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DEFINING STAMP INVESTING

Authored by: Richard Lehmann

When you write about investing, as I have done for the last 30 years, there are two subjects sure to arouse strong opinions and lively debate, gold and stamps. The reason for this is that everyone involved in either has an opinion which no amount of debate is going to change, at least in the short run. Perhaps after reading my columns on stamp investing over the future, I can persuade a few to broaden their opinions, but for now, I'll settle for explaining my views and hoping to win over those open to fact based persuasion.

Since beginning my stamp investing blog on Forbes.com and my column in the ASDA journal, stamp forums on the Internet as well as email respondents have argued for and against this subject. Critics seem to feel that philately "belongs" to collectors and that investors are interlopers who threaten the hobby. What they threaten, of course, is competition. What they bring is a new group of buyers who will only drive prices higher.

As a starting premise, I believe most people will agree that, when you spend $25 or more on a piece of paper that has no intrinsic value whatsoever, you are making an investment. As a collector since age 8 I started by buying less expensive stamps, but as the collection matured, I found that everything I was missing was, back then, $5 or more. So I changed my country of interest. Today I have several collections where almost everything missing is $25 or more. Since there are many more of stamps one wants, but can't afford all, why not give priority to buying those items which have the best prospects for appreciation? This is a basic principal of investing and takes nothing away from collecting. In fact, I think it adds to the enjoyment. We see works of art regularly selling for millions of dollars and all I read is positive on investing in art. Stamps, likewise, are little pieces of mass produced art and stamp collectors buy them irrespective of price because they find pleasure in the process of finding and then owning them.

My belief is that no one has the right to deride the motives of a stamp buyer. As readers of my columns are aware, they have multiple motives and they exist in huge numbers in many parts of the world. They may use stamps for collecting, for investing, for speculating, as an alternative currency or for hiding wealth. My definition of investment quality stamps are the classic stamps issued prior to 1950 having a catalog value of $25 or more. This is a universe of about 50,000 stamps representing less than 10% of the stamp universe. I use this premise because since 1950, postal authorities with few exceptions have been mercilessly exploiting stamp collectors. Hence, I agree with purist collectors that this post 1950 universe be left exclusively to them. Have fun chasing after those 100 un-inverted Jenny blocks and pictures of your favorite sports figures and teams. My universe of classic stamps is defined by what I call seasoning. Any stamp that has appreciated to $25 or more in the last 65 to 175 years deserves consideration as a good investment for the future. There is little history of such stamps suffering a decline in value, which for many investors, seeking asset diversification, is sufficient.

The most popular criticism of stamps investing is that the quality of the specific stamp being purchased is the most important consideration in whether or not it is a good investment. I totally agree. Stamp investing is not for amateurs. Until amateurs become savvy enough to do their own selection, they need the assistance of a professional. Most such professionals are dealers and many act in this capacity for clients with whom they have established trust over the years. This process is hindered by the Internet becoming the major market forum, but need not be. The ASDA has credibility among collectors and is in a position to vet members in their specialty. This is not an easy undertaking for a trade group, but is really little different from any professional association such as doctors, lawyers or accountants: albeit, they are assisted by statutory requirements.

We all recognize that a collector's or investor's lack of information or ignorance is a major source of profit. The Internet is slowly eroding this process. My organization, StampFinder, has as its objective making information about stamp values much more transparent. Collectors and investors will soon have at their fingertips a profile of what we consider investment quality stamps. Since we are not dealers in stamps, we have no conflicts in the presentation of objective information. Our rating system for individual stamps will take into consideration its price history, current supply and demand, price disparities by market and a number of other proprietary factors. This will not be a one-time exercise, but rather, will be constantly updated with real time information. From my years in recommending individual securities, I am familiar with the abuse of investors through sale via emotion and hype. Stamps, like securities have measurable attributes. A broader dissemination of such information becomes its own driver of value.

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