Collecting rare stamps isn’t everybody’s idea of an exciting hobby. In fact, it’s not most people’s. But to understand what drives the stamp collector, you must enter the slightly geeky – but, for some, incredibly profitable – world of philately.
Walking round the stalls at the Europhilex Stamp Exhibition, now on at London’s Business Design Centre, is like attending a sci-fi convention, where fans dress up as characters from their favourite films and TV shows. But instead of Star Trek shirts, expect to see tweed blazers and elbow patches.
You will, however, find the same greedy glint in the collector’s eye as he (always he) rummages through boxes full of plastic sleeves containing rare treasures. Not a 1930s Superman comic, but a simple postcard tinged yellow by the passing of time, crowned with a single precious stamp.
And there lies the attraction. Every postcard, letter and stamp tells a story. Each one has passed from hand to hand in some distant past, perhaps in some far-flung country that collectors could only dream of visiting before the advent of cheap airfares.
One of the most prized examples is Sweden’s three-skilling stamp. It is unique – literally – there is only one in the world, and the last time it was sold, in 2010, it fetched $2.3m.
Others include the incredibly rare Mauritian stamps from 1847. The wife of the island’s governor apparently insisted that each of the invitations to her ball should bear the image of Queen Victoria – a novelty for the time. The last time one of these was sold, it went for $4m.
The main exhibit is called “Philatelic events that changed the world”. The curios on display chart a course from the earliest written letter, written in Latin on parchment in the Middle Ages, to a postcard carried into space by Neil Armstrong aboard the Apollo 11 in 1969. And then brought back again.
Other priceless artefacts for visitors marvel at include a letter penned by 14th century king of Scots Robert the Bruce; another signed by John Hancock in 1776, the first signatory to the US Declaration of Independence; and of course, the original, and somewhat crude, sketches for the famous Penny Black, which celebrates its 175th birthday this year.
Then there are the letters and stamps that bore witness to the advances in communication: the first piece of post to cross the Atlantic from Puerto Rico to Spain in 1512; the letter carried over the besieging Prussian forces in a French hot-air balloon in 1871; and the missive addressed to King George V that took off with the first airmail flight in 1911 at Allahabad, India.
And once you’ve taken your tour of the main exhibition, you can observe the throng of stamp-buying in the main concourse below.
Should you invest in stamps?
The short answer is probably not. Like any investment, if you don’t understand it, don’t buy it. And that goes for stamps as much as it would for wine or art. And even if you do know your British Honduras 1865 from your 1872, there are better places to put your money.
That said, if you are lucky enough to have a pile of spare cash lying around, and collecting stamps happens to be your thing, then with a little luck, rare stamps should at least hold their value. But it’s one for the hobbyists. And bear in mind that with all things collectible, you may struggle to find a buyer for your stamps if you need to raise some cash.
Another way in is to buy a fund that trades in rare stamps. Stanley Gibbons offers a range of products on its website.
On the subject of investing in hobbies, Cris Sholto Heaton looked at investing in the recent bond offerings from beer brewers Innis & Gunn, and rugby team Wasps in a recent issue of MoneyWeek magazine. If you’re not already a subscriber, grab your first four issues free.
If you do want to get down to the Business Design Centre, you’ll have to hurry. The Europhilex Stamp Exhibition runs until Saturday, 16 May. Entrance is free.