Afghanistan - Travel/Philately/Numismatics/Memorabilia Profile

Afghanistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China has a total land area of 251,772 square miles and a population of over 28.4 million. About 75% of the citizens of Afghanistan are engaged in agricultural production and almost a third of the GDP sprouts from illicit drugs. The mountainous country with plains in the North and Southwest is famous for grapes and other fruits.

Travel Resources:

April through September is considered tourist friendly but each area has its own the best months to visit the place. Kabul is the most populous city with proximity to Babur’s Garden. Other main attractions are the beautiful shrines and mosques including the Shrines of Baba Wali and Hazrat Ali, Blue Mosque, and the Zarnagar Mosque.


ResourceISBN or ASINBest PriceDescription
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart0156031566$6The book is an account of the author’s walk across Afghanistan in 2002. The conversational style of writing along with an intriguing storyline that involves ‘guards’ from the government and a dog offered to him makes it hard to put down. The hospitality of the people of Afghanistan along with the experiencing the local lifestyle are major takeaways. There is a Kindle version for $11.
Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide by Bijan Omrani and Matthew Leeming978-9622178168$25The book proclaims ‘published to appeal to the armchair traveller’ and the content fully justifies that claim: 700-odd pages of information and photographs form a comprehensive guide to Afghanistan including history and culture. One of the best books to know about history and sites of Afghanistan.
Afghan Food & Cookery by Noshe Djan978-0781808071$13Not just a recipe book although it has over 100 recipes. It also provides an introduction to Afghan culture along with related history.
Rethink Afghanistan DVDB002LFPBJM$15Over eight segments of insights and opinions from experts in the field aimed to provide a dose of reality to the average American. It can be ordered through Video On Demand (VOD) for $3.
International Travel Ground Adapter PlugB001ISR9B6$4
Afghanistan Nelles Map978-3865742001$11



Philatelic Profile:

The first stamps from Afghanistan are circular in shape (imperforate, not cut-to-shape) with the design of a tiger’s head surrounded by Arabic script. The design symbolizes the ruler of the Kingdom of Kabul, Sher Ali Khan (“sher” is Arabic for tiger) at that time. Engraving was done individually resulting in several variations of these issues. The same theme in various colors (one color for each of the main post offices) continued until 1881. The defeat of Sher Ali Khan by the British and his eventual death following political asylum in Russia accounted for the change in the central design – the tiger head was replaced by inscriptions and that theme continued until 1891. Tiger head issues of Afghanistan vary widely in catalogue value – for example Scott #79 1sh gray of 1878 catalog for about $5 for a MNH copy while Scott #8 and #9 on toned woven paper catalog in the neighborhood of $1000 and $1500 respectively. Even so, for a few dollars a collector can acquire a “tiger head” through eBay. Twenty years of exclusive tiger head issues has resulted in their survival in large numbers among collectors and dealers and explains their affordable pricing.

Following independence from the United Kingdom in 1919, a set of stamps depicting the royal star of King Amanullah was issued on August 24, 1920. The set consists of three stamps (Scott #214-216) commanding a catalog value in the $250 range for MNH and a little less for Used. Reissues of the same design in 1921 in different dimension (22x28.5mm in place of 39x47mm) have a catalog value in the $10 range for the set (Scott #217-219) for MNH and Used catalog for around $5.

Most of the issues between 1921 and 1951 are relatively common as they were issued in large volume during independence anniversaries with the designs predominantly portraying mosques, government buildings, and other architectural structures. Hence it is reasonably easy to acquire a complete set of stamps for this period. Exceptions include the 1941 15p gray green (Scott #334) depicting the independence monument, which catalog for $35 MNH. Certain varieties, Imperf pairs, and Tete Beche pairs also catalog for higher values.

The monotonous architecture theme gave way to national or global themes from 1951 onwards with the Pashtunistan flag issue (Scott #388 and #389). This issue is significant and serves a great historical context. At the time, the Afghan government supported the ‘Free Pashtunistan’ movement the aim of which was to form a new country for the Pashtun people combining the Pashtun occupied areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Islamic fundamentalist regime of Afghanistan has roots in this complex issue as the adjacent Pakistan government needed to encourage such a regime for their own national security. The US and Soviet interests further complicated the core issues. National, Global, or Architectural themes continued till 1960.

