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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: Labuan 1879-82 Victoria (Scott #1-4, 5-10)

Labuan is a small island off the northwest coast of Borneo. The British became interested in the previously uninhabited, mosquito-ridden island in the 1840s as a possible base of operations against pirates in the South China Sea, and forced the Sultan of Brunei to cede it to them in 1846.

The first stamps of Labuan depict the usual profile of Queen Victoria, but are unusual for being inscribed in Arabic and Chinese as well as in English. The stamps of both the first and second sets, issued in 1879 and 1880-82, were issued in small quantities. I've listed them below, along with their Scott '12 catalog values as unused and quantities issued.

-1879 Victoria, Watermark 46:
  • 1879 2c Green 1; Scott '12 =$1,500.00 ;1,520 issued
  • 1879 6c Orange 2; Scott '12 =$240.00 ; 2,940
  • 1879 12c Carmine 3; Scott '12 =$1,925.00; 1,470
  • 1879 16c Blue 4; Scott '12 =$77.50 ; 3,520
-1880-82 Victoria, Watermark 1:
  • 1880-82 2c Green 5; Scott '12 =$27.50 ; 5,360
  • 1880-82 6c Orange 6; Scott '12 =$135.00 ; 5,200
  • 1880-82 8c Carmine 7; Scott '12 =$135.00 ; 6,100
  • 1880-82 10c Yellow Brown 8; Scott '12 =$195.00 ; 5,050
  • 1880-82 12c Carmine 9; Scott '12 =$ 330.00; 5,580
  • 1880-82 16c Blue 10; Scott '12 =$ 100.00; 5,500
I consider the early stamps of Labuan grossly undervalued, possibly due to the island's obscurity. Many of its early stamps were probably used as postage and discarded. It's likely that few collectors of the 1880s had even heard of the place.

The island is now a federal territory of Malaysia, with about 85,000 inhabitants. It is best known as an offshore financial center offering international financial and business services. It is also an offshore support hub for deep water oil and gas activities in the region and a tourist destination for nearby Bruneians and scuba divers. Labuan's stamps have dual market appeal to collectors of British Commonwealth in general, and Malaya/Malaysia in particular.

With a population of over 28 million, Malaysia is an emerging market nation and the 29th largest economy in the world. It has abundant minerals and petroleum, vast forests, as well as a thriving agricultural sector. Nevertheless, over the last four decades, the Malaysian government has committed the nation to a transition from reliance on mining and agriculture to manufacturing, and is moving to conserve its remaining forests and reforest the overcut areas. The government has recently taken steps to make Malaysia more business-friendly, and the number of Malaysians living in poverty has also decreased. As of 2007, average wages were around $34 per day, up from about $9 per day in 1999. Annual GDP growth has averaged over 5% over the last five years, although the country's economy was hurt by the global financial crisis.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Phila-Trivia: Jean de Sperati -the Rubens of Philatelic Forgery

Jean de Sperati (1884-1957) was among the most noted stamp forgers of the world. Even professional stamp authenticators of his time attested to the genuineness of his stamps. A printer and engraver by profession, he was able to mimic the details of design, the pressure and the paper with such accuracy that he earned the title "the Rubens of Philately".

Sperati was born in 1884 in Pisa, Italy, though he spent a large part of his life in France. As a child in Pisa and later in France, he began to collect stamps. He was particularly interested in printing techniques, as well as photography which was in its infancy at that time. Relatives owned a postcard factory as well as a paper mill. Through this, Sperati was able to obtain copious knowledge of photographic processes, print technology and chemicals. These formed the basis for his eventual career as a stamp counterfeiter.

The first attempts to copy stamps went extraordinarily well. The first forgeries were of valuable stamps from San Marino, and stamp experts believed them to be real. Thereupon Sperati began to produce numerous further reproductions of valuable stamps from all over the world. This eventually resulted in well over 500 master-quality forgeries from more than 100 different stamp-issuing agencies.

In 1942, for the first time in his life, Sperati came into conflict with the law. A shipment marked as valuable from Sperati to a stamp dealer in Lisbon, Portugal was intercepted by French customs. It contained several falsified German stamps. They charged him with "exporting capital" without a licence and trying to avoid customs payments. He protested his innocence, and explained to the police that it contained only copies of valuable stamps, which he himself had prepared, whereupon the police called in the country's best stamp experts to clear up the facts of the case. These experts came to the judgment that the stamps in question were all originals, and very valuable ones at that. Sperati still managed to convince the police that they were fakes, and was therefore charged with fraud. His trial took place in April 1948.

Attempting to explain his actions, Sperati tried to convince the court that he had no deceitful intentions in the sale of the stamps. He considered himself to be an artist and not a counterfeiter. Furthermore, he declared to the court that he had merely forgotten to clearly mark the stamps as forgeries and he promised to be more diligent about such marking in the future. He claimed that he had offered the forgeries of rare stamps at about 1% of the normal market price in order to assist the simple collector to obtain these rarities. Nevertheless the Parisian judiciary convicted Sperati and sentenced him to a year in prison, 10,000 francs fine and an additional 300,000 francs for criminal intentions. The Parisians' judiciary did not convict him on the basis of the imitation, but rather because of Sperati's "deceitful intentions". He was convicted in April 1948.

