Circuit books: WTF?

Circuit book and catalogueHello and welcome to the new occasional segment I just decided to launch! Here’s how it works: you ask ‘WTF?’ and then I explain a thing. Got that? Great.

So a few years back I joined a local philatelic society. A stamp club. I hadn’t been in a stamp club since primary school, and it’s not something I mention to my normal friends, because we all know how it sounds (except for people who join stamp clubs, many of whom do not realize how it sounds).

I also joined the club’s circuit book list. Circuit books (also known as club books) are an endearing remnant of real ye-oldey-timey stamp collecting. They’re scrapbooks full of stamps and other philatelic material for sale, generally owned by small-time collectors. This is how eBay worked before the internet.

Vendors with lots of time on their hands compile sheets full of stuff they want to sell, annotated by how much they want. Those sheets are compiled into books. Those books are passed around from club to club, and from member to member. Let me take you through my latest delivery, complete with images. (The pics are wonky because of the curves of the pages. The bad lighting is totally my fault.)

An honesty system prevails: you get the books, you take the stuff you want, you pass the books onto the next member on the list, and you send the money to the coordinator of the circuit books. The cash finds its way back to the seller of the stamps, usually with a commission taken by the clubs facilitating the arrangement. (Their commercial siblings, ‘approval books’, are compiled by dealers to send to clients, and they pretty much work the same way.)

Circuit book Latin America
Anyone got a Latin American catalogue? I have no idea what I might have here

Circuit books have some charming differences to buying online. There are no menus, so you don’t know what lies in wait as you turn each page. If you’re thinking of buying an item, you’re looking at the item, not at a scan or a description.

And, best of all, circuit books can be cheap AF. Only an idiot would go to all the hassle of affixing unwanted material into a circuit book sheet and then ask a price for it that makes it impossible to shift.

If there’s one big drawback, it’s that stamp hinges are still very much in vogue in this world. Some compilers will (thankfully) go to the trouble of sticking in stamp panes for stamps to sit in, but you can safely assume (at least in my neck of the woods) that much of the used material, and a good deal of the mint, will come with this remnant of the olden days attached.

To be honest, when I signed up for the circuit books, I didn’t think I’d have much use for them. I already have a cupboard full of shit I need to offload. And what I AM still buying, doesn’t show up much in circuit books.

At first, that held true. There was lots of trawling through pages of low-value definitives, or worthless wallpaper stamps from the third world. Who could have known that Tanzania was so into the Winter Olympics?

Tanzania 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics stamp set and miniature sheet

But someone, somewhere, collects that. And anyway, you can also regularly feast your eyes on spectacular issues that wouldn’t normally cross your path. This one celebrating the 3rd anniversary of Ghana’s independence really caught my eye, with its joyful designs and vivid (for 1960) colours.

Ghana 1960 3rd Anniversary of Independence stamp set

I turned another page, and this 1990 Papua New Guinea Gogodala dance mask set took my breath away. So gorgeous I nearly took up PNG collecting on the spot. (I’ve done a great job of washing out the colours.)Papua New Guinea 1990 Gogodala Dance Masks stamp set

I do have one fun little side-collection that scores regular hits in these circuit books: the Holiday Collection. Stamps depicting locations I’ve been to. You know postcards, right? Like that, but on stamps. Not just from countries I’ve been to – that’s too easy. The rule is, I must have beheld the depicted landscape, edifice or artifact with my very eyes.

And what do we have here? A 1971 Singapore 50c ASEAN Tourism stamp depicting the Marina Bay waterfront! (I said that like I knew that stamp existed. But I didn’t. Not until I turned the page and immediately recognized the scene. It’s changed a bit since 1971. Way more skyscrapers.) That’s what’s fun about this collection. Suddenly I’m back there, on a humid Singapore night, surveying the colonialist majesty of the Fullerton as I chow down on a chicken rice at Gluttons Bay. Mmmmm, chicken rice.