Afghanistan started issuing stamps for the philatelic market in 1961. Many of these issues were categorized so as they were lower denominated stamps (less than 25p) and did not represent a postal need. Needless to say, these stamps have nominal catalogue value and are not collectible. Nevertheless, the design improved with varied themes and colors. Some of the higher denominated stamps have good catalogue value, excellent designs, and themes and are collectible. The set of four stamps that promote tourism released in 1989 is one such issue (Scott #1380 to #1383) and depicts mosque, minaret, etc. in excellent colors. Unfortunately, this was the last issue before a gap of 13 years through 2002 when no stamps were issued due to internal political issues and war. However this created a field-day for con-artists who produced illegal issues in various sets during this period. Some catalogues do a disservice to the philatelic community by listing stamps during this period. These have minimal value, if any and are not collectible. The UPU’s WNS numbering system show a few stamps each for the period from 2002 thru 2007. It should be fairly easy to acquire a complete set of these stamps as they are few in number and do not command premium catalogue value yet.

Numismatic Profile:

Ancient Coins of the area covering present-day Afghanistan dates back to 500 BCE (Persian era) with inscriptions referring to Dadarshish, the Satrap of Balkh (Bactria) province. Other ancient coins from the area include Silver coins of the Euthydemus I (235 BCE) and Demetrius I (200 BCE) eras, gold coins of the Ghaznavid (1000 CE) and Ghurid Empires (1185 CE), etc. Afghan tribes were united by Ahmad Shah who was crowned the first Afghan sovereign in 1747. Hammered anonymous copper coins from that period is very affordable and start around $2 for copies in Good condition. The first Milled Coinage was minted in Kabul in 1891 (KM#800 - 24mm Bronze). This coin is also remarkably affordable at around $20 for Good condition.

Other numismatic items of Afghanistan include:


ItemPrice RangeDescription
Ancient Coins$10 and upIndividual pieces in About Good condition from Celestial Cow Hoards (9th to 11th century) start around $10. Coins from around the 5th century AD (The White Huns) are in the market starting at around $50 for VF condition. Kabal Shahan Copper Coins from the 9th century and Ghaznavid Gold Coins from the 11th Century start into the 100s.
Gold Coins$100 and upThe first gold coins of Afghanistan were from the Ahmed Shah era starting around 1735 with designs showing inscriptions. The most common ones are the Republic issues from 1978 in the 10,000 Afghanis denomination (32.5mm, 0.97 troy ounces) in the Conservation theme that depicts National Arms in Obverse and Marco Polo Sheep in Reverse. The UNC coin catalogs in the $650 range while the Proof variety goes over $1000.
Other Coins$3 and upUncirculated (UNC) Afghani coins from the 60s start around $3. Snow Leopard Silver Proofs from the 70s and World Soccer Silver Proofs from 2001, uncirculated sets from the 1990s and 2000s, etc start around $10. Earlier World Cup Silver Proofs go into the 50s. PCGS, NGC, etc certified and slabbed silver coins from the 19th century in VF30 or better condition start into the 100s.
Paper Money$2 and upRecent pieces of common Afghanis start around $2. Individual UNC bank notes from the 60s and 70s up to the 500 Afghani range start around $10. Recent 100-piece UNC bundles and Specimens start around $50. Rarer notes from the 60s in UNC condition showing King Zahar along with older (before 1930) bank notes and specimens go into the 100s.


Collectible Memorabilia:

Items from Afghanistan known for quality include rugs and semi-precious jewelry derived from the vast mineral resources of Afghanistan, recently estimated to be worth over $1 trillion. War memorabilia is also a popular collectible from Afghanistan.
ResourcePrice RangeDescription
Rugs$100 onwardsThey are a hand-woven textile of medium size made in different areas of Afghanistan. The most exotic and popular ones include Shindand and Baluchi prayer rugs respectively. They can be expensive but are very durable.
LapisVariesLapis Lazuli is an intense blue semi-precious stone mined in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan for centuries. Beads and jewelry are priced according to polish, color, design, and associated history from a few dollars to 1000s of dollars.
CrystalsVariesMany type of crystal jewelry from Afghanistan are in the mark. Chief among them are Indicolite and Verderite (blue and green tourmaline respectively) from the Kunar province renowned for their quality.
War MemorabiliaVariesService medals along with weapons and similar items starting with the Indian Wars (1866) are available on the market. Items are valued from a few dollars to a few 100 dollars depending primarily on rarity.



Last Updated: 12/2015.
 

Dallas Arboretum Trip Report


Botanical Gardens brook no argument for a visit every season, and many do take a customary stroll through them several times a year solely for the tranquility that envelops all who enter. These gardens tend to make a spectacular statement with the flora that thrives in the local climate zone. The raison d'être varies - some bring their weary mind to unwind, and some to gather ideas before embarking on their romance with plants, some to get involved with the community in a serene setting and the list goes on.