Sperati did not have to serve his prison sentence on the grounds of his age - he was already over 64 years old. In 1954 he sold all his remaining forgeries as well as all the clich├ęs to the "British Philatelic Association" for an enormous sum of money. He then withdrew from the forgery business and promised never again to falsify a stamp. His motive for selling the tools of his trade to the "British Philatelic Association" was to prevent them falling into the possession of someone who would imitate his work. Sperati died three years later in Aix-les-Bains at the age of 73.

The stamp forgeries of Jean de Sperati are some of the best of the world. Many of them slumber undetected in various collections. Sperati falsified only the most valuable rarities of the stamp world. He did this with an inimitable precision scarcely obtained by any other counterfeiter. A Sperati forgery is today in no way worthless. They are highly regarded and obtain high prices as special collectibles. Most other stamp forgeries, on the other hand, are worthless. Sperati paid great attention to the accuracy of the postmark when falsifying the stamps. Therefore, postmarks found on his forgeries are limited to those of larger cities. They are currently very valuable in the philatelic market, and it is believed that he might have produced over 5,000 of them.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: St. Pierre and Miquelon 1941-42 "France Libre" Overprints

The Territorial Collectivity of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the only remnant of the former French colonial empire in North America, is comprised of two small groups of islands off the coast of Newfoundland. From a philatelic investment perspective, it's of interest because its stamps are popular in Canada and among collectors of French Colonies - both growing markets.

In 1941 and '42, as a colony under Free French administration, St. Pierre and Miquelon overprinted many of its earlier regular and postage due stamps (as well as a Parcel Post stamp) "France Libre... F.N.F.L." Quite a few of these stamps were issued in quantities of under 100 to under 1,000, and most were quickly purchased by speculators, including the legendary Canadian stamp dealer Kasimir Bileski (1908-2005), whose owner's mark may be found on the back of some of them. Quantities issued of many of the scarcest may be found by viewing the the Scarce Stamp Quantities Issued List (under the French Colonies/Possessions category).

Despite the somewhat dubious nature of these stamps (and the fact that most of them were gobbled up within days after they were issued), I believe that collectors are increasingly accepting them, as evidenced by their high realizations at auction. This brings to mind John Huston's famous quote from the film "Chinatown": "Politicians, old buildings, and prostitutes all become respectable with age." The same often applies to stamps issued solely for the collector market.

Fake overprints exist, so I strongly advise purchasing the stamps conditional on obtaining expertization.

Those interested in becoming part of an international community of stamp collectors, dealers, and investors are welcome to join the "Stampselectors" group and organization pages at Facebook. These host lively discussions concerning stamp investment and practical aspects of collecting, and are excellent venues for those who wish to buy, sell, or trade stamps.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: Gambia 1898 Victoria (Scott #20-27)

In 1898, the British issued a set of eight stamps portraying Queen Victoria for Gambia (Scott #20-27). 2,400 sets were issued, and Scott '12 prices the unused set at $113.50.

I view this set as a conservative investment, based upon the the growth of interest in stamps of the British Commonwealth. Also, it's inexpensive and scarce enough that it's value would receive an additional boost should a significant stamp market develop in Gambia.

A nation of 1.7 million people, Gambia has a liberal, market-based economy characterized by traditional subsistence agriculture, a re-export trade built up around its ocean port, low import duties, minimal administrative procedures, a fluctuating exchange rate with no exchange controls, and a significant tourism industry. Annual GDP growth has averaged about 6% over the last 5 years.

Information concerning printing quantities of stamps is often useful in determining which may turn out to be good investments. The StampSelector Scarce Stamp Quantities Issued List (SSSSQIL) currently includes over 9,700 listings of stamps and souvenir sheets with issuance quantities of 100,000 or less.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: Cuba 1956 Birds (Scott #C136-46)

In 1956, Cuba issued a set of eleven stamps picturing birds (Scott #C136-46). 50,000 were issued, and Scott '12 prices the unused set at $75.00.

Aside from the set's appeal to Bird Topicalists, I believe that it will do very well when Cuba rejoins the crassly commercial, capitalist world, perhaps retaining a bit of a socialist safety net to keep the masses complacent. The set will also benefit from the long-term stealth bull market in better Latin American sets, which began around twenty years ago after the region's oligarchical dictatorships went out of style.

Note that "gloppy" or toned gum are typical defects found on many of these sets, so select for those that have clean gum.

I believe it inevitable that Cuba will join the fold of more-or-less free nations, and that tourism and trade will explode as a result. Currently, the average wage of each of the 11 1/2 million people living in this "socialist utopia" is under $20 per month, and GDP per capita is 107th in the world. Annual GDP growth has been high, averaging 6.4% over the last 5 years, but given the levels of corruption and favoritism shown to high ranking Communist Party members, it's an open question whether much of that new wealth has been filtering downward. Eventually, something will have to give. The current market for Cuban stamps, especially of the Pre-Castro Period, is bolstered by interest of stamp collectors within Cuban-American community, currently about 1.6 million strong, and far wealthier than their compatriots on the island. Interest in Cuban stamps is likely to increase, especially given the likely prospect of a replacement of the stale, "gerontocratic" regime within a decade or so.

