The Hobby of Kings

Some of the stamps in Asgarali Kassam’s collection. photos | courtesy
Some of the stamps in Asgarali Kassam’s collection. photos | courtesy 

Tiny things are becoming the investment stars. People are making handsome returns from collecting rare stamps, coins and notes, objects that are recording higher earnings than shares and gold. It may appear as no more than a boring hobby, but Asgarali Kassam who collects stamps, coins and notes knows how satisfying it is.

His face lights up as he talks about his journey of 50 years collecting stamps from different parts of the world.

To date, he has a stock of about three million stamps.

“There are 204 countries that exist in the world today, but the stamps I have are from 406 countries, meaning I hold stamps of countries that no longer exist,” he says.

He started collecting stamps at the age of 13. The hobby grew until he was 17 when he moved to Nairobi to study Electrical Engineering.

After graduation, he picked it up, began to fill the gaps in his collection, and picking coins and notes.

The beauty of rare stamps is that they keep on increasing in value. Sometimes the price either stays firm or goes up, but it never goes down.

According to Stanley Gibbons, the world’s pre-eminent, prestige collectibles merchant, no one can go back and print a new, authentic 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system that was issued in great Britain. This provides protection of the product and prevents supply manipulation, hence scarcity pushes prices up.

Asgarali says he did not start collecting for the money.

As a collector one has to be patient, persevere and not be greedy. The collector says if he was one who wanted money then he would already have sold his collection and made a sizable amount of money for himself.

“My end goal is to achieve something in my life, because I have put my heart and strength into collecting,” he says.

Oldest stamp

Safely stored in albums, the stamps have dates and years of collection and some of his oldest stamps are from Iran, British East Africa, India among other countries.

In his collection is the first Iranian stamp that is 130- years- old. Its current value is about Sh1.2 million (10,000 euros), he says.

The oldest stamp in his collection is from Belgium, dating back to 1721.

The older the stamp, the higher the value. However, when it is old but in poor condition its value might not be as much.

He says a stamp has to be legible. If one cannot read the postmark, the value of the stamp is zero.

The stamp’s denomination also matters, which is the price written on it.

“The stamp has to be mint with a postmark. If the denomination on the stamp is 2000 riel or it is a 100-years-old the value is high,” says Asgarali, one of the biggest collectors in the country.


In stamp designs, only a country can create categories. For example, he says, when he was commissioned to design stamps for Kenya during the Kenya at 50 celebrations, he had to include four separate prices.

That means one stamp can have four different designs. One design will be for local use, the second design for Africa, the third for Europe and Asia, the fourth design for China and America and each set will have different prices. Stamps and coins rank among the top 10 luxury investments made by the wealthy globally, according to the latest Knight Frank Wealth Report. However, very few Kenyans are investing in stamps, coins and notes.

Shera Noorbhai, an investment expert at Alexander Forbes, says most Kenyans are doing it as a hobby and not necessarily hoping to earn cash after 10 to 15 years.

‘‘The problem with such kinds of investments is more of beauty lies in the beholder. So you have to find a buyer who sees more value in the jewellery or coins or stamps,’’ she says.

Stored in banks

But despite the low interest from Kenyans, the value of stamps rose by 133 per cent, according to the latest Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index, while coins recorded a 195 per cent growth.

As the prices keep going up, these tiny objects are now being targeted by thieves. Two years ago, thieves broke into Asgarali’s house and stole some of his notes.

“I was devastated. I told them to take anything they want in my house but not my collection. It was very painful watching them take them,” he recounts the ordeal with tears in his eyes.

As a precaution, he now keeps his collection in a bank.

Some of the most interesting notes that he owns are from countries that no longer exist, such as Aden (now Yemen), Bahawalpur (now Pakistan), Afghanistan as a kingdom (now a republic), German East Africa, Burma (now Myanmar), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and East and West Pakistan.

His advice for anyone thinking of becoming a collector is to start early. Start small with the local stamps while in high school. After university, continue to expand the stock by buying from people who want to get rid of their collections or through exchange.

“One needs to have a very good PR system in terms of mingling with people from all over the world. When I meet people, I usually tell them about my hobby and usually one of them will tell me that they have a collection lying around their house (collected by their dads) and they have no use of it... and they end up giving them to me.”

His enthusiasm of being a passionate collector has rubbed off on his grandson who has shown interest in the hobby of collecting, stamps, coins and notes.