The A to Z of Collecting

On any given day you can find a huge range of rare, exotic and just plain fascinating collectibles at Charing Cross market, including (but most certainly not limited to!): Autograph books, Beermats, Coins, Diecast toys, Ecu coins, Fulham programmes, Georgian cutlery, Handwritten diaries, Iron cross medals, Javanese stamps, Katanga crosses, Letters beautifully written by people long dead, Military dispatches, Newspapers, Old postcards, Penny blacks, Qintar coins, Regimental badges, Silver sixpences, Traders (with centuries of knowledge between them!), Unfeasibly large and friendly market dog: Dougal (not for sale), Victoriana of all kinds, Wedgewood pottery, Xiangqi chess set, Yearbooks of the past and ‘Zeppelin’ stamps.  Who needs Amazon? 

Probably The Best Collecting Hobby In The World

Collecting is a broad church. While most people immediately think of traditional fields like stamps and coins, there are many other areas of cultural history which hold their own unique fascination. One such is a sub-branch of ephemera with the grand title of tegestology. Even if you knew that ‘teges’ is Latin for ‘mat’ or ‘covering’, you’d be hard pressed to work out that this was the name for collecting beer mats.

Although we now only see their purpose as a decorative way of keeping tables clean, their original purpose (in eighteenth century Germany) was for placing over the tankard to prevent insects or debris falling in. Cheap printing methods soon allowed their value as a marketing tool to open up a whole new world of colour and creativity as brewers fashioned increasingly impressive ways of influencing people’s drinking habits.

As a general rule, older mats tend to be more valuable than those mass produced by the brewing giants of the last fifty years but condition and the size of the print run also play a part. The rise of micro-breweries in recent years also means that there is now a huge variety of mats in existence and this is one of the most accessible fields of collecting around. At Charing Cross Market the man to see is ephemera specialist, John Barrett, who usually has some older mats available to start you off.

The world’s biggest collector has amassed over 152,000 so you may have some way to go before being considered a leading tegestologist but the fieldwork is sure to be enjoyable.

StampEx Goes Ahead – Online

The biannual major stamp fair that is StampEx will be held online this Autumn. It’s a great way to take part in Britain’s biggest philately event without the expense or inconvenience of having to travel and you can drop in on any of the ten virtual talks which take place over the festival’s three days of events (1st to 3rd October). As their website puts it, “This is Stampex but not as you know it. Grab a cup of tea and get comfy as you connect with friends and enjoy a ‘day out’ from the comfort of your own home.”

Some of the world’s best philatelic collections will be displayed courtesy of The Museum of Philately and Karl Louis will be involved, asking you to send in stamps for him to review and advise on their provenance. Younger collectors are catered for in the Stamp Active section with lots of engaging activities for them to get involved with. There’s genuinely something for everyone so head over to https://stampex.vfairs.com/ to register. It’s free. You just sign up with your email address then login to attend.

Attendance (online this year) might be higher than ever.

Of course, our traders will be on hand as ever this Saturday and every Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market to advise and show off their finds so you can still get the excitement of face-to-face stamp collecting along with all the online action from Stampex over the following few days.

Why Coins Have Ridged Edges

Obvious to any amateur coin collector perhaps but in our blog we are always trying to demystify things for the complete beginner or anyone with an enquiring mind.

Until the seventeenth century the bulk of England’s coins were made by hammering a blank piece of metal (composed of just the right quantity of silver) on a die. This provided a reasonably consistent way of according value to the coin.

However, as these coins passed into circulation, there were two ways of profiting from them illegally. One was to ‘sweat’ them in a bag. A large number of coins would be repeatedly shaken until bits fell of them – small gains perhaps but obviously quite hard to detect.

A much more common method was to ‘clip’ the coin by shaving off a small amount of the metal to sell on later while still passing it on at face value. Repeated clipping resulted in some ridiculously small versions of the original coin and wreaked havoc in the marketplace. Even though debasing the currency in this way was punished severely, it remained widespread for hundreds of years.

This all changed when Sir Isaac Newton accepted the position of Warden of the Mint in 1696. In two years he oversaw a recall of all clipped or badly worn coins and they were replaced with a new design with milled edges, making them all but impossible to forge. Nowadays the milled edge remains only as a symbolic nod to his innovation since modern flat coins are made from base metal. Even so, the pound coin bears the added fluorish of an explanatory inscription around its edge: ‘Decus Et Tutamen’ (‘an ornament and a safeguard’).