Dallas Arboretum is conveniently located next to the White Rock River providing for a two for one stop attraction. Park address is 8525 Garland Road, Dallas, TX 75218. Garden hours are 9am-5pm. Park entrance fee for Adults was $9.50 – Seniors $8, Kids (3-12) $6, Kids under 3 - free. Parking was $5. Memberships can be obtained from $60 onwards. Membership levels vary and so do the benefits associated with each level. The arboretum website provides further details. The Arboretum boasts of year round activities including musical entertainment, educational seminars, art fairs, plant sales, summer camps, volunteer opportunity to name a few.

The Arboretum allows for two miles of stroll and a subset of it is marked out as the Doctors Hospital One Mile Fitness Trail. The entire landscape can be covered without feeling rushed in about two and a half hours. Flower varieties abound, not to mention the assortment of grand trees present and they along with several fountains and ponds provide ample photo opportunity for commercial and personal purposes. Our visit in early April allowed us to appreciate flower power – a jocund show by tulips, azaleas, pansies supported by the annuals and perennials in all shades and hue of every color imaginable. The Storybook Playhouses dotted evenly across the Gardens could not capture the interest of the three kids in our group aged between five and nine. We were amazed at the array of edible plants that were showcased as part of the ‘Incredible Edible Flowers’ event. The adults and kids in our group appreciated the time we got to spend there. One suggestion to increase the viewing pleasure of visitors would be to curfew commercial photo shoots a bit on the weekends.

Last Updated: 02/2011.

Universal Postal Union (UPU) Stamps - Introduction


Universal Postal Union (UPU) established in 1874 is headquartered in the Swiss capital of Berne. The original intent was to have regulatory policies in place for International mail exchanges. Though the initial venture catered to only 21 member countries it still helped resolve several international mail delivery related problems among those countries. Since then, it has evolved to a specialized agency of the United Nations with a membership of 191 countries. Their goals include:
  1. Set rules for International mail exchanges.
  2. Be the primary forum of co-operation among postal sector players.
  3. Establish a universal network of affordable state of the art products and services in the postal service sector thereby improving mail volumes and quality of service.
  4. Raise consumer awareness about illegal issues of postage stamps.
The following three early achievements help understand the need for such an organization:
  1. Helped formalize postage rates by the postal administration at the source based on size, weight, and destination of the mail material instead of the variable rates collected by the various countries en route. This greatly improved both service and mail volumes as customers found it much easier to mail material internationally.
  2. Established fair distribution of revenue sharing among International postal bodies based on the overall weight of material crossing borders. This ensured that postal services of member countries are fairly compensated for the volume of mail they physically serviced as opposed to being compensated only on mail sourced at their end.
  3. Establishment of International Reply Coupons (IRCs): This helped create a new service for postal administrations which enabled customers to provide a prepaid means for customers at the receiving end to respond to a solicitation of some kind.
A major initiative which has huge ramifications for philatelists all around the world is its initiative to combat illegal stamp issues. On this front, the World Association for the Development of Philately (WADP) and the UPU together formed the WADP Numbering System (WNS) on January 1, 2002. The organization aims to create a database of all authentic stamp issues of member countries. Some issues with this program are:
  1. Not all member countries are part of the program – only around fifty percent of the countries in the UPU are participating in this currently. Bureaucracy could be a reason. Only those postage stamps that met WNS International Bureau’s process of verifying authenticity is attributed a WNS number.
  2. As this verification applies only to those stamps issued after January 1, 2002 only the recent stamps have a WNS numbering and a verified registration associated with them.
  3. WNS does not address the issue of forgery.
Issues with significant philatelic interest:

The first issue commemorates the establishment of UPU is the silver jubilee issue of Switzerland in 1900 (Scott 98-103) and depicts allegorical design symbolizing communication. The set of three stamps catalog for $65 MNH and at half of that for used set. This set is not especially rare and can be purchased from eBay for around one-third catalog value.

A few countries issued stamps commemorating the golden jubilee (1924). Switzerland issued a set of two stamps depicting the building in Berne where the first UPU congress convened in 1874 (Scott #204-205). These are very affordable and catalog for less than $10 Used and less than half that for MNH. The Universal Postal Congress (meets once every 4 years) was held that year in Stockholm, Sweden and they issued a number of stamps (Scott #197-228) with four different designs commemorating the event. The lower denominations of these issues catalog for a few dollars while the higher denominations catalog in the 100’s.

The UPU emblem portrays five messengers to symbolize the five continents as they distribute mail around the globe. A statue with this design was erected on 4th October 1909 in Berne, Switzerland. Acceptance of this emblem as the official UPU symbol came much later and stamps representing this emblem debuted in the 1949 commemorative issues from various countries. For the anniversary years of 1974 and 1999 multiple countries issued stamps along similar design. There is significant collector interest in these issues and most of them have very affordable catalog values. Further many countries issued stamps as they gained membership with the UPU and these too sport a good collector interest.


