Back in 1990 I worked for Weeda Stamps in Vancouver, BC. My boss, Chris Weeda once made a remark that influenced my choice of collecting for many, many years to come. He said "I think that modern stamps are the most uninteresting material, and that there is nothing worthwhile in collecting it. All you are doing is giving the post office free money." That statement resonated with me, because I was a fickle collector, and at that time I was at a crossroads in my collecting. Up until that point, I had always enjoyed collecting Elizabethan stamps from Great Britain, Australia and Canada, and I was a specialist. But I felt the desire to collect something prestigious - something that would elicit "oohs and aahs" from my fellow collectors. I could see from Chris Weeda's remark that modern material was not regarded in this fashion, and was not accorded any respect, with Chris proudly telling his own customers that he used anything after the War for postage. Of course, he meant World War II, though there have been many wars since, and by speaking like that today, one is seriously dating oneself.
Back then, the practice of dealers using stamps from the 1940's,50's, 60's, 70's and 80's as postage was firmly entrenched, and I'm sure that it started long before then. I remember being puzzled by the practice and I once asked Chris: "I know they are common now, but won't you guys deplete the existing stock of early material if you do this for 20 or 30 years?". His reply was "Do you have any idea of how big a million is? These stamps were issued in the millions. They will never be rare!". Back then, it was commonplace to find large quantities of the 1953 Karsh Issue, the 50's high value definitives, the 1954 Wilding Issue, the 1967-73 Centennial Issue, and the 1972-77 Caricature issue in massive quantities, selling for 70% of face value. It seemed at the time as though this material was so plentiful that they would never run out. Fast forward to today: You almost never see massive quantities of these issues anymore. Occasionally, you will find a few singles or blocks here and there, in "postage lots" but the massive quantities that could be had 25 or even 15 years ago are all but gone now. Even large lots of 8c, 10c, 12c and 17c stamps are getting harder and harder to find. 5c and 6c commemoratives are still plentiful, but not nearly to the extent that they once were. So Chris was very clearly mistaken.
So what though? I can hear some of you thinking. It still isn't rare. Besides, most of the varieties are just random paper varieties and flyspeck varieties, right? Well, no actually. And herein lies the misconception among philatelists that is the heart of the reason why modern philately is not more respected and popular among philatelists than it is: most philatelists fail to recognize that modern philately and classic philately are very different fields and that you cannot use the same standards to judge them.
Classic philately is about the collection of stamps that were printed at a time when printing involved a great deal of technological in-exactitude:
- Papers were often handmade, or came from several sources and were ordered and used in smaller batches than today.
- Perforating was in its infancy, and subject to much more experimentation than today.
- Colours were mixed by hand, using quantities of pigments and chemicals that were not exact, and the chemicals themselves were often unstable, which resulted in a lot of shade variations. Today, inks are mixed by machines, using exact chemical formulas that are designed to match them perfectly as far as the human eye can tell.
- Printing plates were made either of soft steel, copper or were lithographic stones that all wore quickly and frequently, resulting in the requirement to repair them frequently, and this in turn led to the plethora of re-entries, varieties and plate flaws that we are so familiar with today.
Varieties are thus the norm on classic stamps, so much so that you can sort a pile of 1000 3c Small Queens and find several hundred varieties. Most will be shade variations or paper variations, but I would highly doubt that you will find 10 or 20 stamps from among that pile of 1000 that look completely identical in every respect. You have to go to the 1920's before you start to see that degree of uniformity on any issue. Because of this, most philatelists who came of age with classic stamps, tend to eschew most varieties unless they consider them significant. Of course, given how normal variations in those days were, a variety usually has to be quite visually striking to be considered by most philatelists to be significant.
In modern philately, printing technology has become so exact, that it is possible to sit down with a large lot of 5,000 of the same stamp and sort them into a dozen or fewer varieties, and maybe 35-40 varieties if it is a definitive. There will be very large swaths of stamps that look completely identical in every conceivable way. The variations that can be found are much, much more subtle:
- Papers that vary in such a way that they can only be distinguished with an ultra-violet light, or show very slight differences in texture, thickness or colour (off-white versus bright white).
- The occasional shade variety that is minute and would be dismissed as nothing significant on a classic issue.
- Perforation variations that are measured in 1/10th of a hole, or 1/4 hole that are nonetheless consistent across many tens of thousands of stamps.
- Minute differences in the colour, sheen or type of gum (dextrine or PVA).
It is the high degree of consistency during the modern period that makes the varieties that do surface so interesting and meaningful in my opinion. To me, the fact that a modern issue might exist in 30 different varieties over a print run of several hundred million stamps is not at all unreasonable, and while there is nothing wrong with deciding to collect in a simplified fashion, I think it is a mistake to assert that modern philately is inherently simpler than classic philately. Quite the contrary, I believe that it is much more complicated in many respects, and that correctly identifying the subtle varieties requires a great deal of skill - the kind of skill that only the more advanced and experienced philatelists have. Yet it is usually the experienced philatelists that denigrate this material, which is a real shame, I think.
Coming back to the issue of scarcity, we can see now why the practice of using modern stamps for postage may not have been such a good idea in retrospect. If a modern definitive exists in 30 or 40 different printings, and most of the surplus mint stamps have been used up for postage, it is probable that many of the scarcer printings in this group may no longer exist in mint condition, in quantity. The tragic rub is that these scarce stamps have been either destroyed or turned into used stamps without most philatelists recognizing what they were at the time. We have seen that happen over the last 170 years, time and time again, with issue after issue and country after country. The modern era is no exception to this, mark my words. What is common today, will not be common in another 30 years, especially at the rate we are going, if the practice of selling "discount postage" continues unabated.
So I think the future for modern philately is very bright indeed. If you are one of those collectors who likes the modern designs and enjoys studying the complexities of these stamps, I think you would do well to stick with it. Learn as much as possible about every aspect of the stamps' production. Don't take anything for granted and check every attribute of your stamps: paper, perforation, gum and printing for varieties. Don't worry if the stamps are not valuable. Focus instead on looking for the scarce varieties, and be bold when you find them. You won't regret it in the long term, I'm sure of it.