Saturday 23 July 2011

What is Thematic Philately?

Thematic philately is collecting stamps and other philatelic items that illustrate a theme: birds, soccer, history, art, way of life, trees, etc. The term "theme" has a dynamic meaning implying the personal elaboration by the collector, who develops a full story around it. The material used for the collection must have a genuine postal relation.

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What is Thematic Philately? There will of course be many answers to such a basic question. An organisation from which one would expect to get a good and well contemplated answer is of course the International Federation for Philately (F.I.P.). Thanks to the site of the British Thematic Association I found that answer and pass it on to the readers of this blog.


Thematic philately is collecting stamps and other philatelic items that illustrate a theme: birds, soccer, history, art, way of life, trees, etc. The term "theme" has a dynamic meaning implying the personal elaboration by the collector, who develops a full story around it.

Once stamp collections consisted of stamps from one country or a group of countries. The stamps were usually displayed in date of issue order. Not any more! A thematic collection consists of the widest possible range of philatelic material, from the widest possible range of postal authorities, without any time constraint. Every item selected should be relevant to the theme and arranged in the most suitable order to tell a story.

The outline of the story is presented as a Plan, showing the steps of the development of the theme. The Plan is similar to the Contents page in a book and it is normally organised in chapters and sub-chapters, which make the logical flow of the story along a clear and consistent thread visible.

A thematic collection is fascinating because it allows for continuous improvement. The more you get familiar with the subject, the more you discover new details for supporting your story and acquire the relevant philatelic items. The more you know about the material from using philatelic literature, by browsing through auction catalogues and visiting the dealers, and by studying other collections on display at the philatelic shows, the more you can improve your development when including new items.


Collections that do not develop a theme but simply accumulate philatelic items with a common subject are far from the essence of thematic philately, since they present no "story", little personal study of the theme. The arrangement of items depicting the chosen subject by country of issue or by year, as well as the choice of items issued by countries of a selected geographic area or in a certain time frame, may be just preliminary approaches to thematic philately. Anyway, they do not bring the true pleasure of thematic collecting.

What can I collect?

A thematic collection is built around an important concept, freely chosen by the collector. Normally this choice relates to a personal or professional interest: medicine or astronomy, gardening or fishing, chess or car races, computers or music... there is no limit to the choice of your theme! By selecting a familiar theme, you will have a lot of information at your fingertips and it will be very easy to draft the Plan of your collection.

A quick perusal of a catalogue from a recent world exhibition will give a very effective overview of the thematic myriad of options available to collectors for choosing a thematic collection. Some titles, chosen at random: World of Butterflies , Sailing ships, "From Abacus to Laptop, Tennis, Apiculture, Weather Story, Railways, Optics, French Painting in the 19th century, League of Nations, Motor Vehicles, Photography, Universal Postal Union, Republic of Weimar, Fire, Christian Vocations, Carnival, Bridges, History of printing, Wine, Roses, Radiomania, History of Tobacco, Ailments of Venus, Danube, Theatre, Dogs, Water, Music through the Ages, Mozart, European Integration, Struggles against Infection, Olympic Games, Christmas, "Nationalities 1914/18".

The wealth of philatelic material often allows collectors to interpret the same subject in different ways, thus generating very different collections. One can present a synthetic view of the whole subject or analyse a specific area of the same. For example, at the afore mentioned exhibition the following were also on display: Birds, Australian Bird Life, Homo‑avis Co‑existence, and How to Identify Birds; in yet another show we saw Eagle, Owls, Penguins, Swan, sand Bird as a Symbol.

What does "Appropriate Philatelic Material" mean?

In addition to stamps a thematic collection can use other items related to transmission of mail other postal communications, which contribute to the development of theme through their illustrations and/or captions. These items are considered appropriate as long they have been issued, intended for issue, or produced in the preparation for issue, used, or treated as valid for postage by governmental, local or private postal agencies, or by other duly commissioned or empowered authorities. The most relevant items are:

Postal Stationery:

postal cards, envelopes and aerogrammes, that have an imprint of a stamp and, often with an illustration,

Postmarks and Cancellations:

postal markings applied when an item goes through the mail, sometimes with an advert or commemorative content,

Franking Meters:

the franking 'slug' from meters are used by many companies and organisations to frank their mail, often with an advertisement,

Stamp Booklets:

these may have illustrations on the cover(s) or on advertising panels inside,

Maximum Cards:

these are picture postcards with a stamp on the picture side and a cancella­tion linking the subject on the card with the stamp.

