It may no longer be common practice to rummage through attics in search of yellowing envelopes with rare stamps, or to search one’s pockets for a prized Indian head penny. But that doesn’t mean collecting them is a thing of the past. Last year alone, the U.S. Postal Service released 33 new stamps to entice philatelists. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Mint offered a new coin, coin set and commemorative medal almost every weekday in 2019.
Such newer issues are less popular with serious collectors, though. “Experienced stamp collectors stop at around 1940,” says Robert Rufe, head of the Brandywine Valley Stamp Club. “They aren’t looking for new issues.”
With about 60 members, the club is the largest of similar regional ones, meeting monthly at the Summit, a senior living center in Hockessin, Del. Of those members, all but a handful are men, and most are over the age of 50. “There aren’t many younger people who are collectors,” says Rufe, adding that some from that demographic do get hooked when they inherit their parents’ or grandparents’ collections.
Despite a lack of youthful interest, stamp collecting remains a surprisingly strong pastime. Linn’s Stamp News estimates there are 5 million stamp collectors in the United States, with over 30 national stamp shows annually. “I attended a show in Omaha last year, and Warren Buffett showed up,” Rufe says.
It’s worth noting that stamp collecting was once seen as an investment, especially in the 1940s and ’50s. “Most now specialize,” says Rufe.
Such is the case for John Graper, who’s been a collector since the age of 5. “My uncle was in the military and stationed overseas, and he sent me stamps,” recalls Graper. “I took it up again in 1956 and recently got interested in exhibiting my collection at shows.”
Another club member focuses on artists and musicians, recently buying stamps that depict Gregory Hines and John Lennon. John Howker has honed in on U.S. possessions, and he recently began acquiring air mail stamps. For another collector, it’s stamps of certain colors, while yet another seeks out dinosaurs.
Finding stamps is the tricky part, leaving collectors to scour websites, stamp shows, local dealers and auctions. The lure of a prize sum occasionally draws those who’ve inherited collections. “But they’re usually disappointed because they are seldom worth much,” Rufe says.
Making money isn’t usually the point, though. Rather, it’s the satisfaction of finding rarities and filling holes in personalized collections.
Coins, too, have a similar draw—and some stamp collectors also delve into currency. Like with stamps, specialization is popular. “Some people, like my wife, collect ancient coins, while I specialize in paper money,” says Dave Stitely, president of the Wilmington Coin Club.
Stitely has also seen an increase in the role of auction houses. “They’ve become the real source of collecting,” he says, noting there are about 25 such auctions a year.
Stitely’s club is a mix of senior coin collectors and “people who are still learning, often because they inherited something,” he says. “The hot items for them are state and park quarters.”
Thanks to their more frequent circulation, desirable coins can be discovered after any ordinary cash purchase—simply by checking one’s change. For those who get a charge out of chance finds, it’s the best way to fill out a collection, rather than purchasing the coins they’re looking for.
There’s also an interest in foreign coins and bills, including those circulated by European countries before the euro became standard currency in 1999. “What drives many people to collect coins is history,” Stitely says.
For those with a taste for treasure hunting, Coin Beach near Rehoboth, Del., is perfect for those with metal detectors—especially following storms. The hope is that massive tides will stir up coins from wrecked ships at the bottom of the bay.
Whatever the draw, for most collectors, it’s the thrill of the search. Many prefer to fill in their collections through more traditional methods, avoiding dealers and auction houses. Ultimately, it’s all for fun, not fortune.