Singapore 1971 50c ASEAN Tourism Waterfront stamp

Page turn, and we’re in the UK. I love modern British stamps and I’ll own them all one day, but not by buying them one-by-one from circuit books. I’ll buy some dead guy’s whole collection at a thrift shop for five bucks when I’m the only stamp collector left alive. In the meantime, circuit books give me a chance to window-shop. Hang on… nearly missed this. In the middle there. Is that… an ancient fire engine?

Fire engine spotting

A while back, I just decided that I like stamps with fire engines on them. It’s not an official thematic collection, that would be too much effort. It’s just… I have a page of fire engine stamps, OK? Get off my back.

It took a few minutes of wrestling with adhesive tape while not destroying the whole page, but I’ve earned my reward. All bundled up together, it’s the 1974 Bicentenary of Fire Prevention issue. Let that be a lesson to you, circuit book vendors… too much efficiency with your display, and you might miss a sale. At least put the most eye-catching stamp at the front of the bunch.

UK 1974 Bicentenary of Fire Prevention stamp set

Post script: the same set showed up a few pages later, all four stamps laid out and easily seen. Same price. Phew!

There’s a third reason I sometimes yank something out of these circuit books: the lure of tiny profit, when I find something that I reckon I could get more for. These books are compiled by amateurs, selling stuff they’re not interested in rather than the stuff they know, so there’s always a chance of discovering a sweet nugget for a good price. The dream thousand-dollar rarity hasn’t shown up yet. But a misidentified variety, or an aerogram that was stuck into the book at a ten-year-old catalogue price of $20, which might be worth $70 by the time it gets around to me… yarrr, even if I get $30 for it, there be ten bucks for Punk to spend on fire truck stamps. Woohoo!

So it turns out my initial skepticism was wrong. I DO find things I want in circuit books… because – and here’s the twist – when I signed up to the list, I didn’t actually have a Holiday Collection or a thing for fire engines. They were inspired by the regular practice of leafing through these books and being reminded of the simple pleasure of exploring the world through stamps. It’s a childlike thing to write, but it’s also a childlike thing to experience, and it’s something I’d forgotten in my pursuit of grown-up philatelic goals.

Circuit bookWhen a new batch of circuit books turns up at the doorstep, it can be challenge to put to one side the life of an average, flustered member of the full-time 21st century workforce and find the couple of hours it will take me to get through them, but I always make it happen. On a cosy, rainy afternoon, pass me a circuit book and a few catalogues, pour me a glass of something nice and let me settle in for my semi-regular dose of zen.

If you secretly want to know more about philately, it’s OK, you can follow this page and no one will ever know. Or say hello on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram! And leave your thoughts and questions below! x

© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities

Cold War propaganda stamp of the day

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl T-55 tank stampPolitics and human rights abuses aside, I love propaganda stamps. When I was very young, almost everything I knew of life behind the Iron Curtain came from my kiddie stamp collection. Countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary must have earned some sweet forex coin getting their stamps into the Western collector market. Eastern Europeans, I knew, were mad for Lenin, space, the Winter Olympics and military hardware.

This stamp isn’t the most propaganda-y of my propaganda collection, but it was always a fave (despite the damage at the bottom, marking this as a genuine Punk Philatelist artefact of the era).

I looked into it this week, and found that it was one of a 1973 set marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Polish People’s Army. That’s the kind of thing they called armies when the Soviets ruled the roost.

Look at that stamp again: it’s so action. It says more than “We have tanks.” It says “We have tanks and they are coming for YOU!”

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl MiG-21 D fighter stampThe issue also featured a plane, a ship, and a missile, all of which are also coming for YOU.

What makes them so dynamic? Sure, there are streaks of color representing the dust being kicked up, and the turbulence caused by the various aircraft, and there are the foamy breakers against the battleship’s hull.

The answer lies in one simple design feature: Continue reading

Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks…

India 2017 100R scented coffee stamp(And yay to you if you know which film lent me that headline.)

I’m excited today, and not because I’ve been snorting lines of this coffee-scented stamp from India. It’s a big day. I’m launching a new tag on this blog.

I get very easily excited.

