Stamp Collecting: A Hobby That Can’t Be Licked

Harrison Copp

Sri Lanka, 2015 – Peter Singer had just sold $18,000 worth of stamps. The buyer, a prominent Imam, was an eager collector and longtime customer who had been picking off stamps – mosques of the world and landmarks of Sri Lanka – from Singer’s collection. The customer had supposedly paid in full – four separate installments over the course of a couple weeks. But Singer had received nothing. One of their emails was hacked, and the sum had been sent elsewhere.

After failed attempts to reverse the transaction, both parties gave up. “In the end, I ate it,” Singer explained. “I’ve written to him many times since and I’ve said, ‘Look, what happened happened.’” An $18,000 deal is not so easily brushed aside, not even in the multi-million dollar stamp collecting business. But Singer valued the relationship with his client – both as a customer and as a friend – more than any single sour transaction. “It’s over and done, you know?” he told me. “Hopefully one day we can meet at a show again” (Singer).

Singer is a stamp dealer – formally, a “philatelic expert,” or, in his words, a “flatulent expert.” Unlike stamp collectors, he does not maintain an active collection, but rather buys and sells stamps for profit. His monetary approach to stamps is perhaps best reflected by his treatment of his stock. Nothing is on display; instead, everything is crammed in albums, stacked on the kitchen counter, or heaped haphazardly in piles on the floor. It was as if the FBI, with stamps still stuck to the soles of their boots, had just conducted a search and seizure on Singer’s property. “In my next life,” he muses, “everything will be orderly.”

       Peter Singer’s dining table. Photograph taken by author

“I can live on what you ruin in a year,” a friend once told Singer after visiting his house. The claim is only half in jest: stamp collecting is big business. A magenta stamp from British Guiana, watermarked and covered by a hefty signature, sold for almost ten million dollars in 2014 (Palmer). Collecting postal stamps is known more formally as philately, a word that originates from the Greek words “phileo,” or “I love,” and “atelia,” or “free of charge” (Palmer). While the first root suits the trade well – there is no lack of dedication among the hobbyists who maintain small but meaningful collections, or the professionals who view the collecting, buying, and selling of postal stamps as a full time job – the second is a gross misrepresentation. 

Stamps may not be “free of charge,” but the term does have historical truth. Postal stamps were first introduced in response to outrageous and inconsistently priced mail fare (American Philatelic Society). The stamp reduced and normalized the cost – not quite free of charge, but substantially lower – and confirmed payment with a colored scrap of paper on the envelope. The first stamps were introduced in England in 1840 (Wills). Portraying the head of Queen Victoria, they were known as “Penny Blacks,” a name derived from the color and one penny price (Wills). “People often think the Penny Black should be worth lots and lots of money,” Singer told me. Their instinct would be wrong: “you can buy a not very nice copy for ten or twenty dollars.” 

From left to right: the Inverted Jenny, the Penny Black, and the British Guiana 1c Magenta. All photos taken from the Smithsonian postal museum

If the first stamp can go for so little, then what, if not age, determines the value of stamps? 

“Well, it goes back to economics: it’s supply and demand,” says Singer. The British Guiana stamp, for instance, is the only one of its kind in the world. And it’s sought after because it’s a historical oddity: an improvised attempt to fill the demand for stamps after Guiana ran out of official British supply (Palmer). Notable design defects may also make stamps valuable. The “Inverted Jenny,” an otherwise ordinary stamp with an upside-down biplane on the cover, can go for up to three million dollars (Singer).

With such exorbitant prices for tiny scraps of paper, it did not take long for the first forgeries to appear. Initially, forgers simply tried to evade postage fare (Apfelbaum). But once the philatelic market grew in the 1860s, they began to target stamp collectors (Apfelbaum). The work of prolific forgers – like the famous Jean de Sperati, the early 20th century Italian whose stamps continue to fool philatelic experts, or François Fournier, who avoided legal and moral trouble by openly admitting his stamps were fake – often exceeds the value of the originals (Lammle). “There’s a real market for forgeries,” said David Markowitz, a Portland stamp collector and owner of the Uptown Stamp Store. “Some people center their entire collections around one of these forgers” (Markowitz).

