Monday, May 2, 2016

Has the time come for international philately to develop a single system for philatelic identification???

As I last blogged yesterday, I had the brilliant, if slightly mad and masochistic, idea of adopting the Wikipedia World Stamp Catalogue project and using it to become a reference for those collectors who, like me, are often frustrated by the use of many different systems of stamp identification in the philatelic marketplace. One of the great inconveniences that any collector who has involved themselves in the global philatelic marketplace is the reality that stamp identification systems, to this day, remain based upon "national" systems often first developed in the late nineteenth century.

Some of these systems have evolved to cover the entire world, such as Scott in North America, Stanley Gibbons in the UK, Michel in Germany and Yvert et Tellier in France. These four also produce specialized catalogues that go further into depth for their home nations and historic colonial realms) while other systems have been developed as specialized systems for one region of the world (Edifil for Spain, Sassone for the Italian area, JSDA for Japan, Yang and Ma for China, Facit for Sweden, etc etc.)

The amount of information and research in these catalogues is immense, and philately as an organized hobby today is highly dependent upon them as the way to create a common standard of stamp identification between dealers and collectors, and among collectors.

Unfortunately, my idea to use a Wikibook as a reference has hit the commercial reality of the claims to trademark and copyright that national catalogue system publishers maintain. Some of these publishers are very proactive in what they perceive as the defense of their intellectual property, and are more than willing to seek redress through the legal system to protect what they perceive as their vital commercial interests. Not being in the position to want to have to take on any publishing Goliaths, after consideration I've decided caution is the better part of valor and decided not to include catalogue identifications as part of the Wikibook.

In the twenty-first century however, the rise of a global philatelic marketplace and global philatelic community has shown the limitations of these "national" systems of identification. Anyone from North America who visits the Delcampe stamp marketplace website, for example, will find that the vast majority of listings of items are identified with catalogues other than Scott. Similarly, most dealers rely on one primary identification system for marketing their stock to potential consumers. Since many collectors often do not have copies of alternative "national" catalogues at hand when they are shopping, the result is often an avoidance of dealers who do not market their stock "with the same catalogue numbers." And for those who do have access to more than one catalogue system at hand, it can be more than a little inconvenient to stop and look up items in a second, or third or more, catalogue as you are surfing the global philatelic marketplace.

And among collectors, especially on international stamp forums such as SCF, very often discussions between collectors regarding specific items have to begin by stating what catalogue the initial poster is referring to in their post for purposes of identification to ensure that everyone involved knows which stamp is the focus. Invariably, at some point in longer conversations, someone will raise the question "What is the catalog number for that item in X, I don't use the Y catalogue."

Of course one solution to this would be to have a ready reference site that cross lists catalogue numbers between the major publishers (and relevant specialized literature). There are quite a few websites that do this for specific nations, maintained by collectors with a passion for the stamps and philatelic history of a specific postal authority. But there is no "one stop" place a collector can quick refer to for all nations, and when you are a worldwide collector that can be frustrating.

There is of course an alternative, the development of a single standard system of stamp identification that would, over time, come to be accepted by the philatelic community worldwide as the basis for stamp identification. In an age of an ever more interconnected global philatelic community and marketplace, the creation of such a single universal system, preferably one that is not considered the intellectual property of any one publisher, would I think greatly enhance the development of philatlely as a global hobby.

Which raises the question I posed as the topic of this thread. Should international philately develop a single system for philatelic identification. Here, I am thinking about two organizations with a vested interest in the promotion of philately on an international scale. First, the Federation International du Philately (FIP), which is most well known for its patronage of international stamp exhibitions such as the upcoming New York 2016 show at the end of May.

Second, and probably even more likely to see this as a worthy idea, the Universal Postal Union's World Association for the Development of Philately (WADP). The WADP has actually taken the first step in this development, creating an international identification system that it uses with new issues released by the various international postal authorities. It's database starts in 2002, and for those nations whose postal administrations are diligent in submitting new material, contains items right up to early 2016 for many nations.

What I find surprising is that the WADP has not considered creating a database that extends backwards from 2002 all the way back to the first stamp released by the United Kingdom in 1840. I am sure that there are many who probably regard the amount of work that would be needed to create and maintain such a database as perhaps a use of resources that could be better utilized for other projects. But as the hobby continues to become increasingly globally interconnected over the next several decades, I do think that international philatelic organizations, and the WADP in particular, might want to consider developing such a system in the future. While it would likely take several years for such a system to become accepted within the marketplace, the benefits to the hobby of such a system being developed could greatly enhance the growth of the hobby, both in terms of the hobby itself, and the retail industry behind the hobby.


  1. Gene- I must admit, when I saw your initial post on Stamp Community Forum, I thought of a Don Quixote and windmill quest. ;-)

    I will act as Sancho Panza for a bit, and make a comment.

    (But Sancho Panza was described as inherently unintelligent and unimaginative, so that may be my fate too. ;-)

    Of course a factual hurdle is the legal guarding of catalogue numbers by the big league catalogue producers. A comparison table is frowned on, especially. But I'm not going to speak to that,

    My big concern is, even if a universal copyright free numbering system is developed (a HUGE undertaking), it will not be adopted by the majority. The catalogue numbers are too entrenched within their respective geographical zones for people to see the benefit for themselves to change to a universal copyright free numbering system (UCFNS). If a UCFNS was developed, it would be simply one of many catalogue systems- competing with Scott, Michel, SG, & Y&T, and the national catalogues.

    I think of the members of my local stamp club- mostly grizzled long time stamp collectors. Scott rules. That is not going to change. They are not going to change.

    And I would suspect that the grizzled catalogue owners of Michel, SG, and Y&T in their respective spheres are not going to change either.

    1. Hey Jim, yes you are probably right, it is more of a wish than anything that will probably ever come to light and be utilized by collectors. Philatelists are inherently conservative in their collecting practices for the most part, so this is just probably one of those ideas that will get nowhere.

      But one can always dream and hope for the future :)

    2. @Gene + Jim...

      (Like written also on SCF,)Rebuilding a new catalog numbering scheme is IMHO not the answer to this problem (it would just create more chaos). I would not also bother looking into WADP (it has got problems that are if not equal, then at least as difficult as with Wikipedia).

      You know me saying, 'dream big'. The only way 'big things' (and even smaller things) happen is when some slightly mad and masochistic fellow from somewhere makes 1+1 =3. So you're on the right track.

      It is only a matter of time when of us 'nutties' will create a bit of (r)evolution ;)


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  3. Great couple of posts, Gene. It's a complex topic for sure, with quite a few layers to it. One thing to consider is why so many collectors are slaves to their catalogue. One big reason is that the catalogue editors play a big role in determining which varieties are major, collectible varieties and which are interesting (and valueless) curiosities.

    John Apfelbaum writes about this, how Scott's numbering of early US has created expensive rariities by assigning major numbers to varieties that would be a minor footnote for any other country. If you've gone through the work and expense of collecting early US by Scott, you'd resist reassigning minor numbers to your beauties.

    It's similar to how Glen Stephens hypes the heck out of the Aussie specialist catalogue. It gives him many more (different and expensive) stamps to sell that way.

    So cataloging stamps in a specialized way is subjective. So one would need to make an equally subjective (ie emotional) argument to switch to something new.

    Which leaves the concordance approach, which seems to require a bevy of pro bono lawyers. :)