Last Updated: 09/2015.

eBay (EBAY) – Stock Analysis

Introduction:

eBay while fast gaining grounds as a household name is also the ultimate Internet platform provider and a key player in the three fields of retail, credit, and communications:
  1. Retail: In this space, though they play second fiddle as they are involved only in the secondary market (small retail, liquidation, used, out-of-season, etc.), they cover about 60% of the overall market. The bulk of this business is done through eBay.com. The primary market is controlled by the large retailers.
  2. Credit: PayPal is marketed as the global Internet payment network – the eventual aim is to establish themselves as the de facto online payment process for all transactions conducted between buyers and sellers. Logically this business belonged in the aisle controlled by the large credit-card networks such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express for whom the infrastructure was already in place. Capitalizing on their inability to accommodate the Internet transaction processing model, PayPal scored perfectly by providing a platform for flexible payments that requires only an email address and password.
  3. Communication: Skype aims for fundamental change by enabling conversations between people using software and Internet. This compares very favorably to the business model of large-cap companies in the communication space that primarily rely on monetizing private networks which are by nature capital-intensive.

The sparkle behind eBay.com is that in spite of their vast presence in the secondary retail space, they carry neither inventory nor compete with other retailers. This essentially exempts them from the capital-intensive nature of the retail business. The platform they provide does ensure a fee from every transaction conducted between buyers and sellers. Their formula for a successful growth business is a reliable platform without any scalability or performance issues and focus on customer satisfaction. The first-mover advantage, especially pronounced in the Internet arena, should help them grow at a steady pace as merchants and buyers increasingly flock to the Internet to tap in the key advantage eBay platform holds over the brick-and-mortar model: World-wide market place access. More than 50% of eBay’s revenue is derived from this business.

PayPal is another remarkable business where eBay repeats its hands-off approach to perfection – a large presence in that sector on the Internet without directly issuing credit. The PayPal platform provides buyers with a PayPal account allowing for payment from their existing bank accounts or credit cards. This spares PayPal from agonizing over issuing credit, managing interest rates, etc and instead streamline by making the platform reliable and increasing customer focus. The business model parallels that of eBay.com in that every transaction between buyers and sellers conducted through a PayPal account adds to their revenue. Likewise, the first-mover advantage should again allow growth at a healthy pace.

Skype sports the biggest addressable market among eBay’s businesses. Though not quite as seasoned as eBay.com and PayPal, it is growing at a faster pace. Minimal capital requirements and customer acquisition costs make for a high-margin business. Skype is very much an independent entity and there is no real synergy compared to eBay’s other businesses. Sell-side analysts of eBay tout this in negative favor.

Business Issues:

Failure to innovate has landed eBay.com in a brutally competitive environment. They completely missed the local market allowing Craigslist to seize monopoly in that space. eBay’s management failed to recognize the immense potential of that market as a gateway into contextual ads – on the outward, transactions are one on one reducing the odds of monetizing and that closed mind-set cost them that market. eBay.com is also subjected to immense pressure from sites specializing in certain areas of the secondary market. A comparison of the number of active listings in one of those specialty sites and the same category within eBay easily demonstrates how short eBay.com comes. For e.g, on comparing the active listing at stampwants.com, a site specializing in philately and the listing with that of eBay category “stamps” it is evident that stampwants.com can easily trump eBay stamps category by a margin of almost 1:2. This fundamental problem can be traced to eBay management not recognizing the intricacy behind the specialized needs of individual categories within eBay and failing to provide a platform geared towards the requirements of that market.

