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Stamp collecting in an e-mail age

The hobby used to revolve around trading at conventions or chance finds at a local shop or show. The Web has changed all that.

Living along a remote stretch of Northern California's redwood coast, Oliver Seeler painstakingly tracks down stamps from around the world. But not just any stamps. He collects only those with images of bagpipes.

Seeler, the 60-year-old chief of the Albion-Little River Volunteer Fire Department, came to his hobby through his work selling bagpipes and bagpipe music. Pursuing such a niche might once have required a trip to a collectors' convention, or a chance find at a shop or show. Now, he uses auction sites, catalogs and other Web resources to identify stamps that can augment his collection, which he showcases online.

"The stamps are often difficult to find even after you have identified them," he said. "If you had to track them down by phone or by mail, it would just be prohibitive in terms of time and money."

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After five years, his collection numbers 148 stamps, and has inspired a friendly rivalry. A little over a year ago, he received an e-mail message from a 41-year-old piper in Yorkshire, Sean Stewart, who had found Seeler's site and informed him about a bagpipe stamp from New Zealand that he had once seen. Their e-mail exchanges about finding that stamp transformed Stewart into an avid collector.

"Now we communicate almost daily. We are always on the hunt for stamps," said Seeler, adding that their e-mail correspondence now numbers nearly 800 messages. "We compete with each other to see who can come up with the next bagpipe stamp." (At the moment, Stewart has 218 of the 240 bagpipe stamps that they have identified.)

Seeler and Stewart's intercontinental rivalry represents just one facet of how stamp collecting has adapted to the rise of the Internet. Many enthusiasts worry that the pastime may slowly fade in the blare of video games, satellite television and iPods. But for all its emphasis on paper, ink and glue, stamp collecting has found new life in the digital age.

The hobby's online dimension is striking because most collectors are from an older generation less familiar with computers and the Internet. Still, the lure of meeting other stamp collectors, locating that one elusive stamp for a collection, or showcasing entire collections has drawn many onto the Web.

Linn's Stamp News, a weekly publication for collectors, found that 44 percent of its subscribers used computers for their collecting last year, compared with 34 percent in 1996. (And the average age of its readers last year was 65.8.)

An unintended result of displaying stamps on the Internet is the creation of galleries by individual collectors to help document and preserve the images and history of stamps. There are hundreds of exhibits broken down by themes, like stamps of birds, or by region or period.

Many philatelists say they would never see the collections were they not displayed on the Web. "Some of the stamps on my Web site are quite valuable," said Ross Taylor, a collector of Victorian stamps who lives on the outskirts of London and maintains a site at "The stamps are in the bank--and before, I could not even view them unless I took them out of the bank."

While traditional places for collectors, like conventions and stamp shops, still exist, stamp clubs on the Internet are proliferating.

"We've all suddenly discovered that there are more people like us out there to talk to."
--Lloyd A. de Vries, president, Virtual Stamp Club

"Basically, you were on your own," said Lloyd A. de Vries, president of a site for enthusiasts, the Virtual Stamp Club, and secretary of the American Philatelic Society, the nation's largest stamp collecting organization. "I think stamp collecting is growing because in effect we've all suddenly discovered that there are more people like us out there to talk to."

Also gone are the days of cataloging a collection in a tattered spiral notebook. Specialized database software like Stamp Keeper Deluxe, Stamp Collector's Data Base and StampCAT allows philatelists to track their inventory. Some collectors simply turn to commercial databases or spreadsheet applications.

One great challenge for collectors is to identify the lineage of a stamp. Which historical painting was it based on? When was it released, and in what quantity? What variations of the stamp exist, either in denomination or in size? The Web has transformed this arduous research task into one that is usually far more manageable.

"People post images of their stamps and ask others for help to identify the history of a particular stamp," said William F. Sharpe, the secretary of the Philatelic Computing Study Group, an association dedicated to improving the hobby through computer use. "Newsgroups are another way to gather this information."

Stamp dealers also digitize their collections and post the images online or provide catalogs on CDs. But collectors often have to search each dealer's Web site for a particular stamp, making it a time-consuming process.

