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APS Affiliate #210

The Art of Collecting

Part 1: Research and Definition
by Tom DeLuca

So you collect duck stamps?

Perhaps it's their sheer beauty that first attracted you - a wildlife gallery in miniature! Or are you a hunter turned stamp collector as a result of that stack of licenses you or a relative have saved? Maybe you're concerned with conservation and the environment and realize these stamp funds are dedicated to purchasing wetlands and preserving them for future generations. Or perhaps you have a keen eye for investment potential and have noted that duck stamps have performed extremely well over the years.

So how do you collect your duck stamps?

Perhaps a basic singles collection of Federal Ducks, mint or used, is your only passion. You may have branched out into plate number blocks or plate number singles, maybe even by number and position. Do you dabble in stamps on license, artist signed, errors or varieties? Then there's First Day of Issue covers and cards, BEP souvenir cards, appreciation cards, Smithsonian FDC programs, and onsite programs, etc. Please don't forget there are 50 states who issue or have issued duck stamps as well, with most of the above specialties pertaining. Let's not forget the international stamps either - a most popular and growing collector area.

These mind-boggling options aside, most collectors do first pursue the collecting of mint US Federal Duck Stamps. After all, there are only a finite number of stamps since 1934 with one new addition per year!

The primary focus of this article is to pinpoint the "art of collecting" Federal Duck Stamps in their purest mint single form, and to educate and assist you, the collector, as to what grade and condition to purchase and why it is right for you. If you will, let's call it a primer for the novice, a refresher course for those more experienced, but a proven method for personal collecting satisfaction.

The first phase of duck stamp collecting (or any collecting for that matter) I define as "Research and Definition." It seems reasonable that before you should do much purchasing, you would want to gather as much information as possible.

This might first come in the form of a reference catalog such as the Scott Federal and State Stamp Catalogue ($19.95), which contains full color pictures, designs, artist name, catalog number, and basic price information. Also quite good is The Duck Stamp Collection, sold by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DE 20402. For a most extensive treatment of the artwork, designs, and artists, I'd recommend a large "coffee table" book entitled Duck Stamps and Prints ($75 list, but usually discounted). Although these are out of print books, they are sometimes available.

Dealer price lists and sales catalogues contain up-to-date information and listings as well as current market prices. A good study of these lists can provide a wealth of information of the market place that regular catalogues cannot cover. Additional sources of information are from the Federal Duck Stamp Office, Washington, DC 20240, from an organization such as NDSCS with its publication Duck Tracks, and occasionally from the regular philatelic press, both newspapers and magazines/journals.

Presumably by this time you have read enough to have ample background information. What is now needed is hands-on experience! If you are fortunate, you might know a duck stamp collector who could share viewing his collection with you. Next, if you couldn't visit with one of the nationally recognized dealers who specialize in duck stamps, you could perhaps visit a local dealer who might have a decent duck stamp sampling. A stamp show with several dealers might make an even better venture. The bottom line is to "physically research" the stamps, noting carefully centering, gum quality, color and freshness, and observing the wide range of condition in which these stamps can exist. This "reconnaissance mission" should open up your eyes to the diversity of stamp conditions and propel you into a separate phase of "condition research." I realize this process seems lengthy, but I can assure you from experience that those collectors who do their homework are those who are most pleased with the collections they have built, and derive the most pleasure from them. But remember that up to this point, hypothetically, you have not purchased many stamps.

We now enter what I refer to as the "definition process" - selecting what grade and condition exactly suits your particular collecting reasons, budget, and personality. Without doubt, condition plays a critical role in the pricing of Federal Duck Stamps. The accompanying chart is offered as a conservative standard for defining centering and gum quality, verbalizing that which you see.

Since grading is a very subjective process, set your own understanding and standards of grading, and without rationalization stay true to it for your entire set of stamps. Purchase stamps of the same grade, as it makes no sense to pursue a set of mixed and varying conditions. Over purchasing wastes dollars, underpur-chasing allows discontent. This is a set of only precious few stamps and they will look better, "feel" better, and be more valuable as a matched set of stamps.