PayPal has a few of strategic issues:
  1. Merchant fees: PayPal charges a flat fee independent of the source of payment. Credit card payments involve a cost to PayPal as they don the guise of a giant merchant, processing transactions on their merchant’s behalf. The fee charged by the credit card company on the transaction volume is borne by PayPal. For payments from a bank account, such a fee is absent. Should an overwhelming number of customers resort to making payments using their credit card instead of using their bank account/PayPal account balance (default), then PayPal earnings dip. Writing is on the wall for that shift since credit cards offer the dual benefit of earning credit card rewards and added protection. PayPal recently announced a rewards program called eBay Bucks for buyers who pay with PayPal. While this is indeed a start, it still skirts the core issue - the rewards program should be dependent on the funding mode.
  2. PayPal Plus: PayPal Plus is PayPal branded credit card. It is a MasterCard issued by GE Money Bank. The benefit of such a branded card is not obvious especially when the credit (GE Money Bank) and the infrastructure (MasterCard) are both provided by partners. The associated rewards program is average – roughly 1% (slightly tiered) as vouchers that can be used for PayPal purchases. Higher incentives need to be in place for purchases at eBay.com to get customers into using this card.
  3. PayPal use outside eBay.com: During 2008, PayPal’s payment volume off eBay equaled volume on eBay. This underscores PayPal’s huge growth potential in the general eCommerce area. eBay needs to be especially aggressive in this area as the risks and rewards are huge.
  4. Bill Me Later: eBay acquired this business in October 2008 marking their entry into the consumer credit business. Their business model is very different compared to the rest of the PayPal and eBay business. The arrangement is indirect – though the credit is funded by CIT bank, the associated risk remains as Bill Me Later purchases the receivable on the consumer loan extended by the bank. It remains to be seen how this purchase will pan out as it is a completely new area, although admittedly, it complements PayPal’ payment platform. The loan portfolio currently stands at around $600M and directly dependent on its movement is the associated risk or reward. This dependency lays bare eBay’s vulnerability to the vagaries of consumer credit environment.
Skype has a very large addressable market, but there is no denying that their playing field is very crowded and dominated by phone companies with deep pockets. The existing infrastructure investments of these companies are immense giving them all the more reason to protect their territory. Skype on the other hand celebrates its low capex spending and high margins. Sooner than later, Skype will hit a brick wall worldwide as the competition offers high loyalty incentives. For Skype to continue growing at the startup pace, they will require a strategy aimed towards building clientele at a rapid pace. As Skype’s business has little or no synergies with the rest of the eBay, eBay has announced the intent of spinning off Skype as an IPO.

Finances:

Below is a table that summarizes eBay’s financial position:


Year200620072008
Revenue5.97B7.67B8.54B
Net Earnings1.125B1.74B1.80B
Shares Outstanding1.425B1.376B1.303B
Earnings per Share0.791.26*1.38
YOY PE Growth11.3%59%9.5%
YOY Revenue Growth33%28.5%11.34%
Net Margin18.8422.6921.08


*Impairment of good will is excluded.

It is obvious from the YOY (year over year) growth rates in the spreadsheet that eBay’s overall business has slowed over the last three years. This is particularly of concern considering the 2.2B spent on acquisitions over that same period. This tallies eBay’s problems with respect to Business Issues discussed. Despite this, cash equivalents (after taking out debt) have remained strong at close to $3B as net margin has remained steady at around the 20% range.

Summary:

eBay has a very strong business model with an exemplary balance sheet. Despite several business hiccups over the years, the fact remains their assets are extremely valuable. Going forward, if management focuses on providing a better platform that addresses both merchant and buyer issues, there is potential for growth in both their primary businesses. Overall, the Skype spin-off is a good strategy as that should allow for Skype to raise capital to invest in acquiring customers into the Skype platform worldwide – a plan sorely in need.

On a valuation basis, eBay has traded at a compelling valuation of just one-time revenue within the last year. It has since bounced back 70% beating the overall market bounce by a wide margin. Even now, the stock trades at under two-times revenue and a PE ratio in the low-teens. This is one of the few technology companies in our watch list and we continue to scout for a good entry point.

Common Design Stamps - Introduction

Introduction:

Common Design Issue in philately refers to stamps with identical design issued by more than one country. Many newcomers are pleasantly surprised at the broad category they encompass. Their charisma makes for a very popular philatelic interest area. Below are several other related classifications:
  1. Joint Issue: These are stamps in similar intent issued by several countries. Usually they are a collaborative result between the countries involved in commemorating an event or marking co-operation. A subset of these issues has identical design and they come under the umbrella of common design category. Numerous philatelists specialize in Joint Issues and in the areas within. Quite a few catalogues and sites are dedicated to this theme.
  2. Omnibus Issue: These are stamps issued by multiple countries to commemorate the same event. The design may be identical, similar, or different. Again, the subset of these issues with identical design makes for a group in the common design class.
  3. Key type: They are stamps with identical design issued by various countries (usually colonial states). A common plate, usually depicting the “head” of a King or Monarch, was used to lay down the main design for these stamps. This main design plate was referred to as the key plate. A second plate known as the duty plate, laid down the country name and denomination. The difference between the issues can be reduced to the name of the country, currency, or color. They are entirely classified under the common design category.

Issues with significant philatelic interest:

The first ever common design issue is the design of the Crown of Great Britain and the Heraldic Flowers of United Kingdom represented in the stamps from the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. These are the first stamps of these three provinces and command a premium catalog value. Even so, serious philatelists consider them remarkably affordable and they catalog in the $100 range.

