Sunday, October 24, 2010
Variable Value Stamps are machine-vended stamps issued according to the specified instructions of the user. They are closely related to meter stamps, which are impressions made by a meter machine on a strip of paper or envelope, indicating that postage has been paid. While there have been many experiments with systems for printing variable value stamps over the years, none has been truly successful until the evolution of modern sophisticated computer printing technology. Use of these stamps has been growing worldwide since the 1980s.
In the U.S., the best known examples of these stamps are the 1989 Autopost stamps and the Variable Rate Coils of the 1990s. These are listed in Scott's U.S. Specialized Catalogue. The Autopost stamps were issued from three different locations and the scarcest were those issued for delegates of the Universal Postal Union (Machine #11), although quantities produced of the UPU Autopost stamps remain unknown. The Autopost stamps represented a rather primitive experiment, and are not true variable value stamps because the the customer could choose from only 5 different denominations. Of the Washington, DC (Brentwood) and Kensington, Maryland Autoposts, which were available to the general public, 3,000 sets of 20 different stamps (all 5 denominations - Machines 82 and 83) were pre-printed and sold over the counter at those locations.
Several different types of Variable Rate Coils were later issued, and initially, the customer could purchase these stamps with denominations ranging from 1c to $99.99. Early on, the 1c to 18c denominations were phased out, so they are considered somewhat scarce. Occasionally, VRC machines created computer-generated errors, containing dashes or slashes. VRC errors with faded, misplaced, or missing denominations could be artificially created by intentionally jamming the machines. The computer-generated errors, however, are legitimate and considerably scarcer.
From an investment perspective, Variable Value Stamps present some unique challenges. Since the stamps are produced locally by postal clerks or customers, quantities issued of a particular stamp, stamp design, or denomination are never known. Since the machines often allow the customer to produce stamps of different denominations, stamps with some denominations will be scarcer than others, but whether or not denomination scarcity will ever play a part in determining a stamp's value is an open question. The recent innovation of "Personalized Postage Stamps," produced by firms such as Stamps.com, add to the confusion in that they allow the customer to utilize his own images when creating stamps. Since certain images have more topical appeal than others (for instance, a stamp picturing Elvis or Michael Jackson will be more popular than one containing a photo from your neighbor's son's Bar Mitzvah), the personalized postage stamp phenomenon is likely to become an interesting and anarchic element in the stamp market, but not one which is investable.