The most prolific instance of stamp forgery, however, involved no talented felons or criminal organizations: the culprit was none other than the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In the last few years of the Second World War, the OSS launched “Operation Cornflakes,” a propaganda campaign aimed to demoralize the German people by mailing them fake letters to read with their morning cornflakes (Bamford). To construct the illusion of legitimacy, the letters had to come from within the German postal system and, consequently, carry forged German stamps. By the end of the war, the United States had dropped 320 bags of mail containing a total of 920,000 fake letters (Bamford). While the success of the operation remains undetermined, the event left a clear mark on philately: the rare Hitler Skull Stamp, a mocking design that transformed Hitler’s head to a skull and changed the words “Deutsche Reich,” or “German Empire,” to “Futsches Reich,” meaning “fallen empire” (Lammle) The irony: these stamps have become so valuable that forgeries of the forgeries have become commonplace (Lammle).

Three American forgeries of German stamps, including the Hitler Skull Stamp. Photograph taken from Mintage World website

he first time I visited Singer’s house, I was instantly hit with the smell: an antique, mangey odor that enveloped the living room. The study was inaccessible, barricaded by stamps, so I followed him as he hobbled to the back, maneuvering around stacks of philatelic boxes and a scanner circa Jurassic age. Normally he wears Bill Cosby jumpers; that day he wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt, shorts, and a brace about one leg. His stature was round and his face cherub – amiable, loose, and topped by a Boris Johnson head of white hair. He likes to talk in Australianisms he picked up during his frequent travels to ‘Straya: I looked like a “stunned mullet” the first time I met him, scheduling the first interview was “okey dokey artichokey,” and he goes to the “loo” when nature calls.

There are three things of great joy in Singer’s world: his stamps, his grandchildren in Israel (with whom he habitually plays online cribbage), and his four bagels from Einstein Bros which he buys for the price of one by completing a customer survey each morning. After breakfast, his days are occupied with trips to the post office and rare visits from guests – his son, once a month, and recently, me.

As I sat on Singer’s couch, I observed the crowded surroundings. Above the stamps, his living room exhibited a wide selection of artwork: Australian aboriginal paintings, Australian pastoral scenes, a touristy collection of Japanese prints, six-inch warrior statues from Borneo, a 1972 poster of the German Olympics, and a South African mask he had bought from the back of a pick-up in Africa. This art is not curated with any aesthetic consideration. They are souvenirs of his travels – trips dedicated to attending international stamp shows.

If stamps are the common currency of philatelists, stamp shows are part stock exchange, part Star-Trek convention. Drawing anywhere from 4,000 to 400,000 visitors, these sprawling events allow collectors to buy and sell stock at designated booths, exhibit their collections, enter in competitions, and even attend philatelic lectures (Singer). People come to shows for different reasons. Markowitz, for instance, views shows as an indispensable way to publicize his business and attract new customers. Singer, on the other hand, views it more as a traveling and socializing venture: an opportunity to meet his international customer base and talk with other like-minded recluses. “Many stamp collectors are social misfits,” he told me, underscoring the importance of such gatherings. “When you have something in common with someone, it’s much easier to relate to each other.”

Part of the appeal of stamp shows is simply the opportunity to travel. Singer travels about 150,000 to 200,000 miles every year: England twice a year, Australia once every two years. In total, he estimates he’s visited about one hundred and twenty countries. According to Singer, there are noticeable regional differences. Collectors in Asia, for instance, tend to be significantly  younger than those in the United States or Europe, and stamp shows there are usually much larger (Singer, Chow). Singer remembers one show in Taiwan that was so jam-packed that “people were even sitting down on the floor, looking at [stamps].” Singer calls Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan “new” countries because philately there is a novel pursuit. New countries come with new stamps and new trends: in Japan, for example, butterfly stamps (or, as Singer told me, “chōchō” stamps) are surprisingly popular, despite a general lack of interest in America (Singer). In China, Chairman Mao and Cultural Revolution era stamps are particularly valuable (Chow). 

Stamp exhibitions at the 2019 World Stamp Exhibition in Wuhan, China. Photograph from the Authenticated Stamp Guaranty website

Visiting these countries requires some cultural adaptation. As a Jewish person visiting shows in Dubai, Bahrain, or Kuwait, Singer is aware of the historical relationships between Jews and Muslims. But he doesn’t accept this supposed hatred. “How do the people there greet each other? When they see each other, they go up and they put their arms around them and they rub noses. If I’m in their country and on their turf, I should do the same thing.” He paused before adding, “You know, if you saw me doing that here you’d think, ‘Is there something wrong with him?’” 

ptown Stamp Show has a lively, modern feel despite the age of the people who visit and work at the shop. The logo – green with white lettering – could belong to a food truck or boutique in downtown Portland, and the shop itself is decorated by a hanging row of light bulbs, green walls and tablecloths, and shelves stacked with colorful envelopes and stamp albums. I visited Uptown Stamp Show one Saturday morning to meet with David Markowitz, the owner, founder, and trial lawyer.

