In The Spotlight
GBCC Webmaster Larry Rosenblum interviews Michael Sefi,
Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection
Published in the January, 2005 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.
Editor’s Note: The interview took place at the National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C. on October 15, 2004. My thanks to Wilson Hulme, Philatelic Curator of the NPM, for suggesting the interview, making the arrangements, and allowing us to use the NPM library for the interview. My thanks also to Tim Burgess for introducing me to Hulme.
The NPM hosted an exhibit of material from the Royal Philatelic Collection titled, The Queen’s Own: Stamps That Changed the World. The day after this interview, Sefi delivered the Sundman Lecture at the museum.
Rosenblum: Michael, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule here in Washington, D.C. to tell our members about the Royal Philatelic Collection. We like to start our interviews with a little personal information, so please tell us about yourself.
Sefi: I was born and raised in London and am technically a true Cockney, though I don’t talk like one! The qualification for being a Cockney is being born within the sound of the Bow Bells [the bells of the church of St. Mary le Bow, Cheapside]. The Bow Bells are not in Bow, which is in the eastern part of London. They are actually in the center of the city of London, and the sound footprint, as measured and published by somebody some years ago, actually covered the hospital in which I was born, the Westminster Hospital. So technically I do claim to be a Cockney!
I was born and brought up in London, went away to school at 13, then came back to London from a period abroad as a teenager when 17 and 18. I trained to become what we call a chartered accountant (or CPA) and eventually became a partner in what is now Deloitte & Touche, one of the major accounting firms. After that I spent nearly 10 years in the financial services industry before I effectively semi-retired at the end of 1992.
It was in the mid-90s that Charles Goodwyn, who was then Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection and who knew that I was casting around for something to do, asked if I would like to join him as his deputy. This was, of course, subject to satisfactory interviews. It took me, oh, three or four months to make up my mind that I would join Charles, because taking the position would write-off going for any permanent form of full-time employment. I agreed to it and joined him in September, 1996.
I’m married and I have three children, one of whom is married and has children of her own.
Rosenblum: When did you start collecting stamps?
Sefi: Like many, I was a relatively serious school-boy collector. I was doing more than putting pretty pictures into an album. I was actually slightly more serious than that, but I went away to school and gave it up then. It was only in my mid-30s, I suppose, that I came back to it with a bang, very seriously.
Philately is, as I think a number of people have said publicly, a remarkable form of activity, bearing in mind that the word philately really engages studying something. It is a remarkably effective method of taking one away from whatever one’s everyday business life stresses are while keeping the brain active. There were stresses for me in the late 70s and early 80s as my firm was merging with Deloitte. Philately took my mind away from all that. And so when one reads that at times of a fair amount of stress, King George V tried, when in London, to spend three afternoons a week with his collection, I totally understand that.
I got involved in organized philately fairly quickly. I joined the Great Britain Philatelic Society soon after coming back to philately seriously. I was Honorary Treasurer of that society for 12 years and was President in 2000 for a two-year term, and that covered The Stamp Show 2000 in London.
I’ve also been a member of Council of the Royal Philatelic Society, London since 1990. That’s a long time! I’m currently chairman of its publications committee, and I’m also chairman of RPSL, Ltd., which is the company responsible for the Expert Committee’s activities. I’m not actually on the Expert Committee, but I work enough with the Expert Committee anyway because “patients” (items submitted for expertizing) about which they have concerns and which may well be helped by comparison with what’s in the Collection are brought down on about a monthly basis. I probably spend a day and a half a month working with the Expert Committee.
Rosenblum: In preparation for our discussion, I read Nicholas Courtney’s book, The Queen’s Stamps  and I’ve looked through Sir John Wilson’s book, The Royal Philatelic Collection.  I’ve been very fortunate, now, to have seen two exhibits of material from the Royal Philatelic Collection, the one here at the NPM and the one at The Stamp Show 2000 in London.
Sefi: That one was actually a more extensive exhibit than the one here at the Smithsonian. It covered a number of areas of the Collection that we’ve not covered here because of the space available.
Rosenblum: I understand, but this is quite extensive for an exhibit that has traveled so far and which is on display for such a long time.
