An amazing collection of collections

Frank Shepherd's display of stamps and space-related items at the Joppa library branch doesn't scratch the surface of the horde of material he's accumulated over the years.

July 24, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Frank Shepherd is the master collector. Even as a World War II soldier supervising Nazi prisoners of war in Belgium, the collecting bug bit him hard.

That's when he started accumulating paintings created by German fighters imprisoned in a barbed-wire compound. Shepherd traded his Army rations for portraits, landscapes and still lifes made by hungry German soldiers conscripted to fight for Adolf Hitler.

But the prisoner art is nothing compared to Shepherd's stamp collection. Stacked to the ceiling in his Joppa home are shoeboxes and plastic bins full of stamps dating to the late 1800s. Each box is labeled by country of origin: Poland, West Germany, East Germany, Japan, Trinidad.

He has tens of thousands of stamps, many from countries that no longer exist.

Now he's putting them on display at the Harford County Public Library in Joppa. To commemorate the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Tuesday, he is exhibiting his NASA memorabilia, including stamps and autographed pictures of astronauts.

"The nice thing about collecting stamps is you meet a lot of people in other countries," said Shepherd, a retired security guard for Aberdeen Proving Ground. "I've traded with doctors, conductors on a railroad, a teacher in China."

Last month marked the quiet end of an era for stamp collectors such as Shepherd when the federal government printed its final postage stamp, ending 111 years of production. The U.S. Postal Service, which ended its contract with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, says the move will save tens of millions of dollars annually. From now on, U.S. postage stamps will be made by private printers.

Shepherd, who grew up on a farm in West Virginia, got his first stamp at age 12, after his father bought him a collecting kit for Christmas. He mailed in the top of a Wheaties box, and soon arrived a stamp from the 1930s radio show Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy.

Shepherd, 84, trades with stamp collectors around the world. He keeps the names and addresses of his contacts on index cards that fill a filing cabinet in his basement. The contacts regularly send him stamps from their countries, and he returns the favor.

Seldom a day goes by that he does not receive a package of stamps. On a recent day, he got an envelope filled with hundreds of stamps from Russia.

He's eagerly awaiting Chinese New Year stamps from a Chinese middle-school teacher with whom he has traded stamps since 1986.

"Russia probably is the best - they're so colorful [and] big," he said as he flipped through a stamp book in a reclining chair draped with a Washington Redskins blanket. (He collects sports memorabilia, too.)

Philatelists such as Shepherd have been collecting stamps since the 1800s, not long after the first stamp was printed in Great Britain in 1840. Seven years later, the United States printed its first stamp. The world produces about 14,000 new postage stamps a year, according to Linn's Stamp News.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt commended the hobby, saying, "I really believe it makes one a better citizen."

If Roosevelt was right, then Shepherd is a model citizen. One of Shepherd's oldest stamps is a 3-cent George Washington stamp that was made between 1870 and 1888. He pulls out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and flips through a stamp-appraisal book to find its value. It's nearly worthless.

Ken Martin, a spokesman for the American Philatelic Society, said age is less import than the number of stamps issued in a mintage.

"There are stamps from the 1870s that I could probably get a hundred copies [of] for two or three dollars," Martin said. "Age is one thing, but you have to remember quantity. Some stamps issued in the 1870s ... may have been used for 10 years. Even though relatively few people corresponded by mail, if virtually everybody is using that stamp for five or 10 years, it becomes pretty common."

Shepherd has collected other items. A combat engineer with the 10th Armored Division between 1940 and 1945, he brought back a number of artifacts from his service in Europe: a tattered Nazi flag, German soldiers' photographs of Hitler, the prisoners' paintings.

He owns more than a dozen of the paintings, traded for cigarettes and candy bars. There's even a portrait of him and his wife, drawn from a picture that he provided to a German soldier.

"He made us look like Germans," said his wife of 62 years, Vada, with a laugh. "It doesn't look like you, Frank."

Shepherd has long been involved in hobbies as more than just a collector. In the late 1950s, he and his wife opened a Middle River hobby shop that sold model airplanes, among other artifacts.

Now he gets a kick out of showing off his stamps at the library. He's also planning exhibits on trains and panda bears.

"The kids will go wild with that," he said, "because a panda bear is so pretty."

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