Stamp collecting stages quiet comeback in India’s digital era

October 11, 2013

Rajjesh Mittal spends 20 minutes each morning placing bids for postage stamps on eBay. The IT entrepreneur began flirting with philately, or stamp collecting, two years ago, and has become such an ardent collector that he wants to demonstrate his love for postage by getting a tattoo of independent India’s first commemorative postmark.

Mittal is part of a generation of urban, educated Indians celebrating all things postal in the age of e-mail and Twitter. Though numbers are hard to come by, philately appears to be staging a revival in India, with estimates ranging from 25,000 to over 100,000 active collectors. Like Mittal, working professionals are taking up the hobby, joining stamp-collecting clubs and fostering friendships with enthusiasts from all walks of life.

“I want to have fun with philately,” says Mittal, 41, who helped found the Philatelic Society of Delhi and is working on three books on the hobby. “My wife hates it. The money which I spend, I have to give her equivalent money … It’s another thing I don’t give her the exact numbers.”

The embossed 19th-century issues of the Scinde Dawk, valid for postage in the British Indian province of Sindh, were the first Indian stamps. Four stamps featuring Queen Victoria were released in 1854 and were the first to be used across India. The stamps of British India and princely states, issued until India’s independence in 1947, constitute the classical period of Indian philately and collectors prize them.

Collectors such as Mittal are keeping philately alive in India even though postal mail — a beginner’s source for stamps — and pen pals have gone out of fashion. As demand for stamps at post offices waned, administrators reduced the number of issues with drastic cuts leading to renewed demand among collectors, said philatelist Gautam Rohatgi, who has been collecting stamps since 1957.

“It has bottomed out and it is marginally improving … It’s a U (curve) but you’ve seen the bottom of the U. But the upward curve isn’t very sharp as yet,” said Rohatgi, 64.

The Indian government says it is doing its bit to promote philately. Thakur Subhash Sinha, a senior official at India Post, said there are big plans for philately in the country’s five-year plan.

But collectors say little is being done to promote the hobby among children.

Akshit Ahluwalia, 16, said he is probably the only one in his school interested in philately. The jeans-clad teenager, who spends nearly all his 1500 rupee ($25) pocket money on stamps and postal covers each month, said he hasn’t been able to inspire his classmates.

“People want things to be easily available and don’t have the patience to hunt for stamps,” said Ahluwalia, adding that Facebook was an irresistible pastime for his friends.

Not that the Facebook effect is bad. Increasing internet penetration and social media websites such as Facebook have helped philatelists come together in Web communities. eBay’s India website has more than 50,000 daily listings of stamps on average, and collectors can buy stamps at competitive prices. The Internet also helps collectors across the world access digital exhibits of expensive stamps.

The value of rare stamps and covers is rising. A 10-rupee Mahatma Gandhi stamp with an overprint issued in 1948 was sold in Europe for 144,000 euros ($205,000) in 2011. An inverted 1854 Victoria stamp can fetch around 100,000 euros (8.3 million rupees) depending on its condition.

“With the general economic trend, just the market has petered out a bit with regard to new issues and new stamps; for classic and good stamps the market is still fantastic,” said an Indian dealer who declined to be identified because his wife officially runs the business.

The dealer said he manages stamp sales of at least 200,000 rupees ($3,280) every month.

The country’s stamp market is largely insulated from global markets as Indian law restricts the export of stamps more than a century old.

“There’s a huge market for Indian stamps outside India, it always has been,” says Philip Kinns, director of philately at British stamp dealer Stanley Gibbons. “But the Indian market itself is not so freely interacting with it because of the restrictions that exist and the currency problems as well.”

Collectors in India hope for a brighter future. Abhay Tiku, who works with IT services exporter Wipro, started collecting stamps in 2008. He said the hobby is going through a “time of metamorphosis” with more exhibitions and events being held now than ever before.

“The only thing a person needs to do right now is to have a vision of making something like a Sotheby’s or a Christie’s out of philately in India,” the 33-year-old said.

($1=61 rupees; €1=83 rupees)

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Sankalp on Twitter at @sankalp_sp, Tony @tonytharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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