Sefi: Yes, so far as the 1840 story is concerned, which is the principal theme of the exhibition. It’s only really scratching the surface of what we’ve got in the Collection. We have in the Collection, for instance, the largest surviving holding of Treasury Essays, and yet we’re showing only about half a dozen here. That’s all there was room for.
One of the things that amuses people is when one tells them that the Penny Black was a mistake. It strikes a chord, but it’s a surprising chord in that it’s difficult conceptually to think that one of the first stamps in the world was in fact a mistake. That is why so much time and effort was spent on the Rainbow Trials and Obliteration Trials to find an alternative that would meet the operational needs.
Rosenblum: How would you characterize the Collection today in terms of how much of it is written up and mounted and how much of it is still in some form of storage?
Sefi: As you have learned from Courtney’s book, we divide the Collection up into three parts: the red collection or the red albums for stamps and items preceding King George VI, the blue collection for stamps and material from the King George VI period and the green collection for the current reign.
Mounting is complete up until 1938, when Sir Edward Bacon (the second person to act as King George V’s philatelic advisor) died, apart from some odd things which have come to light since or which have been bought since.
So far as the blue collection is concerned, there’s an entirely different set of circumstances. Sir John Wilson (appointed Keeper in 1938), according to Courtney, (although I didn’t know this), apparently had expressed the view that there was no point in writing up an issue of stamps until the monarch had died. I don’t know where Courtney got that from, and I’m not sure it’s true, because in fact the first issues of King George VI were mounted and were written up by Sir John Wilson. That’s all those issues of 1937 and 1938, the first issues of King George VI.
However, it is also the case that Sir John wrote up no more. Part of the reason for that was that when the Second World War came in 1939, the Collection went off for safekeeping into bank store, and therefore the ability of Sir John to work with it was extremely limited.
Material that came in during wartime isn’t complete. De La Rue got bombed during the war, probably in 1941. Clearly there was a salvage problem. They managed to retrieve from De La Rue’s works a number of printing plates; some territories’ plates had been destroyed, some had been recovered. As a temporary expedient there were emergency printings to meet open orders from colonies. Waterlow did some and maybe Bradbury, Wilkinson also.
There are some very, very scarce printings from the 1941 to 1943 period that are not represented in the Collection, and I’m not sure why that should be. The first printings are fully represented, and the early 1939-40 secondary and sometimes tertiary printings are in the collection. Also from 1944-45 onwards, there are complete collections of the printings that were done, usually identified by plate number but not always. Sometimes, particularly for the higher values, the same plates continued in use. They’d been put away by the printers and then brought back out again when needed. You can only really tell, and then not always with certainty, from shades resulting from slightly different ink mixes. The King George VI printings are a very, very specialized area.
Now, Sir John Wilson clearly was doing no mounting up during the war, but what is interesting is that after the war, he mounted virtually nothing though he continued as Keeper of the Collection until 1969. Part of that time he was writing the book, The Royal Philatelic Collection, which must have taken an immense amount of time. Remember at that time, and indeed right up until Charles Goodwyn became Keeper in 1995, Keepers were on their own; they had no help.
But, throughout Sir John Wilson’s time, virtually no mounting took place, for which, I have to say, I’m quite grateful. His writing was tiny and, given that one of the tasks facing the Collection these days is to make material more available in exhibitions, Sir John Wilson’s written-up pages are virtually impossible to read when in frames. So in some ways I’m quite glad that he didn’t write up too much because from an exhibition point of view, those pages don’t work.
When Sir John Marriott became Keeper in 1969, he did quite a lot of mounting. He did quite a bit of current reign Great Britain, which meant, therefore, that the King George VI Great Britain was largely unmounted, and remains so. There was also a gift from the [British] National Postal Museum in the 1980s of some duplicate essay material of George VI Great Britain that has not been annotated. That is a task that sometime I hope to get around to because Great Britain’s my area.
Regarding the Dominions and Commonwealth, Sir John Marriott, who had a particular interest in West Indies, did do a quite a bit of mounting of both King George VI and the current reign of West Indies and some others. The reason for that in part is that every year there is a display from The Queen’s Collection to the Royal Philatelic Society.
