Recruits, enthusiasts and specialists

Article for France and Colonies Philatelist (USA), July 2010

Carl Barna's letter (FCP 300) rang a lot of bells. Philately is in danger and some of the reasons are in our hands to rectify. Last weekend I went to the annual Spring philatelic salon in Paris. The many collectors swarming around the booths were almost entirely clones of myself - 60 plus, white males! To their credit the organisers had made strenuous efforts to attract young people, with innovative interactive displays on the periphery of the hall on the regions of France, on alphabets around the world and on printing processes, all leading to stamps on the topics.

From the number of youngsters around, the efforts were clearly succeeding, but it is more difficult to see how older new collectors are catered for. Take one practical problem at a big philatelic fair: how does one approach a dealer? Even after more than thirty years of collecting French material I still find it difficult from time to time to engage with a dealer I don't know. I have a good idea of some of the items I'm looking for; I have a fair assessment of what I expect to pay, but I am concerned that the dealer's stock might be of too high a quality and, therefore, embarrassingly expensive. And I would like to be able to look through his - rarely her - stock for other items that attract me and would benefit my collection.

Some dealers are sympathetic but the atmosphere is often off putting to the new collector. I recollect one early rebuff I suffered. I was in Paris and went to the philatelists' heaven: Rue Drouot. I was unaware of how elitist it can be. I went into one shop and asked for some Sower types I wanted. The dealer looked at me rather witheringly and replied, "I am sorry , sir, but I have no stock later than 1876"! I didn't feel like trying another shop, though I have since discovered which dealers there - and now also in the Passage des Panoramas - are more approachable. I now endeavour to pass this information on to other equally tender spirits and, where possible, gently to chide unhelpful dealers.

Elitist attitudes are not confined to the professional circuit. Our club and society meetings are not always sympathetic to new participants. We regulars think that we are welcoming but the style of our meetings is not necessarily seen as such by new attenders. Some aspects of a meeting are perfectly natural. We are amongst friends and we tend to chat mainly with our regular colleagues. In the main we regard ourselves as experts and are keen to display our expertise, even though it can on occasion be somewhat abstruse and even overwhelming. We, rightly, want to help others to avoid errors on their album pages but there are gentle ways of pointing these out to those still in the early throes of learning than are sometimes employed. Similarly, because we adore sophisticated displays, it can sometimes seem as if one has to be exceptionally rich to be a successful philatelist, even though this is far from being true.

When I first started going to my local FCPS meetings, I would take along any items that were puzzling me and, in effect, hold up the meeting to ask experienced colleagues for advice. They seemed happy to help and I welcomed the information. Perhaps we ought to have a similar short introductory session at all our meetings and encourage new collectors to seek help. Another useful regular session I encountered at a philatelic club in Beziers in the South of France was to have an informal session for an hour or so before the actual meeting at which those who had inexpensive pieces to sell or exchange, or even just to identify, came along and displayed the items very simply. It was clearly popular, including amongst young collectors, and observing them, it seemed to draw in a number of new and newish collectors of a type that we seem all too often to miss or who only come once.

Carl Barna makes the point that the modern philatelic world seems to be monopolised by collectors of postal history. I know the problem! I sometimes think that I'm the last stamp collector in the civilised world. Actually, if one digs down, it isn't quite as compartmentalised as many collectors would pretend. I certainly acquire covers to go with particular album pages of stamp types and colours etc. Also I look for covers for certain places in France and for showing particular periods in Second World War French Occupation history. The latter comes from having a close friend who is the Deputy for Vichy! Similarly, most postal history enthusiasts do have stamps that go with their displays of covers. Such collectors would help and encourage their newer colleagues if they did more "side by side" displays of stamps and covers.

The concentration on postal history is certainly fascinating and I am constantly astonished at the levels of detailed knowledge of obscure places, postal rates and chronology that have been acquired by colleagues. I enjoy their displays and their commentaries on them, but I am conscious that virtually all the material has been purchased from dealers or at auction, often at significant cost. There are occasional opportunities for rummaging through a mountain of covers in the hope of finding an unattributed gem but the possibilities are nothing like those available to stamp collectors at local fairs where there are opportunities to browse through album pages and largely unsorted stock books - and often find good but unrecognised items, even on occasion very rare stamps.

Part of the fun of collecting is the time spent at local fairs looking for inexpensive items for one's collection and, in particular, for potential displays. The more one acquires a knowledge of how to recognise particular printings, colour nuances, perforation variations and even paper types, the easier it is to recognise out-of-the-ordinary items. It is not difficult, but one needs to build up a basic philatelic library. I am always puzzled by collectors who spend significant sums of money on stamps or covers but who never spend anything on books providing key information on the items collected.

Those of us living outside France and who collect French material have a great advantage. One is unlikely to find unrecognised items amongst the stamps of one's own country where specialised knowledge of the national material is inevitably pervasive. It is different elsewhere and a dealer in my own English city once said to me that "if you can't make a profit from my stock, you shouldn't call yourself a French specialist." Essentially, his point was that he could only classify his world stock on very simplified lines, whereas the specialised collector would be able to find unconsidered trifles amongst his French material. Consequently it benefits the new collector to learn the necessary details of the relatively limited number of stamps that provide the best possibilities for misplaced classification.

There is a crucial point to make in relation to Carl Barna's letter and that is, simply, that one does not have to spend vast amounts of money to develop a worthwhile collection and to put on an interesting display. A late local FCPS member used to buy large amounts of envelopes and fragments bearing current issues. He was always able to spot unusual usages or recognise types, such as stamps from booklets or roulettes, and also to find blocks and other multiples. I always enjoyed his displays.

Also, take my own experience. It is true that I am now able to display a goodly number of expensive classical and semi-modern examples, although some of them were purchased at ludicrously low prices as a result of their being unrecognised within collections at auction, but I am currently enjoying preparing a display of the Ronsard stamp, Yvert 209. This is a "petit timbre" with no expensive catalogued varieties. Even the proofs are within the reach of our average pocket money allowance. There is also a series of relatively inexpensive Ronsard vignettes, and "used on cover" examples turn up in the "tomato box" mountains of French covers. All this, plus some biographical paragraphs downloaded free from the internet, produces a very attractive but inexpensive display of a rarely featured stamp.

For those who can cope with reading French there is an excellent newsgroup for French philately - fr.rec.philatelie - where answers to just about every question, however naïve, are provided, without any sense of elitism!

Finally, Carl Barna asks for advice as to areas of French philately to collect. I would urge him to stick initially with the railway cancels that he mentions in his letter. This is a fascinating area of collecting which I have not often come across. Most, though not all, of the many "convoyeur" cancellations are inexpensive and at fairs the "tomato boxes" of covers will invariably produce a number of railway cancellations amidst the tedious multiple examples of ordinary envelopes. I would be tempted to start by pulling out all the cheap envelopes with railway cancellations and to sort them into the different railway routes. Then one can select a number of routes and begin searching for covers showing intermediate journeys covered. It would certainly be satisfying to complete a route showing all the combinations of journey by the cancellations on cover.

There are a number of publications listing the railway cancellations, mainly written by Jean or Vincent Pothion at La Poste aux Lettres, 17 Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris. This enterprise was taken over by Jean-François Baudot in 2006 and can be contacted at See also Guy Maggay's excellent website:

Carl Barna's letter should make all of us concerned about the future of our hobby to think carefully about how we can make our meetings, our fairs and our publications more accessible to newer collectors. Perhaps France and Colonies Philatelist can help by including a column or two aimed at the many Carl Barnas of this world - and more of us will try and contribute such columns.

June 2010