’t get the usual refund when on lots that sold when I relisted them. What’s more, probably because of the confusion understandable suspicions by buyers about possible hanky-panky (although there wasn’t any), the ones with bids didn’t sell for as much the second time.
I don’t know if eBay would ever have provided satisfaction over the debacle, but the fact is my haste had made any chance of that impossible. So if your Turbo Lister files are approaching 1,000, weed them out or, as my dealer friend recommends, clear them out completely and re-import your current listings and unsold lots. I would not, however, recommend hitting the "synchronise" button.
PS: When I spell checked this article, the stupid thing's alternative for "PayPal" was "payola".

31 October 2008


Leaving the philatelic hotspot of Edinburgh naturally caused me to experience some philatelic anxiety, but I hoped I would find activity centred around my new home of Montrose to help make up for it. In fact, the north-east of Scotland is just as busy for the stamp and postcard collector, although not as efficiently arranged. Stamp and postcard club evenings and fairs are plentiful enough that I have to pick and choose, particularly as getting to some requires a considerable effort on my part as I tend to go by bike and public transport.
I’ll start my tour of the north-east in Aberdeen, which also allows me to start with the biggest and busiest of the local clubs.
Aberdeen Philatelic Society: This is one of the most lively and active clubs in Scotland, possibly because it has a large, well-off population that is relatively isolated from the rest of Scotland. The average attendance is close to 40, and the twice-yearly room auction attracts even more collectors. What’s more, the atmosphere is lively and the club has a decent number of younger and female members. Meetings are held on alternate Thursdays at 7:30pm at the Rubislaw Church Centre, Fountainhall Road, Queens Cross, Aberdeen. The first half of the season started on 25 September and the second half begins on 8 January, so you can work out the meeting dates. Informal day meetings are held on alternate Fridays 10am to noon starting from 5 September.
Aberdeen also has two fairs: A Saturday event in Queen's Cross Parish Church Hall, Albyn Place, run by Cornucopia Collectors several times a year (which I attend as a dealer); and a weekday event run by Northern Fairs.
Arbroath and District Stamp and Postcard Club: This is a small society but with an amazing attendance record. It has about 15 members, but that is also the average attendance because just about every member attends every meeting. Meetings are on the third Tuesday of the month at 7:30pm, temporarily at Knox’s Church Hall this autumn and then in 2009 at the upper meeting room of Arbroath Public Library while the usual venue, St Andrew’s Church Hall, is being renovated. This club also has a well-supported auction.
Dundee and District Philatelic Society: This is a fairly small club, particularly for the size of Dundee, but meetings are still highly worthwhile. They are held on Thursdays at 7:30pm at the Art Society’s Rooms, 17 Roseangle. The meetings do move around depending on availability of the room, with sometimes a one-week gap and sometimes a three-week one, so do check on dates before setting out for a meeting. The society has also started informal daytime meetings at 10am on the first Friday of each month at the same venue.
A new fair venue in the area is proving successful: St Aidans Church Halls, Brook Street, Broughty Ferry DD5 2EH, near Dundee. The dates for 2009 (Saturdays) are 10 January, 28 March, 11 July and 24 October. I also take tables at this fair.
The Postcard Club of Tayside: One of a handful of postcard clubs in Scotland, this society provides a broad church of attractions, not always strictly related to cards. Local history figures prominently in the syllabus with, for example, a walking tour of Old Dundee this year. Meetings are on the last Wednesday of the month at 7:30pm, but with some extra events, at the Glasite Hall, St Andrew’s Church, 6 King Street, Dundee.
If you’re going to be in the north-east and would like further details about club meetings or fairs, please feel free to get in touch.

