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Postage Pays For Norwegian Philatelist

Norwegian actuary Jo Kvernberg has turned a passion for stamps into a valuable collection.

“Stamps are valuable because they are rare — not because they are beautiful,” contends Jo Kvernberg, 57, one of the world’s premier stamp collectors. Yet there’s no denying the sensual shivers that the Norwegian philatelist still gets from inspecting an unusual series.

Consider the Large Hermes Head. Issued in Greece between 1861 and 1886, the stamps depict the profile of the fleet-footed herald of the Olympian gods — the ancient world’s equivalent of a postman. Kvernberg owns about 600 of them, which he estimates are worth a total of $30,000. Using a magnifying glass and spade-tipped forceps, the collector tries to discern minute disparities among the various heads, trademarks of the early industrial era. “This can be a real philatelic challenge,” he says. But an essential one: A slightly off-center head reduces a stamp’s value, whereas the rarest Hermes, which has an unusual reddish hue, can fetch as much as $200,000.

There are three salient points to be made about serious stamp collecting:

• During the current financial crisis, stamps have held their value as that of financial instruments and most other collectibles has plummeted.

• The reason stamp prices have been stable has a lot to do with the psyche of philatelists. “Stamp collecting isn’t one of those emotional markets, like contemporary art,” notes Richard Ashton, the London-based stamp expert for Sotheby’s. “The investment side isn’t a collector’s primary concern because he knows that the value of his stamps is going to rise over a reasonable time period.” In most cases, collecting is a lifetime endeavor. Usually, stamps go on market either because a collector wants to trade up or because his heirs never caught the philatelic bug and instead choose to sell off their inheritance.

• Traditionally, great stamp collectors have come from northern countries. Ashton quotes an old saying: “In Norway during winter you became religious, took up drink or collected stamps.”

Tall and lanky, Kvernberg bears a passing resemblance to Tim Robbins, the American film star, but he doesn’t lead a Hollywood lifestyle. He is an actuary rather than an actor and is part owner of Nordic Insurance Administration, an Oslo-headquartered firm that calculates insurance liabilities for pension funds.

Inspired by his older brother’s essay on the prices of rare stamps, Kvernberg began collecting in 1959, at the age of six. Four years later he made his first serious purchase: a 1930 U.S. airmail stamp, for the equivalent of 50 cents. “It seemed so expensive at the time,” he recalls. Since then Kvernberg has paid as much as $200,000, for a set of 19th-century German stamps. His most expensive single stamp — a Norway No. 1, from the country’s first stamp series, which dates from 1855 — cost $20,000.

Although the value of Kvernberg’s holdings has risen to undisclosed heights, he expands his collection with discipline, sometimes parting painfully with some stamps to purchase rarer ones. “It is impossible to hold on to everything,” he says. He focuses on 19th-century Norwegian stamps, British Commonwealth stamps from before 1930 and Russian stamps from the late czarist era, particularly the Zemstov stamps issued by provincial governments. Kvernberg’s Russian-born wife, Olga, helps him research the Zemstovs. But neither of their children — a son, 21, and a daughter, 19 — is interested in stamps. “It is often like that,” sighs Kvernberg. “Young people nowadays spend so much time on the Internet. When I look through photographs taken at auctions, there is not a single young person.”

Almost every major city has a philatelic club where visitors can mingle with local collectors. The annual MonacoPhil exhibition of the world’s leading private collections, held in Monte Carlo in December, has all the cachet of the Royal Ascot horse race in England. “I look at the great collections to get ideas for my own collection,” explains Kvernberg, a MonacoPhil regular.

But for excitement nothing beats an auction. Kvernberg says his most riveting was in 2006 at the Heinrich Köhler Auction House in Wiesbaden, Germany, where a Zemstov collection belonging to the late, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal went on sale. “There was an electric atmosphere in the auction room as prices kept rising,” says Kvernberg, who made the winning €90,000 ($130,000) bid. He points out that Wiesenthal was still adding to his collection at the age of 90. “This is a hobby that can keep people young,” insists Kvernberg.

Now if only the kids would listen.