Rosenblum: At their opening meeting.
Sefi: Indeed, that’s correct. I may be entirely wrong in this, and I may be doing him an injustice, but looking back at the records of what was shown at those various meetings, it seems to me there were occasions where Sir John Marriott had done some mounting and writing up specifically for that meeting. That writing up wouldn’t necessarily have happened if he hadn’t decided to cover a particular territory for that meeting. But it’s certainly the case that so far as the King George VI collection, the blue collection, is concerned, comparatively little was mounted up.
As to current reign Great Britain, Sir John Marriott did quite a lot of special stamp issue mounting up where there was a particular interest. Not much of the definitive material of the current reign is mounted, however. There’s quite a volume of material, and there’s quite a lot of specialist material, particularly from about 1980, which remains filed and unlisted.
When Charles Goodwyn came in to help John Marriott, it was initially to create a permanent record of the red collection. Then around the time that Charles became Keeper in 1995, it was agreed that a start should be made on trying to mount the blue collection of King George VI material.
We had a target of completing that by the end of last year (2003), but it has taken longer than expected. I think we are now about three-quarters of the way through it or a little more. To help me with that, I have Rod Vousden, a King George VI specialist collector, writer and author. Until his retirement, he was a curator at the British Library with David Beech. He joined me shortly after I took over as Keeper.
So we’ve got quite a way to go. As far as the current reign is concerned, I’m not sure. What I have as a long-term ambition is that we should at least complete the mounting and writing up of the current reign to independence of countries now part of the Commonwealth. I would also like to ensure that all subsequent material is adequately filed and indexed so that we know where everything is, which we certainly don’t at the moment, for access by researchers. Given the huge volume of material, the fact that we’are part-timers, and the other tasks that we undertake, I think mounting post-independence material is going to be a very, very long-term project. Indeed I certainly don’t expect it to be started in my lifetime!
Rosenblum: What kind of material do you receive currently?
Sefi: We receive, on the Great Britain side, all essay material for new stamp issues. We don’t get much for definitives because those are now produced by a different process that doesn’t lead to essays. Special issues are all essayed, and we get that material. Most of what we get is material that is seen by the Stamp Advisory Committee, and we usually get that around or just after the time that the stamps in question are issued.
We also get cylinder blocks of all printings of all stamps issued by Royal Mail. It’s not a system that’s always worked perfectly, but it seems to be working all right at the moment. That arrangement only started in the late 1980s. Sir John Marriott initiated it. Before then, it was a case of merely obtaining a block of each stamp value, regardless of how many cylinders were used. There was no attempt either in the King George VI or the Wilding periods to complete a collection of all cylinders printed.
Some collectors have complained that we don’t bother about paper and phosphor varieties of modern issues. That’s really following a principle that King George V had or appears to have had. In the red collection there is very little watermark variety material, for example. The Penny Black had inverted crowns and so forth, but the Collection has nothing of that.
I can only speculate, but I think that the reason King George V didn’t collect watermark material is probably because of visual impact. You don’t put watermark varieties in an exhibit — they mean little to anyone who looks at them. Oh, they might impress the odd judge who happens to know that a particular watermark, inverted and reversed, say, is howlingly scarce and worth a fortune. Beyond that, you don’t waste space on watermark varieties unless they’re marginal pieces where you can actually see the watermark variety in the margin.
In any event, the red collection has very little watermark variety material. The blue collection has none, and therefore, so far as Great Britain definitives are concerned, we’re not going to struggle with either watermark varieties or, similarly, phosphor and paper varieties unless they are quite visual when mounted.
Looking at the Commonwealth, we receive material from all the U.K. offshore islands, such as the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey, and we also receive Gibraltar. Additionally, we receive material from New Zealand, Canada, and to some extent from Australia as well, but just issued stamps. We don’t get material from other Commonwealth countries except those where Crown Agents still has the contract. We receive from Crown Agents examples of all their printings. They still have as clients something like 17 or 18 countries.
We also receive copies of color trials for most of the Crown Agents issues but not all. However, the artwork these days for Crown Agents goes to the Crown Agents archive which is now held by the British Library, although between the two world wars, a lot of the artwork came to King George V’s collection.
