Collecting Used Federal Duck Stamps – Part Five

In today’s post we will look at the 14 federal duck stamps that were issued from 1984-85 through 1997-98 (RW51 – RW64). In 1998, U.S. Post Offices were supplied with new style, self-adhesive stamps (commonly known as peel and stick) to sell hunters. Gummed stamps were still produced, however, these were sold by the United States Postal Service via mail order, at philatelic windows and through stamp dealers. So while it is still possible to find traditional style duck stamps used on licenses from the last 20 years or so, it is the exception to the norm.

Once placed on a license, the self-adhesive duck stamps may be difficult to remove. Therefore, collecting used stamps from 1998 on poses an additional challenge for collectors. As Michael and I do not have examples of all the stamps after RW64 with a small signature in our collections, we have decided this would be a good place to end this series for now and we will return to it down the road.

As explained in Part Four, following the 1980-81 season (RW47), the number of duck stamps sold dipped below the two million mark. Sales remained relatively strong through the 1984-85 season (RW51), averaging 1,903,808, before entering into a period of steady decline that saw them drop  below 1.5 million for seven straight years (1988-89 through 1994-95, RW55 – RW61).

Starting in 1995, federal duck stamp sales began to pull out of their extended funk and steadily increased in each of the three seasons prior to the debut of the new style stamps – to a respectable 1,697,590 during 1997-98 (RW64). We shall explore the reasons for this and see why, in retrospect, it is actually quite understandable and not the dire straights some have made it out to be.

As it affects the pursuit of used duck stamps with small signatures, however, one should expect them to be somewhat more difficult to acquire from this – the Post Heyday Period.


Another Day in the Sun

Although the seeds for decline had already been planted, the hobby blissfully enjoyed one more day in the sun. The Department of Interior decided to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first federal duck stamp with the 1984-85 issue (RW51). The 1983 art contest judges selected William C. Morris’ watercolor featuring a pair of American Wigeons to serve as the vignette (See Figure 1).


Figure 1. Original entry and 1983 contest winner by William Morris. Courtesy of Richard Prager.



As part of the official hoopla surrounding the occasion, Congress authorized a rare special printing consisting of 15 uncut sheets of 120 duck stamps to be prepared with a commemorative inscription in the selvage. The intact sheets, including a unique cross gutter block in the center (see Figure 2), were to be auctioned for the benefit of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

One sheet was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and the remaining 14 sheets were eventually sold in two separate auctions.



Figure 2. RW51 Special Printing cross gutter block of four, ex Csaplar.



Although many believed the honor should have remained solely with Phil Scholer (see Part Four), it was decided to market the 1984 print (and 51st stamp) as the official 50th Anniversary Duck Stamp. By this point, the momentum for marketing, buying & selling and collecting duck stamp prints had been building up ever since Bill Webster published the 1974 wood ducks print by David Maass – unabated.

Since the 1983 Golden Edition medallion was such a success, It was decided that William Morris should also have a separate medallion edition in 1984. Instead of being round, it was square with approximately the same proportions of the stamp (see Figures 3 ad 4).



Figure 3. 1984 50th Anniversary Federal Duck Stamp Print in its original folder with medallion at bottom.



Figure 4. 1984 50th Anniversary Federal Duck Stamp Print.



Something resembling mass hysteria pervaded the marketing for the 1984 print. Probably, much of the demand stemmed from the “investment potential” of the piece. I, too, was caught up in the fervor – selling no less than 275 medallion edition prints to collectors, investors, friends and even relatives.

When the final number of pre-orders was tallied, it was decided to make the medallion edition size, alone, 11,500 – or more than the total edition size of any federal duck stamp print published prior to 1980. The “regular” edition numbered 20,400 for a grand total of 31,900 prints.

This was not only more than for any other print in the program’s history to date – but more than the total for every edition of every duck stamp print published through 1974 (figuring Maass at 4,000), combined!


This would prove to be the apex of the duck stamp print market and, in retrospect, many of the prints that were published after 1976 were “overachievers” fueled by a very favorable economic climate, unprecedented promotion, continued momentum and, probably, some wishful thinking. 

Keep in mind that when an artist or publisher is deciding on the edition size (the number of prints), they must consider “future demand”. This can be a tricky thing to gauge, in the moment, either during a period when things are going really well or when they are not going well but you believe they will once again – at some point. Hindsight has shown us that some did a better job than others. But hey, we are all human.


Falling Back to Earth

Over the years, much has been made about the decline in not just duck stamp and print collecting –  but stamp collecting, in general. Everyone has a favorite theory concerning this “predicament”. Well, I am here to tell you, things are not so bad – really – and, in fact, were it not for one brief period when everything was truly grand, it is likely we could be pretty content with things the way they are.

