While novice collectors are expected to put on their blue suede shoes and start buying when the Elvis Presley commemorative stamp finally becomes reality, experts don't expect it to be a financial boon for anyone but the U.S. Postal Service.
The stamp, which has braved critics who say Elvis isn't worthy, will be a hit -- after Americans cast votes on whether to go with a "young" or "old" Elvis physiognomy, that is. Just don't expect the Elvis stamp to be an investment hit.
"Release of the stamp is going to bring collecting to legions of Elvis fans, who have been lobbying long and hard for such a stamp," said Michael Laurence, editor-publisher of Linn's Stamp News. "But, generally speaking, few stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service since the 1930s have appreciated in value."
The problem is that most modern U.S. stamps are printed in such large quantities that the number that survive unused is enormous. For example, millions of people who bought sheets of 3-, 4- and 5-cent stamps years ago have found there's a glut and that the stamps aren't even worth face value.
Fewer than 5 percent of modern stamps have appreciated in value. Among them is a 1982 Jackie Robinson commemorative 20-cent stamp now is worth $1 and a 1983 Babe Ruth 20-cent commemorative $1.50. During the weak economy of that period, few of those stamps were bought by collectors and put aside.
Other exceptions gaining in value are stamps that contain errors, such as the wrong color or a shift in the perforation.
The Postal Service, whose surveys show there are 22 million collectors of U.S. stamps, makes close to $200 million annually from new-issue commemorative stamps bought by collectors and never used. Perhaps one should be philosophical: The goal of most folks is to get enjoyment and educational value from stamps.
"The Elvis stamp is going to be the hottest stamp ever issued, and, while I don't know whether it will go up in value, you should think of it as owning a frozen moment of history," said John Reznikoff, a dealer in Stamford, Conn., whose University Stamp Co. specializes in rare U.S. stamps.
Investing in stamps has been a tricky, heartbreaking business. Supply and demand, as well as design, subject, popularity and condition, play a role. There are financial quirks. Throughout the 1970s, collector stamps increased steadily in value, with a boom in 1978 through 1980. Then the market went into a tailspin, with values falling by more than 50 percent. This year, collector stamps are up about 5 percent over last year.
"The market currently appears to be very firm, with an increased interest in collecting quality," said Tor Bjork, head of the stamp department at Christie's auction house in New York.
There are big-ticket sales of older stamps. Christie's recently auctioned an 1851 U.S. 1-cent Benjamin Franklin "blue" block of eight stamps for $88,000 (less than the expected $100,000). It occurred at Christie's largest stamp sale, with 1,600 sale lots bought.
The most valuable stamp is the 1855 3-skilling Banco "color-error" stamp from Sweden, bought at a European sale two years ago for $1.1 million.
You can collect for a few cents, a few dollars or hundreds of dollars. You can also peruse mail and old letters. Have modest appreciation goals and, when buying, select a dealer you trust.