Rosenblum: You mentioned that you had a helper, Rod Vousden. You also have a deputy.
Sefi: Yes, I do: Suresh Dhargalkar. I think he takes slight exception to this, but he isn’t a philatelist. He is, by profession, an architect. He also has some conservation credentials, and therefore he is my advisor on conservation matters. He also is very, very helpful in a palace administrative context, because before he came to work as Charles Goodwyn’s assistant, in the early part of 1996, he was the superintending architect of the royal palaces. Therefore his connections, his knowledge of palace procedures and his knowledge of people are extraordinarily useful. He can get things done that otherwise would have been more difficult to do.
He’s also very, very helpful in preparing exhibitions and overseeing researchers where they don’t need any detailed philatelic help or guidance. They know what they want to see, and it’s just a question of sitting over them while they do it, to make sure they don’t produce a biro (ballpoint pen) and start writing and whoops, it slipped!
So, yes, there are three of us. We are part-timers, nominally two days a week, although of late, and particularly where there’s an exhibition upcoming, such as this one, for example, or next year’s exhibition which will be in New Zealand, I seem to spend more than the allotted two days. It sometimes goes out to three or four days.
Rosenblum: Speaking of researchers, please tell me how a researcher would make an arrangement to view part of the Royal Philatelic Collection.
Sefi: If I don’t know them, I would prefer that they write in to set out what it is they are researching and who suggested they should come and see what is in the Collection. Very often they don’t have knowledge of what’s there because access to Sir John Wilson’s book is not that wide. Clearly, there’s no substitute for actually looking at the material, but nevertheless, one would expect researchers to have done at least a little homework. Sometimes they say, well, I don’t have access to that book, I live in the midwest of the United States, or I live in South Island and the only copy in New Zealand is in North Island, or whatever it might be, and that’s understandable. Some people aren’t even aware that Sir John Wilson’s work exists, and that really is a bit of a disappointment. So we ask that they write in, and we sometimes ask, if it is someone who is completely unknown, for some kind of reference.
We then contact them to offer them two or three days when it might be convenient for them to come in and see whatever it is they’re asking to look at. The reason we go through this process, actually, is to winnow out those who believe that the Collection is still located in Buckingham Palace. It isn’t, and certainly when we were, up until 1999, we used to get an idea, not always correctly, that people were seeking an invitation to come in purely because it was Buckingham Palace. They really had very little interest in stamps, never mind specialized or detailed studies. But now that we’re in St. James’s Palace, the Buckingham Palace attraction has gone, but nevertheless, we’re still quite anxious to know what it is they want to see.
Serious researchers can cover a wide range. For instance, someone with whom we’ve been doing quite a lot of work lately is writing a major work on the Seahorses. He’s been looking especially at the overprints because they are actually helpful in interpreting and understanding plates that were used and when they were used, and shades and so on. The Nauru 10/-, for example, has a version of the bright Cambridge blue which is quite common with the Nauru printings and of course is exceedingly scarce in the De La Rue GB printings. I don’t think that Nauru shade is quite the same as the bright Cambridge blue that we know, love and can’t buy! (We do have an example in the Collection, however.)
Rosenblum: You referred earlier to conservation. Are you doing anything special with some of the older items in the collection, perhaps especially the early to mid-nineteenth century items?
Sefi: Yes, I think this topic divides itself up into two or three different problems. The first is the foxing problem. We have made various experiments to see what we can do about eradicating the foxing, and they’ve not so far been totally successful. That’s problem number one.
A particular problem is the fact that the red collection was mounted on japanned album pages. The album page has on its back, as an integral part of it, a tissue-like paper which rubs and also is great for leeching up ink from stamps on the page below. That’s happened even though the albums stand upright. Some of the inks that particularly De La Rue used in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, and even in some cases into the twentieth century, are appalling in terms of their ability to be rubbed or to leech across. The mauve shades are particularly prone to that, some of the reds and greens are, and the blues are also particularly prone to that. I think it’s partly due to the fact that some of the inks were fugitive, and it’s partly due to the fact that the inks themselves were a bit unstable.
