Old Patriot's Pen

Personal pontifications of an old geezer born 200 years too late.

NOTE The views I express on this site are mine and mine alone. Nothing I say should be construed as being "official" or the views of any group, whether I've been a member of that group or not. The advertisings on this page are from Google, and do not constitute an endorsement on my part.

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Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States

I've been everywhere That was the title of a hit country-and-western song from the late 1950's, originally sung by Hank Snow, and made famous by Johnny Cash. I resemble that! My 26-year career in the Air Force took me to more than sixty nations on five continents - sometimes only for a few minutes, other times for as long as four years at a time. In all that travel, I also managed to find the perfect partner, help rear three children, earn more than 200 hours of college credit, write more than 3000 reports, papers, documents, pamphlets, and even a handful of novels, take about 10,000 photographs, and met a huge crowd of interesting people. I use this weblog and my personal website here to document my life, and discuss my views on subjects I find interesting.

Monday, October 18, 2004

American collectors need something better than Scott

The new 2005 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogues are out. They're slick, easy-to-read, and for anything after about 1995, totally useless. Scott's total disregard for anyone other than the collectors of mint-never-hinged complete sets, it's disregard for the average small collector (the majority of its base), its continued foray into anything else that will make money while driving away the people that truly support it, make it more and more a useless product for the majority of the people that used to buy their product. Their catalogues, since the late 1990's, have been primarily geared toward stamp dealers, and no one else is worthy of consideration.

Scott, in many way, reflects the thinking of the mainstream media - "we're a monopoly, and we'll do whatever we %$&$^ well please". Just as the Internet - especially weblogs - has caught up with the mainstream media, it's time the Internet took on the major catalogue manufacturers and their high-minded, but out-of-date, staff.

Scott's stamp catalogues have been driving the market, rather than reflecting it, for several years now. It began when they started showing a price for extremely common cheap stamps at what a dealer would have to mark the price up to to make a profit, instead of what it was really worth - practically nothing. This means the value in the catalogue is inflated - sometimes by as much as 500%. This is one of many things that has driven prices up to where fewer and fewer young people are collecting stamps - along with the idea that it's "an old fogie's hobby" and therefore, "uncool". In truth, it sets up the average collector - his collection may have a "catalogue" value of several thousand dollars, but the average dealer won't offer him more than a hundred, if that much. The DEALER knows that the majority of the stamps in the album are utterly worthless, that the chances of him making a profit on the collection is dismal at best, even at the price he's offered, and it's just not worth it. The collector thinks the dealer's a cheapskate who's "ripping him off", and will turn around and sell his collection for "what it's really worth".

The second big problem for the average collector is that stamps in Scott's catalogues are now priced at "very fine" condition, instead of the former "fine" condition. The majority of stamps - especially postally used stamps - are found in "fine" condition. While every collector wants the nicest looking stamp in his collection, there just aren't that many available copies in the better condition. That means that the "value" in the catalogue usually doesn't relate to the stamp in a person's collection. Of course, dealers started selling stamps that were "very fine", even if a couple of years before, they would have labelled them only "fine". And the prices went up - about 20% on average for better stamps, although "cheap" stamps were already so overpriced it didn't make a difference.

Also, back in the mid-1980's, Scott went to a pricing scheme that established the price for unused stamps, usually after an early cut-off date, as "never-hinged" - meaning that there had never been any hinges or other material attached to the backs of the stamps to mount them, and the gum was "post-office fresh". This of course was a boon to the stamp mount business, but added an increasingly heavy burden to the average collector, unless he simply said, "I'm not going to mess with this nonsense", and went ahead and hinged his unused stamps. THAT attitude was frowned upon by the elite of stamp collecting as somehow being 'criminal', and the chances of a hinged exhibit being awarded a prize at any major stamp show was virtually nil. A package of hinges costs the average collector $2, and will mount about a thousand stamps. The special mounts needed for unused stamps, to keep their gum 'pristine', would cost anywhere from $2 to $6, and would mount about 30 stamps. In addition, the collector needed an array of different sizes, to meet the varying sizes of stamps that were issued.

Scott's latest disdain for the average collector is to only list new stamps - and their values - as complete sets, rather than listing - and pricing -each stamp in the set individually. There's also fewer and fewer descriptions of stamps within a set.