The initial Joint Issue stamps were issued by Greece (Scott #412), Romania (Scott #470 & 471), Turkey (Scott #785 & 786), and Yugoslavia (Scott #140 & 141) to mark the Balkan pact between those countries that was signed into treaty in 1934. These stamps catalog for under $10.

The first ever Omnibus issues are the Vasco da Gama stamps marking the fourth centenary of his discovery of the route to India issued by Portugal (Scott #147-154) and colonies (Azores: 93-100, Macao: 67-74, Madeira: 37-44, Portuguese Africa: 1-8, Portuguese Congo: 75-98, Portuguese India: 189-196, St. Thomas and Prince Islands: 170-193, and Timor: 45-52) of 1898. The lower denomination issues of Portugal catalog for a few dollars while the last three highest denominations catalog above $30 for MNH condition. The issues of the colonies catalog for under $10 for the set.

Key type stamps were introduced in 1879 by Great Britain and its Colonies. The original intent was cost savings as the colonies demanded individual stamps. Though these stamps are relatively common their philatelic interest is exceptional. Most of these were issued during the classic period (before 1940) accounting for the superior following among collectors specializing in stamps from that period.

There exists numerous common design issues and the pace of issue has accelerated making the earlier issues much more collectible than the recent ones. A very popular common design issue among philatelists is the long-running Europa stamps issued between 1956 and 1959 by the member countries of the European Coal and Steel Community, between 1960 and 1973 by members of European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), and from 1993 onwards by members of PostEurop. However for newcomers their sheer volume can be overwhelming.

Recent popular issues with limited value and appreciation potential include issues such as the Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Birthday issues of Queen Elizabeth II, Anniversary issues of organizations like UN, UPU, UNESCO, etc. Exceptions exist too. To exemplify, the Princess Diana Welsh presentation pack (NOT the US version) of 1997 routinely goes for $50 or more.

Among older issues several Coronation, King George (KGV), Victory Sets (World War II allied nations), etc. are sought by collectors. As many of these were issued as definitive stamps and produced en masse, for a few dollars many of these can still be acquired in sets.




Last Updated: 09/2015.

UN Stamps - Introduction

Introduction:

United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA) is uniquely privileged to issue stamps along with postal authorities of host countries by the Universal Postal Authority (UPU). The other entities issuing stamps are either a country or a territory. UN offices that issue stamps are located in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The first stamps were issued October 24th, 1951 in New York and were built around the theme “People’s of the World.” This and the ones with the theme of “UN Headquarters Building” and “Peace, Justice, Security” formed the first three issues. These were all definitive issues and in keeping with the true United Nations spirit affordable at 1c, 1.5c, and 3c denominations.
The primary purpose was for UN official correspondence originating from their offices. They can be used for private correspondence too with the caveats being:
  1. Only stamps denominated in the host country currency may be used at that country’s United Nations office. i.e., a stamp denominated in Swiss Francs cannot be used in the offices in Vienna where the currency is in Euros.
  2. The stamps cannot be used in mailings outside of UN offices.
  3. Express Mail and Priority mail are unavailable for private mailings.
  4. Private mailings are limited to 100 pieces.
These restrictions and the fact that UN official mail generally utilizes metered mail makes obvious the rationale for issuing UN stamps – to raise revenue by issuing stamps for philately. The restrictions offer a hidden benefit to collectors – ability to purchase UN stamps at a significant discount to face value through dealers and eBay!

Significant time and money is spent on the design and quality control of UN stamps making these extremely high quality stamps with an aesthetic appeal. Sheer volume accounts for the majority of UN stamps sporting only a trivial catalog value. Early issues (50’s – 70’s) sold in the millions. Collector interest sagged from the late 70’s as UN issues were deemed similar to CTO stamps – issued in the millions with only a small percentage used for postage because of the restrictions. Consequently, sale of many issues in the 80’s and 90’s were well below the one million mark. UNPA reacted by reducing the printings of issues (roughly 500,000) and hiking instead the number of issues in a given year. This series of events caused older UN stamps catalog for a lower value compared to recent issues – another unique fact!

Issues with Significant Philatelic Interest:

The first UN issue with a significant catalog value is the 1954 UN NY Scott #29 3c Orange-Brown mother and child (Human Rights Issue) that catalogs for $12 for a mint copy and $5 for the used. Issue #30 which catalogs for a much lower value is along the same theme and together they form the mother and child set. This set can be acquired easily for about $5 in mint condition:



Among the stamps issued in the first twenty years, the most valuable issue is the UN NY Scott #38 10th anniversary souvenir sheet that catalogs for well over $100 for a mint copy. Used or FDC versions of the same set catalogs for one-tenth of that value. Nevertheless, in the world of serious philately, these are considered “very affordable”:



One significant issue from the 1980s with higher standing is the vast flags set issued in sets of 8 to 16 stamps at a time for a total of 192 stamps (originally 168 scattered between Scott Numbers 325 & 569). Although huge with the combined catalog value exceeding $200, the series can be acquired through eBay for around $50:


Philatelic themes also have an appreciative audience with the Pacific 1997 Earth Summit Souvenir Sheet (UN NY Scott # 708a) with the stamp expo inscription in the border cataloging at $25. The 1997 “Tribute to Philately” issue (UN NY Scott# 714 & 715) is another issue under the philatelic theme but they catalog for far less. Anniversary issues are again an extremely affordable popular theme.