One of the things we are doing progressively is to ensure that we’re putting an inert Mylar protector on every other page in every album. We’ve got 328 albums, with therefore around 18,000 album pages. That means we’d have to put at least 9,000 protectors on them, so it isn’t a quick task. We’re doing it progressively, and that at least will solve that problem.
Rosenblum: Why put the protector on every other page?
Sefi: Actually, for the George VI material, we’re putting protectors on every page, because that material is going into conservation boxes, and therefore we can do as many as we want, however we want. The George V collection is a rather different story. There are 328 numbered albums, most of which are pretty full. If we put protectors on every page, we would get an overflow from most albums. Then would come the question, what do we do with the overflow? Do we do a complete resorting and renumbering and add new albums to take the overflow, which is what my conservation advisor would prefer that I did? Or do I take the other route, which is doing it on an every other page basis? That way seems to me to offer virtually the same level of protection, but it means that except for one or two possible cases, we will be able to continue to have everything in the individual volume in which it now is. So this is a pragmatic approach to the problem.
Incidentally, we are using conservation boxes for storage rather than traditional albums. The blue and green albums we have will be used for GB material of the appropriate reign, and everything else, plus the remaining GB material, will go into blue and green conservation boxes. The material will be mounted and written up on unhinged pages and the pages will have protectors. The completed pages are then stored in the boxes.
One of the other problems that we have is that there are around 300 objects, to use a museum term, that were folded into the albums. Some of the worst examples of that we’ve already unfolded and put onto conservation boards with protectors over. There are still many items which are folded up in the albums, and not always with happy results, so in time we’ll go through and pull those out, and we’ll mount them on conservation boards.
Another issue which we have to face is light impact. You’ll have seen as you’ve gone around the exhibit here that the light levels are very low.
Rosenblum: That’s a fairly common practice now.
Sefi: It is, but if you go to an international exhibition, you’ll find very often that it isn’t. At one particular international exhibition not so many years ago, where material from the Collection was being shown, I arrived on site and found the frames in question were in direct sunlight! We couldn’t have that! The exhibition organizers agreed to move the frames to a position where the light levels were broadly acceptable.
There is in exhibition organized philately something of a lack of understanding, I think, of the impact of light. Light impact is cumulative, so for an exhibit here, which is for nine months, for example, there’s undoubtedly material which could be affected. I would suggest not noticeably, because we’ve kept the light levels at or below, and for “the Gems” well below, the five-footcandle standard, or 50 lux as we call it back in the U.K. Five footcandles is the standard, and that is understood in museum circles. It is a problem for exhibition organizers, for international shows, and that is a problem which does bother us.
The only saving grace is that material would be on display at an international for no more than five or 10 days, and if the light levels are relatively low, let’s say, maybe seven or eight footcandles, it might be acceptable. It does depend to some extent on the material. For example, to show a frame of Penny Blacks is going to be easier than showing a frame of Twopenny Blues, because that blue ink is unstable, or to show a frame of Penny Reds, because that ink can be extremely unstable.
At the exhibit here, at the end of the Rainbow Trials, we’ve got a page that shows the two selected colors for the 1841 Penny Red and the 1841 Twopenny Blue. Now that Penny Red isn’t its original color; it has oxidized, absolutely no question at all. It would have been in the selected color originally, but it certainly isn’t now. The oxidizing process actually affects the Twopence as well. The Penny Black is more stable, which is why it was a mistake of course!
Rosenblum: Have you or are you considering making a digital archive of the collection as sort of a permanent record?
Sefi: I think the answer to your question has to be no, currently. We have neither the resources nor the facilities to do it. What I hope to be able to do is that as and when things are illustrated for people by request (and they have to pay for it), that will effectively build up a series of digital images over time.
Also, the part of the Collection on display here was digitally photographed by the Smithsonian people when they came over to London in July last year. Now I have a disk of all of those images, and they’re very good, and so that will form one core of what will be a digital record.
Rosenblum: Let’s talk about acquisitions. Of course, the Kircudbright (pronounced kir-coo-bree) cover is the one that has gotten the most publicity in recent years. The block of 10 Penny Blacks canceled on the first day of use is spectacular, and I’m glad to have seen it here. Have there been other notable ones?