Those who are old enough and have a good memory are able to recall the the relatively brief period from 1977-1980, the pinnacle of the U.S. stamp market, and may be inclined to make (in my opinion) unfair comparisons between then and every period that has since followed. It occurs to me that they have, perhaps, forgotten some important details.

For those who don’t have a great memory or were not involved in the hobby then – and have just heard or read about the heyday second hand – knowledge of these details can make a significant difference in the way you view the trajectory of the hobby and even the way you judge it today.

Therefore, by way of explaining the relative difficulty in obtaining used duck stamps with small, unobtrusive signatures following the Heyday Period, I thought it may be useful for our frame of reference to examine the facts pertaining to the rapid “rise and fall” of the market for duck stamps and prints.

Rapid Rise of the Market. As we saw in the last post, the market for duck stamps and, especially, duck stamp prints, rose rapidly following the end of the Vietnam War. Although the great and varied art was invaluable in first drawing attention to our “product” and then creating an atmosphere of excitement around it (today they would call it “buzz”) –  there was more going on here than meets the eye.

You see, the rising market for duck stamps and prints mirrored an increased interest and spending in a wide variety of collectibles – not just U.S. stamps (to include duck stamps and prints). Every hobby I am familiar with (Hawaiiana, Native American art, old bottles, postcards, etc.) experienced a huge surge in spending during the late 1970s.

Among all the various collectible markets, those for venerable stamps and coins may have benefited the most from a unique set of economic circumstances that made it easier for people to choose to become collectors and/or investors during this time.

Many people have pointed to the Nixon Administration taking the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971 for setting these circumstances in motion. I am not an economist, however, my research suggests it is likely somewhat more “complicated”. Nevertheless, the dollar’s purchasing power rapidly eroded throughout the remainder of the 1970s and culminated in upwards of 13% consumer price inflation by the end of the decade (see Figure 5).



Figure 5. In 171, the U.S. was taken off the gold standard.



In terms of gold, in 1971 one ounce could be purchased for $35. By the end of the decade it was $350 and headed toward $850 in January of 1980. At this time, many people invested in gold as a hedge against inflation. For a similar reason, during this same time the market for collectibles, including duck stamps and prints, benefitted from an unprecedented influx of spending.

A Relatively Unknown Fact Today. Facilitating this unprecedented flow of money on the part of both collectors and investors into stamps, coins and other collectibles – is the fact that citizens could spend money taken from their individual retirement accounts (IRAs) on collectibles without penalty.

In other words, during this period you could include duck stamps and prints in your IRA or Keough plan much as you can bank savings accounts and stocks today.

The Rules Changed. In fact, so much money flowed into stamps and other collectibles that in 1981, under the Reagan Administration, Congress addressed it in the Economic Recovery Tax Act. According to the official explanation prepared by the Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation:



The new tax law took effect on January 1, 1982. Since that time, the purchase of stamps or other collectibles by by a retirement plan is deemed as a distribution for tax purposes. The change had a profound effect on the market for stamps and other collectibles, as one of the primary motivations for purchase “vanished, literally overnight.”

The Double Dip Recession. In 1979, under the Administration of Jimmy Carter, Paul Volker was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve and tasked with getting inflation under control. Volker succeeded in rapidly slowing inflation by raising rates and, in so doing, the rate of growth in the U.S. However, a side effect was the notorious double dip recession of 1980-82 (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. The double dip recession of the early 1980s. Chart courtesy of Investopedia.



U.S. unemployment increased 50% from the summer of 1980 to the end of 1982 – hitting 10.8%. This was the highest in U.S. history since the Great Depression, until 2020 (see Figure 7).



Figure 7. U.S. Unemployment. Chart courtesy of the New York Times.



A Powerful One, Two Punch. Between the tax code change and the double dip recession, most collectibles, to include duck stamps and prints, suffered a powerful combination blow from which it would take many years to adequately recover.

Since the stamp market, in particular, benefitted so greatly from the previous tax laws (In the late 1970s, I can remember people literally walking the streets of Manhattan with suitcases full of cash – desperately looking for quality stamps to invest in), quite understandably, it was never again able to reach the exalted heights it attained from 1977-81.

At this point I would like to introduce and discuss the Linn’s U.S. Stamp Market Index. When we take a narrow view, we can immediately see a direct correlation between the unique set of economic circumstances outlined above and the stamp market – a classic inverted “V”.