Some entrepreneurs, however, are creating searchable databases that include the inventory of as many dealers as are willing to pay to be included. Such portals include Zillions of Stamps, PostBeeld and StampFinder. Online auctions are increasingly important for buying and selling stamps. While there are many sites that specialize in collectibles, eBay is by far the largest source for stamps, according to stamp enthusiasts.

"eBay and its auction cousins are really increasing the number of people collecting stamps," de Vries said. At any given time, there are 40,000 to 50,000 lots of stamps on eBay alone, by the estimate of several collectors interviewed.

In Seeler's bagpipe quest, eBay, including its German and French sites, is a primary source for acquisitions--for which he pays $1 to $80, often buying an entire lot for a single bagpipe stamp within it. Seeler then scans each new stamp and posts the image to his expanding Web gallery, part of a site he maintains on bagpipes and their history.

The stamps available on eBay range from garden varieties to rarities in the $6,000 range. Watchers of stamp auctions note that they have seen some available for as much as $35,000.

"There are many things you can do to stamps to make them look like other much more valuable ones with as little as a pair of scissors."
--George Kopecky, co-founder, SCADS

Buyers can also take a chance by bidding on grab bags that contain hundreds of stamps in see-through garbage bags or cartons. These lots are often sold by the pound. Potential buyers have no idea how much the contents are worth, but hope to find a gem that allows them to double or triple their investment. On Friday afternoon, one grab bag sold for $975 after 23 people bid on it.

But buying stamps online--especially through auction sites--can be risky. Consumer advocates warn that with stamps, unlike with other valuables, fraud artists need few special tools or skills. Counterfeiting a valuable coin takes special tools and dies; reproducing a painting requires a skilled artist.

"In other words, entrance requirements are steep--not in stamps," said George Kopecky, co-founder of Stamp Collectors Against Dodgy Sellers, a site that regularly exposes fraudulent auctioneers and dealers on the Internet. "There are many things you can do to stamps to make them look like other much more valuable ones with as little as a pair of scissors."

A knowledgeable con artist can increase the value of a stamp with a few cosmetic changes. One common ruse is to clean up a used stamp to make it appear new, a step that may drastically increase its value.

When investigators at Scads are suspicious of a seller on eBay, they refer to the seller's eBay ID to examine the person's buying record, comparing the digital images of the stamps he bought to the ones he is selling.

"The Internet, particularly eBay, has been a boon for collectors knowledgeable enough to spot these frauds," Kopecky said. "However, the average collector is not skilled enough to know when they're being taken."

Stamp fraud predates the Internet, of course. The main difference now is how quickly con artists can move a large volume of altered stamps over the Internet compared with earlier times.

Connoisseurs can also pull a fast one on neophytes who sell stamps without realizing their value. People troll for such bargains on the Internet. "There's a bit of greed involved in the buyer--like I can pull one over on the seller because he does not know what he has and I do," Kopecky said.

It is not the fear of being hoodwinked, however, that keeps a small group of old-timers from tapping the power of the Internet for stamp collecting. This group fundamentally believes that stamp collectors should use the postal system to communicate with one another and to buy and sell stamps.

"My feeling is that today people want instant gratification," said Estelle A. Buccino, a 71-year-old collector from Bethesda, Md. "When you have to wait to hear back from dealers or people you want to trade stamps with, that is delayed gratification."

People like Buccino acknowledge that the Internet has enhanced stamp collecting over all and that they are among the holdouts. "It doesn't bother me," she said. "I see stamp collecting as being part of a larger social pastime. There is a pleasure in seeking stamps the old way."

The new ways are evolving. One idea that recently percolated across the Internet called for people to collect, trade and sell not the physical stamps but their digital images. With many rare stamps costing thousands of dollars, collecting digital images presented a low-cost alternative.

That proposal got little response, but a variation is slowly catching on. Taylor says he posts some images of Victorian stamps taken by permission from dealers to fill in the blanks in his collection.

Other collectors keep a digital image to remind them of a stamp they badly want for their collection, a stamp they could perhaps never afford.

"I am never going to afford the $5 Columbian," a rare United States issue from 1893, said de Vries, noting that it can cost thousands of dollars. "But I can have a tie with the image of it, so why not have a digital image?"

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