One thing I hear from people, either those who are interested in collecting stamps or those who have been doing it for a while and looking for new challenges, is “what should I collect?” I found myself in that situation a year or two ago, after I decided that I’d filled in most of the easily fillable holes in my United States collection and I wanted something that I could collect more actively. But what to do, what to do?
I went through all the steps I’m going to suggest, in hopes that I might help someone else with the same quandry. Consider all the countries and topics that you have an affinity for. In my case, I was already collecting the United States, the only country I really cared about, so that didn’t help me. The only country I might have wanted to collect was Japan, but my wife already collects Japanese stamps and it seemed silly to have two identical collections in the house.
So I started putting together a list of criteria that was important to me. First, it had to be a country with a wide variety of stamps, I didn’t want to start some obscure little country with only a relative few stamps released. I also didn’t want a country that, like far too many modern stamps, were issuing specifically to the collector market. There are a lot of small nations out there that produce CTOs, “Cancelled to Order” stamps, they are cancelled in-country without ever seeing postal use, packaged and sent out to sell to stamp collectors world wide. I wanted nothing to do with those countries. Secondly, it had to be a country whose stamps were readily available in the collector market. What’s the point of collecting a country’s stamps if you can’t find them anywhere? Third, I didn’t want them to be horribly expensive. That’s really where my U.S. collection stopped being much fun, the majority of stamps I’m still missing are quite expensive, thus I can’t buy as many, as often, thus I spend most of my time not actually engaging in my hobby. Finally, I wanted stamps that were visually interesting, with varied subject matter. There are far too many countries out there where the stamps are just ugly or they all look alike, just in different colors, or they look like some kid scribbled something out in Photoshop. I wanted really cool looking stamps that I could have fun examining in detail.
So I put that out there to the stamp collecting community at large for suggestions and while I did, I started looking, both online and in catalogs, for examples of the various stamps that countries had put out. Eventually, I whittled my choices down from about a dozen to one. I decided that China met all of the criteria that I had set.
Oh wait, did I say one? My mistake, and it really was a mistake that led to this. See, before I had made my decision, I had ordered some Australian stamps from an online dealer, not for the country, but for one of my topical collections, but when they arrived, I liked them so much that I decided to collect Australia as well. So I went from collecting one country to collecting three, that gives me tons of room to expand and I’m really loving the variety of stamps that I have to deal with now.
But what’s that topical thing I mentioned before? Some people, in fact, probably most people, have some kind of topical collection as well. They collect stamps depicting a specific subject matter, not just from one country. I have a number of different topical collections, some very specific, some very general. I’ve always had an affinity for cheetahs and have collected stamps depicting cheetahs for many years. As you might expect, there are painfully few stamps with cheetahs on them worldwide, probably less than 100 and I have as many of them as I’ve been able to find. I also collect parrots on stamps, which is another limited collection. Birds are plentiful. Parrots, specifically, not so much. I ran into the same issue with both of them, I wanted more and I couldn’t find them very often so I decided to start two extremely general and extremely easy to find topical collections: dogs and dinosaurs. There are tons of them out there, thousands and thousands, I will never run out of either subject to collect, but I don’t get especially attached to either collection either so I guess it’s a trade-off. Another potential problem with this is that it’s really hard to come up with lists of available stamps for very narrow collecting interests. I recommend people
Once you have your country or topic chosen, the next thing you have to do is decide if you want to collect mint stamps or used stamps. Mint stamps are those that have not been postally used, the other, obviously, have been. Used stamps are the most inexpensive, of course, and readily available, if you are collecting your native country, they probably show up in your mailbox every day. Myself, I prefer mint stamps though, I want to be able to see the designs on the stamp without it being marred by a cancellation. Actually, my collection is rather odd, I collect U.S. used pre-1900 and only mint post-1900. To date, I only have mint for China and Australia, I have no idea where or if I’ll put that cut-off date. For topicals, I’m not especially picky, mostly because there are lots of stamps that fall into my collecting speciality, but that are very difficult to get unused, specifically the aforementioned CTOs. They may be made just for collectors and yes, sometimes it makes me feel a bit dirty buying them, but they often have really great designs and that’s all that matters for a topical collection.check out the American Topical Association, they provide lists of common topical interests for a nominal fee.
No matter what you decide, just have fun, that’s really all that matters when you’re collecting stamps. Don’t just think that putting pieces of sticky paper in a dusty old book and never looking at them again is what philately is all about, it’s not. It’s history. It’s art. It’s fun. Enjoy it.