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Collecting Handpainted First Day Covers

by Don Reinke and John Weaver

With all of the new HD/HP cachetmakers that have appeared on the scene in recent years, the new collector (and perhaps even the more experienced collector at times...) is faced with a number of decisions. As quality artists continue to enter the field and prices consequently rise, it becomes increasingly more difficult to purchase all of the covers you'd like. Most collectors are faced with the dilemma of having to identify which covers should be selected and which one's must be passed by. Let's talk about some of the factors that might influence your decision. (the reader is referred to parts I and II in this series, from which we shall borrow heavily for terminology and examples).

Whether you are a new collector or an established collector who has decided to expand his collection of HD/HP covers, there will be several things to consider. Among these are the: appeal of the artwork, philatelic value, price of the cover, and availability to name just a few. Let's take a look at some of these:

PRICE The issue price of an HD/HP cover can vary dramatically. We have seen nice covers that sell as low as $15 and others that command as much as $100 or more. The average price for a good HD/HP cover has been around $45. This is the price that the artist typically charges his or her subscribers. Naturally if the covers are being handled by a cover dealer, that dealer must mark up the price to cover overhead and profit margin. However, a direct subscription, or subscription through a dealer, is the only way to guarantee access to all of the covers produced by the artist, at relatively reasonable prices. Often times, to obtain a cover on the after-market, is a much more expensive proposition. The new initiate should decide, first, what price range fits their budget. This can appreciably narrow down their choices.

The best comment I have heard yet about price came from an artist with 25 years of experience in the field. After seeing many examples of HD/HP cover art and getting an idea of what is being payed for them he said, 'Many of the people who are buying these covers (HD/HP) don't realize what they are getting for their money' ... the implication being that the original, limited-edition, artwork is in many ways -- priceless.

APPEAL Once the collector has decided the range allowed by his or her budget, the next criteria will be the personal appeal of the artwork. We will not speculate on what constitutes GOOD cover art. It's an accepted fact that tastes in artwork vary greatly. The best advice we can give is to purchase artwork that you will enjoy having in your collection even if the resale value should go down.

Before making a final decision on whether or not a particular cover appeals to you, there are a few questions you might want to ask of the artist making the cover. Don't be shy about asking these questions. The reason that it is important to know the answers to these questions in advance is that learning an unfavorable fact later will certainly detract from it's appeal.

Ask the cachetmaker whether they are using a good quality acid-free envelope. Those of you who have been to cover shows in the past have seen hundred year-old envelopes that have become off-color and brittle. Using an acid-free envelope slows this deterioration process considerably.

Ask the cachetmaker whether their basic design is traced onto the envelope by hand or whether it is printed. If it is printed, this cover is not an HD/HP, but is what we have called P/HP (printed and hand-painted). Others call this variety of cover P/HC (hand-colored), as listed in 'A Glossary of First Day Cover Terms' in the American First Day Cover Society New Members Handbook. This minor distinction separates a completely original painting from one which is partially mass-produced. The difference in pricing, appeal, and secondary market realization is often significant.

Ask the cachetmaker whether the design is his/her own (original design) and whether the artwork has been applied by the artist who signed the cover. We have been surprised to learn recently that some artists commission students or other artisans to finish some or all of the artwork on their covers. Although it is not illegal or even unethical, we believe that the collector has a right to know in case it makes a difference to them.

COLLECTIBILITY Collectibility covers many facets ... most of which are difficult to quantify. However, there are some which can be generally applied. These include uniqueness, completeness, availability, consistency, and market value.

Uniqueness depends on how many copies of the design were made. Many HD/HP artists sign and number their issues. This allows the collector to know exactly how many other copies of this cover exist. Most collectors prefer a limited edition size that is known. Under the same mantle of uniqueness comes the question of varieties within an issue. While one might argue that different designs on the covers within a given issue would increase the uniqueness, there is another factor that comes into play. That factor is what we call the quality of completeness.

In order for a cover line to be popular on the after-market, most dealers can tell you that it is important for many collectors to be able to obtain as many covers as possible from a given cachetmaker. Most collectors are of the stamp collector bent -- that is, we are always seeking to 'fill in the empty spaces'. If an artist produces a different design on every single cover for example, then, by many philatelic collectors' definition, a set could not be complete unless it contained every single piece of artwork. Therefore one must balance the search for uniqueness with the ability to obtain a complete collection. The same reasoning implies that 'add-ons' are not a desirable item to many after-market collectors.

Closely tied to uniqueness and completeness is the availability of a cover. While low issue sizes are important to some, it can be frustrating if the edition size is so low that one cannot obtain covers from a particular cachetmaker. Once again the collector must balance uniqueness with availability. The best way to determine availability is to watch mail bid sales and dealer ads to see which covers are consistently made available.

Some HD/HP artists are well known for nearly always producing a beautiful cover for each issue that they do in a given year. This important quality is known as consistency. Should you decide to collect from a cachetmaker, we highly recommend that you look at several of his or her previous issues to see if the beauty that you see in one issue is there in other issues as well.

Many collectors don't consider the after-market when purchasing their covers. While we do not recommend this as a major factor in cover choice ... it must be considered. The second author was acquainted with a long-time HD/HP collector. This collector chose covers solely on the basis of beauty and appeal. Fortunately for him, his tastes ran toward cachetmakers who have subsequently become very popular on the resale market. When he became terminally ill, he decided that he wanted to take a long trip across Canada ... but didn't have the funds to do so. By selling his HD/HP collection he was able to fulfill his dream and take the trip. Thus, the collector must be aware that an unexpected need may arise. And while the collector shouldn't have to be concerned strictly with the profit potential, perhaps it would be wise to be aware of what an expensive cover might bring on the after-market.

Some of you will be able to buy artwork that you enjoy and don't need to be concerned about the price or collectibility ... but if you are working with a limited budget, as most of us are, and you are trying to get the 'best buy' for your dollar ... consider some of the points we've touched on here. We look forward to your comments on any or all of these topics!