First, the market rose rapidly during the the late 1970s, when people were looking for a hedge against inflation and the current tax laws rewarded investment in stamps, prints and other kinds of collectibles. Then, during the double dip recession (1980-82), the market sputtered. Finally, after the new tax law took effect in January of 1982, it entered a period of steep decline (see Figure 8).



Figure 8. U.S. Stamp Market Index (1977-1985). Courtesy of Linn’s Stamp News.



Now, let us take a wider view of the stamp market. After falling for a number of years, the stamp market was able to correct itself to a great extent – without the benefit of runaway inflation and favorable tax laws (see Figures 9 and 10).



Figure 9. U.S. Stamp Market Index (1970-1997).



As stated at the beginning of this post, following the 1980-81 season (RW47), duck stamp sales dipped below the two million mark for the first time in 12 years. Although hunters accounted for the majority of duck stamp sales, the buying habits of many of them were affected in much the same way as collectors and investors.

In fact, by this point in time, many hunters had become collectors and/or investors on some level, themselves. They bought extra unused stamps for their collections, to save for their kids or to be framed with prints in their home or office. In addition, an untold number of hunters supported their local Ducks Unlimited or California Waterfowl Association Chapters by buying framed stamps and prints at fund-raising dinners and auctions.

Furthermore, If we compare the graph in Figure 9 to the number of duck stamp sold for the years 1980-81 through 1997-98 (RW51 – RW64):


1980-81 (RW47)   2,045,114

1981-82 (RW48)   1,907,120

1982-83 (RW49)   1,926,253

1983-84 (RW50)   1,867,998

1984-85 (RW51)   1,913,861

1885-86 (RW52)   1,780,636

1986-87 (RW53)   1,794,484

1987-88 (RW54)   1,663,270

1988-89 (RW55)   1,402,096

1989-90 (RW56)   1,415,882

1990-91 (RW57)   1,408,373

1991-92 (RW58)   1,423,374

1992-93 (RW59)   1,347,393

1993-94 (RW60)   1,402,569

1994-95 (RW61)   1,471,751

1995-96 (RW62)   1,539,622

1996-97 (RW63)   1,560,123

1997-98 (RW64)   1,697,590


We can see that the post-1981 decline and gradual resurgence in duck stamp sales almost perfectly mirrors the U.S. stamp market index. This suggests that either more hunters were collectors or that collectors were buying more duck stamps than we thought – or both.

As the stamp market index correlates almost perfectly with the factors discussed above, the comparison also shows that the drop in duck stamp sales following the 1980-81 season was primarily due to economic factors and not due to a waning interest in duck stamps per se.

One More Observation. The face value of federal duck stamps was raised three times in four years, starting with the 1987-88 issue (RW54). This amounted to a 50% increase (from $10 to $15) and likely contributed to the all-time low sales recorded for the 1992-93 issue (RW59). Much as when a restaurant owner feels the need to raise prices when things are slow in order to maintain a desired gross revenue – Catch 22 often ensues.

In Figure 10, the years along the top of the chart are so small they hard to read. However, I included this even wider view to show the stamp market continued to improve well beyond 1997 and, if we do not consider the unusual rise from 1977-1980 and subsequent fall, it progressed in a steady upward direction for decades – starting in 1970 and continuing until the The Great Recession in 2008.



Figure 10. U.S. Stamp Market Index (1970-2014). Click to enlarge.



If we could let go of our unrealistic yearning to return to a stamp market that lasted for but a very brief period (1977-81) and accept it for what it is – unattainable pie in the sky – we could be content with the fact the market for U.S. stamps, to include duck stamps and prints, is much better today than it ever was before that admittedly exciting interlude – and realize it is a testament to everything the stamp collecting hobby will always offer us that we are doing as well as we are today.

Alternatively, if we want to remember the period 1977-81 in a positive way, we can now take solace in the fact that the stamp hobby was able to rebound (to a great extent) from one of the biggest one, two punches in modern history.

As many Americans still fight to regain their financial footing following The Great Recession, a spate of natural disasters and now the virus, that knowledge can provide us with hope and confidence going forward.

As I write this, every stamp dealer I have spoken with has reported their business is up 25 – 33% during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The impetus is truly regrettable, however, the fact is that people are reconnecting with their stamp collections in higher numbers than at any time in recent memory.

When we come through the other side of this, there is no question that a healthy percentage of them will continue to enjoy this wonderful hobby. Dire Straits? Almost certainly, not.


The Post Heyday Period

To start, we have two used examples of the 1984-85 issue (RW51). Both are off license; the first has a very small signature and the second is signed almost completely in the left border. It seems that a portion the signature stayed on the license when the stamp was soaked off (see Figures 11 and 12).



