Zemstvo Issues

Interpreting and Predicting Zemstvo Values


It is particularly difficult to try and establish any reliable valuation framework within which to place zemstvos.  This is primarily the case because they are so scarcely traded - how, for example, can you value a stamp that hasn't had a public trade in the last five years!!!  The problem is exacerbated by the lack of any recent published pricing/catalog data.

Chuchin Values

There have been several bold attempts at publishing a set of valuations, with the best known (but not the earliest) being the Chuchin work of 1925.  Prior to Chuchin a couple of catalogs were printed while zemstvos were still being issued, and as such they suffer from not having a historical perspective on the complete overall and resolved marketplace for zemstvo issues.

In Chuchin's publication, he prices zemstvos in the equivalent of 1914 Gold Rubles, with the lowest price being 0.10 rubles (ie 10 kopecks) and the highest price being 50R.  In addition, some of the very rare stamps are rated on an "R" scale, from a single R to a quadruple RRRR.

Because the Chuchin catalog has been around "for ever" and in a cheap widely distributed form, it is thought that many people, both buyers and sellers, still base their opening opinions on zemstvo values based on taking the Chuchin prices and then increasing them by some formula to reflect present day values.

Barefoot Modification of Chuchin

In their 1988 reprint of the Chuchin work, J Barefoot Ltd editorialise that Chuchin's pricing scale equates in 1988 British terms to a price range from a low of about 0.50 up to a high of about 100 (or about US$1-200).  It is not clear if the 100 upper limit equates to the Chuchin 50R or the Chuchin RRRR upper limit.  They do observe that the range between the lowest and the highest price has narrowed from Chuchin's time due to most of the lower priced issues increasing in price, and have the good grace to also comment that "market prices vary enormously"!

This pricing estimate is not only very broad, but also is now 12+ years out of date, and so probably needs further modification to bring it closer to current market pricing.

Schmidt/Artuchov

At almost the same time as John Barefoot was republishing the Chuchin work, in August 1987 Alex Artuchov published the first volume of his multi-volume work on zemstvos.  In a section on pricing at the start of this book, he refers to the pricing guide that was earlier published by a German writer, Carl Schmidt (who published a two volume study in 1932 that comprises the basis for much of Artuchov's work).  Schmidt priced from a low of 0.25RM (presumably this stands for Reichmarks) up to a high of 350RM and then had four R categories on top of this.  Artuchov opines that in 1987 terms, the low value 0.25RM stamps are worth a minimum of US$4, whereas the higher value 350RM items are worth perhaps US$135 - a massive compression of pricing variation which he interprets as being due to many collectors seeking to build a basic collection of zemstvos, but few having a fully developed appreciation of the rarest and finest specimens.

He shows prices for the stamps in terms of these Schmidt values.  He publishes a helpful table that equates between the historic Schmidt values and his best guess of current market prices, although it is fair to observe that he simply creates some broad price bands rather than attempts to establish more exact pricing.

Although Artuchov promises to update his pricing relativity table in subsequent volumes, that has not yet happened.  In recent (Sept 00) email correspondence with him, he agrees that this is well overdue and hopes to publish an update in either the CSRP Postrider Journal number 47 or 48.

Back in June 1997, Postrider 40, he also wrote a fascinating article that attempts to understand the pricing basis that Schmidt used.  Artuchov looks at the Schmidt pricing many different ways in this article - he compares it to other catalog pricing, he compares it to the quantity of stamps originally issued, he compares it to the values on the stamps, and he compares it to the known quantities of stamps that have survived.  Alas, no matter how he mixes and matches the variables, he is unable to find any consistency in Schmidt's approach to pricing, and concludes both that Schmidt's pricing method was probably highly subjective and also that in the present day, some zemstvos are being sold for substantially more than they "should be" sold for, whereas others are being sold for substantially less.  Sadly, he doesn't tell us which ones he thinks are way overvalued or way undervalued.  :)

Mint/Used Relativity

Valuation of zemstvos is made even more challenging because the published values do not distinguish between mint and used.  Instead, Chuchin observes that he prices either interchangeably, "whichever is the more common", but fails to indicate which is the more common on a stamp by stamp basis!!!  I lack sufficient knowledge to comment as to which are more common.

It would also appear that postally used zemstvos might sometimes have parts of two postmarks on them - presumably a cancel from the local accepting zemstvo office and then a second cancel from the imperial post office that took the mail on from the zemstvo office (in cases where the mail was going out of the district).  I suspect that these are more valuable than "ordinary" cancels, but again don't know for sure.  Suffice it to say that I'll personally pay more for them until advised otherwise!  :)

Some cancelled stamps have been pen cancelled and it is reasonable to assume that pen cancels are the least valuable of stamps.