Sefi: There have been other acquisitions, but not as notable as that.
Rosenblum: What kinds of things do you look to acquire on the market?
Sefi: To fund the Kircudbright cover, we had a sale of duplicate material from the Collection in 2001, and there is still a fund of money left from that which will be used for particular things that come to the market which are a “must-have.” I think the attitude that we take is that something which is a major improvement to quality of a particular part of the Collection is something that we would look at very closely and very seriously. However, there is not much of that kind of material that the Collection lacks!
For Great Britain, we have a slightly different approach. Sir John Wilson and Sir John Marriott felt that if significant varieties of Great Britain material came to market, certainly they should be looked at closely with a view to acquisition. There are, in special issues and some of the definitive material, major errors or varieties that have come on to the market legitimately. (For those types of items, one has to be rather careful about provenance.)
To give you an example, a few 13p stamps of the 1976 roses set came out without value. Sir John Marriott acquired an unused copy of that error as well as the only used copy known, on cover.
Rosenblum: They were on display in London in 2000, I believe.
Sefi: Yes, that’s correct.
We’ve acquired quite a lot of Great Britain perforation varieties, such as missing perforations. These are mounted against a black background and therefore add something to a particular issue. Also we’ve got many examples of the gross missing colors that occurred in the 1960s and 70s.
The first part of the Great Britain portion of the Baillie sale  occurred a couple of weeks ago. There was some very desirable material. One item was a strip of ten of the 2 1/2d value of the 1961 Post Office Savings Bank set with four stamps missing all or nearly all of the black color. I would have loved to buy that, but the Collection has a single and I couldn’t really justify purchasing the strip.
I’ve also been able to acquire plating examples of the decimal castles high values. Most of those appeared at a time when the arrangement with Royal Mail was only to receive a single block of each value. I’ve succeeded in acquiring a lot of both the pre-decimal large Machin values to £1 and the decimal castles high values, and now the Collection is virtually complete.
In colonial material, the 1964 Falkland Islands ship error, the 6 pence, was an error that was acquired for the Collection.
There are some relatively cheap things that one can buy that actually add to the particular story of a stamp or stamp issue, and from time to time we look at that. At the moment we are so busy on exhibition matters that hunting for things to buy is not part of the agenda, though items do come to our notice.
Rosenblum: Do you still work through an agent to hide the true buyer? The point is made in Courtney that it is not wise to let buyers at an auction know that the Royal Philatelic Collection is bidding on something.
Sefi: Oh, invariably yes, at auctions. Quite often we would work through the auction house if we know them. There are two or three where we know the auction house quite well, and we’ll bid through their book. Otherwise we would use an agent, but we don’t do it that often.
I would certainly not sit in a room and bid, and indeed, one of my personal problems is that if I want to go sit in a room and bid on something in my own specialized collecting area, I’ve got to worry that people are thinking that The Queen is spending money and bid me up. There is a bit of a personal problem there!
Rosenblum: In Courtney’s discussion of the purchase of the Kircudbright cover purchase, he mentions that there was some discussion with the person you report to, the Keeper of the Privy Purse. He is Alan Reid now, isn’t he?
Sefi: Yes, though at that time it was Sir Michael Peat (who is now the Prince of Wales’ Private Secretary), and Alan Reid is now the Keeper of the Privy Purse. He became so in 2002.
Rosenblum: Obviously he has a financial interest in the collection, but is he at all philatelicly knowledgeable and does he take any other interest in it, or is it strictly a matter of finances?
Sefi: If he is, he has not told me, and I would have thought I would have seen him more frequently if he was! Having said that, he is certainly receptive to ideas and thoughts. I try not to trouble him more than I absolutely have to. Most of what actually goes through him is detail of material that has been requested to be shown at exhibition, and all of those go to The Queen and are personally decided on by her. She takes that interest because it is her personal property.
Rosenblum: Does your appointment come under any sort of periodic review by the Keeper of the Privy Purse? It seems that the prior Keepers were there until they either passed away or decided to retire, so is it effectively an appointment for life?