Markowitz has a stout, bulldoggish face – grey whiskers and wisps of receding hair. He is an efficient speaker: he answered my questions kindly but curtly, used numbers when at all possible, and after being interrupted by customers or other staff, would say, with no time wasted, “Next question?” Markowitz started Uptown Stamp Show (which, despite the name, really is a shop and not a show) five years ago as the realization of a lifetime pursuit. Self-funding the project, he converted the shop from a concrete shell into one of the few remaining stamp stores in the country and the only fully operational one in Oregon. Now, or at least before COVID-19, they received visitors from all around the Pacific Northwest.

As a brick and mortar establishment, Uptown Stamp Show was hit hard by COVID-19. “If I didn’t have another source of income, the store would have closed,” Markowitz told me. The coronavirus, however, has been gentler on the rest of philately: with the notable exception of canceled stamp shows (which have been replaced by digital versions), online stock continues to sell, stamps (including a masked Penny Black) continue to be produced, and the year of isolation has even encouraged many newcomers to start (Nelson, Mowbray). Stamps are comfortably rooted in the past when so much is changing; they are analogue in a digital pandemic world. Ron Huetter, a Long Island collector, agrees: “Stamp collecting has helped keep me calm. To some extent it helped with stress during COVID. It diverts the mind” (Dziemianowicz). As for Uptown Stamp Show, the situation is improving as vaccination numbers rise and cases decline. Markowitz, for his part, has just returned to the store after a thirteen month absence. “It’s looking up,” he told me, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

The walls of Uptown Stamps Show were lined with stacks of albums and boxes, labeled alphabetically by country and topic. One wall is plastered with stamps – at least a thousand – ranging from “Tokyo 1964 Olympics” to “Alcoholism – You can beat it!” A man-size safe with a five-pronged handle was positioned directly behind the counter. The door was cracked open and a cool glow emanated from the inside. This safe, in conjunction with the hundreds of meticulously labeled boxes of stamps, impressed an archival sort of feeling about the place. And the store’s expansive inventory holds up to this impression. The international stamp collection alone contains an alphabetical anthology of existing countries (twelve separate hundred-page albums on Monaco alone) and several albums dedicated to extinct countries like Tannu Tuva. Curious, I opened a small folder labeled “Cambodia” and was surprised to find twenty-eight pages of unique stamp types with specific labels like “Krishna in Chariot” and “Malaria Eradicated.” 

A pre-COVID corner of Uptown Stamp Show. Photograph taken from the Uptown Stamp Show website

This specificity is common among stamp collectors: Markowitz’s collection, for instance, focuses on air mail, particularly from French Antarctica, and Singer’s stock specializes on Japanese-occupation era Malaysian stamps. One anonymous collector exclusively collects stamps of Holstein cows facing left (Beck).

What drives collectors to pursue such peculiar collections? While there have been a number of proposed explanations – that humans have a natural inclination to seek out novel stimuli, like rare stamps, or that collecting objects creates an illusive sense of order in a chaotic world – I find Freud’s explanation the most intuitive (McKinley, Mueller). According to the famed psychoanalyst, the answer goes back to our anal stage days of toilet training: collecting is a desperate attempt to regain bowel control after the traumatic experience of losing feces down the toilet (McKinley).

A stamp portraying a Holstein cow facing left. Photo taken from the Universal Postal Union

An entry bell interrupted my bowel contemplations and punctuated the background sound of plastic opening, paper folding, and album flipping. A young man with a camouflage backpack entered the shop. His energy immediately separated him from the slow, methodical staff at work. There are three main types of customers at Markowitz’s store: collectors, tourists, and clueless customers hoping to earn some cash from an inherited collection. This camouflage man was obviously the last. He gingerly presented his ragged album of U.S. stamps on the table in front of Markowitz for appraisal. With over sixty years in the business, Markowitz can allegedly appraise the vast majority of stamps at a glance. 