I have begun a new blog, " The Stamp Specialist ", featuring my buy lists for stamps which I wish to purchase, including some Cuban stamps. Periodically viewing dealers' buy lists is an excellent way to remained informed about the state of the stamp market.

Those interested in becoming part of an international community of stamp collectors, dealers, and investors are welcome to join the "Stampselectors" group and page at Facebook. These host lively discussions concerning stamp investment and practical aspects of collecting, and is also an excellent venue for those who wish to buy, sell, or trade stamps.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: Vatican 1948 Archangel Raphael and Tobias Airmails (Scott #C16-17)

In 1948, the Vatican issued a set of two airmail stamps picturing the Archangel Raphael and Tobias (Scott #C16-17). The design was based upon the Francesco Botticini's painting "Archangel Michael with Archangels Raphael and Gabriel, as They Accompany Tobias." 45,000 sets were issued, and Scott '12 prices the unused set at $440.00 ($640.- for NH) .

Though in a sense, all Vatican stamps are of special interest to Catholic collectors, this set's subject enhances its appeal as a combined Religion and Art Topical. Purchasing it could have an angelic effect on your stamp portfolio.

Stamps of the Vatican appeal to both collectors of Italy and Area in general as well as Vatican in particular. Better Vatican items in general should do well as the number of Catholic stamp collectors increases worldwide, especially since many live in emerging market countries.

Those interested in learning about investing in stamps should read the Guide to Philatelic Investing ($5), available on Kindle and easily accessible from any computer.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: South Korea 1958 UNESCO Souvenir Sheet (Scott #286a)

In 1958, South Korea issued a souvenir sheet honoring UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Scott #286a). Only 5,000 of this rather bland sheet were issued, and Scott '12 prices it unused at $210.00.

I continue to like the U.N. as a topic, long-term. The market for U.N.-related topicals should grow over the very long haul as institutions of world government develop in order to take on serious (and possibly existential) problems which can only be coped with globally. Despite the present inadequacy, corruption, and ineffectiveness of the U.N., I view its reform and gradual strengthening as a gradual but irresistible trend.

South Korea, a nation of about 50 million people, is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Currently, it is the world's 13th largest economy and eighth largest exporter. It's export-fueled economic growth has led to a miraculous explosion in its GDP, from almost nothing 50 years ago to about $1 trillion today. Annual GDP growth has averaged 4.2% over the last 5 years, reflecting a slowdown in 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Furthermore, South Korea may be the most rapidly aging nation on earth, as its 65+ population is expected to more than quadruple from 9% in 2005 to 38% in 2050. Obviously, this could pose economic challenges for the country, but it will almost certainly add to its stamp collecting population.

Information concerning printing quantities of stamps is often useful in determining which may turn out to be good investments. The StampSelector Scarce Stamp Quantities Issued List (SSSSQIL) currently includes over 9,700 listings of stamps and souvenir sheets with issuance quantities of 100,000 or less.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stamp Investment Tip: Afghanistan 1871-91 Tiger's Head Stamps (Scott #2-108)

From a philatelic perspective, Afghanistan is of interest mainly for its early issues, especially the "Tiger's Heads." These crudely lithographed stamps have appeal to specialists throughout the world. When they were issued, most Afghan post offices did not have postal cancelers, so pieces were torn off of the stamps in order to indicate that they were used. Tiger's Heads which catalog in the hundreds of dollars were probably produced in very modest quantities (low hundreds to the low thousands), although printing quantity information is not available for these issues.

I recommend purchase of Tiger's Heads cataloging $350 or more, conditional on obtaining expertization. Personally, I prefer the unused stamps because I've been conditioned to view stamps with pieces missing as ugly, even though this is the norm for used Tiger's Heads. The two key Tiger's Heads are the 1872 6 Shahi Violet (Scott #8; Scott '12 CV = $1,350.00) and 1 Rupee Kabuli Violet (Scott #9; Scott '12 CV= $ 1,850.00, and pictured above at left) - either of which are worth jumping on if you find them at auction.

A nation of over 28 million people, Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries. In 2010, the nation's GDP per capita was about $1,000. Its unemployment rate is 35% and roughly 36% of its citizens live below the poverty line. About 42 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day, according to USAID. However, due to the infusion of multi-billion dollars in international assistance and investments, as well as remittances from expats, the economy has significantly improved, with the GDP growing at an astounding 10 percent per year over the past five years. Opium production is a major part of the underground economy, employing over 2 million Afghans.

Recent discoveries of major mineral deposits make the country look compelling from a long-term perspective. In 2010, Pentagon officials, along with geologists from the United States, announced the discovery of $1–3 trillion worth untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The country may possess up to 36 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 3.6 billion barrels of petroleum, up to 1.3 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and huge deposits of gold, copper, coal, iron ore, lithium, and other minerals.

Those interested in learning about investing in stamps should read the Guide to Philatelic Investing ($5), available on Kindle and easily accessible from any computer.