The First Covers
Collectors have been interested in stamps on envelopes for over 150 years. It’s not clear when people posted envelopes on purpose to get the postmark of the first day but certainly in 1870, many of the new halfpenny postcards were definitely sent to be kept. One only has to look at the first Post Office illustrated 1890 Jubilee envelope to realise its interest.
By 1902, with the new King, the hobby had genuinely started and has developed ever since. In 1911, a new development took place: a beautiful illustrated envelope for the new King George V Coronation stamps was produced by the Junior Middlesex Stamp Club. Some collectors posted envelopes to receive the rare Westminster Abbey postmark. Today these are worth £1000s. The first Commemorative stamps followed in 1924 for the Wembley Exhibition and the first pound stamp for the Postal Congress in 1929.
The hobby developed quickly and over 400 different illustrated envelopes were available for the 1937 Coronation Stamp. The Second World War slowed things down but collectors still managed to get their first day covers although the quality of the envelopes obviously left much to be desired. These wartime covers are much underestimated. After the war, special stamps were few and far between but in 1957, the General Post Office (GPO), as it was then, organised a massive operation for the Scout stamps. It was a false dawn. The next issue for parliament was an overprint on a normal 4d stamp. Most people missed it, which is why it costs up to £100 today.
Special Envelopes And Postmarks
In 1963, there came a major change. Pictorial stamps became a regular feature of the stamp year. The GPO introduced FDI postmarks. Collectors became more demanding. They wanted better illustrations, more interesting postmarks and neat, printed addresses or labels they could remove. For the Red Cross issue, a special Florence Nightingale cover was posted at West Wellow, her birthplace. The Botanical Conference issue of 1964 had a pictorial postmark of Edinburgh and one dealer posted covers at Primrose Valley (there were primroses on the stamps). Most reason for most postmarks was obvious: Biggin Hill for Battle of Britain and Wembley for the World Cup.
The hobby had changed again and those collectors who paid for the extra service were the winners, with the special covers ending up worth ten times the standard. Meanwhile, a second development was also taking place: autographs on covers.
Autographs On Covers
Again, like postmarks, the choice of most signatures was obvious. Douglas Bader’s autograph on a Biggin Hill cover cost probably around 25p at the time. It now adds over £100 to the cover. Bobby Moore and Alf Ramsey were even more lucrative. Many collectors paid £1 more for the pair and also did the same on the Winners issue. Today, the four covers would cost up to £2000!
Autographs are worth more on relevant covers and condition is very important.
More Postmark Changes
In the early seventies, pictorial postmarks became the in-thing. Instead of the boring postmarks issued by the Philatelic Bureau at Edinburgh (a place with no connection to the stamps), collectors wanted more unusual postmarks. Whereas the Bureau covers still only cost £1 each,
many covers with better postmarks cost between £100-£300 pounds.
As more and more collectors got wise to this though, of course the spectacular gains became more infrequent. Dealers and collectors then turned to small normal circular postmarks from relevant Post Offices or special mail slogans. I can remember taking covers to Turners Hill for the Turner issue. The covers cost collectors less than a £1 at the time.
Today, they are worth over £150. These were good days for such postmarks. I did six for Churchill in 1974. All now cost over £100. Angel Hill PostmarkI also arranged postmarks in Cowes for sailing (now worth £100) and when the 1975 Christmas stamps featured angels, our cover was postmarked at Angel Hill and is now worth £175. Informed collectors did well. But, as with pictorial postmarks, more and more new dealers joined in and often made the basic mistake of doing more covers than there was demand (sometimes 1000s more!). This ruined the value of all but a few extrememly good covers. By the early 1980s, I produced very few covers with small normal postmarks and am still horrifed at seeing the glut of badly produced covers done with no thought for the collector.
Another major trend was the interest in the envelopes produced by the sponsor of special pictorial postmarks. The then Post Office allowed organisation with a definite reason to sponsor a postmark. Provided it was done to guidelines, the sponsor paid the Post Office a fee – and then the Post Office offered their postmark to everyone else for free! Even worse, if the sponsor postmarked more than 1000 covers, they had to pay more. It was ridiculous. I know of one sponsor who did a few hundred covers whereas another dealer produced thousands. Early official covers are very sort after and fetch amazing figures (up to £500) but by the end of the 1970s, too many dealers had joined in and again overproduced, which undermined the market.
The next big change was that collectors found the type of cover they liked and the dealers they could trust and chose to collect just that brand of cover.
In 1978, I started the first numbered first day cover series. I called it the Benham Official Cover series. It was revolutionary because people started to collect a complete matching series of covers. To make the collection more special, I worked with the organisations whose anniversaries were commemorated by the stamps. Many of these covers are valuable but Benham supplied hundreds of dealers who, excited by the quickly rising prices, overbought, hoping to make a quick killing. When the recession of the 1980s hit, I realised just how many extra covers had been stupidly bought and resolved never to make that mistake again. During my time with Benham, I organised some fantastic signatures. Many of these are fetching extraordinary prices. Up to 50 times the original price is not unusual.
Warning about Condition: Stamps and covers are like antiques. Condition is everything.
What To Collect Today For Fun...And Long Term Gain (Hopefully!)
What Not To Do
It is no use joining the 125,000 people who buy the Philatelic Bureau covers from Royal Mail if you wish to build a potentially valuable collection. These are always available and have no future. Collect these for the fun of having a letter dropping through your letterbox. All Royal Mail want to do is sell stamps. They have no interest in what happens to them afterwards. They say that that is the dealers’ job – but the dealers don’t want Royal Mail covers either. Collect Royal Mail covers for fun if you like them but do not expect a future value.
Never hand address covers: I have seen superb covers ruined in terms of future value as people believe the stupidity of “personalisation”. A hand addressed cover can reduce the value of a rare cover by 60% and for modern covers, make them worthless. Collectors expect a neat label, light pencil or no address at all. If you produce your own covers, buy labels that peel off for your address and make sure you get hold of the Postmark Bulletin so you can choose a good postmark for your cover.
Buy the Best You Can Afford: A well-produced cover that has not been overproduced should have a good future. The better the make, the better chance of future gain. However, this does not mean silly numbers. If only 85 covers are produced regularly, then there are probably only 85 collectors out there who are interested in them. Yes, this means the cover is scarce – but who wants them when you come to sell? I think the maximum number of covers produced should be 5000 and that would be for a very big and popular stamp issue. I limit Buckingham covers to 2500 and try to ensure that there are always new collectors finding out about them. Hopefully one day, we will have sold all of them before issue and have a waiting list.
For more comments about the number of covers produced, see my article How Many is Too Many?
Autographs Add Value
I have raised nearly £500,000 for good causes through signed covers. These will always be limited to the number of covers the celebrity is willing to sign. Since I started Buckingham Covers, I have tried to get the best signatures. It is not always possible but if you aim high, your standards stay high. If you look through our catalogue, you will see Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst, Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Victoria Cross winners, Prime Ministers, film stars, in fact a Who’s Who. I am proud of our charity work and of the great signatures I have obtained for collectors.
Warning About Signatures: Provenance is important. I saw a great Montgomery of Alamein cover the other day but it was signed by his son, not the Field Marshall himself. It was bought by a dealer who was selling it apparently cheaply at £225. In fact, the son’s signature is only worth £20. Bobby Moore signed many covers while he was alive and even more it seems, since he passed away! His signature is regularly forged.
If you buy autographs (on covers or anything else), buy from someone you trust. We can all make mistakes but a reputable dealer will put it right. A Certificate of Authenticity from Mom and Pop Stamps is not worth the paper it was printed on.