Figure 11. RW51 with a very small signature. Courtesy of Tim Hickey.



Figure 12. RW51 with a signature mainly in the border.



Next, we have two examples of the 1985-86 issue (RW52). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with Iowa 1985-86 Wildlife Habitat and Migratory Waterfowl Stamps. A truly wonderful piece – all of the small signatures were carefully placed by Bud Hunter! (see Figures 13 and 14).



Figure 13. RW52 with a very small signature by Andrew Colella.



Figure 14. RW52 used on license in combination with 1985-86 Iowa Wildlife Habitat and Migratory Waterfowl Stamps. Each of the stamps is neatly signed by Bud Hunter.



Next, we have two examples of the 1986-87 issue (RW53). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with 1986-87 Iowa Habitat and Migratory Waterfowl Stamps. This is the last time we will see a stamp from Andrew Colella in this series of posts  (see Figures 15 and 16).



Figure 15. RW53 with a very small signature by Andrew Colella.



Figure 16. RW53 used with 1886-87 Iowa Habitat and Waterfowl Stamps.



Next, we have two examples of the 1987-88 issue (RW54). One is a truly amazing stamp with a neat signature completely within the lower border and one is used on license in combination with 1987-88 California Duck Stamp. Note this is the last time E.L. Vanderford bought duck stamps to go hunting (see Figures 15, 16 and 17).



Figure 17. RW54 with a signature completely within the border.



Figure 18. RW54 used on license in combination with a 1987-88 California Duck Stamp. Note this would be the last time E.L. Vanderford went duck hunting.



Figure 19. RW54 signed by E.L. Vanderford (Click to Enlarge).



Next we have a used example of the 1988-89 issue (RW55) with a very small, unobtrusive signature (see Figure 20).




Figure 20. RW55 with a very small unobtrusive signature.



Next, we have two examples of the 1989-90 issue (RW56). One is off license with a very small, fine signature and one is used on license in combination with a 1989 Wisconsin Waterfowl Stamp. Both of the stamps on license have very tiny signatures (see Figures 21 and 22).



Figure 21. RW56 with a very small signature.



Figure 22. RW56 used with a 1989 Wisconsin Waterfowl Stamp.



Next we have an example of the 1990-91 issue (RW57) off license with a small, unobtrusive signature (see Figure 23).



Figure 23. RW57 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Next we have two used examples of the 1991-92 issue (RW58), presented by the father and son collecting team of Tom and Tim Hickey. Tom’s has a neat, unobtrusive signature and Tim’s has a very small signature, much of which is within the left margin (see Figures 24 and 25).



Figure 24. RW58 with a neat, unobtrusive signature. Courtesy of Tom Hickey.



Figure 25. RW58 with a very small signature. Courtesy of Tim Hickey.



Next, we have two examples of the 1992-93 issue (RW59). One is off license with a small signature and one is used on license in combination with a 1992 Texas Waterfowl Stamp. For the stamp off license, the hunter selected a color of ink that blends into the mountains in the background. Both of the stamps on license have signatures in the lower border (see Figures 26, 27 and 28).



Figure 26. RW59 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 27. RW59 used with a 1992 Texas Waterfowl Stamp.



Figure 28. RW59 signed in the lower border.



Next, we have two examples of the 1993-94 issue (RW60). One is off license with a small signature and one is used on license in combination with three North Dakota stamps: 1993 Non Resident Waterfowl and 1993-94 Non Resident Small Game and General Game (see Figures 29 and 30).



Figure 29. RW60 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 30. RW60 used with three North Dakota Stamps required to hunt waterfowl.



To finish the Post Heyday Period (and our series of posts), we have examples of the 1994-5 through 1997-98 issues (RW61 – RW64). Each of the stamps is off license and has a small, unobtrusive signature (see Figures 31-34).



Figure 31. RW61 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 32. RW62 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 33. RW63 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Figure 34. RW64 with a small, unobtrusive signature.



Series Summary

The federal duck stamps are the longest running series in U.S. stamp history. When the first stamps were placed on sale to the public in 1934, they were not required to be signed by the hunter. Although government officials were concerned hunters might share stamps, they were required to be affixed directly to either a license or a Form 3333 immediately upon purchase (see Figure 35).



Figure 35. RW1 on Form 3333, singed in the selvage “Yours Truly J.N. Darling, alias Ding”.



The beautiful blue, oversized stamp designed by J.N. ‘Ding Darling proved to be very popular with collectors and they wished to purchase unused singles and multiples for their collections. Therefore, two weeks before the stamps were taken off sale in 1935, Congress amended the Migratory Bird Stamp Act to allow the purchase of unused stamps.