Sefi: I think only two died in harness: Tilleard, who was actually Philatelic Advisor, and Bacon. Wilson certainly went many years after retiring before he died; Marriott retired some years before he died; and Charles Goodwyn is still very much alive. So if you ask me at what point does someone say to me, “You’ve got to stand down,” actually I don’t know, and I’ll let you know when I find out!
I will have a formal meeting with Alan Reid at least once a year, and no doubt he’ll make up his own mind if he thinks that I’m not up to it. The word would get back quickly if I’m not, but there isn’t any formal process.
Rosenblum: Have you had an opportunity to meet The Queen?
Sefi: Yes, I have.
Rosenblum: In your position as the Keeper?
Sefi: No, shortly before, not in the context of becoming the Keeper, but in the context of being the Deputy Keeper, when she was examining material from the Collection.
Sefi: Yes, with both. Douglas Muir, the Curator, Philately at Postal Heritage Trust, is somebody I’ve worked with quite closely on a number of projects. One of those is the stamp ingot packs. Stamps of various eras are featured in silver ingots. The packs include description of the stamps, how they came to be, and so on. We’ve been cooperating with Royal Mail, whose project that is, along with the Royal Mint, the Postal Heritage Trust, and the Westminster Collection, who are the commercial side of that. We contribute material for the photographs and review the texts.
Also with Postal Heritage Trust, there’s been quite a lot of cross-matching on essays and so forth of Royal Mail stamps. They often been quite helpful in filling gaps that we shouldn’t really have had in the first place.
As far as the British Library is concerned, their collections are rather different in that they are not purely Great Britain and Commonwealth. There’s an immense amount of material in the British Library collections which have no bearing on what we have.
If David Beech, Head of Philatelic Collections, has somebody in who wants to see some material, David will direct him or her to get in touch with me because he usually knows the Royal Philatelic Collection has it if the British Library doesn’t. I’ve referred people to him as well. For example, they’ve got Crown Agents material that we sometimes refer to.
Indeed David is a close personal friend and has been for many years, long before I became involved with the Royal Philatelic Collection.
Rosenblum: We generally close our interviews with some questions about the hobby. I’d like to start this section by asking what your current personal collecting interests are.
Sefi: Well, one of the things about doing this job is that the amount of time that I have for my personal collection becomes desperately limited. I don’t think I’ve opened the safe more than twice in the last six months. I buy the odd thing. My personal interest and collecting area is and always has been the first Great Britain stamps of King George V and also on into the profile head period.
I have small, very neglected collections of Australian Commonwealth and Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika that I haven’t looked at for a very long time, and I have the odd things that I’ve picked up and that have attracted me. Of course, I have to say that working with The Queen’s collection rather spoils me in working with my own, although I can say with some smugness there are one or two things in my collection that aren’t in The Queen’s.
Rosenblum: How about your thoughts of the hobby in general and its status today? Do you think it’s a dying hobby?
Sefi: I don’t think I would go so far as to say that it’s a dying hobby. I would say that it’s an aging hobby. I think the demographics are very clear on that.
One has to recognize that so far as youth is concerned, there are several things working against collecting. One is it seems to be what in the United Kingdom would be called an anorak activity, a nerd activity if you like. Secondly, one of the attractions that certainly I had as a child was that I was collecting stamps of places that I had no expectation of ever visiting. Today it is completely different for our youth. If I just look back at the places I’ve been to over the past ten or so years — and not just on behalf of the Collection — I’ve been to Russia, Bulgaria, China, East and also South Africa, Borneo, Antigua and the Cayman Islands. I’ve been to the United States many times, and that ignores travel in Europe. There are places that 50 years ago, one had no contemplation whatsoever that one would be able to visit, and therefore these were places whose stamps were of interest.
I talked to someone last night from the Smithsonian National Board, somebody is who is not a collector now but engaged in it as a child as so many of us did. She said that stamp collecting taught her geography and that she wouldn’t know where half those places are otherwise. The problem is that many of the youth today don’t seem interested in geography; they aren’t interested in where places are. They may well think Moscow is slap-bang in the middle of France; equally they may well think Moscow, because there is a place called Moscow in the United States, is slap-bang in the United States somewhere. [Editor’s Note: There is a city of Moscow in Idaho and six other states, plus townships in two others.]