As the use of snail mail for letter post continues to fall off a cliff, postal authorities around the world look more and more to stamp collectors to fluff up their bottom line.  Thus opens a new and technologically marvellous chapter in an old book: that of the novelty stamp. Continue reading


Australia 2016 Nostalgic Fruit Labels stamp set

Australia 2016 Nostalgic Fruit Labels stamp setHelloooo! Sorry it’s been a while since my last post. I’m going to make up for my stony silence with loads of pretty pictures, inspired by Australia’s Nostalgic Fruit Label stamps, over which I’ve been soiling myself since their release in June.

They celebrate the paper labels that used to be slapped onto the wooden fruit crates in the olden days before Styrofoam boxes.

What I love about these stamps is that they retain the microscopic details of the original labels. I wonder how many of the three people still using stamps will take a moment to appreciate the artist’s work seen, for example, on this River’s Pride label, and take in the fenceposts, the orchard and the veining on the half-peeled orange.

Australia 2016 Nostalgic Fruit Labels $1 River's Pride stamp

If you, like me, are a little fascinated by oldey-timey culture, it’s not out of the question that something would appeal to you about both these designs and also ye olde schoole world of stamp collecting. You may have been given the impression that it involves a lot of old stamps with kings and queens and presidents on them that cost a lot of money. Well, I have good news. There are no rules. We collect whatever the fuck we want. And one could do worse than start with collecting vintage graphic designs on stamps, because it’s so hot right now. Continue reading

African stamps: the hairdos and the tortoise

Central African Republic 2016 Homage to David Bowie 3000f minisheet

Sorry for my long absence from the blog, folks! You’d think a hired assassin working for top dollar would be offered a decent wifi connection, but covert black ops budgets aren’t what they used to be. A big welcome to new followers. I promise not to hit you with a ninja star from behind a tree before you even know I’m there.

So, I’m home now and back to the hobby of punks. If you, like me, were a kid collecting stamps in the 70s or 80s or 90s – or even if you’re collecting now, in which case: hello! I thought you were dead –  your album was probably brimming with big, colourful stamps from developing countries that had little relevance to the issuing nation. Because who’s to say that Equatorial Guinea can’t celebrate the centenary of Japanese railroads?

Equatorial Guinea 1972 3ptas Centenary of Japanese Railroads

The motivation for this phenomenon is Continue reading

Watch a rich person pay $85,000 for something a rat peed on

Australia KGV rusted cliché

Take my moneyI love a good auction. Whether it’s watching my dream home being fought over by people who can actually afford to buy it, or watching Beryl make five pounds for her Edwardian comb on Bargain Hunt, it’s supply and demand at their purest. It’s especially fun when you’re the vendor. Which eBay seller doesn’t love it when a surprise bidding war breaks out over a stash of old Nancy Drew novels?

There’s a doozie of an auction at Mossgreen Auctions in Melbourne this Friday, and while I’m not the vendor, at least no one has to pretend to be excited about Beryl’s comb.

Australia lost one of its greatest philatelists this year when Arthur Gray passed away in May. From the accounts of those who knew him, it seems that when Arthur decided to collect something, he had both the foresight to choose the best pieces – often before their rarity was recognised – and pockets deep enough to make sure he got them.

Arthur’s magnificent collection of ‘Kangaroo and Map’ stamps (the first issued under the new ‘Australia’ brand after Federation) was auctioned in New York in 2007. It made $5,584,000 US (over 7 million AUD). But don’t let me stop you pasting cloth samples into your scrapbook, I’m sure YOUR hobby will pay off someday too.

In recent years, Kangaroo prices bounded out of range for many collectors (downturn? What downturn?), so Australia’s second stamp issue, the ‘King George V’ (KGV) series, already a collector favourite, became even more popular. But Arthur had been quietly forming an amazing collection of KGVs long before they came into fashion. His KGV collection goes under the hammer on Friday, and lots of people will be very excited.
Continue reading

I found an old stamp album. Am I rich?

Stamp Album Small

Welcome, fortune-seeker! My data suggests you’ve probably found this page after Googling that question, or something similar, like:

I inherited a stamp collection! Am I rich?
I used to collect stamps when I was a kid and the album is lying around somewhere. Am I rich?

The answer to all of these questions is…. Continue reading