It’s All Here…In The Heart of London

The UK’s only weekly stamp, coin, postcard, militaria and ephemera collectors’ market continues. Where else could you buy genuine military formation patches, rare stamps from all corners of the globe, a silver coin from the reign of Charles I, historic postcards, ancient African artifacts and any number of other unusual and exotic items all under one roof? In fact, we doubt whether a more eclectic collectors market exists anywhere else in the world… It’s not for nothing that Charing Cross is traditionally regarded as the very centre of London from which all mileposts took their distances. So come along this Saturday from 7am to 2pm, browse to your heart’s content and see what our traders have for you this week!

Century Old Art Mystery Solved by Postcard

The historical value of deltiology was in the limelight last month when a 130 year old mystery was definitively settled by a researcher at the Institut Van Gogh north of Paris. The precise location of Tree Roots, the great artist’s final work, on which he was working just hours before his (likely self-inflicted) death by gunshot, is now known – and it’s all thanks to a postcard.

Tree Roots by Van Gogh (1890)

A 94 year old French woman, who lives locally, had lent her collection of historical postcards to the Institute and it was only some time after one of their researchers had browsed through them the connection was made. What was just a hunch became a certainty when Wouter van der Veen went to the scene himself and confirmed it. The Auberge Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh spent the final two months of his life in 1890 is just 500 feet away. A plaque commemorating the significance of the spot is now in place.

A very useful overlay version of the painting and card can be seen here.

The scene today ©arthénon.
Main image: postcard Rue Daubigny together with the painting. ©arthénon.

The Beginning of the End for Coins?

For over 2,600 years coins have told the story of many cultures around the world, often reflecting the preoccupations and aspirations of their rulers but also telling their own stories as they passed through the hands of princes and paupers.

However, it seems that this is one more aspect of human activity which is being affected by the pandemic with recent news of a national shortage in the US. With coins being a particularly potent vector for disease, a number of high street businesses are insisting on payment by card only and this is something we’re seeing increasingly in the UK too.

So how long does the humble coin have left? It’s hard to say but probably not as long as we might think since the changes to our way of life brought by technology is just accelerating. There’s no doubt that it would make sense for governments since coins are increasingly costly to manufacture but the firms managing our data would also love to have a handle on every penny we own: where, when and what we spend it on. No doubt commemorative coin issues would continue for the collectors but jingling coins in one’s pocket might soon be something read about than experienced….

It’s hard to imagine the bulk of contemporary coins ever becoming especially valuable but phasing cash out would certainly add more interest to coin and note collecting generally. All the more reason to start now!

A Life of Service

It’s always nice to find a well looked after grouping like this with all the chap’s badges properly arranged. He started off as a shoeing smith in the Royal Field Artillery, saw service at Mons and the star records his very unusual distinction of being in the Maltese R. G. A. (Musketry) in 1908. The pinnacle of his military career saw him reach the rank of staff sergeant in the Royal Artillery. But my own favourite is the nicely crafted brass pin in the shape of a bullet or shell.

The Past Looks Back

Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors

For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?

Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.

The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.

In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.

Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.

‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?

A group of French standard bearers and a rarely seen image of some WWI Turkish troops

41 cents face value, cost to USPS: $3.5m

statue liberty stamp

Errors in the printing of postage stamps have cropped up in this blog before, not least because they are usually spotted early doors and so their rarity adds extra value. This is most certainly not the case here.

When the United States Postal Service began looking for the subject of a new ‘Forever’ stamp in 2010, it was hard to get away from the face of New York’s most iconic monument. They sourced an image from a library in Texas but ,unfortunately, it wasn’t the Liberty.

The image was of a much smaller statue in Las Vegas outside New York, New York (where else!) and designed by Robert Davidson. In 2013 he sued for infringement of copyright stating that his version was “more feminine” and some people even found her more “sultry” and even “sexier” than her original inspiration. The court found in his favour and he was awarded $3.5m.

USPS made light of the error, celebrating the heightened interest in stamps which the case had caused but they have every right to see it as a landmark. It is, by some way, the biggest postage stamp error in history with almost 5 billion imprints.

Image credits: left, Wikipedia – right, Flickr