Several other items, including revenue stamps may contribute to the development of the theme, whereas artists’ drawings, essays and proofs, do increase the philatelic interest of the collection, if appropriately selected.

Where do I find more information?

Several sources enable you to better understand the options and the possibilities of thematic collecting and provide ideas and detailed information for building a collection. A number of national Federations have a commission in charge of this class, aimed at giving guidance to thematic collectors. In several countries thematic collectors have founded a national association, that publish a specialised magazine; members are also organised in thematic groups, active on the most popular themes, which often provide bulletins and checklists of the material relevant to their theme.

Stamp exhibitions and fairs are important events for making contacts, looking at exhibits, visiting the dealers. Those organised with the support of thematic organisations are a good occasion for meeting other thematic collectors and exchanging both ideas and material.

The internet is a powerful source of information for identifying and making contacts with philatelic associations and dealers; the FIP site is a very useful starting point that includes links to other important philatelic sites. Furthermore search engines are available that allow you to find thematic and philatelic information on the fly.


Two points worth noting!

I see two elements of great importance in the above answer to the question: What is Thematic Philately?:

1) The personal story:

The term "theme" has a dynamic meaning implying the personal elaboration by the collector, who develops a full story around it.

2) The postal relation:

The material used for a thematic collection must have a genuine postal relation. Examples: "philatelic material, from the widest possible range of postal authorities", "transmission of mail other postal communications", issued, intended for issue, or produced in the preparation for issue", "valid for postage", "postal markings applied" when an item "goes through the mail".

As can be seen the "functional" aspect of the stamp and related postal material is underlined. In other words: "there is no room for philatelic products".

This is my interpretation. You are welcome to agree or disagree with me.

Saturday 2 July 2011

What is happening to our dear hobby?

Does material produced for stamp collectors - so-called philatelic products - pose a threath to traditional stamp collecting and philately. If so, how come? and why? Let us start a debate on this topic because it affects many of us and for sure has come to stay.

Does philatelic products flourish more than they used to? Is there today a greater demand for philatelic products than a few years back? How to find out? Assuming that the number of stamp and cover collectors is declining, but still of a very considerable size? Assuming that postal used material is getting less and more difficult to get at? Could it be that a gap, bigger than a few years back - that is before e-mail and other forms of web based communication became part of almost every ones daily life – is created and is being filled out by philatelic products in increasingly large quantities?

I do not have statistics to back me up, but I think and I fear that the answers to my questions posed above are “yes”.

Does it matter? I would say yes! Why is this? It is because such a development undermines the traditional and very diverse hobby of stamp collecting and philately. The positive side of course is that the number of people interested in stamps is maybe not declining as rapidly as it is sometimes asserted. But this leads to more questions. Are collectors of philatelic products really collectors of postage stamps. Broadly speaking of course the answer must be affirmative, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of the fun connected with being a stamp collector is going lost for those that prefer the philatelic products.

Let me give you some examples. A First Day Cover - and that goes for most CTO covers - are created only for collectors and fiends of stamps. The CTO covers have never seen a postal process. So questions concerning rates and routes don’t matter to collectors of CTOs. The same goes for mini-sheets and most of the CTO cancelled stamps. Variations in perforation, gum, design sometimes called varieties don’t matter. The philatelic product is complete in itself.

The background for issuing the stamp also changes. It is often seen that stamps of a certain face value do not reflect a postal demand. Stamps still have interesting and likeable motives, but the processes and resources that were in earlier years put into the design, layout, engraving and printing have today been cut considerably. The little new pieces of art that we were used to welcome and enjoy when issued are disappearing rapidly.

The so-called "development" can be cruel. Luckily we are still many that appreciate a good old well designed stamp and postal used covers with all the stories and mysteries that they entail.