After a few minutes of wordless page turning, Markowitz casually pointed to an empty square in the man’s album. “That stamp,” he said matter-of-factly, “is worth $400,000.” After failing to find the missing stamp, the camouflage man made a sheepish joke about crushed retirement dreams and sold the collection – album and all – for twenty dollars.

hilately is known as a hobby for the geriatric. One stamp expert relates that, at most stamp auctions in America, he is greeted by the familiar sight of one collector “on a cane and another with an oxygen tank” (Chow). Markowitz can attest to this experience. He also points out that there is a stark gender gap: about ninety percent of his customers are men. “In total, eighty-five percent of our customers are men aged sixty to eighty-five.” These numbers line up well with the national figures: eighty percent of the members of the American Philatelic Society (APS), the largest stamp society in America, are over sixty, and only nine percent are women (Dziemianowicz).

While men have always dominated philately – all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century, when stamps were simply considered unfit for women – the age demographics have changed dramatically (Wills). When Markowitz entered the stamp market over fifty years ago, “there was an equal spread of children, working age adults, and retirees.” Now, however, “it’s mainly the last group.” What accounts for this change? According to Markowitz, younger generations are less acquisitive – less interested in collecting items like stamps or baseball cards. “There’s also been a shift from electronic to digital,” he added. “Stamps are paper.”

Some see this demographic shift as an early warning of the decline of stamp collecting. In “A Certain Look at Philately,” philatelist Luis Ferreira grimly predicts that stamp collecting will “be nothing but a fossilised activity that only a few die-hards may stubbornly continue in a small corner of their fondest memories” (Ferreira). Meanwhile, we non-diehards will retreat to the internet, becoming nothing more than “lonely cybernauts on the communications highways” (Ferreira). Ferreira’s disenchanted opinion is not holding much traction, however: the demographics are rapidly changing. About half of the APS’s new applicants are women. Scott English, the current head of the APS, claims that “applications are substantially more female, diverse and younger” (Dziemianowicz). And business, if anything, has remained steady. According to Markowitz, older customers, largely retirees, have more time to spend and more cash to burn.

“Like me!”

A senior man – brown coat, crooked baseball hat – interrupted our conversation. He stepped up to the counter to pay. “You ready?” asked Markowitz, sliding a handheld register across the counter. The machine began to whir as the receipt peeled out in curls from the lip. 

I sat, quiet and ignored, and observed the transaction. I had been in Uptown Stamp Show for nearly an hour by that point and had noticed several similar customer interactions: old regulars who had spent so many hours in the store that the staff greeted them by name – or occasionally, nickname – as they entered the store. “Hello, China Bob!” they said, welcoming a customer who specialized in Chinese stamps. Singer, who was at the shop earlier that morning, would count himself as one of these regulars. He visits Uptown Stamp Show every few weeks, not out of need for stamps – his home-run business is “higher on the food chain” than Markowitz’s establishment – but for the opportunity to talk stamps with other enthusiasts.

Since Singer does the majority of his business via Ebay (our interviews would be interrupted by Ebay purchase notifications), in person meetings with his customers are infrequent. He still values these close relationships – that’s one reason why he travels to so many international stamp shows. Such connections are important because Singer views many of his customers as friends, not clients. The former head of Johnson & Johnson? “He was Ernie and I was Peter.” The CEO of Standard Oil of Ohio? “In my relationship with him, he was Ralph and I was Peter.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, this human connection – or, really, any connection at all – has been particularly important. A customer from India, for example, spends ten to twenty dollars a day buying stamps. Instead of buying his shipments in bulk, like most collectors, he orders separate installments of a small number of stamps. “You know, that’s part of it: people like to get mail,” Singer explained. “And here’s a way to get something a few times a week.” 

Singer often sends friendly emails – during holidays or after a purchase – to check on customers he sees less frequently. Remember that Imam from Sri Lanka? “I send him messages all the time,” he told me, excitedly. “Right now, it’s Ramadan. So I send a note and I said, ‘I hope you and your family are doing OK.’” 

After the baseball hat man finished paying, I asked Markowitz about his most memorable interaction with a customer. He paused for nearly half a minute, tapping and flipping his eraser on the counter as he thought. “Five years ago, I met a man.” He proceeded to recall the details: amid the bustle of a stamp show, a middle-aged man stood at the far end of Markowitz’s booth and admired the stamp collection – most likely airmail, Zeppelin, or perhaps international stamps. His face was lit with a captivating smile. “I was naturally attracted to him,” Markowitz told me. The man found such a simple joy in stamps and stamp shows. The sentiment was irresistible. “Five years later, today, he comes out to our shop every week,” he continued. “We’ve become great stamp friends since.” 