Scott also apparently hasn't learned how to use computers and computer type-setting equipment. This is obvious by the number of errors found in their catalogues, errors that an electronic database and proper editing would have caught. They also don't listen to their users - they fail to make adequate corrections (the same errors appear in catalogues over several years, there are missing or incomplete entries, items overrun their printing space, etc.).

Of course, the entire stamp-issuing situation itself is also getting out of hand. Many countries issue as many as 200 different stamps a year, many with high face value. Many are issued in full sheets of different stamps. Constantly-increasing costs, and the needs for different stamps to pay for different services, also increases the number of stamps issued. The United States alone issued 89 different stamps, plus one "sheet" of ten and another of 25, in 1999. Many of these were stamps issued in more than one format - one gummed and perforated, one self-adhesive die-cut, one gummed, perforated coil stamp (perforated on two opposite sides), and one self-adhesive die-cut coil stamp. The numbers have increased signficantly since then, and the trends are only increasing, and spreading around the world.

That brings up the last problem with Scott's stamp cagalogues - they can't keep up. The numbering system has more variances than straight-line entries. New varieties are found every day, most of which take months, sometimes years, to get into the catalogue. My personal experience at this is an in-depth evaluation of certain South African stamps issued in its Flora and Fauna set in 2000. Scott lists 58 different stamps in this set. I have over 85 different stamps from the set in my collection, and I'm still missing about a third of the issue. The listing in the catalogue is incomplete, inaccurate, and confusing. I've written to them twice, without ever receiving an answer. The data I sent them was based on the stamps I currently have in MY collection. I think I'll post that data here in a few days for all to see...

Catalogue printing in the United States has become bureaucratic, inattentive, more than a tad arrogant, and sloppy. Collectors, however, have few choices. There is only ONE catalogue manufacturer in the United States, and one catalogue. THEY choose what to list, how to list it, how to price it, and whether they offer a mediocre or excellent product.

There ARE foreign catalogues, many of which do a better job than Scott. Most dealers, however, use the Scott catalogue - even with the growing expenses, it's still cheaper. Besides, it can be written off as a business expense. It's only the collector that's being left high and dry, or ripped off by shoddy merchandise at high prices.

There is a solution for the average collector - the Internet. It would take a rather large server (the total data necessary to list - and illustrate - every stamp issued since the first Penny Black in England to the stamps issued last week would run to about 400 gigabytes, and would have to increase at about 400 megabytes a year), and time. Once the collecting community decides on a common template, however, the actual building of a database could be done by collectors themselves, distributing the task to several million people. Issue dates, value, color, design, perforation, and watermark descriptions are in the public domain. It would be up to the various catalogue publishers to allow their numbering systems to be included, but a straight "1" to infinity numbering system cannot be copyrighted, patented, or any other such silly nonsense. My estimate of the amount of storage required included a maximum 120x120 pixel "thumbnail" of the individual stamp. Sheets, such as the US "Insect" sheets and the various "Landscapes" could be done larger, with the actual data squeezed into lesser space. By breaking the catalogue up into "Folders" for each country, and breaking each set into a separate table, for instance, loading wouldn't be a problem. Using XML, the entire database could be made searchable, and as much additional information (illustrating plate flaws, "errors", etc) could be added that are prohibitive in a printed catalogue.

The program would require two things: a large Internet server that can handle very heavy loads, and the cooperation of the collecting community. The catalogue printers may scream, but they can now concentrate on their primary market - dealers - and leave the collecting community to work out its own ideas. To preclude copyright infringement, nothing should be copied from an existing catalogue without their expressed, written, VOLUNTARY permission. Let the collecting community scan in its stamps for the illustrations necessary, or have companies volunteer scans of images for rare or difficult-to-find stamps. Perhaps there could be a listing page for those that have volunteered information, or contributed to the overall catalogue, to include individual collectors, companies, bank holdings, and whatever else might be appropriate.

An electronic catalogue could also be used to generate a computer want/have list for stamp trading, an idea that's grown considerably over the years, and that helps reduce the general costs for collectors. Who knows what other benefits could be derived from such a catalogue, once the idea catches on. Perhaps downloading a catalogue segment and replacing the catalogue scans with images from one's own collection? The catalogue will generate ideas as it becomes more useful, and user-friendly.

There IS an online catalogue already - put out by a private firm in conjunction with Stanley Gibbons, the British catalogue manufacturers. It's still in the development stage, and in my personal opinion, needs work. Perhaps some competition from the "Colonies" might increase both the usefulness and the popularity of online catalogues.

Are there any volunteers?


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