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FAQ's : Starting a stamp collection?
Before you think of spending any money, a most important decision must be made first and that is, what should you collect? The choice is as wide as you can imagine, whether it be a country (e.g. South Africa), a region (e.g. The Rhodesias), a theme (e.g. Football), a period (e.g. World War 2), a reign (e.g. King George 6th), the postal history or postmarks of a particular place (e.g. Johannesburg), or any of a number of back-of-the-book areas, like Officials or Postage Dues or Postal Stationery.

Perhaps more importantly, one must consider the cost, over the longer term, of building a decent and reasonably complete collection (or more preferably a 100% complete collection) of the chosen field. For example, forming a basic collection of say South Africa Union 1910-1961 in fine mint condition may cost you (at today's prices) around R30,000 and probably more over a 10 year or longer period, as the prices of better stamps tends to rise. To build a similar collection of South West Africa to 1961 may cost about R60,000. If one area is more likely to be in your price range than another, tackle that one, but if both of the above examples are way beyond either your pocket or your preparedness over a reasonable period of time, find a field that would more suit your personal situation.

It is far better to collect something that is affordable and can be completed (to a reasonable extent at least), than to tackle something that you have no chance of reaching a fairly advanced level with. One should also bear in mind that, should you complete a collection of a particular field, you can easily expand it to encompass other related items, including back-of-the-book material, postmarks or any other associated facet. The fact is that as you develop a particular collection, your interest will probably lead you beyond the basic catalogue listings, which in turn demands further research and study. A collection always becomes more interesting and challenging as you develop and expand your knowledge.

By and large, stamps have been very well-documented and catalogues are usually quite comprehensive, so you can determine beforehand how many stamps are required and how much it could cost to complete any particular collection. The truth of the matter is that collecting and completing a collection of the stamps of any country, in most cases, is purely about the size of your budget. Even the scarcer items come up for sale at some stage and if you can afford them, you will reach that goal.

However, once you enter into deeper waters, for example the postal history of a country, this can be a on-going quest, as each item of genuine postal history (as opposed to philatelically contrived material) is unique and may tell a unique story. This area leads one into research and study and this in turn opens additional areas requiring additional research and study. It is often an open-ended journey as one discovery inevitably leads to another. One soon moves from being a stamp collector to becoming a philatelist as one travels down this road.

In days gone by, many collectors had collections spanning a range of areas and collecting "the world" or the whole British Commonwealth was more common. With the profusion of stamps issued from the mid-1960's onwards and the general increase in the prices of earlier material, this kind of collection became firstly too expensive, secondly less attractive and thirdly, far too cumbersome to attempt. Most collectors today have taken on an area (or two) that they specialise in, to the exclusion of most others. There is no doubt that this is a positive trend towards specialisation, which has great benefit for both collectors and dealers alike.

There is a true story that illustrates so much of what has been mentioned above. Over 20 years ago, I knew a wealthy collector (let's call him Bob) who built up a collection of the Rhodesia BSA Company 1910-13 "Double Heads" in fine used condition. After 5 years or so, Bob had come to the point that all the stamps still missing were priced over R1000 and many were much more expensive. Although he could afford to buy them, he was not prepared to spend that kind of money and in frustration at this impasse, he sold the collection and gave up collecting. After a couple of years he paid me a visit and told me that the collecting "bug" had bitten him (a common result) and he wanted to start another collection of "Double Heads". I asked if he was going to buy the expensive stamps this time around but he said no. I enquired why he would go the same dead-end route. He replied that this was an area most familiar to him and he frankly did not know what other direction to take. So I offered him a few alternatives to think about.

Some areas that interested me at the time were among the more neglected countries (from a South African dealer's perspective), like for example Sarawak, Seychelles & Sudan. Why they were all in the S's I do not really know, but all were reasonably affordable, the period as listed in the Stanley Gibbons British Commonwealth Catalogue (up to Independence) was finite and there were not too many stamps required to build a reasonably complete basic collection. Yes, there are some excellent and rare varieties that are expensive, but in a basic collection all of these could be ignored. At the same time, it also meant there was scope for further development at a later stage.

The real question that needs to be answered, is why collect something that everyone is also doing, or something you may already know so much about? We suggest rather taking on something that you have an interest in discovering and exploring, an area which invites one to take a journey into unknown territory. It's a safe adventure and who knows what may develop through it? Bob thought it was a great idea but how would he get started? None of the above mentioned areas are commonly available, particularly on the local market. This was also well before the Internet was a reality and searching for material internationally was a lot more complicated.

My personal interest in the Sudan was prompted by a number of issues. As a dealer, I seldom got any request for it, the main design of a Camel Postman was a rather intriguing stamp, there were floating post offices on the Nile River, and the story of General Gordon of Khartoum had captured my imagination, perhaps sparked off by seeing the captivating movie, Lawrence of Arabia (staring Peter O'Toole) when I was just a child.

Over a number of years I had accumulated a heap of Sudan material from our stock and I subsequently purchased a reasonable collection from a UK auction house, to form a base on which to build. However, as I dealt with stamps all day, 6 days a week, I seldom was inspired to work on this collection in my spare time and it had just become a growing but neglected mass packed into two drawers in a desk.

I made a decision right then, pulled out the two drawers and made Bob an offer he could not refuse. Weeks later, after he had sorted it all out, he returned to thank me and told me what a fantastic journey he had just embarked on. He was learning so much about a place, a culture, a history, people, battles and all sorts of related subjects and it he was enjoying it more than he could explain. In the years that followed, Bob became a world-recognised specialist and expert on the stamps and postal history of the Sudan. He built up a fabulous library covering every aspect of Sudan history and visited both the Sudan and the British National Archives to research and gather information to add to his ever-developing knowledge.

He became so well informed that I could offer him a cover posted to someone in the Sudan, or sent by someone in the Sudan to elsewhere in the world, and he could in almost every case tell me something, and in most instances substantial background information, about the writer and/or the recipient. He was corresponding internationally with Sudan specialists and dealers and built up one of the finest collections ever assembled. He was in the process of writing a definitive book on the subject, when unfortunately, he passed away from cancer. I was asked to advise on the disposal of his collection and it was eventually sold abroad, but his widow made a point of telling me what joy he got from his Sudan "experience" and how it kept him going, even when his health began to fail.

I trust this story will encourage and perhaps inspire you not to follow the pack, but take the path less travelled and discover a whole new world. Stamps can certainly take you there, even if it's only in your imagination, but what a wonderful trip it can be. There are many such interesting fields worth exploring, be it the jungle islands of Papua & New Guinea, the West African slave enclaves of Gold Coast, or the Lonely Island of Tristan da Cunha. Maybe you already have a basic collection on which you can expand, or an idea that you would like to investigate the possibilities that may exist.

If I can, it will be my pleasure to help you find your way. Hopefully, not only will it give you endless pleasure, but it may also become an excellent investment in time, effort and if you do it right, in monetary terms as well. Contact me and I'll give you the best advice that I can to suit your interest and you budget.

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