Daniel Sanderson: First-class pastime has the competition licked

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It’s one of the world’s most popular hobbies, but how many stamp collectors do you know? Probably more than you think, finds Daniel Sanderson

You might think that producing a series of stamps depicting cherished landmarks such as Edinburgh Castle is harmless enough.

However, the move has produced fury among some quarters in the philatelic world (that’s stamp collecting to you and me) this week.

The Royal Mail has been accused of milking committed collectors, who are keen to maintain a perfect set, for profit.

Many onlookers will be left as bemused by the row as they are with the hobby itself, which is often characterised as archaic and bizarre.

But it is clear that stamps are enough to get many pulses racing, and with hundreds of thousands of self-confessed collectors in the UK, what is it that lies behind their enduring appeal?

Robert Murray began collecting stamps as a seven-year-old and opened his world-renowned Edinburgh stamp shop in Inverleith Gardens as a 19-year-old 35 years ago.

He said the business, which has six employees and stocks millions of stamps, has enjoyed its busiest period in five years.

“Stamp collecting gets a bad press,” he says. “There’s a bit of trainspotter syndrome there and it’s an easy thing to ridicule, but there are far more collectors than you might imagine.”

Far from endangering the future of stamp collecting, Mr Murray says that new technology, particularly the internet, has given the hobby a “shot of fresh life”.

“It’s completely revived it,” he says. “Collectors are often shy of asking for advice, now they can go online and research things for themselves.”

Unfounded fears that the passion may die out are nothing new. In the early 1930s, a stamp club in Aberdeen gave up in its efforts to attract children to the group as it was felt that it could not compete against the advent of the wireless.

They need not have worried. A recent estimate put the number of collectors in the UK at 400,000, although many prefer to keep their pastime secret, even in a stamp “hotbed” such as Edinburgh, where Tom Brown’s Stamp Shop, in Merchiston Avenue, also caters to postage aficionados.

The Edinburgh Stamp Group, Edinburgh Philatelic Society and the Capital-based Scottish Philatelic Society also serve as a forum for collectors.

“I think a lot of them are embarrassed,” says Mr Murray. “The problem is that people don’t understand stamp collecting.

“There was one occasion when a regular customer came into the shop and another chap entered. When they saw each other they looked bemused and were clearly taken aback.

“It turned out they’d worked in the same small office for five years and had never mentioned they were collectors. For a lot of people it’s a solitary pursuit they do with the curtains closed.”

Despite their passion, even the most ardent collectors can struggle to define the appeal of collecting.

“If people ever say it’s a bit weird I ask them what their hobby is,” Mr Murray says.

“I also play the guitar. That’s cooler than stamp collecting, but there’s little purpose in playing it. It doesn’t feed you or make you rich unless you’re one in a million.

“But it does give relaxation, pleasure and keeps your brain active. That’s also what stamp collecting does for many people.”

Mr Murray says that although 70 per cent of his customers are older males, collectors come from all walks of life.

“Some people like finding the stamps like others search for antiques, some like physically putting the collections together and arranging it. In many cases stamps can be a springboard to learning about other things.”

Some investors have preferred to put their money into stamps than the volatile economic markets in recent years.

In January, stamp dealer Stanley Gibbons predicted profits of £5 million, but John Baron, chairman of the Association of Philatelic Societies, said he was unconcerned about his collection’s monetary value.

The 68-year-old, who now focuses on bank and lottery-themed stamps, said: “Stamp collecting is always diversifying. The hobby is very strong and everybody is doing their utmost to make sure it stays that way.

“You can have so much fun with them and learn a great deal about the history and geography of the country.”

CAN WE AFFIX IT? YES WE CAN!

• The world’s most expensive stamp – the Swedish Treskilling Yellow – sold for a secret sum believed to be in the region of £1.6 million in 2010.

• The Penny Black, the world’s first stamp, was produced in 1840 and depicted a young Queen Victoria. On its release, it cost one penny. Now a Penny Black costs at least £20.

• The Association of British Philatelic Societies boasts 26,000 active members.

• A young John Lennon was a collector, while Ronnie Wood, the Queen and Maria Sharapova are also stamp fans.