Summary:

United Nations (UN) stamps have unique characteristics placing them in a well recognized area of collecting:
  1. The designs and quality are graceful making for a good showing.
  2. For the most part, affordability makes them suitable for new collectors in the philatelic world.
  3. As they sell at a significant discount to face value, they are a frugal alternative for those residing near a UN office.
Among serious collectors, they do not thrive well at the moment. They have the unique characteristic that older issues catalog for a lower value than the more recent issues. For the budding collector with time and inclination, this provides for an opportunity to acquire the entire set of UN stamps ever issued. Further, as UN collection comes back into favor, there is always a chance that eventually many of these stamps could catalog for a higher value.


Last Updated: 09/2015.

Houston Space Center Trip Report

The route to Houston Space Center from Dallas cuts through the downtown areas of both Dallas and Houston. Since the trip is four hours at the minimum each way good planning is critical for those attempting a day-trip. Leaving Dallas well before six offered a fringe benefit – city lights of downtown Dallas proved to be a treat and the alight Reunion Tower topped all else.

The regular price at the counter was: Adults - $19.95, Children (4-11) - $15.95, Senior Citizens (65+) - $18.95. An mp3 audio-tour option was available for $5. We chose not to avail that option – it might be worthwhile for those with an entire day at their disposal. Online tickets regularly offer a discount of $3 over those at the counter. Special seasonal discounts were available and we took advantage of their half the regular-price promotion. Group (15 or more) pricing was also half the regular fare. Parking was $5. A higher-end option was the Level 9 tour at $84.95 per ticket and that offered an exclusive behind-the-scenes look. Some of the highlights of that 4-5 hour tour were the observation cat-walks at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab along with viewing areas at the New and Old Mission Control Center facilities. Level 9 tour operated once daily and was limited to 12 persons and departed at 11:45 AM.

The Garmin Nuvi 270 GPS (click for review) served its purpose in navigating us to the Space Center. The only confusion was the large construction work in progress at the exit to the Space Center. Parking right in front of the main building was aplenty. Well informed facility personnel reach out to help plan the time there. Though all the information is available online that human touch felt wonderful.

The first item on our agenda was the tram tour. At 10:30 AM there was nary a line but closer to noon, it was easily a one-hour wait to get to the main door – once past the main door, it is another 45 minutes before boarding the tram. The tram tour is a combination of a 20-30 minute excursion of the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility and a 20-30 minute of exploration at the Rocket Station (optional) complete with audio descriptions of the relevant memorials and buildings en-route. The mockup facility has a full-size space shuttle mockup and can be viewed through glass windows from the upstairs pavilion. Other training tools and mockups are also on display. The place was very windy and the tram ride was especially chilly – warm jackets are mandatory for early April.

The star attractions at the main building are the Starship Gallery, The Living in Space live presentation, and a presentation at the Northrup Grumman Theater which sports a five-story giant screen theater. Starship Gallery boasts the display of the world’s largest collection of moon rocks and allows physical contact with a real moon rock. The Rover is also on display. They also have a show that relives the triumphs of America’s manned space flight program titled “On Human Destiny” and numerous other exhibits (real and mockups). The kids also enjoyed the short time they had to play at the Kids Space Place and Martian Matrix attraction, a giant slide. Overall, the kids held up well for the entire tour – the only complaint was about the Northrup Grumman theater show being a little too long. Space captivates human mind by its enormity.

Ratings for the Houston Space Center are not that positive but our experience was to the contrary. In our opinion the Space Center succeeds in providing quality content to all age groups. It is more a question of gauging your interest as opposed to what is offered at the center – there are plenty of exhibits to capture one’s interest for an entire day. The price tag was not high even by our frugal standards and the promotions made it even better.

Last Updated: 02/2011.

Stamp Collecting Accessories

This post focusing on accessories used by philatelists concludes the section introducing kids to philately. From next week onwards, the posts will zone in on entities that issue stamps with emphasis on initiating kids to the political world through philately.