When people call stamp collecting a simple hobby, they misunderstand the activity on so many levels. They miss the financial stakes of philately – that some people, like Singer, can make their livelihood by buying and selling stamps. They misconstrue the centuries of rich history and the scholarship (including a Marxist historical analysis of philately) that has originated from this activity. Most of all, they ignore its powerful ability to bring people, from across continents, cultures, and generations, together over the simple activity of collecting colorful scraps of paper. “When people go to this store,” Markowitz told me, “they don’t buy things that they can eat, that can keep them warm, or that can educate their children.” Indeed, Uptown Stamp Show and, more broadly, stamp shops, shows, and societies offer far less tangible but far more personal commodities: enduring relationships and a place for the philatelic misfits to belong. 

Works Cited

Bamford, Tyler. “Operation Cornflakes” The National WWII Museum. 4 February, 2020,  https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/operation-cornflakes 

Beck, Graham. “Visiting a Stamp Show,” YouTube, uploaded by Exploring Stamps, 19 August, 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bImEro1G30

Chow, Jason. “China Goes Postal for Stamp Collecting.” The Wall Street Journal. 24 September, 2013, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579047070874399370

Dziemianowicz, Joe. “A hobby that sticks: Stamp collecting keeps people glued during pandemic” Newsday. 8 October, 2020. https://www.newsday.com/lifestyle/retirement/a-hobby-that-sticks-stamp-collecting-during-the-pandemic-1.50027508

Ferreira, Luis Eugénio. “A Certain Look at Philately.” Biblioteca Filatélica Digital. 2nd Ed, January 2006, http://burgzt.brigin.lt/pasto_zenklai/katalogai/Certain%20Look%20Philately.pdf

Haimann, Alex. “World Stamp Exhibition in China a Phenomenal Philatelic Success.” Authentic Stamp Guarantee. 16 July 2019, https://www.asgstamps.com/news/article/7574/wuhan-stamp-show/

“History of Stamps.” American Philatelic Society. https://classic.stamps.org/Stamp-History

“Introduction to Stamp Collecting.” National Postal Museum, Smithsonian. https://postalmuseum.si.edu/introduction-to-stamp-collecting

Lammle, Rob. “Phony Philatelists: Four Stories of Stamp Forgers.” Mental Floss. 23 September, 2010, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/25864/phony-philatelists-four-stories-stamp-forgers

Markowitz, David. Interview. 8 May. 2021.

McKinley, Mark B. “The Psychology of Collecting.” The National Psychologist. 1 January, 2007, https://nationalpsychologist.com/2007/01/the-psychology-of-collecting/10904.html

Mowbray, Nicole. “Post modern: why millennials have fallen in love with stamp collecting.” The Guardian. 11 April, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/11/post-modern-why-millennials-have-fallen-in-love-with-stamp-collecting

Mueller, Shirley M. “Collecting: An Urge That’s Hard to Resist. Psychology Today. 29 October 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mind-collector/202010/collecting-urge-s-hard-resist

Nelson, Andrew. “Why Stamp Collecting is Suddenly Back in Vogue.” The Wall Street Journal, 5 June 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-stamp-collecting-is-suddenly-back-in-vogue-11591358415?reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink

“Noteworthy Stamp Collectors.” National Postal Museum, Smithsonian.  https://postalmuseum.si.edu/noteworthy-stamp-collectors

“Operation Cornflakes.” Mintage World. 11 May, 2017. https://www.mintageworld.com/media/detail/3792-operation-cornflakes/

Palmer, Alex. “The Remarkable Story of the World’s Rarest Stamp” Smithsonian Magazine, 4 June, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/remarkable-story-worlds-rarest-stamp-180955412/

“PHILANIPPON ‘21” Philanippon ‘21 https://www.japan2021.jp/en/about/

Singer, Peter. Interview. 5 May. 2021.

“The History of Stamp Counterfeiting and How to Spot a Fake” Apfelbaum Inc. https://www.apfelbauminc.com/the-history-of-stamp-counterfeiting-and-how-to-spot-a-fake/ 

UA027.15 Universal Postal Union. https://www.wnsstamps.post/en/stamps/ua027.15

Wills, Matthew. “Stamp Collecting as Metaphor for the Free Market.” JSTOR Daily, 5 December, 2020, https://daily.jstor.org/stamp-collecting-as-metaphor-for-the-free-market/