Other Factors

You should also read the page on interpreting auction results, which applies with as much strength to zemstvo sales as it does to anything else.

A Strange and Glorious Event

It is relevant to note in terms of interpreting the zemstvo sales price data I report on, that in mid August 2000, a new zemstvo seller appeared in the US, and this person almost literally flooded eBay with over 210 zemstvos for sale during the course of a glorious one week period!  While this made for a very exciting time for those of us keen to build up our collections - typically there would be less than ten zemstvos offered on eBay in a normal week, and here instead were 210 - I also feel that the sudden profusion of zemstvos acted to depress the overall prices that the auctions achieved for this seller.  A typical zemstvo buyer probably has a limited budget to spend (I certainly know that is true of me), and while it is convenient to pick and choose one or two zemstvos to bid on every week or two and stay within that budget, a sudden flood of 200 means that most people couldn't afford the consequence of successfully winning all 200 lots, and so I suspect many people bid smaller amounts and on fewer lots than they normally would wish to.  Please keep this in mind when evaluating sales data for the month of August 2000 (and probably everyone will be spent out for September, too!).

A Mechanistic Approach

A lot was happening in August 2000.  I was approached via email by another zemstvo seller, offering 200-300 different zemstvos (!!!) at $4 each, being zemstvos that Chuchin values for 50kop or less each.  This same seller said that he would sell zemstvos that were valued by Chuchin for more than 50kop on the basis of multiplying the ruble value by eight and calling it dollars - for example, a 1R value would be sold for $8.  This is an interesting and easily understood pricing mechanism, and doesn't seem to be all that far removed from observed market values for lower valued zemstvos.  However, I also note that he recently sold a stamp that Chuchin values as "R" on eBay at its opening asking price of $25, whereas his formula would suggest a hoped for value somewhere in excess of $400!  His pricing mechanism might be appropriate for lower values, but at higher values it plainly starts to move away from observed reality such as both he and I have seen.  :)

I also observed that most of the profusion of lower priced zemstvos released for sale on eBay in August had opening bids set at ten times the Chuchin price (eg Chuchin values at 0.15, opening price $1.50, etc).

The pricing approach of $4/zemstvo for common issues - was also confirmed as being close to normal market practice by Andrew Cronin, Editor of the CSRP journal "Postrider" in August 2000.

Analysis from Terry Page

Terry Page is a well known zemstvo collector who lives in the Surrey district of England.  He also coordinates the Zemstvo Study Group at the World Society of Russian Philately.  He very kindly provided the following commentary on zemstvo values in October 2000 :

As you rightly say, the valuation of Zemstvo stamps (and for that matter Zemstvo covers)  is not as easy as normal catalogue listed material where the combined resources of Michel, Gibbons and Scott determine and regularly update values. But first things first, and let's look at some of the problems and peculiarities of zemstvo philately.

1)  Virtually every Zemstvo adhesive, even the most common,  can be considered as "scarce" in relation to "normal" catalogued stamps.  Many of the cheaper zemstvos had printings of no more than 50,000 copies and survival rates were relatively low. Stamps rated as RRR for example are rarer than the Mauritius "Post Office" issues or for that matter, the funny American stamp with the upside-down aeroplane!  Yet the prices are peanuts in comparison. Probably $1000 for such a rarity,  or even  less.

2)  Traditionally, demand from collectors has been relatively low.  There are only a handful of serious collectors in the world, although there are many low level collectors who will pay relatively modest amounts for attractive stamps, either as part of a general Russian  or a "Cinderella" collection.  There are also thematic collectors who will pay handsomely for a bird, bear, beehive or whatever.

This situation, though, is changing, largely due to the increasing and developing interest within Russia herself, mostly from the so-called "New Russians", many of whom have millions in the bank and for whom such things as taxation are mere theoretical concepts.  If there is an economic extension of the middle class in Russia (as yet debatable), then interest will grow even more as new collectors get in to their own local postal history.

The renaissance in zemstvos over just the last few months has been further fuelled by interest generated as a result of the incredible Faberge sale in Zurich last year which, despite putting extra material on to the market, has not weakened prices.  There is also another big zemstvo sale coming up in Zurich this December.  Thus, both the supply and the demand for zemstvo stamps is rising, although both are still low in relation to other areas of philately.