In the developed world the television age has, to a significant extent, somehow rather diminished children’s curiosity. Or maybe their curiosity has developed in a different direction, a more technical direction — the ability to use computers and what to do with them.
One of the attractions of philately is going to have to be to people who perhaps can be attracted to a new subject in their late 30s or their mid-40s. The problem may be that if they weren’t interested as a child, at 6, 7, 8, 9 years of age, then they possibly won’t be attracted in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
All of that may well be true in the developed world, but then look at the Far East and China. I think that China is going to be enormously powerful in a stamp collecting sense in 10 or 15 years time. Certainly the 1999 international exhibition held in Beijing was astonishing in terms of the numbers of people of who came.
All that said, some of the prices being paid in auction for high quality material these days are quite astounding. I think to some extent it must be what one would call new money that’s coming in. The prices that were being paid at the Baillie sale, and some Spink sales earlier this year, were tremendous. The word on the street, I think, is that in commercial terms the hobby is doing rather well at the moment.
Rosenblum: Being something of a writer and author, I know that publications are struggling. One of the few stamp collecting periodicals in the U.S., Stamp Collector, was recently sold and effectively discontinued. Also, clubs such as ours and other societies have difficulty in attracting and keeping members, and even more difficulty in getting someone with enough willingness to volunteer as an officer.
Sefi: I think that last one is the crucial point. We have an extremely developed structure of societies in the United Kingdom, probably more extensive than here, certainly where specialized societies are concerned. Yes, you are absolutely right — finding people to volunteer is difficult. At least a couple of really quite successful and reasonably large local societies in the UK in the past couple of years have closed because they could not find anybody who was prepared to take on tasks such as Honorary Treasurer and Honorary Secretary. That’s sad when that happens. It’s people not being prepared to get off their seats.
If you think about it, though, that’s a characteristic of many collectors. Collecting is a very private activity for many people. There are some major, major collections that are not known about. There are people who are not prepared to allow it to be known that they are collecting, who don’t join any societies, who may be known to some dealers (who jealously preserve their identities for obvious reasons). Baillie was one such. Very few in the philatelic world, so far as I’ve been able to find out, had even heard of him. There were two or three dealers and auctioneers who most certainly had, but he resisted any sort of attempt to persuade him that perhaps he should consider displaying material.
There are two very major collectors of Great Britain material, one of whom I don’t know but know of, one of whom I do know and who I see from time to time, who have what I think are the best collections of King George V Great Britain. They are very extensive, very varied, absolutely superb collections. Neither have ever shown and will never show, and their collections may well be sold anonymously when they die.
All that’s by way of saying that collecting is a private activity. That is why finding people who are prepared to exhibit or display material in a society context is quite often very difficult. The characteristic of a collector is a privacy, of not wanting to get involved. Some, however, are a bit more extroverted!
Rosenblum: When I go to a stamp show, I like to meet people, perhaps especially those that I’ve corresponded with but never met in person before. Others, however, go just to look at the exhibits and buy things.
Sefi: Fair enough, to each his own. That is something that sometimes organized philately doesn’t recognize. The part of organized philately that is involved in competitive exhibiting sometimes tends to be patronizing or be arrogant towards this vast groundswell of collectors who do their own thing because they like it, because they want to, because they get enjoyment out of it. It’s quite wrong, as I’m afraid that some people in the upper echelons of philately do, to look down on people like that.
Rosenblum: I want to thank you very much for sharing so much interesting information about the Royal Philatelic Collection as well as something about yourself and your thoughts about the hobby. And, of course, thank you for helping put together the excellent exhibit here at the National Postal Museum.
Sefi: You are quite welcome.
 Nicholas Courtney, The Queen’s Stamps: The Authorized History of the Royal Philatelic Collection, London: Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2004.
 Sir John Wilson, Bt, The Royal Philatelic Collection, London: The Dropmore Press, 1952.
 Sotheby’s is auctioning the Philatelic Collection formed by Sir Gawaine Baillie, Bt. Great Britain Part I was sold September 29 – October 1, 2004.