03 July 2008


Collecting by format is a fun and yet challenging area that is likely to become more popular. One such area that is attracting a small but increasing number of people weary of endless mint issues is postally used se-tenants (different stamps that are joined). Many people think of such collectors as pioneers, forgetting that cylinder blocks, booklets and even first-day covers are also collecting by format.
In addition to pairs and blocks, full panes and other examples, it is a challenge to look for logical usages of se-tenants on cover. Such usages, which are just elusive enough to make the hunt interesting, help show how these stamps perform many postal functions and offer more than just a pretty face.
What follows is a small sampler of some of the many and varied se-tenant covers that can make an unusual collection on their own or add interest to a one-country or thematic collection.
Most collectors forget that the first-ever postage stamp, the penny black, is a se-tenant issue. This is because the check letters on each stamp, introduced as a security device, mean that each stamp on a sheet of 240 is different. So any multiple is an early se-tenant.
Indeed, a quite early and elusive se-tenant cover in my collection from the very first days of adhesive stamps bears a nice, four-margin, plate 2 penny black pair tied by red Maltese cross cancellations. This portion of an entire letter is noteworthy for two reasons. First, the pair on the double weight cover is a much scarcer vertical one; penny black pairs tend to be horizontal because clerks often cut them into horizontal strips to facilitate sales at the counter. So this one might have been from a sheet or block purchased by one of the law firms that used so many of the first postage stamp.
Second, the red Glasgow back stamps clearly shows the item was posted on 23 May, 1840, just 17 days into the stamp era. Covers from May 1840 carry a sizeable premium, but, astonishingly, the date was not mentioned in the auction description by the British firm that sold it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the firm is no longer in business.
At least two other early classic stamps also were issued in se-tenant formats – Brazilian bull’s-eyes and the Geneva cantonals of Switzerland. Indeed, the next cover I would like to describe bears a pair of the latter on cover – well, not exactly. This cover does date from the middle of the 19th century, but the stamps are modern versions from a mini-sheet added to an old entire letter in 1943 to create an anniversary cover. The stamps, like the 1843 classics, are se-tenants because the design above the 5c stamps is different on the left- and right-hand sides. Indeed, mini-sheets are a treasure trove for collectors looking for se-tenant issues.
Moving fully into the early and middle 20th century, more typically the era of the se-tenant, it is possible to find examples of another group of "classic" se-tenants that, again, are not often recognised as such. South Africa’s and South-West Africa’s bilingual issues came in English and Afrikaans versions and solved a potential language problem over decades. Again, any pair of these apart from a few coil issues is a se-tenant multiple.
Many South African covers are sent to the mother country, but a particularly interesting one in the context of se-tenants is a 1948 commercial cover from a printing firm in Mossel Bay to England. It bears a block of four halfpenny stamps that pays the then-current 2d surface rate. What is particularly interesting about this cover is its logical usage of the block of four. As students of these stamps have long realised, a block of four provides every possible vertical and horizontal combination of the English and Afrikaans pairs. That is to say, each block includes a pair with the English-language stamp on the left and on the right, and on the top and the bottom.
In the German area, many se-tenants can be found thanks to multi-value booklet panes and varied formats on semi-postal issues, although usages on cover of older stamps tend to be elusive. A good illustration of a se-tenant pair from a booklet is found on this non-philatelic postcard sent by a dentist in the Bremen area in 1943.
Many and varied booklets were produced using the Hindenburg definitives, the idea being that customers could buy a booklet and use the various stamps contained for a variety of rates. This postcard, posted in May 1943, is a cheap, wartime product with room for a message on the reverse. The sender even had to cut the card from a sheet for his routine message, as is shown particularly by the slanting right side. This pair can also be found the other way around, with the 1pf stamp on the left, and many other combinations exist, but do tend to be elusive on cover. The older Germania stamps were also issued in many booklet combinations, but these are extremely elusive on cover.
The United States has produced hundreds of se-tenants and these also result in interesting postal history. The 25-cent grosbeak and owl booklet stamps of 1988 were printed in the many millions and used pairs and blocks are common, but locating logical usages on cover is much tougher. As it happens, in 1988 the overseas airmail rate was double the domestic rate, and a pair on a cover to the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh neatly covered the 50-cent tariff. This cover also neatly illustrates the importance of pairs and blocks as sources of se-tenants.
Another group of issues that isn’t thought of as being se-tenant but can be are the computer-vended coils that for years have been dispensed mainly in northern Virginia post offices. The postal user specifies the face value, which is then printed by the machine, so it is a simple matter to create se-tenants.
One example is a highly contrived but probably unique cover to Edinburgh, Scotland. It bears a 21-cent stamp sandwiched between two 20-cent ones, overpaying the 60-cent rate by a penny, and making up an A11 plate number coil (PNC) strip of three. (These plate numbers were only printed on roughly every 50th stamp, so are elusive on cover and are highly popular in the US.) So it is doubly se-tenant in that it has stamps with different face values and one stamp with a catalogued variety, and highly popular collecting area in the US.
A priceless classic it most definitely is not, but it does show the infinite variety in the collecting world open to collectors who keep their eyes and minds open.

The se-tenant story

"Se-tenant" is a French term that means joined to each other. In stamp collecting it has come to mean two different stamps or varieties of stamps that remain attached. While it is often put in italics in stamp articles because of its foreign origins, I believe it has been fully adopted by English-speaking collectors, who after all don’t have an equivalent term in their native tongue. Therefore I believe it is no more deserving of italics than other adopted terms such as café or en suite.
As for the origins of the term’s use in philately, discovering just when it came into widespread use has not been easy. Logically it could have been after the Second World War, when so many more "modern" stamps were issued, but perhaps a website visitor can supply information on this subject.
The variety of se-tenants is enormous. The earliest definitions in philatelic literature (but still from just a few decades ago) tend to emphasis different die varieties attached to each other, but more subtle examples include pairs in which one stamp exhibits an overprint variety Other variations to look for include stamps with labels such as adverts or even the current Smiler stamps with their attractive labels.
Mini-sheets are another rich source for se-tenants, and yet small enough to be found on cover occasionally. Often they present several stamps that together to make up a picture. Such combinations are sometimes described as contiguous se-tenants, and of course can be found in sheet stamps as well, as with the attractive and cleverly designed Royal Mail issue marking the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Each stamp depicts the Rocket locomotive and tender or two following carriages in the train.
The author’s interest in se-tenants, by the way, stems from a trip to a satellite shop of Libritz Stamps in the pleasant area of Palmers Green, north London, in the mid-1980s. A bit of spare cash after a period of relative poverty prompted a trip to the nearest stamp shop to see if some of it could be spent.
During a happy hour or two someone came in and asked the owner if any modern used US stamps were of any value or interest. He said they really weren’t, apart from used se-tenant blocks. That bit of information taken on board, any such blocks started getting put aside, and it quickly became evident they provided the makings of an unusual, challenging and yet inexpensive collection. And as the accumulation of blocks and other multiples advanced, it was not long before it also became evident that good usages on cover should be collected that way rather than soaked off.