A fundamental section of the amendment mandated that starting with the 1935-35 season (RW2), duck hunters were now required to sign their name across the face of their stamps in ink to validate them for hunting.

The early stamps featured artwork by the country’s leading wildlife artists, including Frank Benson, Francis Lee Jaques and Lynn Bogue Hunt and were greatly admired by stamp collectors and wildlife enthusiasts for their beauty. However, relatively few hunters had an appreciation for the art at this time and they were generally not careful when signing the stamps. There were, of course, exceptions such as C.H. Bry and E. L. Vanderford (see Figure 36).



Figure 36. RW7 with classic artwork by Francis L. Jaques, on license and signed by the legendary hunter and collector E.L. Vanderford.



After a dozen or so years, there were enough stamps to attract people to join such early adopters as Alvin C. Broholm and enjoy the new hobby of duck stamp collecting. Frank Benson and Ding Darling made etchings from their original artwork available to collectors in 1942 and 1944, respectively, and a sister hobby was born – collecting limited edition duck stamp prints.

Robert Hines proposed the first federal duck stamp art contest in 1950 and then the nascent hobbies started to receive a lot of annual publicity. Alvin Broholm and Morton Dean Joyce received organized philately’s highest honors in the 1950s and brought national recognition, respect and more publicity to the hobbies of duck and revenue stamp collecting.

Hunter’s started to take notice and many began taking extra time, carefully signing their stamps in a small, unobtrusive manner. In addition, more hunters saved their expired license and stamps – preserving them for future generations.

The Vietnam War years saw artists working in all mediums, including duck stamp artists, designers and engravers, elevate their craft to unprecedented levels in a collective effort to preserve the American spirit. During this period, some of the all-time great duck stamps and prints were created, including “the dog” – a riveting rendition of King Buck by Maynard Reece and the BEP design team (see Figure 37). Also, the first duck stamp prints were published in full color.



Figure 37. RW26 featuring King Buck by Maynard Reece.



In 1974 Minnesota artist David Maass joined forces with Wild Wing’s Bill Webster to maass-market David’s winning wood duck design and change the duck stamp print business and hobby forever. The very next year, James Fischer visited a decoy show and was inspired by a canvasback decoy to submit a provocative entry that judges voted in as yet another iconic piece in the duck stamp annals.

In the mid to late to late 1970s, a new breed of “duck stamp dealer” emerged to facilitate the collecting of duck stamps and prints and, very quickly, stamps in all conditions came to have real value. Some dealers started charging a premium for the stamps with small, unobtrusive signatures. These were often framed together as a set in the homes, offices and duck clubs of hunters.

By now, a fairly large percentage of hunters were carefully signing their name (see Figure 38) and ever-increasing numbers carried their stamps loose (carefully protected) while hunting. Those who did affix their stamps now made a habit of saving them for collector friends and relatives or to sell to duck stamp dealers – and the hobbies of collecting duck stamps and prints really took flight.



Figure 38. RW44 with a very small signature by Andrew Colella.



As explained above, this brief period of collectibles buying frenzy, including duck stamps and prints, was facilitated by a unique set of economic circumstances – one best understood in retrospect – and was unsustainable at that pace.

The number of duck stamps sold dropped for a number of years – falling after a potent one, two economic blow. For this reason, finding stamps with small signatures in the Post Heyday Period is a little more challenging – but sill very doable.

Our venerable stamp hobby has endured the test of time and is, even now, perhaps experiencing the initial stages of a renaissance. As many people reconnect with their hobbies and pastimes in 2020, collecting federal duck stamps with small signatures offers tremendous ameliorative possibilities for buoying our spirit at a very reasonable cost – a truly impressive “bang for your buck”.

And you know what else? It is a blast – a real thrill-of-the-hunt adventure! To see a gallery with examples of the 1934-35 through 1997-98 issues (RW1 – RW64) with small signatures, click here.



We hope you have enjoyed learning more about the federal duck stamps and the possibilities for collecting them with small signatures. We would like to thank Michael Jaffe for helping the idea for this series of posts to coalesce and for contributing so many cool stamps, especially the early ones signed by C.H. Bry; Scott Marsden for contributing the incredible group of stamps signed by Andrew and Ed Colella; Tom and Tim Hickey for kindly filling in better examples from their great collections where needed; Richie Prager for sharing his original duck stamp art and checking my economic facts and, especially, hunters like C.H. Bry, E.L. Vanderford, Owen Chelf, Raymond Peterman and the Colellas – who appreciated and respected the duck stamp art, took extra time to carefully sign their stamps and then saved and preserved them for our future enjoyment. Stay safe, everyone.






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