Red-hot 'roo stamps
Hopping … this block of six £2 Kangaroo stamps sold for $27,500 at Leski Auctions.
Any outbreaks of spontaneous joy you may have witnessed this month could have been coming from stamp collectors, known as philatelists, celebrating the centenary of Australia's Kangaroo and Map series, the country's first national stamps.
The first of the series, the one penny, was released on January 2, 1913, in Sydney, and a few days later in other states. Other denominations appeared over the next three months. While the absence of the king's head caused some controversy, this design remained in use until 1948.
Celebrations will peak from May 10-15, when a World Philatelic Exhibition will be held at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. Organisers expect about 100,000 stamp collectors from around the world to attend.
The Kangaroos, as they are called, are now more popular than ever. Hundreds of serious collectors feature this series in their portfolios, and a few concentrate on them exclusively.
Those with established collections could be in for a good year. Gary Watson, of Prestige Philately in Boronia, Melbourne, says it's a good time to sell, and there are always plenty of buyers around the world looking for rare Kangaroo varieties.
This has been the case for some time. In February 2007, the massive collection of the Australian philatelist Arthur Gray was sold through Shreves auction house in New York. The 849 lots achieved a total of $7,158,000. Remarkably, every lot sold, setting several world records, including one for the highest total achieved for a single stamp issue.
Among the spectacular individual results was $265,000 for a block of four 1919 £1 ''brown and blue'' Kangaroo stamps bearing the imprint of the printer, T.S. Hamilton. This is the only imprint block of this stamp in private hands, and was bought by a British collector.
Another record was $176,930 for a single Kangaroo stamp, the 1913 £2 ''black and red'' bearing the JBC monogram of the printer, J.B.Cooke. It was picked up by one of seven prominent Australian dealers - Watson included - who flew over for the sale.
Most of Gray's stamps were brought back to Australia. It was a smart decision for him to sell in the US, when the greenback was worth about 30 per cent more than it is today.
Another prominent Kangaroo collector was Hugh Morgan, chief executive of the Western Mining Corporation until 2003 and a member of the board of the Reserve Bank for 14 years. He inherited his father's impressive collection of Australian stamps and added to its value by boosting the Kangaroo component.
Morgan sold the collection in November through Spink & Sons in London. The results were less spectacular than for Gray's stamps, but a few items went for about £100,000 ($152,000) each. Morgan hired a philatelic curator to maintain his collection and prepare it for the auction.
Another major sale of the Kangaroo stamps - those in the collection of Adelaide pharmacist Stuart Hardy - is scheduled for March at the Royal Exhibition Building. At this level, stamps have the same investment potential as fine art or real estate. Even at the entry level, there is potential for significant profit.
Gary Watson usually has a selection of Kangaroo stamps in his general auction catalogues, and there have been some bargains sold in recent times.
A typical mid-range result was the $27,500 paid for a block of six of the £2 black-and-rose variety, sold through Leski Auctions in Melbourne in February last year. According to the catalogue, there is ''only one larger block in private hands''.
Watson says buying the most expensive items is not necessarily the best choice. Any stamp worth more than $1000 can achieve good results if bought wisely, he says.
''These can be a good investment, provided you go for top quality,'' Watson says. ''That's the key to it.''
But he warns that these stamps are now so popular, it's a challenge for those coming into the market raw. Research is important. Even the state of the perforations can affect the value, as can the condition of the adhesive gum.
Watson recommends investing in a copy of the Australian Commonwealth Specialists' Catalogue, usually referred to as the ACSC. The fourth Kangaroo edition was released in 2004, and an update is expected soon.