3)  The Chuchin catalogue was published in 1925 and the Schmidt catalogue came out in stages during the thirties. Schmidt is technically the better work but its non appearance in English has led to Chuchin becoming the benchmark.  There are areas of disagreement between the two but the broad consensus of agreement over values for perhaps 90% of stamps is confirmatory of a high degree of accuracy in assessing relative scarcity and value.  Thus, the logic of fixing a notional present day value to the obsolete currencies of these two catalogues makes sense when trying to price zemstvo stamps in today's market.  The resultant prices will largely be correct in relation to each other and the overall market will determine the rate of the dollar, pound or Euro to the Chuchin Rouble.  There will, of course, be wide variations in some prices but this is normal in any small market with a low supply and in the Zemstvo market a single collector will possibly pay much more than the norm for an item he needs; especially when he knows he may never see it again.  Nevertheless, the Chuchin based formula remains relevant to the majority of transactions.

4)  So what is the going rate against the Ch. Rouble and how is this expressed in the various currencies which themselves fluctuate against each other?  I think we can accept a 15/20% variation to account for fluctuations and rounding up.

I would say that the retail price of any undamaged zemstvo stamp should be $4/5.

Thereafter, the rate per Ch.R would be $8-10.

For R, RR, RRR etc stamps, say $250/300 per "R".  As some "R" stamps are in fact rarer than others, allow for some elasticity in these rates.

My experience is that since the renewed interest in Zemstvos after the Faberge auction last year, most dealers are asking for prices at the higher rather than the lower end of this range. I am usually pleasantly surprised to be able to buy a stamp at less than the full $10/Ch.R.

5)  For covers, there seems to be a "rule of thumb" which says $150 starting price for the most common.  For a rare district (under 10 recorded covers), perhaps $600/750. I recently paid $1000 for one of two known covers from a particular district.

For a rare stamp on a cover from a rare district....well, I suppose its just a question of a willing buyer and a willing seller...and the sky's the limit!

Dealer Comments

Fred Bean, the "Stamp Professor", also agrees with this and says (Sept 00) "Basically you have covered the major factors in the pricing decision.  Roughly $8-10 equals one ruble from Chuchin.  With adjustments for condition, experience, supply and mood swings(!)."

Trevor Pateman from Britain says (Sept 00)

Like many dealers and collectors I use the Chuchin catalog, for all its faults, and price as follows: Minimum price is 3 to 4 pounds (say $5) depending on condition. Then 1 Chuchin rouble = 7 or 8 pounds depending on condition. However, Chuchin underprices many varieties ike tete beche for which I cannot get enough copies and can sell at a big premium on my normal price scheme. The same goes for some imperfs (not all). I hope this is helpful - it is not confidential. My stock of Zemstvos at present is based on parts of the Keller and Faberge collections - from Faberge I have his collections of Demyansk, Kamshylof, Novgorord, Orgeev, and Soroki.

Current Values, Observations, and Summary

Trying to summarise some of the above, it is fair to say that few zemstvo will normally sell for less than $5 a piece, and indeed my own rule of thumb is "buy it if it is less than $5".

The correlation between observed selling prices on eBay and Chuchin or Schmidt/Artuchov pricing seems to be relatively weak but more strongly correlated to the Chuchin pricing.  I think what has occurred is that the lower part of the market - ie perhaps everything that Chuchin valued for less than 0.50 ruble - has been pretty much lumped together into the "about $5" category, and in this lower range, the key influencing factors are the quality and intrinsic interest/appearance of the stamp, and random chance factors in terms of who is bidding that week, and whether or not the stamp is one that they wish to add to their collection or not.

It seems that the Chuchin price is mainly a factor in influencing sellers for how much they list stamps for and how much they hope to sell their stamps for, rather than for influencing buyers as to how much they are prepared to buy for, and the prime factors remain as above - interest/appearance/quality and also the random fluctuations of who is buying and what they already have.  With the small number of both buyers and sellers, pricing is sometimes a function of what the sellers ask, and sometimes a function of what the buyers are willing to pay, but on balance, pricing is probably slightly more a function of the seller than the buyer - ie, it is a seller's market.

Additional information from other sources points to a recent (ie during the course of 2000) firming in zemstvo prices due to an increase in interest and demand within Russia itself, and it seems that the $10 = 1 Chuchin ruble equation for "average" stamps may sometimes need to be adjusted upwards - perhaps into the realm of $12-14/ruble - for higher value choice material (such as tete beche and couche items), and of course, a keen motivated buyer has to always keep in mind that even if an asking price for a rare item is higher than it "should" be, the alternative to buying it at this high price might be to never have an opportunity to buy the item again due to its scarcity - this can act to push prices way out of normal ranges on occasion.

When considering higher value zemstvos, these rules of thumb become less precise.  I'd love to hear more from people that buy and sell higher value zemstvos and learn how they appraise the value of such pieces.