Always remember that condition is what should determine the market price of a given stamp, but cost should not be a primary factor in determining which set to build. Remember that cost is a function of time.

Centering Superb - a perfectly centered stamp with larger than normal margins; a rare quality example.
XF-SUP - (extra fine-superb) A virtually perfectly centered stamp with four balanced margins; extraordinary quality.
VF-XF - (very fine-extra fine) A very well centered stamp slightly off-center in one direction; a quality well above that required by most collectors.
VF - (very fine) A well centered stamp slightly off both top to bottom or side to side, but still very attractive; a quality item.
F-VF - (fine-very fine) An attractive copy, not close on any sides but not well centered; a quality acceptable to most collectors' standards.
FINE - A stamp whose design clears the perforations leaving some white space between, but noticeably off-center.
AVE - (average) A stamp whose design is cut by the perforations on one side or more.

All grades of duck stamps have fared very well over the years as a result of ever-growing collector demand and lessening supply. However, if you are collecting with a decided eye for long-term strategic investment, I suggest only the VF-XF, or XF-Superb NH grades. These grades are difficult to locate and are costly, but they are the grades most in demand and those with the greatest liquidity. They are the stamps which grade in the top 5-10 percent on the earliest issues. These top quality items are not for everyone.Perhaps the set which would really please you costs $3,500, but your budget is half that. Just be patient and take twice as long to complete your set! Who said there's a clock on your completing it? The joy in ownership is in having what you really want, not in settling for something less.

                 Gum and Hinging
All mint stamps are understood to be full original gum (OG).
NH - (never hinged) Full original gum mint state as post office issued.
LH - (lightly hinged) A single hinge mark leaving no hinge remains.
H - (hinged) A stamp with a single hinge mark with some small remains or a stamp with two light hinge marks.
HH - (heavy hinged) A stamp with heavy or large hinges remains.
Disturbed Gum - An unnatural occurrence on the gum surface not caused by hinging.
Unused - A stamp without gum, which has no signature or cancellation.

Therefore, in defining exactly which grade you should pick for your duck collecting venture, you must first focus on your true reasons for collecting them. If you are like many duck enthusiasts, a F-VF NH set is the typical standard - post office fresh and reasonably centered without faults, and moderately priced. If the gum side of the stamp is not as important to you as the 30-40 percent premium attached, then select the hinged set at considerable savings. Then, again, if the appearance of the stamp is tantamount, select only a VF-XF LH stamp sacrificing gum quality for nice eye appeal. If you plan to frame a set for wall display purposes, I would recommend no better than F-VF unused with no gum, or even stamps with faults seen from the back only (at approximately half the cost). Well centered stamps with faults on the back make an excellent choice for the collector with great passion but limited resources.

Once you've chosen the proper course of action and grade that's right for you - stay with it and don't deviate. A few more suggestions for maximizing your collecting experience:

  1. Set up a reasonable budget and add to your collection on a regular basis. Don't go hot and cold, for your collecting needs steady nurturing.
  2. Set yourself reasonable collecting goals and time frames and review and adjust them periodically.
  3. Start first with the least expensive, later year stamps to "wet your feet" and to gain momentum and knowledge, but don't be too rigid in the order of acquisition. After you feel comfortable, then pursue the more expensive key items as funds and availability permit.
  4. Realize that the "art of collecting" is a growing process which you will refine, and that you will mature in that art. True collecting is an active process and one in which you can always learn more.
  5. Be patient!! The right condition stamp at a fair market price will be available. Don't let your zeal out pace your reason.
  6. Enjoy your collection! Take time to sit back and look at your stamps, note their beauty, their detail, their story. Appreciate it and it will pay dividends far beyond its value!

From Duck Tracks, Third Quarter 1998, Vol. 6, No. 3


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