Below is a list with description:


AccessoryPrice RangeSampleDescription
Glassine Envelopes$5 per 50 for 4-inch envelopes





Glassine paper envelopes are especially suitable to store stamps due to the resistive property of wax. The nemesis of stamps - moisture, air, and any type of grease are barred for the most part. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It is a public secret that the majority of collectors use glassine envelopes as an interim storage place.
Stock Book, Sheets, and CardsVaries










Stock books consist of pockets made of clear-plastic or paper into which stamps can be inserted and stored. The plastic ones have the advantage that the entire stamp is visible as in an album page. Collectors use them primarily to store duplicates and/or varieties. Individual sheets called stock sheets and a smaller variety called stock cards are also available to store stamps.
Stamp AlbumVaries










Albums are used as a means to store, protect, organize, view, and enjoy them. Hinge less albums are the most expensive kind – these have mounts preinstalled allowing for easy insertion of stamps. A broad array of albums exist catering towards most collecting specialties including ones for covers, plate blocks, varieties, etc. Given a choice, it is best to avoid two-sided pages – such albums have the potential to cause damage to stamps unless interleaved glassine paper is used as a separator. Keeping up with new issues is a challenge when purchasing albums, not to mention the incremental costs to purchase updated pages. The most economical and often the most preferred alternative is printing one’s own album pages instead.
Books and PeriodicalsNA










An array of choices is available via the Internet and through traditional print media.
Stamp CatalogVaries










The options available were covered in a previous post – please use the link to refer to that post.
Color Guide$10





Many stamps from the classic period sport a wide variety in appearance and more importantly in pricing – the common ones may catalog for under a dollar while the rarer ones well over $100. Guides are indispensable in identifying the color varieties. Common ones go for under $10 but securing a reliable and accurate guide is paramount. Investing in a premium version from Stanley Gibbons for around $25, is worthwhile for a collector specializing in classics.
Magnifying Glass$5





They are handy in reading inscriptions in the design, identifying damages, and markings. The best choice is a jeweler’s loupe – they provide adequate magnification (10X or higher) compared to regular magnifying glasses with magnification factors as low as just 2X. Further, the prices for jeweler’s loupes are also comparable at around $5 or so.
Tongs$5





Tongs allow for easy handling of stamps although a bit of practice is involved. They look similar to shorter tweezers but the key difference is the absence of sharp edges or slits for help with gripping. This ensures that the stamps are not subjected to handling damage. An assortment of tongs based on size, weight, and tip design - Spade, round, pointed, fat, and thin tips and sub-categories all exist. Except for the pointed type which can accidentally poke and damage stamps, the others are matter of personal preference.
Perforation Gauge$5





Perforation gauge is a tool for measuring perforations in a stamp. They are important for collectors as there are stamps with the same design but different perforations with vastly different catalog values. The unit of measurement is the number of perforations in two centimeters. Most common gauges in the market are good for measuring to the nearest half of a perforation and that serves ample. Recent US issues are an exception as they measure to the nearest 10th. Another purpose served by a more precise gauge that measures size of holes in addition to spacing is in detecting fakes – many fakes appear “correct” in terms of the number of perforations but fall short when measuring the size of individual perforations. For the technically oriented, one alternative is software that measures perforations from a scanned image of the stamp.
Watermark Detector (Tray and Fluid)$10





Identifying watermarks is important for collectors as again, stamps of the same design can vastly vary in price depending on the type of paper and watermark used – specifically, inverted watermarks are highly collectible. In general, watermarks on stamps are largely invisible to the naked eye. For some it helps to place the stamp upside down on a dark background. But for most others, the best bet is to use a watermark fluid. They dry fast and do not leave marks and so are deemed safe. There are more expensive alternatives like optical watermark detectors but most collectors employ watermark fluid because of their reliability.
Stamp Hinge$5 per 1000 average





Hinges are small strips of glassine paper with a small amount of gum on one side. They are used by folding with gum-out, moistening the shorter fold and affixing it to the top-mid portion of the back of a stamp and affixing the other fold to the album page-slot. They are a way to affix stamps to album pages without diminishing the condition of the stamp. They are inexpensive and serve the purpose well.
Stamp Mount$8 per package (>6 mounts depending on size) of 215mm mounts average





They are the accessory of choice to store and affix stamps that are expensive and/or mint. Hinges have the disadvantage that hinge marks are left behind on mint stamps. Further, collectors prefer MNH (Mint Never Hinged) stamps and which explains the premium associated with them.
Ultraviolet Light$20





This is a more recent entry to the stamp collector’s arsenal. It helps with detecting luminescent coatings on stamps issued after the classic period of 1840-1940. Most of these coatings are invisible to the naked eye (tagging) but visible under ultraviolet light.



Last Updated: 09/2015.

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